Tuesday Tales #5: Petavo

Reading Time: 4 minutes
(This is Tuesday Tales, where we highlight folklores and personal stories from indigenous peoples from all across Borneo. These are stories shared with us. We strive to edit it to the best of our capabilities for your enjoyment. We welcome your feedback at hello@thetuyang.com)

Origin: Kenyah (Long San)
Written by: John Wan Usang
Edited by: Juvita Tatan Wan & Adrian Jo Milang
Sketch by: Loretta Livan Milang

Generally, it is customary for the organising host to bid farewell to their invited guests with handshakes, hugs or other friendly gestures at the end of a formal function or celebration. For the Kenyah and Kayan, we have a unique and amusing custom called petavo (Kenyah) or pusut angah (Kayan), to send off our guests at the end of large community gatherings.

This typically happens after the end of big celebrations like the pusau (a traditional Kenyah child naming ceremony) or other large congregations or get-togethers. To provide some context, Pusau is a massive, joint-longhouse affair that happens once every five or ten years as it requires a lot of resources in order to organise on a grand scale – from the elaborate customs and the number of people required to make it happen, down to the preparation of food and drinks – the number of attendees can reach three to five times the size of the longhouse population.

(Longhouse, for those not familiar, is the communal living style practiced by a number of Borneo indigenous people. A longhouse consists of multiple “apartment units”, housing multiple families – built under one long roof. Some longhouses can consist of up to 50 or more individual apartment units and families!)

Anyway, back to Petavo.

So, just as the visiting guests are about ready to leave for home to their respective longhouses, the host village folks will bid their guests farewell. And this is done with more than mere handshakes or hugs. 

The guests are given a ‘surprised token’ of black soot onto their faces! Yes, soot.

Many guests are often caught off guard with this unexpected gesture. But there are those who might have some prior knowledge, or may have a sense of what is coming, will try to keep some distance, or even try to flee – by making a quiet exit.

The “marauding team” from the host village, comprising mostly of the young men and ladies, will pursue any evading guests to ensure everyone has a fair share of the black token on their faces. Most would readily submit to have their faces smeared with the black soot, only making  meek attempts to ward off the “assault”. There is “attack and counter attack”, a huge chase, hiding, evading, until no one is spared – young and old, guests or hosts alike.

The black soot is in abundance at the end of large gatherings mainly because of the volume of food prepared on firewood. It is gathered from under the burnt firewood or under the pots and pans! No one quite knows exactly how this tradition started. There are a few theories, so we endeavour to list the different versions here when we get them all. We’ll keep you posted.

As everyone departs and makes their way home, the black sooted faces serve as a wonderful token of (unique!) remembrance of their visit, which ends as a happy and fun occasion for everyone.

Another occasion when the folks go on petavo is during nugan (hill padi planting season). Soot is plentiful from the newly burnt wood and timber, which are burnt prior to the nugan. Two opposing teams from adjacent farms will “battle it out”. With sprinting, dodging and employing the quickest of one’s reflexes – to have the opposing team members’ faces smeared with the darkest soot. It almost resembles a large scale game of catch.

The petavo is a fun and welcome break from the often monotonous and laborious tasks involved in nugan and ma-ah (the process of sowing rice seeds into holes made in the ground). It also serves as a little respite from the blistering heat of the afternoon sun on the barren field. At the end of the day, a long “communal bath”, or dip in the cool stream, is a clean and refreshing reward before returning home to their longhouse.

Similar to their sibling tribe, the Kayan practice it the same way, but with an addition of what is called purah ata’, splashing each other with water. It is not enough that one would get their faces smeared in soot, but get themselves drenched too. The longhouse or paddy field would be echoed with gleeful cheers and laughters as everyone around would equip themselves with whatever water container they could lay their hands on and collect whatever water, up on the trees or in the tight silok (storage room). The well versed party in the play would already have an ambush waiting for those trying to escape or sometimes chase their victims down to the river. 

For the Kayans, it is also a sort of relief game after a period of time preparing to welcome the guests and hosting the occasion, or after a tiring and tedious ugal (padi planting season).   

Here is just one of the many “unofficial”, special customs that exist in indigenous, communal living communities, like our longhouses in rural and remote rural Sarawak, which might be lost one day soon.

Images by Howard Koons.
Captured in Long San (Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia) in 1968 during Pusau.

Images courtesy of Howard Koons

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