A Dusun Wedding
When in Sabah, don't decline an invitation to a wedding!

by Herman (December 2005) - click here for photos (from our Photo Galleries)
see also: Through the Crocker Range

That’s how it happens: early in the morning on Thursday you go to the Tamu in Donggongon and you meet someone you somehow know but you don’t really recall from where. Anyway, that acquaintance of yours is very much eager to invite you to a wedding, and would not let you go before you have promised and sworn that you will join. There are certainly worse things than getting invited to a wedding, and for me the fact that the party is in an inaccessible area where you have to walk is only so much more reason to go! Thus, as per promise, I met my acquaintance again in the middle of the next week. We were to leave Thursday, the wedding being on Friday. It stuck me a bit as odd, but then it was wedding season and if everybody would get married on a Saturday how would you be able to visit them all and join their respective festivities? That reasoning makes sense! Here, Jack – that is the name of my acquaintance, and really a good friend – explained to me why we would go to such a faraway wedding when he himself is from the north of Sabah: the young man getting married is the brother of his wife, and Jack was to be his best man. Knowing that I was invited by the best man to this wedding was reassuring. I felt certainly less guilty and more ‘belonging’ than when I am dragged to a wedding because a friend of a friend has a cousin who’s sister in law’s auntie’s eldest son… I never really seem to get used to the fact that here, however pleasurable it is, you can go to just about anybody’s wedding and be heartily welcome! It says so much about the people here!

We met again as agreed on the Tamu ground in Donggongon, and after some to and fro we were finally on the road. Much to my excitement it was in one of those sturdy old Land Rovers one only sees once a week congregating en masse in Donggongon: during the tamu. These sturdy old cars have taken the people from the far interior to the tamu in Donggongon and other parts of Sabah over the past forty years. They rarely run with the original engine any more, are heavily modified, and look dramatically rugged and adventurous, usually with some parts here and there held together with string and wire. But they run, and they still offer the most amazing power and safety in the most demanding off-road situations. We were to need this power to-day many times, but at the moment we were headed for Gunung Emas and the Alab Pass there on the well maintained tarmac road that links Kota Kinabalu with Tambunan and Keningau in the interior. I was curious as to which junction we would take. I had a faint idea as to where we were heading, but I had never been in that area and was not sure about the turn-point. When we reached the junction – still below the pass – I knew well where we were but I had never taken that road before – great, I thought, for me totally unexplored terrain, and with each kilometer my expectations and excitement grew. The road became, as expected, very quickly demanding, and later extremely challenging, but our driver mastered even foot-deep and mud filled ruts without even once getting stuck. There were a couple of dramatic moments when to the left or the right of the road the slope would drop away into some distant valley, and I had to think against myself that for this part of the adventure alone some people would have paid good money…

We finally reached our destination after a nearly three hours’ drive, whereby the last two hours were challenging off-roading and made more interesting in the incessantly pouring rain. It was not really raining any more when we alighted from the car and stretched our tattered limbs – the seats in those cars tend to be on the hard side – but it was still drizzling and it was cold. My guess is that we stopped at around 1500m above sea level, about one kilometre before SK Sungoi in the Tuaran District. We stopped at a little shelter along the road, and of course it was not our destination because from here we would have to walk. We started unloading the car and I felt aghast. If the wedding is really one hour’s walk from here, then it is going to be a hell of a drag schlepping all those boxes into the valley: several dozen kilogram’s of frozen chicken and half a dozen cartons with frozen beef , each of about 20 kg; a big suitcase which obviously contained the gown and the dress of the bride and groom (and later I learned also the dress of the best man…); the wedding cake, several boxes with vegetables and other victuals and much more I could not imagine would be necessary for a wedding in the jungle. But then, this was going to be a ‘modern’ wedding, only I did not know…

