Are you going for the naming ceremony?” We were asked time and time again as we tried to book flights and accommodation. The reunion we had planned with fellow travellers to meet in the Kelabit Highlands in Borneo Malaysia for Xmas and New Year was not going to plan. Planes were full and accommodation scarce. ‘Must be a christening’ we thought as we emerged from the travel agents clutching two rare as rocking horse shit flight tickets that no one else in our group had been able to obtain.
Raddish, our genial host, picked us up from the airport. “No time for unpacking” he shouted as the 4 wheel careered down roads 3 foot deep in clay mud “we have to get to the naming ceremony,we don’t want to miss the games and we need to pick up some gifts”. Half an hour later we were trudging along a mud road in the must have foot wear for the wet season, the Bario plimsoll – they don’t sink like wellies they skim. We stopped off in the village to buy the obligatory gift, a box of dried biscuits – apparently Kelabitians can’t get enough of them. Raddish tried to explain. For the naming ceremony, all three village communities were coming together to celebrate in one of the long houses. It was an important all inclusive event with the emphasis on hospitality, traditional games, songs, dances and the boiling of 7 hogs. As to what we were celebrating, we were still unsure. But free food, drink, and a ceremony in a longhouse – it pressed all the right buttons for me.
The Kelabit people have a very interesting history, originally nomadic, cannibals and head-hunters the whole community converted en mass, after some kind of revelation, to Christianity. They are a warm, welcoming, intelligent and extremely interesting people.
We found out that naming ceremonies honour the rites of passage through life. Therefore, as a person progress through each stage they are renamed. For example when one gets married, becomes a parent or a grandparent one is honoured with a new name. The day starts with food preparation the traditional way, games involving blow pipes, tug of war, climbing a slippery pole, pig chasing and of course eating and drinking. The eating and drinking continues into the evening, the ceremony takes place then the older generation of ladies sing haunting songs and perform graceful dances that tell of times past.
Raddish had to go on a trek the next day and so we happened to met Peter, Raddish’s brother, a gem of a man. He was working on the government to protect the area from logging, spoke several languages including Penang, studied engineering in order to get electricity into the villages, was head of the family longhouse, an enlightened guide and a dammed good drinking partner. He invited us to New Year’s Eve at his family longhouse. Yet another traditional evening with friends and family ensued with wild boar cooked in bamboo to eat, washed down by substantial quantities of rum and coke. At the end of the evening the ladies of the household sang a traditional song which invited us to become honoury members of the family. We now have a room and board at the family longhouse whenever we return.
I have travelled far and wide but I have never encountered such generosity and friendship as that which was extended to us by the Kelabit people. It was a humbling and enriching experience.