Johor Unduk Ngadau queen determined to chart own course despite family ties


Romandawi Gapari does not feel having influential family links would be in her favour to win the 2024 National Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan title.

KOTA KINABALU: Romandawi Gapari may have influential family links, but the Johor Unduk Ngadau queen is determined to chart her own path.

As the final draws closer, she believes that her status as the daughter of Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Seri Dr Jeffrey Gapari Kitingan and niece of Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan organising chairman Joanna Kitingan may not necessarily work in her favour.

Additionally, the Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) president, Huguan Siou (Kadazandusun and Murut paramount leader) Tan Sri Joseph Pairin, is Jeffrey and Joanna’s elder brother.

KDCA plays a pivotal role in ensuring that the Kaamatan celebration remains faithful to the traditions and cultures of the Kadazandusun, Murut (KDM), and Rungus ethnic groups.

The state government leads in organising the festival, widely regarded as Malaysia’s largest and most significant cultural event, particularly in Sabah.

“I would consider myself warned. When I decided to register for the beauty pageant, I consulted my family, and their advice was to be prepared for whatever people might say.

“In fact, when I told my father, he was very neutral about it, although a bit worried for my mental health. He is afraid that I would feel affected. But he remains supportive,” the 25-year-old said.

Romandawi, whose name means "heavenly realm" in Dusun, said her father, invited as the guest-of-honour for the Johor Kaamatan Festival earlier this month, also witnessed her crowning.

“I cried when they announced my name because I did not expect to win. My father came up on stage for the crowning, he did not say anything but smiled and gently patted my cheek,” she said.

One of the judging criteria includes the contestant’s proficiency in their native language. While they have the option to respond in English or Bahasa Malaysia, speaking the mother tongue earns additional points.

Acknowledging her limited fluency in Dusun, Romandawi has been committed to mastering her mother tongue over the past few months, keeping a small Dusun dictionary in her handbag.

“I bought the Komiboros Dictionary, Dusun (conversational Dusun dictionary) online, and it has been in my handbag since then.

“If I were to rate myself on my Dusun proficiency on a scale from one to five, I would probably be a two or two-and-a-half. While I have a grasp of the language, I find it challenging to converse fluently,” she said.

Romandawi, who holds a degree in creative industries, majoring in media and communications from Queensland University of Technology, is currently pursuing her Masters in Management at the Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation.

She aspires to inspire the younger generation to appreciate the true meaning of Kaamatan (harvest) and Unduk Ngadau, derived from the Kadazandusun phrase “runduk tadau” meaning "the girl crowned by the sunlight."

The month-long Kaamatan festival is celebrated to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and to honour Bambaazon, the spirit of rice, while Unduk Ngadau is a beauty pageant commemorating the spirit of Huminodun, a maiden of exceptional beauty in heart, mind, and soul, who was sacrificed by her father to save the people from famine.

Themed “Kaamatan, Poingalib Kohimaganon Taakanon” (Kaamatan, Beyond Food Security), the festival was launched in Ranau on May 1.

It marks the colourful celebration of the Kadazandusun, Murut, and Rungus communities across Sabah, showcasing their traditional dances, music, and games, leading up to the state-level celebration at the Hongkod Koisaan in Penampang on May 30 and 31.

The highlight of the event is the crowning of this year’s Unduk Ngadau, which Joanna has recently announced will be elevated to a national level on May 31, with Romandawi and 50 other finalists vying for the title.

The crowned 2024 national Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan will take home prizes valued at RM100,000, including RM12,000 cash, while the first and second runners-up will receive RM10,000 and RM8,000 cash prizes, respectively, plus other rewards.

The top seven winners will also participate in a three-day intensive course at the Customary School in Tuaran to deepen their comprehension and expertise in Sabah's cultural heritage and traditions.

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