When you listen to talks on the ethnic make-up of Malaysia you will hear about the Malays, Indians and Chinese but you will probably not hear much about the Orang Asli. The Orang Asli are the indigenous, and now minority, people of Peninsular Malaysia- the term literally translates as ‘original people’ in Malay. There are 18 ethnic subgroups with numbers of around 180,000 which only counts for 0.6% of Malaysia’s population.
The Mah Meri live just outside Kuala Lumpur along the coast as their ancestors were originally seafarers travelling the Southern Oceans before eventually settling on land to avoid pirates. They live within small communities each with an elected headman who then meet together to discuss issues impacting the Mah Meri. Within, Malaysia it is only in recent years that the importance of this culture has been appreciated and supported.
I was excited to attend Hari Moyang- one of the Orang Asli traditional celebrations as in Malaysia there is little opportunity for interaction within the Orang Asli communities in Malaysia except in places such as Taman Negara where you can tour the communities but without getting a real insight into their culture. I was lucky enough to be able to join in the celebrations through an organised tour as the Meh Meri have their own calendar and do not believe in numbers so it is hard to pin them down to an exact date for the celebrations; apparently, it is quite common for people to turn up to celebrate and find out they are two weeks late or early!
The celebration is generally held around the first full moon after Chinese New Year and every village celebrates on a different date so it is a few weeks of parties for the Mah Meri! The village prepares for weeks in advance with the women and children weaving intricate decorations out of dried leaves and the men get the village hut decorated.
Throughout the morning the women donned in traditional clothing including their traditional palm weaving headdresses dance to the beat of the local group. The men wear the traditional wooden masks which the Mah Meri are famous for and are considered collector items and act as the protectors of the village. However, they actually spent most of the morning gatecrashing the women’s dances much to the bemusement of the audience and the eye-rolling of the women. During the breaks the men while wearing their beautiful hand-carved masks enjoyed basking in the limelight of being a celebrity for the day by running around and posing for the audience leading to some wonderful pictures!
As part of Hari Moyang everyone has the chance to visit the elder of the village in the village hut which is decorated to appease the gods for the coming year with food, toys and incense. Here after letting the elder know your wishes for the coming year he will sweep white paint down your arms and dab it over your face. In return, you can flick some paint over him leaving him caked in it and by the end of the morning he struggled to move under the weight of the paint.
After all the traditions have ended the families got together and had lunch. Watching them all sat together it made me think about how in the modern world we move at such a fast pace we often forget to enjoy time with friends and friends doing the simple things in life. Despite the difficulties this community faces their appreciation of family and community is something that I want to insert into my life more. So now you know my new year wish!