By May Salitah
The Bobohizan or Bobolian is the Kadazandusun High Priestess, the most respected and important person in the community. Stereotypically, one would immediately imagine that someone of a Bobohizan status would be a person from the (very much) older generation.
Meet 26-year-old Adam “Kim” Gontusan, the youngest Bobohizan in Penampang, Sabah. Unlike his mentors and peers who inherited their Bobohizan role passed down through the generations, Adam’s calling to the practice was unique and his journey is a proud story to share.
SMB: Have you always been interested in the Bobohizan practice?
AG: My dad used to tell me stories of the Kadazan folklores when I was a kid, and that included Bobohizan stories. When I was six or seven years old, I remember him telling me an experience he encountered during a Modsuut Mogondi, a ritual performed a year after a death of a person to tell the person that he or she is dead. During the ritual, two Bobohizan are required. One body for the dead person’s soul to inhabit and another to tell the soul to leave this world.
I know this is something quite hard to believe, but before I tell you this, you must keep in mind that most Bobohizan are illiterate and have never received any formal education. The only language they can speak is their native language, which would be Kadazan, Dusun, or very little English and Malay. My father attended the Modsuut Mogondi for a friend’s father who only spoke Chinese. During the Modsuud Mogondi, the late father’s soul went in the Bobohizan’s body and she started speaking in fluent Chinese. With the Bobohizan as a medium, the late father left a message for his kids that he kept a lot of his savings under his bed. After the ritual was over, his children searched his room and sure enough, the money was there!
SMB: How would you describe the Bobohizan beliefs?
AG: To me, Bobohizan is a religion on its own. We are not pagans or atheists. I’d also like to point out that a Bobohizan is NOT a bomoh. The Bobohizan religion comes from the word “Bohi” or “Momohi”, the belief of “buying” souls and sacrificing their bodies – “Manampasi do tuhun” (bringing the dead to life). Before Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism existed in Sabah, Bobohizan was the first religion. For Kadazandusuns, we believe that we are all descendants of Kinoringan and his wife, Suminundu. Our ancestors’ respect for nature was very high and they believe that every living thing has a spirit and a soul.
I believe that all religions are the same. Just because we communicate with the spiritual world, it does not mean that we practice black magic or have the ability to destroy people. I believe that this ability is a gift from God to help those in need. Spiritually, I am a Catholic. Traditionally, I am a Bobohizan. I only practice to a certain extent that my two beliefs do not clash.
SMB: How and when did you start your Bobohizan journey?
AG: Ever since I was young, I’ve always been fascinated with this belief. My mother told me that the spirit of Bambaazon is probably inside me because I was born right after my mother finished mongogik (a traditional way of stepping on the paddy to separate from its stems) during the paddy harvesting month. Even when I was in school, my friends would tease and call me Bobohizan. In 2009, straight out of high school and National Service, there was an opening for guides and dancers at Monsopiad Cultural Village. Funny how I was more interested to look for work in the kampung, and not in the city like any other teenager. I guess that was an early sign.
When I started work, I would constantly ask my peers about the Bobohizan practices and they told me that if I was really interested, I should meet with (the late) aki Dounsia Moujing, the sixth descendant of the legendary Monsopiad. The first time I met him, I was nabati (cannot converse in Kadazan) and I could not carry a conversation with him. I was very determined so I took the initiative to learn the language by conversing with the local people around me.
Within a few months, I met with aki again. I would meet with him everyday after work. Finally, aki asked me why was I so interested? Did I want to be one? With confidence, I replied, “Yes”. Aki was so surprised because no one from my generation has ever expressed any interest in this old teaching. He told me that the first step to being a Bobohizan was to gather all the essential “props”.
The first and most important item is the komburongoh (a root of a tree found in swampy areas believed to house the divato, spiritual guardians for all Bobohizan). When cutting up and stringing the roots, you have to be careful to not poke its “eye”. Like the blind, the komburongoh is useless without its “eyes”. Once we had the komburongoh, aki said another ritual to awaken the divato.
Slowly, I started collecting all the important Bobohizan items such as the sindovang (a brass instrument used during a trance to concentrate and attract the spirits), pedang (sword), and the tapi do bobohizan (bobohizan skirt with a lot of bells, an important accessory to announce your arrival as you enter the spiritual world).
SMB: You mentioned that divato are the spiritual guardians of the Bobohizan. What exactly are they?
AG: Divato is nature’s spiritual guardians. It has no human form or body. Every divato is unique to their own bobohizan, and there is no limit to the number of divato for a bobohizan. I have four guardians – Libabou. Sorumbou, Gindahau, and Rumandawi. All my guardians are female spirits who chose to protect me. Sometimes, a little too protective. A little while after I got into the practice, I went for a haircut. On the night of my haircut, I got so sick. Paranoid, I met with the elders and asked whether my sickness had anything to do with my divato rejecting me. The elders consulted with my guardians and laughed when they found out why I was sick. Apparently, it was because my divato was angry that I went for a haircut. This is why my hair is very long. I cannot cut it. Even when I go for a trim, I have to ask for permission. To an outsider who has no clue of what being a Bobohizan is, I look like a mad man speaking to a bunch of dried roots! [Laughs]
SMB: How did you know you were “the chosen one”?
