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Last of the Kaamatan Bobohizan: Traditions fade away as modernisation, other religions overshadow ancient rituals

A group of Bobohizan priests perform the Magavau ritual during the harvest festival that Sabah’s indigenous tribes celebrate today and tomorrow. – Scoop pic, May 30, 2024

“As Sabah celebrates harvest festival, the cultural heritage of the Bobohizan priests is at risk, with few facing a battle to preserve their dying tradition.”

PENAMPANG – At night and in secrecy, a group of five Kadazandusun priests, called Bobohizan, gathered recently to observe a rite traditionally performed during the harvest festival, Kaamatan, which is celebrated by Sabah’s indigenous tribes today and tomorrow.

The private event held at the Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) village here saw five Bobohizans from different parts of the state perform the Magavau ritual, which is the calling for the return of the rice spirit, Bambazon.

Right before the ritual began, Sabah Bobohizan Association secretary Angelica Suimin told Scoop not to share videos of the priests chanting on social media.

“We don’t want it going viral and have people start calling us names, saying that we are worshipping ‘Satan’, because it happened in the past,” she said.

It was a sad note about the reality of these dying traditions that Kadazandusun elders are trying to pass on to the next generation. Social media would have been one of the ways to promote heritage, but the use of such platforms has opened those trying to preserve culture to misunderstanding and ridicule.

The KDCA has about 200 members, most of whom are ordinary Kadazandusun people. Only a few are actual Bobohizan who undertake rituals.

Kadazandusun priests are called by different names in different parts of Sabah, and they also perform different rituals. The term “Bobohizan” is used by people mainly in the Penampang area.

Their services are called upon on special occasions such as weddings (Miohon Pinisi) and padi harvesting (Magavau).

However, the number of practicing Bobohizans has declined dramatically over the last 50 years, coinciding with modernisation and the rise of other religions.

Traditional rituals performed by Bobohizans that involve chanting and spirit-calling are shunned, especially in Christianity and Islam.

A matter of self-identity

One young Bobohizan apprentice disagrees that traditional culture and religion cannot co-exist.

Nicholas Anthony Chong, 32, is a Catholic who is comfortable learning the traditional rituals of Kadazandusun priests, which involve communicating with spirits.

He said Catholic churches in Sabah have acknowledged and allowed church members to perform traditional rituals after going through a synodal process that involves consultations and conferences to reach decisions on issues affecting the church.

Religion and cultural traditions can co-exist because rituals have always been a way for people to connect with the spirit world, higher beings, or nature, he said.

“Bobohizans are the priests of Kinohingan, who is the God who created everything, so people may ‘demonise’ this because they come from a religious perspective.

“But I think people should understand that tradition was already here before any religion. Our ancestors had performed the rituals for hundreds of years. The rituals are simply for people to connect with nature; it is not worshipping Satan,” Chong said.

Chong also clarified that food served during rituals is not meant to feed the spirits but is part of the traditional rites performed by Kadazandusun ancestors.

Adam Gontusan, 33, meanwhile, believes his generation has the last Bobohizan in Penampang, as older priests have passed away.

He still considers himself and another priest to be novices. 

“We are still learning, but our teachers have passed away. We can only perform certain rituals, not all of them. There are many others we have not learned. Those who are gone, know.”

Gontusan said one day all rituals will stop being practiced “because we won’t have people continuing them anymore”.

“What we can do is only document what we know for the next generation to observe,” he said.

Gontusan also wants the public to know that Bobohizans do not practice black magic, and they are priests for the traditional Kadazan religion called Momolian.

KDCA’s Suimin said she hopes Kadazandusun people, especially the youth, will start learning about traditional practices and rituals as a part of learning about their self-identity.

“We have a new generation that is confused; they are influenced by other people’s cultures and they do not know that they have their own culture. 

“I believe that once they learn about their own culture, we will be able to create a new generation with high self-esteem and confidence because they know more about themselves and have their own identity.

“I hope Kadazandusun parents would be more open to encouraging their children to explore and learn the history of their race, as well as the customs and traditions of the Kadazandusun,” she said. – May 30, 2024

Editor: This article by Rebecca Chong has appeared in the scoop.my

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