Updated: Apr 6
“I would like Kenyah people to be remembered as nice, friendly people who really want to share their culture, because not many people know about our tradition or existence, we just want to be known. We don’t have to be famous, we just have to have people know our existence and by being remembered we exist, it’s a very nice thing.”- Serena M. Lade
Serena Michelle Lade is a Kenyah from Sarawak. She shared with us the different sub ethnics her parents are, and how their languages vary from one another even though both of them identify as Kenyah. On top of that, she shared with us her traditional food which includes ‘Anye’, which is glutinous rice mixed with water and coconut milk, ‘Pito’, which is steamed glutinous rice and ‘Budey’ which is soup made of the insides of a deer. Serena is passionate and this article clearly shows her love for her culture. She wants people who are not of Kenyah descent to know that Kenyah people are friendly, and that they want others to know about their culture. She wants Kenyah people to be known and remembered.
What is your dialect?
So each Kenyah sub-ethnic, different kampung has different languages. My dad speaks Kenyah Badeng language, and my mum speaks Kenyah Uma Baha. The languages are quite different from each other. For example, in my dad’s language, the way you address yourself, I or me, is ‘ake’ while in my mom’s language, it’s ‘ahe’.
What traditional craft is your community most known for?
For Kenyah people, society usually knows us for our kalong (the ukiran). You can find kalong on the famous musical instrument, ‘Sape’, or carved on the walls of longhouses. Each kalong has significant meanings behind it and you have to learn how to carve it - it’s very intricate. Another craft that actually got famous last week on Facebook, it’s called ‘bek’ or ‘Beneng’. It’s kind of like a backpack where you place your baby inside of it and it allows you to carry your baby around on your back. The ‘Bek’ is usually made of wood with beads woven all over it in a kalong pattern.
What traditional attire like? When do you usually wear them?
For the ladies, we have the Sapai Kelip (Top; Blouse) and Ta’a (Bottom; Skirt). Sapai means baju (clothes) and Kelip means bling. The top and bottom are normally black or red in colour, though there are other variations such as green. These are decorated in colourful beads (again, in a kalong pattern). We also have a headdress (Tapung or Lavung) which is also decorated with beads. There are different variations of the headdress, some have feathers while some don’t. For accessories, the most famous one in my opinion is the earrings called ‘Belaong’. It’s a pair of long earrings. We also have the necklace known as ‘Uleng’ and a belt called ‘Beteng’. There are other accessories as well like the bracelets (both forearms and ankles) and a sash or in our Bahasa Malaysia language, 'Selendang' is known as ‘_____’. Most accessories are decorated or made of colourful beads and weaved in a kalong pattern.
For the men, they wear ‘Abet’ which is the bottom part of the costume. Over their upper body, they wear ‘Besunung’ which is usually made of deer or bear skin. They also have a headdress and it is usually decorated with feathers. Back then, the feathers used were from hornbills. But now, we no longer use that. Some people use artificial feathers that look like hornbill’s feathers. There are other accessories being worn on the thighs and arms.
Usually these traditional attires are worn during celebrations and festivals such as the harvest festival and weddings.
What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?
One festival that I think is the most significant in my community is our version of the Harvest festival called ‘Pelepek Uman’ or ‘Ramey Oo Ajau’. ‘Pelepak’ means after and ‘Uman’ means year. It is to celebrate that year’s harvest as well as to welcome the new harvest year.
I've only been to the festival once in my whole life at my mom’s kampung. During the festival, there are varieties of the harvested rice products. One of them is the traditional rice wine called ‘Burak’. I don’t drink it so I can’t really say much about it.
Other than food, there are also performances. People will be dancing and singing together and it’s basically like a get-together but with the whole kampung. Sometimes, there will be beauty pageants for both men and women.
Speaking of festivals, is there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practiced in your community?
There's this one famous song and it's called ‘Leleng’. So usually what people do is they will line up and go around the longhouse. They will go and (starts singing ‘Leleng’). The lyrics of the song means getting together with friends and dancing with them. The song is usually accompanied with the sound of the Sape’ which is the musical instrument.
One of our famous traditional dances is the ‘Kancet Lasan’. It’s a solo dance performed by either a man or a woman. For the men’s, it is more of like a war dance, where they demonstrate martial art moves with a parang (sword).
What are some of the traditional games you played when you were young?
I think the games that I played weren't from the Kenyah culture. They were mostly Malaysian like, the whole Malaysian culture thing, you know, we played the ‘Congkak’, ‘Batu Seremban’, but I don't really know if the Kenyah community has their own traditional games.
How are weddings organised in your community?
For weddings, usually, what is significant is the gift exchange part during the wedding. So for the men, they will be exchanging parang (a large, heavy knife) and it will be placed in a pretty casing which has beads on it. So like the mother of the groom, or the bride, they will do the casing using beads, or they will carve the 'kalang ukiran' on the casing of the parang. And then,if for the ladies, they will usually give the ‘Ber’, like the backpackand because the ‘Ber’ are made of manik (beads), so, they will spend hours like days, weeks, just to do the ‘Ber’. So it's hard work, you know, it's a very significant thing to give the bride.
Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby? And when there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like?
As I mentioned before, I already grew up in a Christian community. So it's just, we will just pray for the baby. — For this, I’ve only been to one Kenyah funeral my whole life and it's my own maternal grandmother. So what I remember is that I was still a child, I think I was like five or six years old and I remembered they will have the deceased in the coffins, so it's called a ‘lungun’. So usually they are carvings on the coffin. So as my mom's side of the family is from a ‘paran’ family which is kind of like the respected leader family in the village, so the night before the body was being buried, we will sleep with all the family members who sleep in the same room as the coffin. So the coffin will be in the middle of the living room and then all the family members will sleep around the coffin. And because we live in a longhouse., so when the day they're going to get to bury the deceased, they will angkat (carry), like they will bring the coffin like walk through the longhouse and upon to the follow drive, then they do a convoy and at the burial site, it will be a Christian kind of funeral where we pray and all that.