The rain started again heavier just as the car was unloaded, and we tried to store all cardboard boxes, children and ourselves under the small bus stop when a group of young men with ‘wakid’ carrier baskets emerged. They were followed by a couple of women, also carrying sturdy wakid and after a couple of greetings they started loading their baskets. A wakid is an incongruous looking thing, but it is actually ingenious in design and practicality. It must have been in use for as long as there have been Dusun in Sabah, because all of them use the wakid and variations in design are small. It stands normally about two feet tall and it is made from split bamboo. The largest I have seen have a diameter of nearly two feet at the bottom and three at the top. A wakid can be loaded with just about anything, and if it does not fit inside you tie it to the top – as I was to witness. Incredible loads can be heaved with a wakid, and the Dusun, especially the women, never fail to awe me with their strength and endurance. Climb Mt Kinabalu, and you will see them using their wakid, too! No other, modern design or material has ever been able to replace the traditional wakid, though there are some modifications now and it is rare to find a truly traditional wakid: the straps, in olden days made of rattan and called ‘togivis’ are now more often made from cloth – which is just a bit nicer on one’s shoulders; and the bottom ring that holds the wakid base in place, once made from bark, is now more often made from PVC piping making the rest of the wakid last even longer! Ever the practical Dusuns, never short of ideas!

I watched in respect as the wakid were loaded now, and suddenly the whole load that was in the car was gone, or nearly so. The bride to be wanted to carry the wedding cake herself, and the groom took charge of the wedding dresses in their valise. But the rest was carried by the group of porters – for such they were, specially arranged for the wedding I was told, and they actually arrived right in time! It never fails to amaze me what you can carry in a wakid – first they were loaded with bags and other smaller items and boxes that would fit inside; then came the oversized boxes with frozen meet, wrapped in black plastic bags now because of the rain. They were tethered to top of the carrier baskets. Each person, I estimated, had not less than thirty kilogram’s on their back, and most of the weight above their head for that matter, an unthinkably bad way of distributing weight. But that did not seem to bother the porters any further as they set off down into the valley heading for the groom’s house.

While the porters and some of our party went off I was waiting with Jack for the rest of the group, which came in a second Land Rover. They finally arrived just as the rain seemed to lessen and we were soon off as we wanted to try and get to the house before nightfall. There were several children in our group now, most of them between six and eight years old and expectedly not as fast as us adults. We had nearly nothing to carry along, except our personal belongings and I was wondering again, on the slippery path through the jungle, how the porters with their ungainly load managed. But our going to-day was easy, compared to what was to expect us on the return after a hundred or so people had come through the same way and after three days nearly non-stop raining! We managed quite nicely and I was amazed at the children and how happy they strode ahead, fearless and without hesitation. Dusun children, and even though brought up near Kota Kinabalu and the first time ‘out in the jungle’ they did not complain once!

The going was not really tough, mostly downhill and the only river we had to cross was bridged. We finally arrived just as dark set in. The last stretch was uphill though, and rather slippery (and dangerous, only that nobody mentioned it to the children…). We had to hold onto whatever came along, sometimes crawling on all fours and we did look a bit dishevelled when we arrived. Fortunately there was plenty of water and one by one we had a refreshing shower in a candlelit bathroom.

The home of the groom was abuzz with frenetic activities for the upcoming wedding the next day. I had a look at the house and realised that it was not at all what I had expected – very normally, when in a village that can only be reached by foot, you find more ‘indigenous’ structures than what was presented here: a very neatly constructed wooden bungalow, freshly painted. The person who made this home was very evidently an excellent carpenter with a penchant for meticulous work – a rarity here, where even modern constructions are built to such poor workmanship that houses often become uninhabitable, or at least temporarily so, after half a year of use… Besides being impressed by the neatness of the workmanship, apparent everywhere, I was awed by the fact that the whole house was painted with a good quality paint, which comes in heavy cans that had to be carried down into this valley… The wood was cut in situ, the local people make their own planks and beams and all using chainsaws, but anything else, from roofing over nails and doorknobs to glass window panes has to be carried! There were also plenty of garden chairs under the awnings put up for the wedding, and I was wondering who carried those ungainly things… In short, I was truly impressed with this village that also sported one last very traditional house – the groom’s father’s house, in fact.