AG: I never felt that I was “the chosen one” but even I am amazed at how fast I am able to pick up the ancient languages in our inait (chants) and customs in our rituals, in such a short amount of time. We have no textbooks to refer to. You learn by listening and observing the elders. Some Bobohizan take years to master some rituals but I can pick it up in “one-go”. I only accepted that I was the chosen one in two very memorable dreams.
In my first dream, I was walking into the House of Skulls in Monsopiad. When I entered the house, it was filled with Bobohizan dressed in full traditional attire, sitting at the sides of the house with their feet stretched straight in front of them. There were probably about 30 of them but I did not recognise anyone. The Bobohizan closest to me called me to sit next to her and said “bah kasi mula lah” (you can start now). I immediately started reciting the Magavau inait and the rest joined in. I woke up after the second verse of the inait and felt that it was a bit odd. I thought that maybe because I was so immersed in the practice, it was just my subconscious mind playing in my dreams.
The second dream happened two weeks later. I was walking aimlessly and suddenly an old lady appeared in front of me. Before I could say anything, the old lady presented me with a bobohizan pedang. The moment the pedang was placed on my hands, I woke up.
I relayed my dreams to the orang-orang tua (elders), who told me that my dreams were a very strong sign that I was meant for this path.
SMB: What was your best experience?
AG: The best experience I had was when I was invited to take part in private healing ceremony for Aki Nabalu a few months after the Ranau earthquake back in 2015. The ritual was held in Kiau, Kota Belud. It was a ceremony to sogit (apologise) and to appease the Gods, led by Tindarama Aman Sirom, a high-ranked Tindal bobolian from Kota Belud. Forty bobohizan, Bobolian, and Tantagas from all over Sabah participated in this two (or three*) days ritual, each district with their own offerings and rituals. I was the youngest bobohizan there and it was such an honour to be in the presence of some of the most esteemed and highly-respected bobohizan in Sabah. Apologising to Aki was not easy, because he was very angry. But for the sake of our people, all of us tried the best that we could to appease him. The healing ceremony was a success. (*Note: AG could not remember how many days they were in trance during the ritual.)
SMB: Have you encountered any bad experiences?
AG: [Laughs] I have one particular incident which I don’t think I will ever forget. A couple recently bought a house and seeked my help to do a “house-cleansing” ritual for them, because they felt that the house was “panas” (in a form of negative spirits). I told the couple that I cannot chase the spirits away because they are probably the original occupants of the land long before the house was built. I can only advise the spirits not to disturb the couple.
Before I started the ritual, I laid out all the offerings in front of me in the living room. While I was reciting the cleansing inait, my eyes were closed. When I done, I opened my eyes and saw three pontianak (female vampiric ghosts) standing in front of me! I almost stuttered and my body felt so cold. I called upon my divato to continue protecting me, and immediately, my body became warm again. I knew they (divato) were there with me. The pontianak ate the offerings but told me that they did not want to leave because they “owned” the land. I kept negotiating with them and finally, they promised me that they will not harm the occupants and guests of the house. I ended the ritual and told the couple that their house was now cleansed.
I was about to leave when they asked if I could cleanse the backyard as well. Since I was already there, why not? I proceeded to the backyard which had a small stream running through it. I started the cleansing inait again with my eyes closed. Halfway through, I felt very cold and it was as if someone was staring down at me. I opened my eyes and saw a huge Tompulalanggoi with red eyes (a very tall ghost with long legs) staring down at me! I jumped and ran into the house. Surprised, the couple also ran after me and asked me what had happened. I was still shaking but I had to hide it and told them that the ritual was done and I had to leave. I could not continue the ritual because I was so scared. I’ve seen so many ghosts and tormented spirits during my past rituals but I have never encountered the Tompulalanggoi before! When I got home, I continued the cleansing ritual in private and pleaded for my divato to finish the ritual for me. Two weeks later, I met the couple at the tamu (market), and they told me that their house felt so much better. I knew then that my divato successfully completed the ritual.
SMB: Are you going to continue your journey?
AG: Sadly, even our generation assume that this religion is no longer relevant in the modern world. I’d love to continue but there’s no one to teach me anymore. A lot of them (Bobohizan) have already embraced a new religion or retired from the practice. Every bobohizan adat is unique to their own district. I could learn from elders from other districts, but that would mean that the original Penampang bobohizan adat will eventually go extinct. With God’s blessing, I hope to be able to pursue my Bobohizan journey.