Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Bobohizans: The shamans of Sabah teeter between old and new worlds


Even though the person in front of us was clad in the traditional Kadazan gaung of a gold-trimmed black shirt and holding the spiritual kombuongo talisman, it was hard to believe this is a Bobohizan — the spiritual shaman or ritual specialist of the indigenous Borneo tribe.

For one, Adam Gontusan is not a woman.

Most Bobohizans are betel nut-chewing women with wrinkled faces and a wise disposition. Even standing against the authentic backdrop of a wood and bamboo hut in Monsopiad Heritage Village, at the heartland of the Kadazan people in Penampang, the 25-year-old Gontusan is hardly the picture of a traditional Bobohizan.

But modern technology, lifestyle changes and Western ideas over the decades have changed many traditions of this, the most populous tribe in Sabah.


Cultural keeper

The Bobohizan’s role in the Kadazan community was a pivotal one.

They were doctors to the sick, advisors to the troubled, midwife to the pregnant, mothers to the community, mediator in conflicts, keeper of the culture but above all, the spiritual leader.

“They are essentially the expert on spiritual matters and ritual specialists. Kadazans beliefs are rooted to spirits in Nature and the Bobohizan is the medium between our world and that of the spirits... to maintain harmony between the two worlds,” said Kadazandusun Language Foundation chief executive officer Rita Lasimbang.

“When matured, they are also the top of the social order, followed by the village chiefs and then the warriors,” said Lasimbang.

To become a Bobohizan, years of “Bobohizan school” followed by even more years of apprenticeship are needed to permanently etch the many inait or ritual prayers in one’s memory, along with cultural knowledge, beliefs and practices passed on orally and  through observation.

The practitioners are most often women, as the men’s primary job was to hunt while the women took care of the home.

In sub-ethnic groups like the Dusun Darat in Kota Belud, they are known as Bobolian, while to the Dusun Lotud in Tuaran, they are referred to as Tantagas. Their language and rituals may differ but they serve the same purpose.

“Before, people came to me for natural remedies, and I used plants my aunt and mother taught me about. Any reason they don’t feel right, they come to us. Sometimes, people feel their departed relatives are still roaming the house and I have to ‘meet’ them to find out what is wrong,” said a Tantagas from Tuaran, who declined to be named.

She said these requests have lessened over the years, although she was called upon to contact the spirit mountains following last year’s deadly earthquake in June.

For the majority of Sabahans, the most they will see of the Bobohizan is the Magavau thanksgiving ceremony which plays out publicly at the uber popular state-level Harvest Festival.


Penampang’s last hope for a Bobohizan

Gontusan had a typically middle class urban upbringing in the state capital, the second son of a cafe owner who brought the whole family to church every Sunday.

“Growing up in a Catholic family, I never thought I would end up doing this, but when you get a calling, you follow it,” he said with a smile.

Gontusan’s early mentor was the sixth direct descendant of legendary Kadazan warrior Monsopiad, the late Dousia Moujing and his wife, both of whom were Bobohizan during their time. But they, along with other elder Bobohizan in Penampang, were too old and not able to conduct any rituals or fully pass along their knowledge.

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