This realization dawned upon me as I was browsing through the Impian Sarawak website a month ago. As I read about the plight of many groups of indigenous people there, living without basic amenities of water, electricity and/or proper roads, I wanted to talk to someone who knew more about this, and I thought of friends from the state. This brought about a sense of urgency; an urgency to contribute to this cause. A cause I believe many Malaysians may be aware of but never took time to let the inconvenient truth sink in; the fact that scores of our fellow countrymen across the South China Sea are still living in conditions many of us (especially those from the post-independence generations living in urban and suburban areas) cannot begin to imagine being in. And so I signed up to be a volunteer.
Impian Sarawak is an initiative by DAP, formed to work towards providing the afore-mentioned basic infrastructure to the communities in rural areas of Sarawak.
The first project was to build a gravity-feed water system for the community in Kampung Sait, in October 2013.
The second project was launched from November 9th till 18th, 2013. Twelve volunteers from all over Malaysia came together to embark on the refurbishment of a dilapidated Rumah Gawai in Kampung Serikin, near Bau.
The Rumah Gawai is an important feature in the community. It is the central point of the celebration of Gawai Dayak, to as many as over 1000 community members from up to four villages in this area.
Gawai Dayak is a Sarawakian festival which is celebrated every year on June 1st. Gawai means festival and Dayak is a collective name for Sarawak’s different ethnic groups. It is a thanksgiving day for the bountiful harvest and signals the beginning of a new planting season. It is also a religious ritual celebrated in accordance with the animistic belief of the indigenous people of Sarawak.
The Gawai festival starts on the evening of May 31st, with the miring (offering) ceremony in the longhouse common space or in the community centre like the Rumah Gawai mentioned above.
This is where the ketua adat (feast chief) would give thanks to the gods for the good harvest and to ask for guidance, blessing and long life. At the stroke of midnight, tuak (local wine) is presented with everyone sharing a toast. There will be eating and drinking, singing and dancing. Gawai Dayak is celebrated with genuine joy and enthusiasm (Sir, 2013).
Knowing the significance of the Rumah Gawai to the locals in Kampung Serikin not only enlightened us but it enabled us to better appreciate the work put into this project. Since it was built 30 years ago, this structure had never been refurbished. Its dilapidated condition had resulted in it not having been used for the past few years.
As the refurbishment work involved working with the locals, getting to know them was an invaluable part of the experience. It was through these encounters that we found the true meaning of volunteerism; forging the connection with others as we understand them and ourselves better. We learnt about their families and their aspirations, and we hope that our listening ear, our sharing and encouragement left a positive impact on their lives. Needless to say, the exchange has also made us better people; more sensitive and respectful to the differences in culture, beliefs and values of others.
You have not understood the term ‘Malaysian hospitability’ until you’ve gone through an experience such as this. The locals went all out to ensure we were comfortable and well-cared for. We stayed in a very cosy house, hosted by one of the villagers. While the men (and women chipping in to help too) took turns in groups to work on the refurbishment work, the local ladies took turns to cook for us. Oh I would do anything to have the ulam mangga (mango salad) with the sambal belacan again! During the hot and sweltering afternoons, they even risked life and limb, climbing coconut trees, one as tall as a double-storey building to retrieve young coconuts for us! We had an awesome coconut feast that afternoon. Oh, and we even had juicy jambu air from a neighbour!
After nine days, we managed to complete up to 50% of the refurbishment work. The wooden-wall panels have been replaced with brick ones and the unstable parts of the structure restored. The work will be continued by the locals and is due to be completed by December 5th this year.
Finally, the pre-opening ceremony held on November 16!
We are glad to hear that progress is as per planned and that the Rumah Gawai will once again be the centre of various celebrations.
As mentioned by a fellow volunteer in his sharing; Impian Sarawak is not just about fulfilling the dream of a local Dayak community for a proper and functioning Rumah Gawai, it is also about the preservation of culture and tradition, history, rituals, celebrations and stories...which are legacies for the future generations of not just the Dayak people but for all Malaysians.
As for my Sarawakian friend count, I am pleased that I can no longer count them with both hands!
Sir, Paul. (November 2013). Let Us All Celebrate Gawai with Our Dayak Friends. Borneo Post Online. Retrieved from http://www.theborneopost.com/2013/06/01/let-us-all-celebrate-gawai-with-our-dayak-friends/#ixzz2llgjDAr4