We had some light dinner and later I was allowed to ‘help’ – which consisted of the usual watching of people cutting and slicing and mixing and cooking the wedding feast. People here call ‘my job’ freely translated as ‘moral support’; I never feel totally comfortable with it though. If I can’t help I rather feel like a lousy opportunist, because in the end all I do is chatting and waiting for the next glass of rice wine… Well, in this case I was allowed to pour the drinks, which gave me some sort of important feeling, at least not that utterly useless feel I otherwise would have had. And in the course of the rather long evening I met some truly interesting and cultured people, well versed in local customs and traditions. Naturally, I wanted to take down some of what we discussed but over the next three days it is needless to say that I never got around it. Weddings are not good times for culture and language research, even though I tend to speak the local lingo rather well after a couple of glasses of rice wine.

After our jungle trekking (and a couple of glasses of rice wine) we all slept rather well – at least those who did sleep, because the chefs and the others in charge of the wedding preparations did not sleep at all! Thus far out in the jungle there is not much that distracts one’s sleep: no cars, no other background noise than the eternal ‘jungle concert’. The air is accordingly clean and invigorating, and the water – from some well in the hills – tastes sweet! And for those not engaged in any of the preparatory activities there was no hurry the next day. We were sitting around, trying not to be in the way (rather than trying to give a hand…), and chatting with the steady stream of visitors. Amongst them were yesterday’s porters. After delivery they went back home – just a couple of hours trekking through the jungle, no big deal, isn’t it! Then there came a couple of acquaintances of mine and our astonishment at seeing each other out here was reciprocal. Others were friends of the bride or the groom and I learned from some that they had travelled from Kiulu. That’s more than three hours trekking through the jungle, just to attend the wedding! Amongst them was the band – I mentioned it was to be a modern wedding, and a band is a must: a keyboard, plus player, huge speakers, karaoke, you name it! And because there was no electricity in the village some band member – or its porters, I wondered what kind of amazing band this was – had carried a generator from Kiulu all the way to this village. Not a big generator, one of those small ones, barely 30 kilogram’s, and fitting rather smugly into a wakid, leaving its top free for some more load!

The wedding cake was set up, and the whole was rather neatly decorated. Two lunch buffets were prepared and then we waited for the bride and groom to make their entrance, which they finally did to the thundering of gongs and announcements over loudspeakers. After some prayers and more speeches the buffet was finally open and it turned out to be extremely delectable food, and plenty so. Then came the drinks: fresh rice wine called ‘segantang’ and a wedding is not an occasion where one should hold back. As the afternoon sun turned golden and drew long shadows the party was in a very animated state, and some of the younger people could be found dozing in various places and positions but nobody takes notice or offence during such times. The centre of attention were naturally the bride and groom, and both had to drink a toast ever so often and dance the Sumazau again with some relatives… it is a tough job being a bride, or a groom. After all, you also wish not to make a fool of yourself during your own wedding and at some time they disappeared – I think not many realised… food was still plenty and segantang seemed to be available in limitless quantities. The greatest worry of anybody getting married here is to run out of food or drinks, but that was certainly not the case here.

I went to bed rather early, after what I deemed enough rice wine as not to incapacitate myself for the trekking of the next day. When I made my appearance the next morning I had to realise that my early disappearance the night before had not gone unnoticed, especially by those who had been at it the whole night, and thus my breakfast consisted of a couple of glasses of rice wine to ‘punish’ me for my early sleep… I managed to get some real breakfast in due course, after which I settled into the comfortable drinking and chatting sessions until Jack called me to get ready for our journey back. I was just about warming up and could have gone on for a couple of days, which many most surely would do, but transport from these remote areas is not really easy to get and so I reluctantly shook many hands, took many more ‘farewell sips’ – which were rather full glasses – and accepted some food for the way before we finally tore ourselves loose and left.

The return journey was something of a slippery affair. It had been raining for nearly three days and a hundred or so people had come through the same path, so it was rather muddy and very slippery. Again, the children did marvellously well and never complained once. I was wondering though how the band managed, which took part of the same trail we did, and it seemed the steepest and slipperiest part. The porters of the band had their wakid loaded with heavy, impossibly balanced and rather expensive equipment. I was happy I only had my light ‘daypack’!

When we arrived at the shelter on the road our car was waiting for us and an exciting but otherwise uneventful took us back to Donggongon – and to the next wedding. But that is another story…

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