A week before June 1, Sarawak will see the annual Gawai Dayak exodus, or balik kampong rush as the locals call it.
During this period, thousands of Dayaks who work abroad and within the country or state, will make their way to their home land Sarawak and respective longhouse villages in the interiors to celebrate the harvest festival with their loved ones.
Gawai Dayak is celebrated every June 1 and it normally lasts over two weeks. It is both a religious and social occasion. The word Gawai means a ritual or festival and Dayak refers to a collective name for the native races in Sarawak comprising the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu.
As the celebration draws nearer, the balik kampong rush will be in full swing.
Airports, express bus and boat terminals in the Sarawak state capital, Kuching, and major towns such as Sri Aman, Sarikei, Sibu, Kapit, Bintulu and Miri, will be teeming with people and loads of festive goodies and gifts. And it is very normal to see live chickens travelling alongside with passengers in express boats and long boats.
In the absence of roads in some parts of rural Sarawak like in Kapit Division, many have to travel by either all three modes of transportation (air, land and water) or at least two just to reach home. These arduous journeys often take a day or two.
As an ex-colleague of mine once pointed out, “No matter how far we are, we Dayaks always make it a point to go back to our longhouses for Gawai, unless we really cannot travel due to illness or financial problems.”
“Similar to the Chinese who value the reunion dinner to usher in the Lunar New Year, the Dayaks consider the harvest festival the most important event in our calendar.
“The festival marks the end of the harvesting season and a time for thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest. It’s also a time for merry making and reuniting with our family members and relatives whom we see once a year,” she said.
It is always best to celebrate Gawai in longhouses as it is merrier and more culturally meaningful than doing so in the city.
“There will be traditional dances and a lot of singing on the karaoke, along with feasting and drinking of tuak (traditional rice wine) all night long with the whole longhouse community,” she added.
Thus, one of the best times to visit Sarawak and experience its rich cultural heritage is during Gawai Dayak.
Cities and major towns are normally quiet after the exodus and many businesses, particularly retail and coffee shops, would be closed for a few days to a week in the absence of their Dayak workers.
Celebrants will normally go back to the city for work after a week. At their city homes, they will hold “open house” and invite their relatives and friends to enjoy some festive goodies and share the spirit of the harvest festival.
On the eve of Gawai, there is an offering ceremony or miring in the Iban language in the longhouse’s common space known as ruai.
The leader of the feast will give thanks to the gods for the good harvest and ask for blessings as he sacrifices a cockerel.
At the stroke of midnight, everyone shares a toast and the party begins till the next day, when they visit friends or relatives.
At the end of the festival, which is celebrated over two weeks, Gawai comes to a close with a ceremony to roll up the mat, or ngiling tikai.