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Culture (Kadazan Penampang): Atalia Mae Albert Jaua

“We must look deeper into people besides their race and religion and see them as a person.” - Atalia Mae Albert Jaua
Atalia (left) in her traditional clothing.

Atalia Mae Albert Jaua is a Kadazan Penampang who originates from Sabah. She is also the Co-founder and Social Director of Kumohakan, which is a youth movement to empower indigenous communities in Sabah. Atalia shared with us the beauty of growing up as a Kadazan Penampang. She also shared with us her traditional food which included Hinava, Bambangan and Nantung. Nantung is sago that is versatile in the way one would consume, that is with soup, fresh fish soup or to your liking.


We learned about her Kadazan Penampang culture, customs and beliefs. She also shared with us how she feels that her culture is suffering due to her own people not knowing how to practice it. On top of that, she shared her confusion on being classified as ‘lain-lain’. She hopes that everyone who is not of Kadazan Penampang descent, remembers them as people who would welcome anyone who wants to celebrate them. Find out more in our interview below.

What is the name of your traditional costume and what accessories do you wear? When do you wear these traditional attires?

It's called Sinuangga. This is specifically for the people who are from Kadazan Penampang. It's a really simple design. It's a black cloth with gold and red trimmings. We usually wear it with a heavy belt. It's not iron, but it's the type of metal that can be put around the waist. I forgot what it's called. It's a heavy one. And the more you have it, the more it resembles your wealth, actually. Another thing to note is that I'm wearing a custom made one. So it's a more modern one. If you have a longer sleeve, that means you are married but if it's short, it means that you're still single or unmarried. This traditional attire is usually worn during weddings or celebrations like Kaamatan, and you wouldn't see one wearing it on a sad occasion, so it's usually a happy occasion when you wear it.


What are some of the traditional games you played when you were young?

When I was younger, our traditional games were the ones that you can usually find in any other culture. For example, we played bowling, bowling using coconuts, we lined up bottles filled with water, and we used coconut and just made them fall. And also, the normal games like armwrestling, which we have a specific name for in Kadazan, which is 'mimpulos', and also tug of war. We had something called lastik, meaning we use a rubber band and then we just hit trees or anything because we were taught not to hit the birds. That's what the naughty kids do, but we just hit stuff that is safe.


What are the festivals celebrated in your community and what are some of the activities that you do during this festival?


The number one celebration that the Kadazans and Dusuns celebrate is called Kaamatan. So Kaamatan is actually a word that is derived from the word ’tomot’, which means harvest. So this festival is often and always celebrated in the month of May, throughout the month of May with it peaking at the end which is the 30th and 31st. It's usually to celebrate harvesting of our rice, and also just get together with our families, which is great. And that is often the reason I want to go back to Sabah every May.

During Kaamatan this year, I was basically stuck at home, but at home in Sabah, so I spent the time with my family. My grandma taught my cousins, and I how to make traditional food. And we just took pictures with traditional clothes. So we made do with what we could. But usually I would just go to this place called KDCA. It's a really big hall where everyone around Sabah who are Kadazans and Dusuns go. We go there, we sing, we dance, and we eat food. So it's a celebration where we get together.


What traditional songs do you sing or play?

I personally don't play any instruments. So I just do the singing and dancing part. I usually sing songs that I knew when I was younger, from the singer Atama, he's a rapper. He raps in English, Kadazan and Malay. So I don't know how famous he is right now. But nowadays, I sing songs from the radio or YouTube, which I think might be familiar to you guys, that is the original Sabahans Mandak Sabah. So those songs, I think, have opened up doors to more local singers, especially Kadazan Dusun singers, which I think will go up in the next few years.


What is the name of your traditional dance(s)?

For Kadazan Penampang, we call it Sumazau, which is a dance where we spread our arms and open up. Then we just dance like we're actually imitating the moves of an eagle. That's one of the folklores, the saying of eagles are needed to protect like the paddy fields, something like that. So I think that's the symbolism in that.

What is the name of the traditional instruments you have in your community?

We have the sompoton, which I think it's the equivalent of a flute because we blow into it and there's multiple holes. We close and open it to make sounds. Other than that, we have tagung, which is basically just gongs in different sizes. We play that when we dance or when we are expressing our feelings.

Name one pantang-larang (taboos) still observed in your community. Are these pantang-larang shared through the community, and how?

One ‘pantang-larang’ in my community, right from the top of my head, is that a pregnant woman, when they want to attend a funeral, has to wear a red cloth around their belly because it is believed that it will prevent spirits from latching on to the baby inside or possessing the mother. The more modern ones or the ones who haven’t been practising it since they were younger wouldn’t actually believe or know about this.

Who usually leads the rituals and ceremonies in your community, is it the men or women?

The women. The ‘bobohizan’ is like a high priestess and she usually handles the weddings, the deaths and also the births in your community.

