An Feature Story extracted from
Sarawak Tribune On Line
Monday May 13, '96

Skulls Festival saved villagers from been wiped out by mysterious illness

William C.

BAU.- Kampung Gumbang, one of the most remote Bidayuh village in the district, situated on top of a low mountain is now accessible by motorised vehicles as a gravel road now under construction is almost completed.

Before the construction of the road began in 1994, the village was only accessible by walking through jungle track.

It took about three hours from the village to reach Kampung Bogag, some 10 km away, from where they could broad a bus or private vans or pick-ups to reach Bau town.

"It took us about three hours walking down the mountain to reach Kampung Bogag, but the return journey would take about four hours or more as we have to scale the mountain with our goods over our shoulders." explained Mr. Keelim ak Nyaram, 53, the Ketua Kampung.

"It was a hard time for us then, the worst was when we had to carry the sick patients along the jungle tracks to seek medical treatment in Bau town.In several cases, the patients died before reaching the Bau Dispensary. There was no hospital in Bau then" recalled the village headman.

He related that there was once in 1976 when the village was haunted by mysterious sickness which claimed some 40 lives. As there was no medical facilities available and poor accessiblity, many of the unfortunate villagers who contacted what seen like a skin disease, turn out to be a killer disease.

"The skin rotted and the patients died just within a few days. Even the doctors did not known what the disease was." recalled the ketua kampung with a sorrowful expression on his face as two of her daughters aged 5 and 6 then were among the victims of the killer disease.

Then the ketua adat(custodian of the old customs) claimed that it could be the work of evil spirits, so he suggested that a skulls festival (Gawai Mukah-in the Bidayuh language) need to be held to appeased the spirits.

So the villagers gone across the border to the Indonesian villages to look for human skulls.

Do not be mistaken, they did not go for a head-hunting expedition, although Sarawak was once known as the Land of Headhunters.

They managed to buy five old skulls with the cost of RM500 (approximately US$20)each from the Indonesian villagers and then a grand Skull Festival was held in the baruk (head house) which is situated at the highest point in the village.

It was strange to related that after the ritual, no more mysterious sickness ever occurred in the village again.

To ensure that such sorrowful event will never take place again, the skulls are placed permanently in the baruk and offering are been made to the skulls every year during the Harvest Festival(Gawai Dayak) celebration which falls on June 1 every year. However, there is no more Skull Festival been held any more unless something disasterious were to occur.

The baruk(ritual house) is a historical building as old as the village itself. The village is among the oldest in the district.

It is a round building with conical shaped attap roof, wooden wall and floor made from bamboo strips. Besides the five human skulls there were two deer skulls been hangs in the baruk. The skulls were wrapped in leaves and tied with rottan.

A few olden waepons including spears and a wooden shield were tied to a post in the baruk. These antiques were said to be a few generationz old, they had been used by their fore-fathers to protect the village from invaders.

Mr. Keelim explained that their ancestors at first stayed at the lowland somewhere at the present Pangkalan Tebang, but were forced to moved to build their village up at the mountain in order to protect themselves from the on slaught of their enamies, the Dayaks from Indonesia.

The village is near the Indonsian border. It only takes about 15-minute walk from the village to the border, but the nearest Indonesian village, Kampung Sidin is about 3-hour walk from the village.

The Indonesia Dayaks from Kampung Sidin, Tawang and Sungkung, used to come over here to sell their farm produces such as gingers, chickens, pigs and other jungle products.

"They usually left their villages at dawn and reach the village around 9 to 10 am and then takes another hour to reach Pangkalan Tebang where they sell their goods to the Chinese shopkeepers at Pangkalan Tebang." said Mr. Keelim.

"Although we were enemies before, but now we treat each other like brothers and sisters, as we speak the same dialects. Mutual visiting is also common.

"Last year, we were been invited to celebrate a traditional gawai by the villagers of Sungkung(another Indonesian village). This year, a group of them including the ketua adats made a return visit by holding Gawai ritual at our baruk here. It was grand ceremony in traditional style." explained the village headman.

At present a gravel road is been constructed to reach the village. There are two vans owned by the villagers that acted as regular transport service between Bau town and the village using the newly constructed road. It is the most welcoming development that their fore-fathers never even dare to dream of, considering the village is situated in the middle of the jungle up in the mountain.

"We, the villagers here are very grateful for the government for bringing such a great change to upgrade our living condition." remarked the village headman.

The villagers also enjoyed electricity supply from two generators supplied by the government in 1993 and 1995 respectively.

"It took us a hard time to bring the first generators to the village using fully manual labour. It took some 5 hours from 9 am to 2 pm for some 40 strong men on rotation to carry the generator with an output of 15 KPA (costing Rm15,000) to the village." recalled the village headman.

The generators provide electricity from 6.30 pm till 10.30 pm daily to light up the florescent lamps and to power the other electrical appliances including televisions and refregerators.

The village is also been supplied with gravity-feed pipe water from the nearby mountain known as Gunung Api since the 1970ís.

Prior to that, the village also has been installed with 5 public stand pipes by the British army who were staying in the village during the Confrontation period in the 1963.

There is a primary school in the village, Sekolah Rendah Kerajaan Gumbang, with six classes from Primary One to Five. There are nine teachers including the headmaster, Mr. Marconey Moneng, aged 46.

There are 106 students who come from the kampung itself as well as from Plaman Sibuluh and Kampung Padang Pan. Of the number, 91 are boarders.

"The school is still lacking of facilities. The classrooms constructed in 1969 are now in poor conditions, so are the boarding houses. There is not enough quarters for the teachers. There is no staff room as we do not have any spare room for the purpose. Teachers have to put their tables at the verendah to do their work such as marking of students works." the headmaster related.

A teacher quarters with two units of three rooms each is now under construction. They are hoping that the Education Department will build new building to replace the existing classrooms and boarding houses next year.

There is a Roman Catholic chruch, St. Nicholasí Church at one end of the village, it was built some 5 years ago to cater for the 31 Christian families in the village.

The rest of the vaillagers are still pagans who hold on to the traditional belief. As the padi harvesting season is now over, there are now getting ready to hold the traditional rituals during the annual Gawai celebration.

At present there are some 80 houses in the village with about 300 people. They are farmers planting padi, cocoa, pepper and other crops. Many youngsters had left the village to look for greener paster in the towns Like Kuching City, Brunei, Johore and elsewhere.

With the completion of the road, villagers are now able to transport their farm and jungle produce (by boarding the vans) to sell in the Sunday market in Kuching every weekends, which gives them an additional source of income. This was something impossible in the past. They are hoping that the road will bring a better way of life and better economic development to the villagers and the younger generation.

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