A Glimpse of Gawai

Guest Article written by Katherine Dunn
State University of New York

Jewel’s longhouse is more modern than others with its electricity and tile floors, though the tendency to overfeed is the same. “Makai, makai – eat, eat!” a woman says as she places a short stalk of bamboo in my hand. I peel away the green flesh like a banana, revealing a heap of white rice that’s sticky to the touch. A metal drum dongs, sending melodic vibrations down the longhouse beckoning its residents out of their rooms. It is the eve of an ancient celebration, and the festival which drew me into the depths of Borneo’s rainforest, is starting.

Jewel’s family longhouse in the Betong divison of Sarawak, Malaysia. Betong is home to a large Iban population with countless longhouses located in the rural areas

Gawai Dayak, or simply Gawai, is the harvest festival of the Dayak peoples of Borneo. Steeped in the traditions and religious rituals of a storied past, it is a time for people to return to their ancestor’s longhouse, celebrate their heritage and toast to the season’s bounty. Ask anyone and they will tell you Gawai is their favorite holiday, one they look forward to all year.


“Because it’s like coming home,” I am told.

Five months ago, Jewel, a student at my school, invited me to her family’s longhouse after only knowing me for one day. That’s how things go here, newcomers are brought in with open arms, like an old friend.

Family members play the tawak drum (left) and the engkerumung drum (right) on the eve of Gawai

Jewel is a Malaysian from the Iban tribe, one of several Dayak ethnic groups on the island of Borneo. Ibans have a rich cultural and historical background as well as a notorious reputation for being fierce warriors and headhunters. While headhunting went out of practice several decades ago, you can still find preserved human skulls tucked away in the ceiling of the longhouse. But today, the only ones losing their heads are the chickens.

Just as I finish my rice, I am handed a plate and guided from doorway to doorway down the longhouse. We are participating in ngabang, a practice whereby residents set a spread of traditional foods outside their front door to welcome friends and family back home. Each table is colored with Iban specialities from bright pineapple curry and crispy brown pork to red rice and sauteed green ferns.

Jewel takes a bowl filled with dark bits and shakes it in front of her sister. “Try it!” she dares.

Her sister, Hannah, shakes her head with a furrowed brow and sticks her tongue out in disgust. Their aunt lets out a laugh. Their cousins run outside to play football and swim in the river.

“What is that?” I ask, examining what looks like chocolate sprinkles.

“Ants!” the sisters shout in unison. At Gawai, certain ants are simmered with salt and herbs, like a crunchy garnish. The food is different and unknown to me, but the teasing and laughter between family is endearingly familiar.

Cousins dressed in colorful Iban attire and traditional patterns

But one thing is distinctively different. At gatherings in the U.S., there’s typically an unspoken social code of niceties and overt politeness. Depending on the group, this can create a barrier between visitors and family members because no one truly knows each other upon first meeting. But here, that doesn’t seem to matter. In this longhouse, there’s no separation between guests and family–there’s just family.

When nothing but salty plates remain, I follow Jewel into her grandmother’s quarters. Longhouses have a single, main hall. Along this hall there are doors that lead to private family quarters, like individual apartments. Behind each door is another lineage, another branch of the family tree.

A child runs joyfully up and down the longhouse which is carpeted in traditionally woven mats. The size of a tribe’s house depends on the size of the family – this house hosts 41 rooms, a considerably large longhouse

Tip-toeing over sleeping mats, a gulf of simmering garlic and bay leaves lure us into the kitchen. Sitting cross-legged over a clay pot, Jewel’s aunt is grinding tapioca leaves with a pestle to make daun ubi tutuk. Her mother is tending to a stovetop of steamed rice. The girls are gabbing over which dress to wear for tonight’s ceremony. Chickens are squabbling by the back gate. A symphony is at play here, one specially reserved for Gawai.

Jewel, 19, sits with her grandmother, Inik, in the main hall. Born in this longhouse, Inik, has witnessed its transformation from the 1920s to present day

Uchu!” a chipper, raspy voice calls out to us. A smoky-haired, hunched woman with a toothy smile waves at us from the back door. Inik, Jewel’s grandmother, is everything you’d imagine when picturing a wise, cunning woman. Born in this longhouse, she grew up during the Japanese occupation of Borneo during World War II and regularly recounts stories of adventure and rituals of a bygone era. She is the head of a family of all girls. She sells cigarettes under the counter, if nothing but to show off her wits. She is Inik, or grandmother, and this week we are all uchu, her grandchildren.

Sitting in the kitchen, she tells stories of past Gawai festivals and her native land, Sarawak. Drive anywhere in this state and you will see that nearly every car has a bumper sticker reading “Sarawak for Sarawakians.” It’s the unofficial state mantra that calls for independence from the government of Peninsular Malaysia. In Inik’s eyes, she is Sarawakian first and Malaysian second.

Eventually, Inik tells us to go to the river and points out the window where a group of kids are already splashing. It’s time to bathe. Dipping into the current, I shudder. Not only from its icy touch, but also because there’s another swimmer in these waters: crocodiles.