What are the common stereotype(s) about your community?
So during the olden days, the ladies have elongated earlobes. So the longer it is, the more beautiful you are. So whenever ethnic people knew about that Kenyah tradition, they were like, “Oh, why are your ears like normal people?” I mean, we no longer do that. But if, like girls or ladies now, they want to have elongated earlobes, they are welcome to do it. But not a lot of people do it now.
How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?
I personally feel offended. So growing up, never like I never thought much about it. Until I like at this age when I finally like maturing and understanding what's happening in this world. I feel that it's very, indirectly offensive to me because whenever I have to fill in the forms, I have to be like, “Oh, what? Am I the others?” Or like, ‘Why am I not classified as a Kenyah?”
Even though I know the struggle of putting every ethnic group in the form, but you know it's also nice that they can write Bumiputera Sarawak. I think that's even much better than ‘lain-lain’ (others), you know? Like, I feel like I'm a foreigner, even though I'm not. Even when I tell people like, “Oh, I'm Kenyah”, they are like, “What is that?”
“It’s Kenyah. I’m an ethnic in Sarawak.”. So it's offensive. It's sad.
What are the current challenges faces by your community?
I think the biggest issue would be education. Even though, because I grew up in the city and my parents are working people, they have degrees. So I'm actually kind of privileged, I would say, but compared to the people like the other families in my village, my dad's village and my mom's village, not a lot of them have access to like good education, and especially in my dad's village, so my dad's village is very, very pedalaman (interior), very rural.
In order to get there, you have to have a four-wheel drive, because they don't have normal roads, it's all jalan balak (logging road), so if it rains, then the road would be very slippery and it’s very dangerous.
And even in my dad's village, we don't have electricity, we have to use generators up until I think three years ago, and even that we are using solar not much electricity.
Infrastructure wise, a lot of Kenyah communities still lack all the facilities, like even my dad's village still does not have access to network lines, so if you want to call, you have to go somewhere you have to drive somewhere just to call. But thankfully, I think last year they managed to have a connection to call and all that. But I think in some other villages, like the ones that are really deep inside the village deep inside the forest, they still don't have all these facilities and infrastructures.
I really wish to see more Kenyah youth pursuing their studies in education or working with the government or just working in other professional fields; like as engineers, doctors and all that. I think I'm seeing that some are realizing that they want to see a change in their family and the Kenyah community. It's one step at a time. Even like in my village, my sister was the second one to pursue her education overseas, so that's a huge step. So a lot of other kids now they're like inspired to study and all that. So that is what I really hope to see is that more Kenyah people study and go outside of their comfort zone, traveling, seeing the world and coming back and giving back to the community.
What is your wish for Sarawak? What are your hopes for your community?
I hope to see that Sarawak becomes more developed as well as students have more educational scholarship opportunities.
You know a lot of people say that we live on trees and that or we naik sampan (travel by boat) and stuff like that, because actually, it's still true - not the living on trees part as there are many who still live in longhouses, but how there are still people in the rural areas that have to travel by boat to go somewhere and they don't have access to roads. They don't have access to electricity, freshwater and all that.
Just an example like the Pan-Borneo Highway, it's crazy how even after I turn 21 this year I'm still not seeing any progress.
I really wish to see that Sarawakians use especially students, they become more aware of like scholarship opportunities, you know, and all these educational opportunities because most of the students, most people, like my juniors that I've met, they, even though they're like, academically excellent, like they are straight A students, they are excellent in schools and all that, they are not they don't know about all these opportunities, you know, and all these educational things that they can, I'm pretty sure they will get.
I just hope that Malaysia becomes a better place, you know how the pandemic has affected all of us, I just hope that we can heal for those who lost people, we can heal emotionally, we can heal economically, especially because I’m going to be graduating and I want to live in Malaysia that has stable economy that provide job opportunities to people. As of now, that’s my biggest hope for Malaysia to become a better place, to become a better country; social, economy and quality expat.
How can Malaysians get to know each other better?
I think, one exciting way that Malaysians can know is through events, I know we can’t physically do big events, but I think that, we can start small in Universities or in schools, because Universities can organize, because every University has each state, each student organization, and from there we can have our own pop up booth from each states and they can share about their states culture, tradition and food, and I think from there, Malaysians can get to know each other.
They can be like, “Oh you know, the other day I learned about Sabah and Sarawak, I learned more about Selangor.” I think trying to connect with people, meeting new people is a great way for Malaysians to get to know each other.
How would you want us to remember you or your community?
Of course, you always want to be remembered as nice people you know, interesting people I think, that would count. But what I think I would like Kenyah people to be remembered as nice friendly people who really want to share their culture, because not many people know about our tradition or existence, we just want to be known. We don’t have to be famous, we just have to have people know our existence and by being remembered we exist, it’s a very nice thing.
Interviewing Serena provided valuable insights into Kenyah culture and identity which is seldom seen in mainstream media. Serena’s pride and love for her culture and country is extremely heartwarming and inspiring. Her sentiments encapsulates the hopes of young people nationwide who wish to see a more inclusive and progressive Malaysia. Malaysia needs to do better in recognising and respecting all the ethnicities, cultures, and traditions that make up our colourfully vibrant society. We sincerely believe that if more youths shared the same passion and drive as Serena, we would be on the right track towards that goal.
___ Interviewer: Arif Hakimi and M Ruban Murugan, facilitated by Faye Lim Written by: Karen Lee Myn Hui and Sarah Aishah binti Sa'aid Hazley