It’s a familiar scene: a group of women catching up on the latest gossip and sharing their news over coffee and snacks.
In this case, they are even wearing matching outfits; variations of a long black dress trimmed with white motifs and colourful threads.
The setting is an idyllic village in the middle of Kudat in Sabah’s northernmost district, in a traditional Rungus wooden home and the women have more in mind than just mindless chatter.
They call themselves Monungkus, the Rungus word for inheritors of heritage, and their aim is to revive and preserve their unique culture for generations to come.
Keepers of their culture
The Rungus of northern Sabah have long been known for their weaving and beadwork; their rich cultural and historical background is apparent in their handicraft.
Go to any souvenir shop in Sabah and it’s likely the most outstanding hand-stitched cloth or the dazzling colourful beads woven into a series of tribal motifs were made by the hands of an expert Rungus woman.
Exquisite hand-made costumes with intricate weaving and trimmed with chiming bells, solid hand-woven baskets called Rinago made with the lingkong fern plant, and boldly-coloured necklaces called the pinakol that drape across the body are all trademark of the Rungus’s culture which has been proudly passed on to each new generation for decades.
Despite the rapid development that has affected many traditional practices in Sabah, the Rungus have managed to retain much of their traditions and intangible heritage including their language, folk tales, songs, dances and handicraft.
But much of the handicraft is now confined to the more common ones like stringed beads and basketry – those with high commercial value.
Inahami Magupin, one of the members of the group, said that certain crafts like hand-loomed textiles are increasingly rare today.
The ladies of Monungkus in Kampung Inukiran, who are incidentally all related either by blood or marriage, aim to bring as much of the traditional handicraft and art into the mainstream… to make sure their children inherit their forefathers’ skills and culture.
“We want to make sure as much as possible is retained, and that it is passed on to our children who are beginning to lose hold of their roots. Even my generation has to learn a lot of the craft – the traditional motifs and how to do certain tougher weavings.
“Because children nowadays are losing interest in the traditional crafts, we want to start them young and get them involved. We are already teaching them the basics now, and they will also need to learn the language,” she said.
Crafting their heritage
The group does all kinds of handicraft at any given time, but high on the list of priorities for the arts group is to learn the process of weaving cloth like their great-grandmothers did.
In the old days, the thread is hand spun from cotton which they grew themselves. The process is tedious and requires a lot of manual labour which is now forsaken for the sake of convenience and cost.
It starts with picking cotton which is cultivated on their own land, and getting rid of the seeds, sometimes embedded deep within the raw cotton balls. The fluffs of cotton are then beaten with a swatter until they are soft and pliable, before they are painstakingly hand spun into a spool of thread.
The thread is then dyed into a dark indigo — from a plant they call tahum — that forms the foundation of most of their cloth. Some of the thread is made into black and white thread that will create a pattern later when woven.
The threads are then mounted onto a loom with a backstrap – called the Babaal Mangavol – which is essentially a set of several sticks, each with its own name, and the weaver has to sit upright with her legs outstretched to weave the cloth and form several patterns or motifs that is distinctive to the Rungus.
The most basic, the rinugading, a motif band that uses a row of 10 threads, takes up to two weeks to weave and is sold at RM400 upwards while the tinongkupan is the most complex with a motif of 80 threads. These take up to three months to complete, and can fetch prices upwards of RM900.
“I think many women can do the basics, 10 to 20 rows, but to do the tinongkupan, you have to be an expert. Only the eldest in the community can do this expertly. The rest of us are still learning,” said Johilin Kehedan.
In this community, Inahami’s mother, Panakirin Masok, 65, is the matriarch, and the expert of all things Rungus.
“She teaches us everything — the language, the beadwork, the weaving and what each motif symbolises. She tells us stories of her childhood. Some of those stories, are from her grandmother and were passed on from her grandparents,” said Inahami.
Panakirin often watches over the other ladies and her grandchildren when she isn’t busy with the weaving.
For a couple of decades now, the people have used store-bought thread but for the sake of preserving their culture, the Monungkus have started to go back to the basics – picking their own cotton, planting the tahum plant for dye and hand-spinning their own thread.
“In those days, everyone has one traditional dress that was made for them by their mother by hand. It was never a business. We are just passionate about bringing back some of these traditions although we know it is unlikely to be a commercialised,” said Johilin.
It takes a whole village
Handicraft is generally taken care of by the women folk but the men in the group have started taking a more active role and expanded the group’s activities.
Hermond Magupin, the founder of the Monungkus, said that before he concentrated on marketing the handicraft produced by the group.
But as they started to venture into eco- and community- tourism, the men have begun to take up eco-farming and building to complement the other activities.
The men are in the midst of building a community education centre that would foster more cultural classes for their children.
“Our plan is to have it be the place we teach them about our culture which includes the language, dance, music, food, clothes and handicraft. To start, it would be for the children of our group, but eventually, we will have all the children in the village join,” he said.
The men are also starting to grow organic vegetables which also helps them to earn extra income.
“We sell them at a neighbouring store in the village and villagers like them. We’ve only got a small patch now, about eight rows, but the vegetables can be harvested within a month of planting so we earn about RM288 a month from this,” he said.
“We are also trying to plant the marang parang plant by the riverside, a huge undertaking but it will mean we will have a flourishing river,” said Hermond.
The plant’s big roots are supposed to prevent soil erosion on the riverbanks, which leads to clear flowing water than runs through the village’s orchards.
“It is also a beautiful sight. When it blooms, the whole tree flowers and there are no leaves,” he said.
The main income of the group comes from their handicraft which are bought by visiting travellers or custom ordered. But it is still a small side income.
“Most of us already have jobs in town, or farming. But we do this because we really are passionate about keeping our traditions alive. We do not want to see it disappear and become just stories from our grandmothers,” said Johilin.
Over time, the group hopes to be able to be able to host more guests and really showcase their Rungus culture.
Source :JULIA CHAN @ The Malay Mail Online