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Looking back at a ‘pusau anak’ ceremony at Long San in 1962

From April 29-30, 1962, a huge pusau anak celebration and the opening of a new longhouse were held at Long San.

It was a big occasion with many from throughout the Baram area being invited. The VIPs in the past included Marudi District Officer Malcolm McSporran, Kuching Municipal former president William Tan and Chinese Kapitan Ch’ng Teng Seng.

“’Pusau’ really means to name a child or children. This is the old custom, which nowadays merely means to name a child,” Stewart Ngau Ding wrote in his Sarawak Gazette article published on June 30, 1962.

“There is no time fixed between one pusau anak and another. It is celebrated when a house has a lot of children, after a good harvest, etc. The children to be pusau vary in ages from one month to 10 years.”

Furthermore, it was expensive to pusau one or two children. Most people waited until they had a lot of children so that every door of a longhouse may pusau their children at the same time.

This pusau anak celebration in 1962 at Long San was interwoven with Christianity. Hence, it was not carried out in its purely traditional form.

How Long San’s pusau anak celebration went down

On the first day of the celebration, people started to gather in the ruai. The late Bishop Anthony Galvin conducted a service to bless the new house.

After the service ended, the men brought out 64 jars of burak (rice wine) to the verandah, placing them in a line.

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Then the mothers and helpers brought out their children to be pusau and sat them down in two lines behind the jars of burak. Each jar represented every child, and each door was decorated with items to indicate the sex of the child.

It was not necessary to sit near one’s own jars or burak. Stewart stated, “It is impossible to distinguish the sex of a child to be pusau from the jars of burak. But it can be easily distinguished from the hanging up of sarong, hornbills, houses, parangs or shields, decorated with rolled-up local tobacco.”

Additionally, the number of sarongs, hornbills, or houses or parang or shields at every door signified the number of boys and girls in that bilik. They were hung outside every door where the children were to be pusau. The hornbills, shields or parangs signified boys and sarongs or houses, girls.

Speaking to the crowd, the bishop stressed religion and added that it was necessary to practice good adat lama, or old customs such as this one. He hoped that the young generation would not forget the good adat of their ancestors although now they embraced Christianity. Then he said a short prayer and went around to touch every child on the forehead and call it by its new name.

Attending to the guests

Stewart then went on to describe about how they treated their guests during the ceremony.

“The guests were sitting in two long rows. Then a woman led the way from downstairs, wearing the traditional dress of a man going to war. She was followed by other women but in ordinary traditional dress. There were about six other women dressed like the first one. They came in line. It was very impressive sight.”

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He stated, “The first woman took a slice of a fat from the second girl who carried the fat in a large container. Then she pushed the fat into guests’ mouths and then she usually smeared the face by her oily hand. The guests could return the compliment if he wished by taking the fat given and smearing her face with it. There was no compulsion to eat the fat and guests were supplied with leaves or a container in which to put it. A guest could not take too much fat. Then the third girl holding a handkerchief took a spoonful of ayer lia (ginger water) from the fourth girl which was carried in a container. After she had served the guests, she usually cleaned their mouths with her handkerchief. The next group followed on the same routine.”

According to Stewart, when the women served the guest, they were not allowed to talk or to smile. They were supposed to be absolutely solemn. There were two sets of these groups representing one child of maran rank (higher rank). For those of lower birth, one group would be enough.

This marked the end of the pusau anak ceremony. As Stewart put it, it was the most exciting and impressive part of it.

Then in the afternoon the celebration continued with fun and games. Meanwhile at night, they drank and ate till their hearts drank contentedly.

The children who had their pusau anak ceremony during this event must be in their 60s or 70s now. Do you know anybody who might be one of these children? Plus, do you know the significant of giving the guests fat and ginger water? Let us know in the comment box.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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