Gawai: The Festival of Unity, Generosity, and Humanity
(Told From The Perspective of a Teacher From America)
By Andrew Taylor
THE ESSENCE OF GAWAI, ‘The Harvest Festival’, is found in the soul of the Dayak Sarawakians.
Now, yes, the dances, and music, the tuak and langkau, the food and traditional costumes…these are the things that most people see and therefore use to define Gawai and what it is. It might be especially easy for foreigners who visit this state during this celebration to see Gawai as only a time to party. But as a guy from America living and teaching in Sarawak, I challenge anyone who minimises the heart and soul of this festival into simply tuak and ngajat.
As “a lost son of Sarawak” (a label I respectfully give myself) I feel so blessed that I’ve been given the time to peer deeper into this spirited celebration. With visiting 13 different houses on day one alone in addition to numerous other houses, kampungs, and closing ceremonies in the weeks thereafter, I’m thankful that I can take a long and genuine gaze into Gawai and see it for what it truly is.
Gawai is so much more than what meets the eye. These physical, tangible things such as food and costumes are the instruments used to play the song of generosity and kindness that the Dayaks of Sarawak behold in their hearts and are willing to share with others.
Is it showing off? No. Is it an excuse to stay up late, drink, and stuff one’s belly with delicious food? For some, maybe.
Is it a yearning, or perhaps a responsibility that is felt, to celebrate and honor a culture that is unique and filled with pride and dignity? Yes. I have been given so many memorable experiences which I received during Gawai. At the core of these special moments is the powerful thoughtfulness and generosity found within the people I met and interacted with.
Some of these people were friends of friends. Some were my students and their families. Most of them were people who I had never met before in my life. But they all still invited me into their homes and offered me a chair to sit in, next to their families. Some of the people whom I celebrated with were single parents who work long hours for little pay just so they can provide for their children. Yet they still wanted to see my plate full of food, eating and being merry.
Meeting these individuals and witnessing their compassion reminded me of an older, wiser way of treating people and approach towards life. An idea, or a regard, for existence that is reminiscent of my grandmother, Ms. Janie Ruth who encompassed the elements of selflessness, compassion, humanity and love. If she only had one dollar to her name, she would give you a dollar and ten cents and tell you to have fun.
This is the kind of spirit which was ever so present within the people who I celebrated Gawai with.
So, it is not Gawai or the thought of it being a grand party which makes the people. Rather, it is the charm and thoughtfulness of the people which make Gawai and its significance. As I was sitting there eating among families, learning how to play the gongs and perform the traditional dances, I didn’t feel separate from everybody else.
It may have appeared as though we were speaking different languages, or that we looked different (although some people have looked at me and thought I was a local), or that we came from different cultures. But, we were actually unified as one, speaking the same language of brother and sisterhood and breathing the same enjoyment of life together. Differences and barriers did not exist.
“Everyday Gawai”. These are the words on a T-shirt that I saw some friends wearing during Gawai which I think is a message for the world. Gawai can and should be an example to the world on how to live life. It’s important to bring together family, friends, and eat and drink with conversation and laughter around the table together. It’s important to keep a culture’s tradition of dance and song, and to have the older generations show the younger ones how to perform them.
Gawai shouldn’t be an excuse to sit back, relax with happiness and cheer and share the fruits of our labor, because this should be an everyday occurrence! This is why we live…to be around the ones we love, to share, to teach, and to be happy!
The philosophy of Gawai is a strategy that can be used to unify our world bringing more peace to it. It’s an example of kindness, generosity, selflessness, happy times, and sharing what you have, even if you don’t have much to share. This is truly beautiful and in my opinion, is what life, human, and spiritual connections are all about.
Sarawakians say that Gawai is “the harvest festival”, and I couldn’t agree more. For the goodness that is located deep within all people is truly harvested during this glorious event. I give an abundance of gratitude to Sarawak and its people, to the families and individuals who invited me into their homes and their lives, and to whom I shared this wonderful occasion with. I truly thank you. May you continue to represent humanity through your traditions and celebrations.
Andrew Taylor hails from Los Angeles, California. He is a Fulbright Fellow under the United States Department of State, teaching here in Malaysia for the second year in a row. Last year he taught at a Vokasional school in Perak and this year he has felt so blessed to be living and teaching in Sarawak at SMK Siburan outside of Kuching. He loves working with young people, but especially the youth of Malaysia. For Andrew, it’s an everyday occurrence to be inspired by his students and their unique inquisitiveness, kindness, and eagerness to gain new knowledge. Their smiles and sunny disposition are what make his days beautiful. Sarawak and its people, culture, food, and splendid scenery, have become a place that Andrew truly loves and he feels fortunate to be able to call it his home.