The Rungus
The Art of Blending Traditional Life-Style into the 20th Century

by Herman (2000)

The Rungus in the north of Sabah (Kudat area) are arguably the most traditional ethnic group here. They remain remarkably strong in this time of transition, and keep up with an age-old life-style. Their life, as that of most tribes in Borneo, turns around rice: the preparing of the padi filed, or the clearance of a hill plot, the growing of rice and looking after it, and finally the harvest. Large coconut and banana groves enable the Rungus to get cash, but in all, their traditional life-style suits them very much and seems to keep them out of trouble and stress.

The Rungus seem to have been the last Dusunic immigrants to Sabah to settle here permanently, long before the arrival of the British. They have up to-date conserved much of their cultural heritage. The Rungus are a sub-group of the Kadazan-Dusun, with a distinctive language and a few dialects, architecture, adat (customs), and outfit. Many people still, especially from the elder generation, dress they way they have attired when they were still unaffected by outside influences, and it is presumed that most of the other tribes of the Kadazan-Dusun community had similar dresses and attires: simple black sarongs for the women, wide black trousers for the men and beaded accessories.

A visit to an indigenous longhouse is a tremendous and exciting experience. In Sabah, there are only a few places that do cater for tourists on a regular basis, such as the Bavanggazo Longhouse, or the Tinangol Longhouse. These places come with certain facilities that make the stay for foreign travellers and visitors more comfortable. However, travelling in the area of Kudat, taking some abandoned road, stalking along rivers and through lofty coconut groves, one will still come across the traditional longhouse, minus the thatched roof. Corrugated iron has replaced atap, demanding less maintenance. The Rungus Longhouse is quite different form the Murut Longhouse, equally to be found in Sabah. The houses are not perched on excessively high stilts, they are usually only about three to five feet above ground. The roof is low, and in olden times, longhouses of 75 doors have existed. Now they rarely exceed 10 doors, along the communal gallery that has an elevated platform of split bamboo. The house is framed by outward sloping walls of wide-spaced poles. This provides ventilation and a comfortable sitting area for work, relaxation and socialising. Where there is a longhouse, some ‘one-family’ houses might exist, and they often look as if they had been cut out of the original longhouse, like a piece of cake.

Dogs, chicken and other domesticated animal abound in the clearing where the houses stand, and kids too young to help with the daily chores play in the sand. They will quickly announce the arrival of a stranger, and whoever passes will be invited into the house for a rest. During the hot afternoons, a palpable laziness prevails in the houses. People doze on the platform in the gallery or work on some handicraft if they are not at work in the fields, or catch fish and crabs. When everybody comes back from work in the late afternoon, the gallery bounces under the many feet.

At a longhouse it is always possible to stay over night. One has to enquire for the chief of the house, who will accommodate the strangers. Against exchanged goods (or money…), he also provides food. With some luck one is invited to taste some local specialities, and drink some tinonggilan, a slightly sparkling, reasonably alcoholic brew made from maize. This is quite a Rungus speciality. Strangers sleep on the elevated platform in the gallery, together with the bachelors.

When the house gets alive in the late afternoon, the ladies will take out their work of basketry, string beads or weave sashes on backstrap looms. It is not infrequent to see old ladies who have their wrists still encircled in brass coils with white and black shell-bracelets at either end, and wear the traditional home-woven sarong. They also wear antique heirloom beads, and the betel container is an old, finely worked Bruneian brass receptacle. Ladies who do wear traditional gear are often very much respected Bobolizans, the shamans of the Rungus. Besides traditional healing with natural herbs the Bobolizans are here to maintain harmony between humans, nature and astral world according to their age-old belief system.

When it gets dark you are lucky if there is no generator to provide electric light: you are taken on a journey back in time! Tiny little oil-lamps appear, perhaps a gas-pressure lamp, and people gather by families and friends to discuss daily matters and exchange gossip. It is only after nightfall that the ladies will start husking the rice for the evening and breakfast meal, in old, wooden mortars with heavy pestles of ironwood. The sound and rhythm of the pounding of rice, the women winnowing in the twilight, the pigs grunting under the floor of the house, all contributes to give the whole an air of peace and long past days.

But despite this peace and aspect of eternal sleepiness, the Rungus are far from being disconnected from our modern times. Cash-crops have allowed them already over the last 30 years to earn money, and in some cases wealth. The young people are being educated, some of them having reached university degrees and have entered the Sabah State Government.

Many Rungus work in town, and they seem generally quite enterprising. Nevertheless, often when there is enough money to pay dowries, the men prefer going back to the quiet and peaceful life of the kampung, where they take a wife. Then they might engage, next to their farming activities, in tourism, and Bavanggazo and Tinangol are good examples of the spirit of enterprise of the Rungus.

Sumangkap is another such an example, a village where almost everybody is making gongs – the most important instrument throughout Borneo. The Rungus have indeed mastered the difficult and tricky combination of a traditional life-style with the advancement of ‘modern’ ideas, and preserved ancient skills, in a world spinning much faster around them.

If you wish to experience Rungus life let yourself be inspired by our offer Culture Shock!

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