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The Engagement Ceremony of a Kadazan-Dusun tradition

The engagement ceremony is pretty much a significant family affair for the Kadazan-Dusun tribe of Borneo's Sabah Malaysia. During the not-so-olden days (as late as the 60s and probably the 70s), our culture practices pre-arranged marriages. Lorna's parents were brought together as such. And so, the engagement deals with the briefing by parents towards their child on the pros and cons of marriage, and later on if everything seems acceptable to the customary laws and regulations, the day for the engagement will be arranged.

During the engagement, a team of family and village elders from the boy's side will proceed to the girl’s house with a piece of clothing (a sarong is typical), a pair of hand-rings (Gohong) if available and a beetle leaf container made of copper, silver or gold to offer. The offering of "pitunang" usually does not exceed RM50.00. Acceptance of the offerings is a sign of good acceptance of the boy by the girl’s family.

This then will be followed by negotiations to fix the dowry (nopung) which normally averages two buffaloes, a gong, a jar or a piece of land, and can sometimes be a few hundred Ringgit (Malaysia's currency denomination) in monetary gift. Families of both parties will sometimes take this opportunity to demand for more dowry than the average, depending on the boy's family status. The more the dowry, the higher the status of the boy's family, and thus, there is a higher regard towards the girl's family concerning the union. Tells you a lot that, in any age and in any society you live in, money matters. Also, all this can happen without either the boy or the girl ever meeting each other until the actual day of marriage.

An interesting feature of the engagement ceremony is the way the dowry discussion is conducted where monetary gifts are concerned. Depending on the existing culture of each ethnic group, the negotiators would use cigarettes, match sticks, beetle leaves, kirai (a traditional KadazanDusun cigarette consisting of a dried and rolled tobacco leaf) or even wooden posts supporting the house. For example, the negotiators would first set an amount for one cigarette, probably RM1,000 each. The girl's party will then propose an initial amount of RM5,000 by arranging five pieces of cigarettes on the negotiating floor. Both parties would then add or remove pieces of cigarettes or even slightly break a piece in two, signaling that the broken piece is half the price of the amount.

The dowry negotiations can take minutes or even hours depending on how demanding the girl's party is. However, there is a strict rule that the whole engagement ceremony is settled and the boy's party should leave the girl's house before or by 2pm, otherwise it will bring bad luck to the children's union.

Nowadays, buffaloes are still largely used in the dowry negotiations, as does a piece of land sometimes, and mostly the dowry is determined by no less than a few hundred to a few thousand Ringgit. The amount set should preferably be more than enough to cover the expense of the upcoming wedding. Most modern engagement ceremonies still end at 2pm or sooner, not so much because of belief, but because it is practical for the boy's party to leave and rest sooner after the long and eventful day.

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Last update: 29 March 2001
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