Ibans, also known as Sea Dayaks, earned their name by building longhouses near rivers and waterways. They’re known as skillful navigators across Borneo’s vast river system where they evade crocodiles and scout new hunting ground

Before coming here, Jewel warned me of the superstitions surrounding the river. “Never say ‘crocodile’ near the water and especially do not say ‘I’m hungry,’” she warned. “It’s bad luck.”

Sitting on a rock, I see a group of men swimming in the river who have circular, black flowers tattooed on each shoulder. These are the Borneo flower tattoos of the Iban people. Traditionally hand-tapped, they mark a journey of knowledge and wisdom as well as one’s coming-of-age. Each mark symbolizes a formative moment in a person’s life.

“For Ibans, tattoos are supposed to tell your story,” explains Jewel, skipping a stone across the riverway. “But nowadays, many people just get them for fun.” That seems to be the balance here, a fine line between how things used to be and how they are now.

A strong, steady drumbeat and the pitter-patter of feet wake me from a post-river slumber. The girls and I snack on dragon fruit that is tart on my tongue, and sip sweet tea against the backdrop sounds of rhythmic music and Iban chatter. Hannah, the youngest sister, is dressed in colorful textiles and heavy jewelry while her traditional headpiece, an ancient treasure of metalwork, gleams bright against the sunset.

Washing down the last drop of tea, I think of the attention that is put into each part of this holiday. Every moment is draped in the traditions and stories of later years, each tale is connected to the lineage of the longhouse and each longhouse is one big, caring family.

With the drums beating and the room filled with song, it is finally time to start Ngalu ke Petara, a ceremony whereby the entire longhouse pours into the main hall dressed in their traditional garb and sporting their family drums to celebrate the harvest.

Tribe elders, dressed in traditional Iban attire, lead the house in ngalu ke petara, a ceremony that calls upon the family ancestors to join the longhouse in celebration of the harvest

Grabbing my hand, Jewel brings me into the mix. We walk barefoot up and down hall, moving with the line and stopping at each door to drink tuak, a homemade rice wine. Some tuak is strong, some sweet, some sour and some clears your sinuses. The elders in the house, walking in line with us and strumming their instruments, are calling on their ancestors to join us on the eve of the harvest festival.

After the beat settles, I sit alongside mothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and Inik–women sit on one half of the room and men occupy the other. Hannah sits behind me to braid my hair. There is an immediate sense of comfort, one I’ve felt all day. This family has made me feel right at home, even when I am a world away from my own.

From the left: Hannah, Chloe, Jewel, myself and Charlotte on the eve of Gawai

Borneo, though invitingly beautiful, is a dynamic and wildly vast place. I could travel forever, and never truly know it. For me, traveling is about the food, the history and the stories, but even more so, it’s about the people. Luckily, I have a friend who is kind enough to share that with me.

I am struck by the warmth of this home. People, whether they be a close relative or a friend of a friend from the neighboring village, show genuine care for one another. There is an innate sense of kinship and knowing.

As a Sarawak ETA, I heard about Gawai all year long. I heard about it from students, teachers, neighbors, and the vendor who sells satay outside my school. It is constantly discussed and highly anticipated. Hearing tales of tuak-infused nights and other such events, I prepared myself for a jarring, indescribable experience. But what I found was a deeply loving family like many others I’ve met in my life. The country was different, but the tone was similar to many of my own family parties: loud, jovial, stuffed with food and sprinkled with chaos.

“It’s starting,” says Jewel as she passes me a can of cold beer. With the music growing stronger, the entire longhouse gathers in the main hall to hear the house leader make an emboldened speech and lead the people in a countdown to midnight – the moment that commemorates the harvest.

3 – 2 – 1 – midnight dawns and the house erupts into cheers. In an explosion of joy, family members turn to embrace their neighbors and kiss their loved ones. The crowd shouts “oha” seven times followed by a final, lengthy “oooohhhaaaaaa” in a toast to the night that is washed down by pours of tuak. Soon, the music starts again and dancing ensues into the early morning hours.

The next morning, I wake to the now familiar sound of the gendang drum and the faint scent of bay leaves. “Makai!” says Inik, placing a green hunk of bamboo in my hand with rice steaming from the inside. I turn to see Jewel and her sisters tending to breakfast, the sound of their banter bounces off the white tile floor.

There is something special about going to a friend’s home that allows you to see them with greater clarity. In Sarawak, Iban culture is pervasive. Its richness is felt from the highest jungle canopy, down to the deepest chocolate colored river. This weekend, I got a taste of that, but I know I’ve only skimmed the surface.

Family members and I dance to poco-poco, an Iban line dance, on the morning of Gawai

Melodic vibrations can be felt down the longhouse as we are, once again, beckoned outside to the main hall. As the morning sun spills onto my face, I see aunts and uncles moving to poco-poco, an Iban line dance. A cousin brings me into the mix where I clumsily shuffle my bare feet to the beat. The rest of the family joins us and we move in sync to the rhythm of the house.