Each year the people of Sabah gather to celebrate the rice harvest. The Sabah Harvest Festival (Pesta Ka’amatan) is deeply rooted in the culture of the Kadazandusun, Murut and Rungus communities. It draws over 5,000 people to Penampang every year.
Sabah Harvest Festival
The Sabah Harvest Festival is celebrated annually for a whole month by Sabahans.The festival is also known as Pesta Ka’amatan. It is a celebration in commemoration of the successful rice harvest. The harvesting of rice is not just any other activity in Sabah.
The process of growing and harvesting rice is connected to their way of life as a people as well as their economy.
The Sabah harvest festival begins on the 1st of may in a selected district. The festivities begin on the first day of May, moving through the districts. It comes to an end on the 31st of the month in Hongkod Koisaan, Penampang.
History of the Sabah Harvest Festival
According to Sabahan folklore, the land was once plagued by a famine. At the verge of starvation, the villagers were rescued by the god Kinoingan. He sacrificed his daughter, Huminodun in order to stop the famine. Her body was cut up and sown into the soil, creating a bond with the earth that made the padi rice grow.
It is now believed that every grain of rice contains Huminodun’s spirit. This is known as Bambazoon. Each year sacrifices are made to thank the spirits and to entreat Bambazoon to bless the next harvest. It is believed that without this ceremony, rice will not grow.
Rice production is a central element of the culture of the people. In the past, both men and women laboured in the rice farms. They all worked towards the successful growth of the crop. In the past rice was harvested and the head priests, Bobohazin would set the day for the harvest festival. At the festival for rituals would be performed, food and wines would be consumed and disputes would be settled.
Sabah harvest festival is celebrated not only by the Kadazan people. All Malaysians and foreigners are welcome to join in the festivities.
Activities for the Sabah Harvest Festival start from the village levels. Each day has an event commemorating the harvest in different parts of Sabah. The biggest events are held on the last two days of the month of may at Hongkod Koisaan, Penampang.
When is the Sabah Harvest Festival celebrated?
The rice harvest festival is held every May. It is a month-long celebration. But the main events are held on the 30th and 31st of May.
10 ways to enjoy the Sabah Harvest Festival
Pesta Ka’amatan goes on for 31 days. Each day has something new to see and experience. With celebrations in each district, what can you do at the Harvest Festival? Here is a helpful list on how to enjoy Sabah Harvest Festival
1. Attend Sugandoi singing competition
The Sugandoi singing competition showcases the vocal talents of the people. The winner performs in the final harvest celebration. Hearing songs in the native language of the various ethnic groups is an experience you will enjoy.
Auditions are held in the various districts and finalists compete on the state level. You can follow the competition at these smaller events while also enjoying the traditional music from the best of Sabah.
2.Attend the Magavau ceremony
The Magavau ceremony is the one of the most important parts of the Sabah Harvest Festival. The Bobohizans go through the rice fields, searching for Bambozaans that have been lost. Then the head priestess joins them with the main spirit body.
The Magavau dance is performed at the final event by Bobohizans. You can also attend a Magavau dance at the Kampung (village) level. This experience lets you walk through the padi fields with the villagers performing the rites. After the ceremony, food is offered to the Bambazaans. Then the people feast to celebrate the success of the ceremony,
3. Traditional games exhibitions
At the Sabah Harvest Festival, Sahaban games are played between the communities. These games mark the end of the festivities. Visitors to the festival are encouraged to join in. You can play a game of Rampanau (bamboo stilt walking), Tobiju-rung (ball game), Mipulos (arm wrestling), Momolistik (catapult) or the gunny sack race. The games are played at the KADC cultural village.
5.Watch Cultural Dances
Pesta Kamataan is incomplete without dance. A popular dance of the Sabahans imitates the movements of a bird in flight. It is called samazau. Dancers move to the rhythmic sounds of gongs and drums. They dress up in cultural attire and perform their dances in tents at the KADC cultural center.
You have the chance to even join in and learn to move like the Sabahans.
You should also look out for the Mugunatip (Bamboo dance). This dance is very fast paced with the dancers jumping in the air above fast moving bamboo sticks. Their movement is in time to the beat of the gongs.
6. Attend Unduk Ngadau
The Harvest queen beauty pageant is one of the biggest events. Unduk Ngadau is held every year in honour of Huminodun. Her sacrifice made it possible for Sabahans to escape famine.
The contestants are young women from all parts of Kadazan land. The criteria for winning is that one resembles Huminodun not only in looks but also be knowledgeable about all aspects of culture.
Winners take home a price of RM12,000.
The state-level pageant is held on 31 May at the Hongkod Koisaan building at Penampang. Attending the Unduk Ngadau allows you to see the most beautiful Sabahan women
7. Learn About The Culture Of The Sabahans
Sabah Harvest Festival will teach you more about the people of Sabah than any other event. This is because the Pesta Kamatan revolves around the central crop that provides livelihood to local sabbahans. Every activity is linked to the past. From the Bohizaans performing rituals to the homemade rice wine, every part is immersed in culture.
The tribal houses at the KDCA cultural village showcases the culture of the Sahabans. They are exact replicas of the homes of ancient people. Although Kadanza people are the most dominant group, there are other groups in Sabah you can learn about. Discover their unique way of life at the festival.
If you are lucky you can watch a Bohizaan perform the rites of the Magazau ceremony. Another thing you will see is the people of Sabah wearing their traditional attires. The clothes are brightly colored and paired with elaborate headdresses
8. Try out rice wines
Rice wines are an essential part of the Sabah Harvest Festival. Wine flows freely every May at Pesta Ka’amatan. It is poured out from bamboo dispensers into cups. It is also served in giant jugs with straws for everyone to sip from. The major types of rice wines served at the festival are Tapai and Lihing. Tapai is made from white rice while Lihing is made from brown rice. Other types of rice wines are kinarung, kinomol, kinopi, linahas, and sagantang.
The wines are made from rice fermented into alcohol giving them a unique flavour. Rice wine tasting contests are also quite popular.
The wines serve a ceremonial role too as they are offered to the Bambozaans.
9. Enjoy the local food
A day at Sabah Harvest Festival is a chance to taste an explosion of flavours. Food at the festival is made with local ingredients. The dishes are varied. Some vendors sell traditional meals while others offer burgers. You can enjoy a plate of the new rice with fish, pork or wild boar prepared in various tasty ways. Pair this with a glass of wine and you will have a gourmet meal.
For the more adventurous diner, you can try out the local grub. Sago worms are regarded as a delicacy. It is eaten live. Cooked worms are available and are prepared with chili. Expect a sweet taste followed by the chewy texture you get when eating a fruit. Various stalls at the KDCA cultural centre sell food at cheap prices so you can spend the whole day savouring bites from stall to stall.
10. Take a piece of Sabah back home with you
Handicraft stalls at the Pesta Ka’amatan offer souvenirs for sale. These bright handmade items range from tribal headdresses to simple jewelry made of beads. There are full ethinc costumes for sale as well as bottles of rice wine. For a small price, you can take the memory of Sabah Harvest Festival home with you.
May in Sabah is a month filled with festivities you will not find anywhere else. But the Sabah Harvest Festival is not just about the food and drinks. It is a unifying experience for all Sabahans and foreigners as well. Make a stop in May to enjoy the culture of the Sabahans and eat and drink to your fill.