Gawai: The Harvest Festival

Over the familiar sounds of tinkering in the kitchen and smoke filling the air, a chatter of voices carried mirth and a singular theme of freedom.

In the kitchens food is being prepared. Some are cooked on gas stoves, some on an open wood fire. It’s the eve of the celebrations.

June 1st is the gazetted holiday of Gawai. All over Sarawak indigeous heritage families gather and celebrate a bountiful harvest. At least that’s what it used to mean. As less people get involved in isolated self sustaining agriculture and rice is plentiful in supermarkets, supplied by large corporations, Gawai has taken a different meaning. It is now a season of family, friendships and food.

Across the border in Indonesia, Gawai is still celebrated on different days depending on the end of the harvest season according to regions. In Sabah, Kaamatan is the term used and is the gazetted public holiday falling on May 30th and 31st.

Back in the day, when my maternal grandparents were still alive and we were all much younger, Gawai is a raucous affair. Everyone returns to the ancestral home, preparing for the holidays and cooking together. As we grew up, those who are married join celebrations with their spouses families, some have moved overseas, others are long gone. The pool grows smaller every year.

But my family makes do with what we have. We eat, drink and be merry. The next day we might have an open house for family and friends, or visit them in turn.

Other animist elders might perform ritualistic rites to the gods. Many who have converted to Christianity pray in churches and observe. As the elders die, the ancient rites die with them. 

If ever you want to visit Sarawak, this is one of the best times to get a glimpse of the cultures, traditions and hospitality of the indigenous Sarawakians and Sabahans.

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