VILLAGE chief Suana Kabora has a mission in his life -- to preserve the identity of the minority Tombonuo ethnic group in Sabah.
A replica of a traditional Tombonuo house erected at Dataran Bengkoka, Pitas. Pix by Kristy Inus
With an estimated population of about 30,000, the Tombonuos are mainly concentrated in far flung Pitas district, about 180km north of here, but many of them are either ignorant or unsure of who they really are.
Rubber tapper, Suana, 53, got involved in documenting and researching his community over the last 25 years when he realised not many people knew of their existence.
"It was while attending a course organised by the Culture, Youth and Sports Ministry when I realised this."
Suana teaches the younger generation of the community's unique yet eerie Sumanggak dance and music normally performed at funerals.
His effort started small, from his home at Kampung Tambilidon, but soon it began spreading to other villages in the district as well as other districts such as Beluran and Kota Marudu.
Sumanggak performances were soon introduced in festivals, gatherings or functions. The performers also got to display their colourful costumes.
According to historical records, the Tombonuo is one of 10 sub-ethnic groups of the Paitanic or Orang Sungai people. All these come under the Kadazandusun race.
Suana said the name Tombonuo came from the Suluk word of tua benua, which means the original people.
He believed most of the community originated from the banks of Sungai Paitan, which flows from Pitas to Beluran.
Traditionally, the Tombonuo people were pagans or animists but many of them have embraced Islam or Christianity, one of the main reasons why its culture and traditions are gradually fading among the younger generation.
The Tombonuo People of Pitas Sabah Association president Akian Ahkiew, agreed that it was now crucial more than ever to start collecting reference materials and conduct studies on their traditions.
Akian, a businessman, said the main challenge now was preserving the culture and language.
A traditional skirt is also adorned with plant motifs.
The association is now working with the Kadazandusun Cultural Association in collecting information and publishing books related to the community.
"When both parents no longer speak their mother tongue and the children grow up with the national language, the culture is at risk of facing oblivion," he added.
Mariah Doksil, 28, one of the few Tombonuos who made it good after moving here, said being isolated has kept some of these communities intact with their traditions and cultures. However, they realise that they, too, have to keep abreast with the world and the key here is education.
"We want our people to be well educated and develop their economies in order not to be left behind. In return, the current generation must realise their role in preserving their heritage and not to lose their identity.
"We cannot help moving forward with globalisation and developments and all, but we should save whatever we have now."