Gawai Dayak – Of family, sharing and lasting harmony


Four generations of multi-cultural intermarriage families of Datin Dona Drury Wee (left) and Laura Sim Bara (third left), both seen together with Dona’s mother, and Laura’s daughter and grand-daughter, in this photo taken during Gawai 2022. — Photo courtesy of Dona Drury Wee

THE Gawai Dayak has been officially celebrated throughout the state of Sarawak since it was gazetted as ‘Sarawak Day’ on Sept 25, 1964, which would mark its 59th anniversary this year, on June 1.

As early as 1957, the idea of an annual festival specially designated for all the Dayak people in Sarawak, Malaysia and West Kalimantan to be fixed on a certain date close to the rice harvest season, had been openly proposed over the airwaves of Radio Sarawak by two broadcasters, Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang.

However, the British colonial government of the day had chosen not to listen to popular demand till the year 1962 – and suggested, instead, a Sarawak Day as a day for all Sarawakians as a ‘National Day’ regardless of ethnic origin.

It took two famous historical figures to further champion the cause and to eventually turn Dayak National Day (or Harvest Festival, and later Gawai Dayak) into a reality.

Dato Sri Tra Zehnder was Council Negri Sarawak’s first appointed female member in 1957, and one of her first demands was to call on the colonial government to recognise the existence of the Dayaks by declaring one day in a year as ‘Gawai Dayak’, preferably June 1 every year.

Although her request was rejected, she had paved the way for the state government of Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan to eventually approve it.

Dato Sri Tra Zehnder – An early proponent of a state Gawai holiday for all Dayaks in Sarawak.

Datuk Michael Buma, a Betong native and chairman of Machinda Party took it one step further.

He hosted the celebration of the very first Gawai Dayak at his home in Siol Kandis, Kuching on June 1, 1963.

A year and three months later, the date June 1 was duly gazetted as Sarawak Day.

Prior to that, it had always been the tradition and custom of the various Dayak communities to hold their own Gawai celebrations at their longhouses, villages and community halls after the harvesting season – there was no commonly agreed date or time back then.

Now at last like their fellow countrymen, the Chinese, the Malays, the Indians and those of other races, the Dayaks have their very own nominated day where family gatherings and reunions could be more strategically organised, and grander celebrations on bigger scales could now be held as well.

Datuk Michael Buma, whose house at Siol Kandis in Kuching held the very first Gawai Dayak celebration on June 1, 1963. A year later, the date became a gazetted public holiday.

Sarawakians have a long tradition of family members, friends and work colleagues holding open houses during their own ethnic festivals, and in turn, would look forward to visiting each other and renewing bonds of friendship during their friends’ turn.

With many of us now living further and further apart and having our own separate interests, hobbies and other pastimes after our working hours spent together, it has stretched the strong bonds of family ties as well as long established friendships.

Personally I can bear witness to friends who, unless they have a common interest in sharing in an activity, hobby or interest after working hours, have very little time left to spend on nurturing or even just maintaining their relationships.

Sadly after a period of time, even the bonds of strong friendships are broken beyond repair, or simply left to drift further apart.

This special gift or bond of sharing in each other’s annual festivals and the still-practised time-honoured tradition of visiting each other during special times must continue to be maintained in today’s hurried lives of endless chores.

After all, other than attending happy events and joyous occasions, like the wedding of a friend or family, the birth of a newborn or the grand birthday of an elder in the family, the only other times we do come together are for wakes and funerals and visitations at death’s door.

We must continue to remain and stay in touch with each other as friendships today are not easy to form – they get harder and more complicated with so many other distractions going on in our lives.

We are all so easily distracted nowadays by our devices, by trying to make a decent living – ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is still so much an ugly feature of our daily lives that we find little or no solace in our own quiet time – we need to do our own soul-searching and reach inward and go beyond our ceaseless chase for material goods.

We must be more spiritually inclined and try to seek a balance between what is materialistically needed (but may not be necessary) and what is the main purpose of our life on earth – like the Good Book says: “What is there waiting for us if you gain the world but lose your soul?”

The Gawai Dayak celebration season is upon us.

It is a good time, a right and proper and most appropriate period for wholehearted celebration – but please, do so with moderation amidst jubilation; with restraint amidst rollicking fun and with consideration for those with lesser than us.

Where possible, do be generous with your goodwill, and God will bless you mightily for having looked after your fellow beings.

May I take this opportunity to wish everyone who is celebrating, a very blessed and safe Gawai Dayak.

May the Good Lord continue to bless and guide you all in the days, weeks and years ahead.