The Sounds and Sights of the Orang Ulu

Pusau Anak : Kenyah child-naming ceremony


The traditional Kenyah naming ceremony, or Pusau Anak is the biggest and most important social occasion for the community. A child’s name has to be chosen carefully, and the elders recite the family genealogies to review all the names of the ancestors of the parents. In this way, family names are kept for generations, and this helps in maintaining social class.

Traditionally, the child is given a proper Kenyah name when he is one to ten years old. However, in cases due to rural-urban migration among the Kenyahs, a child can reach his late teenage or adulthood before he or she receives his or her proper Kenyah name. Generally, a Pusau is held every 10-20 years.

Great amount of work goes into the preparation of the feast for the festival by the entire community. Invitations are sent to all nearby villages and longhouses.

In the old days, Pusau requires advanced planning and preparation as it involves mobilising the longhouse folks to plant more padi, rear more pigs and chickens, planting of ginger and other food crops. Everyone in the longhouse will assist each other with the necessary preparations to make the occasion a grand and merry one.

In preparation for the feast, young men in the longhouse would go fishing and hunting for wild animals.  Women on the other hand will collect wild leaves (la’on kanan) for wrapping cooked rice and ‘Upey’ (glutinous rice). The women also brew plenty of rice wine (burak), at least two weeks before the festival.

The Ceremony


On the day of the Pusau Anak, each child who is to be named, will dress in traditional garb and take a seat at the verandah of the longhouse. Their families suspend models, (one model for each child ) in the shape of houses, boat, parang, or war coats covered in rolled tobacco (jako sigup) in the verandah. Each child will also have jar of rice wine (burak) arrayed in front of them.

The children, accompanied by their parents and relatives, are seated orderly along the length of the verandah, waiting for their turn to be blessed by a Roman Catholic priest.

(As the Kenyah community is predominantly Roman Catholic since the 19XXs due to Roman Catholic missions in Borneo, traditional rituals are combined with Catholic prayers)

After that, the integral part of the ceremony called Patu Bon begins. It is a cheerful and solemn ritual at the same time, whereby pork lard and ginger juice were alternately served to the named as well as family and guests.

A man dressed as a “warrior”, leads a group of women who, moves in a procession serving small slices of lard and ginger water (alternately) to family and guests seated along the verandah.

The ceremony is usually fun filled for merry-makers. As the long procession moves around the longhouse, mischievous young women will try to smear lard on the face of guests or into the mouth of their unwilling targets.

The ginger juice symbolises the end of a period of hardship and suffering. It is also believed to prevent evil spirits from disturbing the children and the community as a whole. Those who drink the ginger juice will be blessed with a peaceful and prosperous life.

“Iko Liye itu, bara apan iko mede’ pa’ mede jela’

Dulu ia ti kimet keret kimet jaat,

Kimet kebang kelatang,

Apan dulu kimet liba kimet laya,

Kimet sak pemanak,

U-o ame nesep sungai lia itu.”


After drinking this ginger water together

We shall become brothers and sisters

We shall forgive and pardon one another

We are no longer enemies but friends

No longer keeping anger, hatred and resentment

We are now one happy family

We shall live in peace, love and joy forever

Patu Penguman Lalem Alot (Distribution of Food in Boat)

A group of able bodied men lifts and carries a wooden boat filled with meat and lard strung together ; rice wrapped in leaf,’ upay’ and ‘urom’ from one end of the longhouse to the other. They distribute the food from the boat to the guests seated at the verandah. The strings of pork signify unity, prosperity, and integrity among the villagers under the leadership of their chieftain.

The festivities then continues with more burak, singing, dancing and merriment, usually till wee hours of the morning as it is truly a joyous celebration for the community as a whole, young and old.

Photos by Howard Koons (Pusau Anak, Long San, April 1968)

Children accompanied by their parent lining up at the verandah waiting for blessings & giving of Kenyah name.  Note the jar (sipot) of “burak” (rice wine) in front of each child.The children, accompanied by their parent and relatives, are seated orderly along the length of the verandah, waiting for their turn to be blessed by a Roman Catholic priest.Ladies & men dressed in traditional costume walk in procession  serving the “Bon”(pork meat/lard) &” Sungai Lia” (ginger water) to guests seated at the verandah.Ladies & men dressed in traditional costume walk in procession  serving the “Bon”(pork meat/lard) &” Sungai Lia” (ginger water) to guests seated at the verandah.Bon & Sungai Lia are served in alternate sequence to every  guest.A guest being fed with the ‘bon’. (served the Sungai Lia?.  Note the “Ketikong laon kanan” (improvised leaf receptacle) held by the guest - to keep aside the unconsumed lard/meat).  If there are say 50 children to be named, each guests will expect to be fed/receive at least 50 pieces of pork lard (bon) and 50 spoons of ginger water (sungai lia)The length of the procession feeding guestsA Traditional dance (saga lupah) with music provided by ‘Kelire’ (bamboo flute ) player.A Hornbill model decorated with rolled local tobacco (sigup) hung at the verandah. Guests may pluck the rolled tobacco to smoke.  Note: A tobacco-decorated model is prepared for each child.A Traditional dance with music provided by a Sape’ player.Beating of the Gong (Tawak/Gatong) provides another rhythm.Fun-filled & merry makingFun-filled & merry makingPusau AnakWomen headgear & earrings worn during Pusau & other festivals.Women headgear & earrings worn during Pusau & other festivals.Beating the Tawak.“Petavo” - the tradition of rubbing black shoots onto the face of visitors as they are about to leave the longhouse (‘marks’ for  remembrance’ for visitors)A teenage child (Helena Puyang Serang ) awaiting for the blessing. Puyang is her Kenyah Pusau name.   Helena (baptised Christian name);   Serang (her father’s name/surname)  Note: The number (21) - matching with the name list.Helena’s mother

About the Photos & The Photographer

“We were privileged to experience such an elaborate tradition and culture. The joy and hospitality of the people are unmatched. It was so hard for us to say goodbye after having been so closely connected with the longhouse members during the duration of the Pusau Anak.”

Howard Koons is an avid photographer from California, U.S.A. His love for photography started in high school, and is still going strong today.

Upon obtaining his Bachelors Degree in Zoology from University of California, Santa Barbara, he joined the United States Peace Corps, a volunteer organisation set up to aide countries deemed deficient and in need. He was assigned to teach at the Tuanku Abdul Rahman Secondary School in Gemas, Negeri Sembilan between 1966-1970.

It was during a school term break that he decided to meet up with other Peace Corps members in Sarawak. Together, they embarked on an excursion up the Baram River to visit Long Ikang, Long Lama, Long Miri, Long Palai, and finally to Long San to experience the Pusau Anak from 27th April-29th April 1968, where these photos were taken.

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