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May 16, 2012

Ghosts and Masks

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysia Borneo – Spirits and ghost and other things that go bump in the night! My latest acquisitions have been Borneo masks that represent the other world. My collection of more than 20 is from the Iban people.


I was curious as to what they were used for and the answer always came back as “to scare children.” This statement probably was accepted by the vast majority of western visitors, but it made no sense to me. Why would anyone go to all the time and trouble to carve a mask out of wood, cover it with soot to make it black just to scare children? Banging on a pot would do the same thing.


My wife and I went to local museums and libraries to find some answers. Many of the people speak English but are more comfortable conversing in the Malay language. I do speak a government sanitized version, but the local dialect is very difficult for me. Suriani, a Borneo kampung girl, helps me out and also has a great interest in what I am doing.


There is a ghost that lives among us. His name is Hantu Tuugerasi*. He is male, as opposed to female, and is not usually seen except by the shaman.


Stephen Hawkings, that smart guy in a wheelchair, said there were over 10 dimensions and he uses math, understandable by only a select few in the religion of physics, to prove it. Maybe the Iban ghosts live in one of his dimensions and cross over occasionally into ours. Yes, I realize this is absurd; but if we are able to accept Dr. Hawkings dimensions, why not the Iban? Most of us don’t understand either of them. But I digress.


Tuugerasi, Gerasi for short, is not aggressive and is mostly mild mannered except at times when the customs (adat) of the longhouse are violated. He may also become angry if you do not follow the dictates of your dreams.


Punishment for these sins includes not being able to dodge a spear, a stroke usually at work and not at home. and other sudden deaths. His presence keeps people from violating established rules.


The masks are usually kept in the rafters or another high place where the children cannot see them. They are brought down and worn when the child misbehaves, and they are told Gerasi will get them if they don’t behave. The mask represents the ghost and the ones devoted to Gerasi all have teeth.


Another version** states a spinster woman wears one and covers her head with small cloth. She then moans softly, when the children misbehave. These child-rearing practices not only scare the behavior but reinforce into adulthood the existence of these spirits being always around them. An analogy in the Western world would be the boogey man, a ghost that was quite familiar to me while I was growing up in the states.


One must realize a longhouse is a series of individual homes connected by a long common balcony. Everyone is related and, therefore, has the responsibility of child rearing. Usually the unmarried girl stays at home and watches the kids while the others are at work, whether in a modern air conditioned office, or a rice field, or an orchard.


I am amused that many tourists ask me if I can arrange to visit a longhouse. It would be no different if I knocked on your door and asked if I could bring a group of strangers through your house and snoop through your closets, kitchen and bedrooms. Then, they might ask you to don a Halloween costume and yell “trick or treat” while you are trying to do the laundry. But I digress, again.


As in Mardi Gras or Halloween, the masks are also used in celebrations. At Gawai, the festival that celebrates the rice harvest, masks are used in dancing and jocularity. There is great fun and excitement as people return home to the longhouses, greet each other and exchange stories of adventure and travels. The family ties are knotted tightly as stories about the masks are recounted.


Grave yards on a dark night, and tombstones where they are not supposed to be, still give me the willies. Similarly, people here are wary of masks as they are sometime buried with the owner. Therefore, when I parade places with masks out of context, I will get strange looks.


Still, to some of the Ibans, it’s like digging into your closet, pulling out Halloween costumes, and going around asking people what they mean. Sometimes we have no idea; sometimes it’s a vague recollection; and sometimes they are snippets from grandmothers’ stories told at bedtime. But like a leprechaun, these tales hold a pot of gold about a belief system of long ago.


…Life is good. . . . .


* I was told this was the correct Iban spelling.

**Chin, Lucas Sarawak Cultural Legacy Kuching: Society Atleker Sarawak, 1991


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