In any normal year, Maria Assim would be busy overseeing preparations for the Gawai Dayak festival, from preparing traditional dishes to monitoring activities throughout her home village of Kampung Tabuan Dayak in the capital city of Kuching.
As village chief, her responsibilities are manifold but she would always find time to focus on her family’s arrangements as well, including the preparation of kuih jala, a traditional dessert, and the production of a rice wine known as tuak.
Normally this is a task that she performs every year. With Covid-19 on the loose, though, it has been two years since she last made the wine, produced from glutinous rice mixed with homemade yeast and a staple at most Gawai celebrations.
“What the old people say is there should be the aura of Gawai and the smell of cake and tuak.
“But this year I didn’t make tuak as we still have stock from the previous year because people were not allowed to visit, just like this year,” she said.
Tuak also used to be an important part of her family’s observance of miring, a ritual ceremony in which they would bring the wine together with food and other drinks to share with others and to place at a memorial pole as an offering to their ancestors and the deities they worshipped.
That was in the early 1980s. Today, celebrations are slightly different as her family along with many others have embraced Christianity.
“It used to be a very grand event, but slowly as the Iban here converted to Christianity, we no longer gathered at the memorial pole on Gawai eve,” she told MalaysiaNow.
Back then, miring would be marked by elements such as machetes and live chickens and pigs.
The slaughtered animals would be cooked by the villagers for a feast to be eaten at the ruai or communal verandah of the longhouse.
Now, though, celebrations begin with Christian prayers. There is also a parade in which villagers march to the cultural centre, dancing to the beat of gongs. There is always much laughter with visitors from all walks of life taking pictures and snapping selfies.
“People would take turns to sing, and the floor would be filled with people dancing.”
“It is a merry time where family members and friends from all races, including foreigners, come together from far and wide,” Maria said.
There would also be live bands to entertain the crowd.
“People would take turns to sing, and the floor would be filled with people dancing.
“It is also a chance for the younger generation, especially those from the cultural troupes, to showcase our traditional dancing skills.”
But as with so much else, Covid-19 has changed everything.
With infections spreading across the state, there are no longer communal celebrations of any sort.
Instead, Maria said, the villagers will perform the “poco-poco” dance alone in their homes.
This is a far cry from the noise and colour of normal Gawai celebrations, but Maria and her family are just glad for any chance to communicate with their relatives during the festival period.
“I am so glad that communications technology has improved so much,” the 53-year-old said. “We will do a video call in the morning for our Gawai wishes.”
Before Covid-19, she said the excitement of Gawai would centre on the arrival of her family members from Miri and Kuala Lumpur who would fly back to Kuching for the celebration.
“On Gawai day, we would invite ministers to join us,” she recalled.
Now, though, things are very different.
“What is important is that we celebrate this Gawai safely and follow all the SOPs so that we can celebrate many more Gawai days to come,” she said.
But while communal celebrations are a no-no this year, she must continue overseeing her villagers as she has always done – this time for a different reason.
There must be no visiting whatsoever in the settlement.
“There will be police patrolling the area, so I told them if they are caught for defying the SOPs, they are responsible for their actions,” she said.