What are the common stereotype(s) said about your community?

The stereotype specifically for the Kadazan community is that all we know is drinking and alcohol, which is untrue. And a more general stereotype for Sabahans is ‘we still live on trees’. And I think people think that we are not educated but I think that’s been proven wrong over the years.

Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby?

For birth, when the baby turns a month old, the closest family members would gather around and say prayers for the baby and we will cut a small bit of their hair. We will recite some prayers and the hair will, back in the day, be “tanam” (planted) in the ground. But now we just throw it after the prayers.


When there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like?

Back in the day, before the existence of religion or other beliefs, we would actually burn the belongings of the deceased. The funeral rites that we still do is every hour of the day we would play the gong and every family member is encouraged to cry as loud as they can to mourn the death of the person.

How are weddings organised in your community?

Weddings are usually done by the Bobohizan as well. So, the Bobohizan will make the bride and groom stand in front of her and she will recite prayers and then they have to sit down and eat traditional food in which both of them have to feed each other. Usually, it’s chicken cooked in a traditional way and they also have to feed each other an alcohol which is called ‘tapai’.


What are the activities involved when a person gets married in your community?

At the start of the wedding, the male has to go through obstacles. The bride has to hide somewhere in the house and the groom from outside the house has to ask permission from the family members if he can go inside to find his future wife.

Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?

Huminodun is actually the reason for Kaamatan. So, Huminodun is the daughter of a god and she saw that the people below her, like the villagers, were suffering because the paddy fields were not doing well. They didn’t have food and water, so she decided to sacrifice her body so the gods would accept her sacrifice so the villagers would live well..

How does it make you feel to be classified as a ‘lain-lain’?


The first time I saw the word ‘lain-lain’ and I had to fill in my own race which was ‘Kadazan’ I felt like, ‘Oh wait, where’s the option? Why do I not have a special box where I can just click my name?’ And then I felt ‘Nevermind, everyone’s used to it so I have to get used to it’. I think I would say that’s a coping mechanism, I felt confused and I am still confused.


What are the current challenges faced by your community?

We are not being recognised. We do not have enough people who know about us. You know, we would introduce ourselves as “Kadazan” and people would ask, ”Oh, from Sabah? Do you still live on trees?” or “Do you still wear your traditional outfits at home?”. And actually my culture is suffering or facing problems internally where my own people do not know or practice their culture, which is more dangerous than what we’re facing externally.


What are your hopes for your community?

I hope that by doing what I do for Komuhakan we would actually empower my own community in which everyone will start embracing and start loving our own culture, so that we can share it with other people. We need to fix the internal issues first before we can fix it externally.


What is your vision and wish for Sabah and fellow Sabahans?


I wish that we would work harder in actually working on ourselves, accepting who we are and learning about ourselves so that other people can see that in us and do so as well. And I wish that Sabahans, especially Sabahan youths, would be braver in facing new changes, new challenges, and meeting other people besides people of their own so they may learn that it’s not so bad or dangerous. I feel like they feel like it is dangerous to know people that are not of their own because they are afraid of change.

What are your vision and hopes for Malaysia?


My hope for Malaysia is that everyone despite their differences should try to understand each other. Before pointing out mistakes or the past, or history, they should think about now and the future in which it’s time to make a change, it’s time to embrace diversity. And we must look deeper into people besides their race and religion and see them as a person. I think that’s the first step in making change and making peace in Malaysia.

How can general Malaysians get to know each other better?

I think the first step is to actually mix around, get together and have an activity together. Spark conversations, ask questions. You think it might be controversial but if it means that you want to learn something or you’re curious, you should ask and the person shouldn’t get offended if it's for educational purposes to understand each other better. So, I think the best way is to mix around and have conversations.


How would you want us to remember you or your community?

I would like for people that are not from my community to remember us as people who enjoy embracing our cultures and welcome anyone who wants to celebrate with us so that you may feel the harmony and also the love that we have for each other.

___ To know is to love, Atalia believes that asking each other questions is the way for Malaysians to get to know each other better. In Malay language, there is a saying ‘tak kenal maka tak cinta’, which means if you don’t know something, you won’t love it. Taking the initiative to ask about others is important in creating a bond with one another. We are grateful that Atalia took the time and effort to answer every question we had for her. It was genuinely a great experience learning about the Kadazan Penampang culture from Atalia. Malaysia is home to people of various races, ethnicities and religions. Looking past the differences Malaysians have, we must be able to see each other as human beings. Like Atalia said, we must look deeper into people besides their race and religion and see them as a person.


Ending with a group photo.

___ Interviewed by: Sarah Aishah binti Sa’aid Hazley & Karen Lee Myn Hui, facilitated by Faye Lim Written by: Karen Lee Myn Hui & Sarah Aishah binti Sa’aid Hazley

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