The Shamans of the Rungus
A Personal Account of an Encounter with the Rungus Shamans

by Herman (2001)

Worn out, sometimes irritated, and with definitively disturbed bowel movements, but always amused by what life brings along and bearing in mind that I am in an extremely lucky situation for the following procedures, I decided, on a Friday afternoon after work, to jump on a north-bound mini-bus to Kudat.

Two hours of kidney-unfriendly tarmac were rewarded by two and a half hours of trekking to a remote Rungus longhouse, far away from electricity and anything else that is commonly associated to and deemed necessary for even distantly advanced civilisation.

Back in the "dark ages", my arrival was celebrated with serious palm-wine drinking until late in the night. By any chance, or take it as you like, the next morning was marked by a major healing ceremony, with four Bobolizan, the Rungus Shaman Priestesses. It was before six that one of my friends of the night before came calling me, urging me to watch the ceremony that was just about to begin.

This is what I fear most: the aftermath of the welcome ceremony falling on an important rite I have not yet witnessed… But I had been lying awake for some time, with brimming head, because the chicken, dogs and pigs under the house rummaging for bits and pieces of food made it just impossible to sleep after five.

Grunting I rolled up my sleeping mat, brushed over my face and followed on uneasy legs to the house on the other side of the village padang, where the ceremony was to be held. A rickety platform had been erected for the purpose of the rites, and four priestesses were just about to mount the constructions over a bridge perhaps eight feet long, made from two thin poles tied together, spanning from the house to the platform. The minor priestesses and helpers had already placed various offerings for the spirits on a shelf of the impromptu structure, two offerings being life, white roosters.

The house, a ‘one-family’ dwelling of perhaps 200 square feet and home to some 15 family members, was in commotion, literally. Children jumped up and down on the springy bamboo floor, dogs ran about, and people of all ages climbed up the notched pole, adding to the family another two dozens or so of friends and relatives. Comparative silence came over the house when the Bobolizans arrived on the platform, and started chanting. However, the spirits had not been given five minutes when the noise of the congregation had taken over again.

While the priestesses were working themselves in trance, and consequently being possessed by spirits I was invited to join them on the prayer platform. One of the old ladies, a helper to the chief priestess, had no greater pleasure, and seemingly no greater urge, than filling me with more palm-wine. My head did not appreciate, and the swaying platform, precariously built only for the ceremony and probably only meant for the four priestesses, and not for a few young lads plus a white man was a tough test for me. I nearly fell through the construction and stepped hard on the foot (which I called ‘slippery’ instead of an excuse) of a young man, who nonchalantly excused me and helped me up again. Everybody laughed, inclusive the old helper-lady; only the chief Bobolizan kept on chanting and conversing with the spirits. It was surreal to the utmost.

Finally I managed to retreat, carefully, to the house, leaving the helper-lady disappointed at my poor drinking performance. I collapsed inside the crammed house, and felt nauseated. My head was not appreciative of the morning, and the glass of palm beer that went around in the house was in direct conflict with my stomach. When it came to me for the fourth time, I was definitively ill. I told my friend that if I had to drink it, I would be sick. “If you want to vomit, vomit!” Tellis, my young friend said, making understood once more that anything goes, except running away. Being stuck in the house, I could do nothing than turn around, and as discreetly as possible empty my stomach contents of the morning – very liquid – through the narrowly arranged wooden poles of the slanted wall of the house. That’s why they have such curious ways of building their houses, went through my mind, while everybody cheered and I was given an extra glass of palm beer because I had vomited! I had just made their morning! But I felt a bit better, and went for the next attack.

When the praying ceremony was over the gongs could finally be sound. In the narrow and congested, sultry milieu of the house, they beat every bad feeling out of me instantly. The priestesses arrived with great ceremony (I presume) in the house, and lead by an old man in traditional attire complete with colourful turban and valuable, age-old carnelian beads and orang utan bones, they started to dance the slow, trance-like dance of the Rungus. When the priestesses had finished I found myself stuffed in heavy, ancient Rungus costumes, and dancing to the thundering gongs too – with the priestesses. A great honour, I tried to do my best to lead the dance, but soon I was taken firmly by the shoulders by one of the old priestesses, and she showed me the correct steps. After that violent crash-course (I only learned much later that the high-priestess leading the ceremony and dances was actually blind), Tellis found that I blended in quite nicely, especially when it came to the drinking part of it. What a compliment…

When the session was considered over in that particular house, the party moved in close formation to another house, occupied it and drank more palm-wine.

Eating became a question ever more urgent, and suddenly Junis had the idea to kill a piglet. Since he had none the owner of the house proposed to sell one of his, against money – RM 25.00. A reasonable price by all means, and we discussed how we would get the cash together. After much discussion and an hour later we got the entire sum. I had invested six Ringgits towards the purchase of the animal, quite an exorbitant amount, and sponsoring another gallon of wine, I had spent eleven Ringgits that day, making me the king.

Having spent so much money I needed, and had the right, to see how the pig was prepared – from the killing to the serving. Now forget about hygiene and nutrition, and anything else they ever told you about food preparations. This was in the middle of the jungle, in a house of bamboo and palm-thatch!

Hold the piglet down on its side, and insert, rapidly and with a secure hand, a sharp utensil behind its foreleg. The piglet should die within a few minutes. In the meantime prepare a blazing fire on your hearth. Throw the piglet into the flames and singe its bristles. Scrap the skin repeatedly with a machete to get rid of any bristles and hair. Then cut off the legs, put aside. Open the belly of the animal to remove the bowels and other entrails. You might want to use the intestines for a soup – in that case you have to wash them thoroughly. On the floor, or if available on a wooden cutting board, hack the carcass of the piglet into fist-sized pieces. Keep dogs and other domesticated animals at bay. Over the fire, bring water to boil. Rinse the pork, and throw into the boiling water, together with the legs. Boil well; serve with chillies and lime.

A simple recipe, but I think I have never had a tastier pork broth. There was not a pinch of salt, or any herb in that soup. We ate it with a hint of lime and some chillies – delicious, wholesome and healthy. I for my part had reserved an entire hind leg, which was roasted in the charcoal (not above!), to point. In the most perfect happiness and bliss I was standing in that smoky kitchen, with its disintegrating walls of tree-bark, gnawing on my pork-leg. Whatever bony relics, I threw through the holes in the wall, into the yard, where with powerful jaws mother sow crunched unknowingly the bones of her own offspring, so recently and unsuspectingly bereft of life.

Rungus parties end with the last person collapsing drunk onto the floor. Halfway through the night, with a heavy head, I woke up and moved to where I was supposed to sleep, like the others did, even though this does not really matter. A glorious morning awoke us all, and I finally decided to have my tattoo done, by Junis, a very good friend of mine. By midday we were all sober enough, and Junis took his rusty needle, dipped it in soot and oil, and drew the design. I found the procedure tickling at best, and later reminiscent of a light sunburn. Three days later, relaxed, rejuvenated, and as happy as I ever could be, the ‘wound’ was healed, the hurt skin peeled off (exactly like sunburn), and below appeared, on smooth skin, my very personal body art… vanity in the jungle. I jumped on a pick-up, left the jungle, hitched a ride on a rickety bus to our capital, with plenty of stories in my mind to amuse myself for weeks on end.

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

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