IT was an interview punctured by requests for wefies. My subject was the sumandak (Kadazandusun for unmarried woman) of the moment in Sabah.
On Tuesday, 21-year-old student Sherry Anne Laujang was crowned Unduk Ngadau or Harvest Queen at the state-level Kaamatan (harvest) festival near Kota Kinabalu.
She is a Kadazandusun with 25% British blood.
Her great-grandfather was a Briton named Underwood. She has just earned her accounting diploma from UiTM Sabah.
My interview with the beauty queen was coincidental.
I was at Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu to attend a meet up with Sabahans who discuss politics, politics and politics in a WhatsApp group.
I was also there to try to get an interview with a prominent group member who is a federal minister.
Then Sherry Anne appeared.
She came with her dad, Christopher Paul Laujang, a member of the Sabah Politics WhatsApp group. I got distracted, and decided to interview the Unduk Ngadau instead.
“Why did you participate in the Unduk Ngadau contest?” I asked the sumandak from Penampang, which is also my hometown.
“I wanted to experience it, just like my sister,” she said, referring to her elder sister, 22-year-old Samantha Sharon, who won two district level contests – Penampang Unduk Ngadau 2012 and Putatan Unduk Ngadau 2014.
“I actually didn’t want to participate. But my family persuaded me. I have low self-confidence, seriously. That is why I got issues answering the questions last night. I was so nervous. But I managed to pull it off. I got stage fright. I’ve never done public speaking.”
“Why did your family persuade you to join the contest?” I asked.
“They thought it would be a great exposure to the real world. I am the kind of girl who is an introvert ... who always stays at home. All I do is study. I’m not really a social person,” she said.
“Dia pendiam, geng (She is a quiet person),” interjected her ever-smiling 52-year-old dad. (Geng is the Sabah equivalent of “bro” or “boss”.)
“If you ask her a question, she will answer one word. That is why I wanted her to join the contest. To expose her. She doesn’t have many friends.”
“Let me throw her a hard question and see if she can answer with more than one word,” I thought.
“Some critics say that the Unduk Ngadau competition is not relevant to Kaamatan?” I said.
“It is a tradition. It is to remember Huminodun ... her beauty and her sacrifice for her people,” she said.
To get more details on the contest, I WhatsApp-ed Sabah state-level Unduk Ngadau chairperson Joanna Kitingan.
The significance of the Unduk Ngadau contest, according to Kitingan, is to continue the legacy of the Kadazandusun belief that a young woman called Huminodun sacrificed herself to save the lives of her people from famine and hunger.
“Kaamatan without Unduk Ngadau is not kaamatan.
“It will be like a song without rhythm,” said the sister of Huguan Siou (Kadazandusun paramount leader) Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan.
Here’s the legend of the Huminodun, according to an article on the Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) website.
“A long, long time ago, the staple food of Kinoingan and his people was a type of grain called huvong,” according to the KDCA article.
“One day, there was no huvong left to plant, or other grains left for food.
“Kinoingan was so worried and felt very sorry for his people’s sufferings. It was said that Kinoingan sacrificed Huminodun, the only child to Kinoingan and Suminundu.”
The article continued: “She was the most beautiful maiden in her time, truly anyone who gazed at her lovely countenance would be transfixed and fall in love with her.
“She was also kind-hearted and blessed with wisdom beyond her years.
“Huminodun was willing to be a sacrifice and be an offering to the great earth so that there would be seeds once again for planting and there would be food for the people.”
The article also defined the meaning of Unduk Ngadau.
The term “Unduk” or “Tunduk” literally means the shoot of a plant, signifying youth and progressiveness.
The literal meaning of “Ngadau” or “Tadau” is the sun, connoting the total beauty of the heart, mind and body of an ideal Kadazandusun woman.
“In essence, therefore, the Unduk Ngadau is a processual event of selecting from among the Kadazandusun beauties, one who would resemble the ascribed personality of Huminodun,” the article said.
“On WhatsApp, some cynical people say that the only thing good about winning the title is so that you can marry a Datuk and get big berian (dowry)?” I asked the Unduk Ngadau 2016.
“I feel that is ridiculous.
“It is the person’s choice whom she picks as her partner in life. And tidak semestinya (not necessarily) a Datuk,” said Sherry Anne, who (believe it or not) has no boyfriend.
“Has her berian increased (after winning the title)?” Ebell Majanil, a 32-year-old member of the Sabah Politics WhatsApp group, cheekily asked the beauty queen’s dad.
“I have not thought about it. She’s still studying, let her study first,” said Christopher of his daughter, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
I was in a lecturing mood. And I told her family cautionary tales of beauty queens who soiled Huminodon’s reputation by going astray.
Adapting a Spider-Man quote, I said: “With great beauty comes great responsibility.”
Probably that’s what Huminodun would have said.