Dusun Communities of Kinabalu Plan to Return to their Sacred Site - Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran 2011

On 3 December 2010, the Dusun communities from the villages of Bundu Tuhan and Kiau conducted a pilgrimage to Mount Kinabalu, in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. About 100 community members set off early in the morning, after the monolob ritual was completed. Performed for the first time in a long time, monolob is a ritual to seek permission from the spirit world to grant safe passage to the community members about to embark on the pilgrimage.

The event, referred to in the Dusun language as Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran (Return to Kinabalu), was a special occasion for the villagers as it was the first time since 1964 when Mount Kinabalu and its surrounding area was gazetted as a Park that they were given free access to the mountain, a site held sacred to them for millennia. According to ancestral beliefs, this area is where the spirits of the dead stop to rest as they journey to the afterlife. The mountain is extremely important, not just for its natural beauty and the abundant natural resources needed for subsistence, but also as a source of identity and spirituality for the indigenous communities living around it.

The highest mountain in geographical Southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu is world-renowned as a global biodiversity hotspot, a prime tourism destination, and declared Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site in 2000. Unfortunately, the highland Dusuns of the Kinabalu region lost their ancestral access to the mountain and its natural resources when it was gazetted as part of the National Park system. The gazettement turned it into a fully protected area, managed by the State Government of Sabah under the jurisdiction of Sabah Parks.

Dusun Elders Voice Out their Concerns

In March 2010, after nearly 50 years with strict restrictions governing access to Mt. Kinabalu and its natural resources, and amidst growing numbers of tourists and rising access fees making it unaffordable for community members to access the mountain unless they worked as porters or guides, indigenous Dusun elders discussed their sadness and sorrow with park authorities. In their own words, they stated:

"... we do not want the mountain back. It is a heritage for the world, and for that, we are proud and happy to share this mountain with everyone."

"We would like to have one day to return to the mountain."

"Every year, each year, we want to have one day just for our communities to make a pilgrimage to the mountain. A day when no one else will be allowed to climb the mountain. A day just for our people."

The pleas to be allowed to return to the mountain and re-establish their connection with the sacred place did not go unheard. Sabah Parks agreed to the requests, and Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran was born. Sabah Parks agreed to allocate one day a year for the indigenous Dusun people living around the mountain to conduct a pilgrimage and climb Mount Kinabalu. Although the mountain will not be closed to other climbers on this day, it is hoped the strength of this pilgrimage will inspire more public support and grow into a festive celebration of highland Dusun culture so that, in future, it will be possible to convince the authorities to make Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran a day that truly responds to the request of the elders, “...when no one else will be allowed to climb the mountain. A day just for our people”.

Barely a year into practice, Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran has already become an occasion that galvanises unity amongst the Dusun communities in the region, now charged with reviving an increasingly vanishing understanding amongst the younger generation. It is about re-awakening their spiritual connection with the mountain and revitalising a deep cultural knowledge of what Mount Kinabalu, and all the forests that surround it, represents to them.

In mobilising the spirit of community collaboration, village representatives come together to discuss and set the direction and content of community-related decisions. The most important thing for them is to renew and share the customary values of their original culture, as had been agreed upon by the elders. 

The First Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran

From 2 to 3 December 2010, the first Community Day and Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran was held in conjunction with the 10th Anniversary celebrations for the Kinabalu Park World Heritage status. According to Sabah Parks, about 7,000 people from all walks of life attended the celebrations, including State Ministers, the Sabah Parks Board of Trustees, heads of departments, government officers, members of the press, foreign tourists, and people from all over Sabah. Amidst the activities featured during the 10th Anniversary celebrations, the Community Day and Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran stood out as a collaborative effort between park management and Dusun communities, which inspired many community members and Sabahans in general.

As co-hosts, community members worked together to ensure the success of Community Day 2010, which comprised of activities held at the Kinabalu Park premises. Themed “Living with Natural Resources”, Community Day activities aimed to enable greater participation from a wide spectrum of communities to share and revitalize their cultural knowledge with activities such as cultural performances, living demonstrations of craft-making, and community markets selling forest vegetables and displaying objects of cultural significance, as well as having community members describe customs and practices of the past. About 100 community members, all on a voluntary basis, were actively involved in organizing the Community Day activities.

Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran, which refers to the pilgrimage itself, was a more private affair attended by community members, park officials, selected members of the press and close associates.

Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran 2011

Sabah Parks and representatives from the communities from the region have formed an organising committee to plan the next activity. Scheduled for 2 and 3 December 2011, it is expected that this year’s Community Day and Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran will enable more community members to climb Mount Kinabalu and revisit the places and memories that are important for them. The aim is to continue developing this program over the years, adding more activities and exploring different ways to enable the indigenous people of the Kinabalu region to come back to the mountain.

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