Some years ago I visited the Mentawai Islands. It would be fair to say that this isn’t a widely known destination although it’s now becoming better known amongst surfers and has become the site of the imaginative Surfaid International project.
It was back in the late 80s that I first visited the Mentawai Islands (Kepulauan Mentawai). At the time I was engaged in tourism research for a new eco and cultural tourism product called Walk on the Wild Side. This imaginative project did operate for a time in East Kalimantan but the Mentawai islands was deemed a little too risky, at the time, given their remoteness.
Encountering the people of Siberut was remarkable and greatly moving experience. They led a simple and self-sufficient life, but this was a life under great threat. Until recently I’ve made no attempt to publish the story I was moved to write.
I wrote this as part of my collection of stories on engaging with Asia and Melanesia.
Slippery challenging logs set end to end afforded the only way through this saturated secondary rainforest. Walking on the ground was like trying to walk in deep wet cement. While the logs tested one’s balanced there was some satisfaction in not falling into the slush. After a time I found it possible to move along with great ease, almost breaking into a jog, only to be startled when the ground suddenly disappeared and I found myself metres above a raging watercourse.
Siberut’s shales and marls had been worked by the equatorial conditions into sticky water retaining soils where rainforests thrived. Here the forest wasn’t a random collection of species climaxing and managing to survive an earlier clearing, it was an established equatorial garden, the sort that forest people create when they have lived in an area for hundreds of years.
Some would argue that the forests of Mentawai were undisturbed until recently but once people are present there can never be virgin rainforest. Beginning as far back 40 000 years ago a process of incremental transformation unfolded along the archipelago. Such sustainable change is all but invisible yet the very language and culture of the archipelago’s forest people is enmeshed and entwined in this process. Outwardly the illusion of the virgin forest remains yet the primal expression of culture is undeniable.
Somewhat isolated from the mainland of Sumatra since the end of the Pleistocene the Mentawai islands, of which Siberut is the largest, were not colonized by the Dutch until 1904. In this respect it was similar to Bali, but all similarities ended there. Pepper traders had attempted to establish plantations on the southernmost of the island chain in the 18th century. Later Malay, Sinhalese and Sumatran traders exchanged knives, cloth and beads for copra, rattan and timber.
Traditional economy in Siberut was sago based, supplemented by taro and bananas. Sago provides the largest yield of edible starch for the least effort, of any known plant. One day’s work yielded 17 days supply of sago. While it’s not the most nutritious of foods, it is 58% carbohydrate and contains 241 calories per 100g. [i] Not living by sago alone, men hunted for pigs, deer and monkeys using arrows tipped with nerve poison. Women gathered a wide variety of edible green leafy plants, fruits, roots and herbs. They also netted small fish from countless watercourses and swamps. Chickens were ubiquitous.
While the lifestyle was simple there was mostly adequate nutrition. The relative ease of gaining food self-sufficiency allowed ample time for ceremonies most of which had primal links with the forest and hunting.
As with all indigenous societies the people of Siberut had a strong attachment to their land. Over time some 15 linguistic regions emerged. Each language group tended to occupy a specific catchment and drainage system. Social life revolved around the clan house or uma, a solitary structure set high in the drainage system. In many ways the uma was similar to the lamin, the Dayak longhouse. It housed five to 15 patrilinealy related people. Where there were distinct families each maintained its own special space within the uma. [ii]
Siberut Language Groups [iii]
Population densities were low, barely 4 people per square kilometer, and while there was some inter-clan rivalry, life was relatively peaceful and the traditional economy sustainable. There was no tobacco, alcohol or betel nut.
It had rained constantly the night before. I’d marveled at the remarkable watertight sago palm thatch of the house where Paul, Henky, Alwi, Anton and I had rolled out our mats, strung up our mosquito nets and cooked a simple meal of rice and canned fish. The young school teacher had been delighted to have guests for the night. He was a long way from home.
The journey from Muara Siberut to the teacher’s house in Rokdok village [iv] had been like none other. Up to this point I was more accustomed to the wide rivers of Kalimantan. Three of us had just come from another equatorial river, the Mahakam, wide and relatively clear, despite the logging, but this river was like a mining sluice. It a raging river of mud and tree trunks, fuelled by constant downpours. I’d spent much of the trip up river amazed at what was tumbling past me. We passed a tributary and the boatman assured me it had a waterfall and crystal clear pool, several kilometers from the confluence.
This channel, our gateway to the interior, drained the forestry areas, although forestry is probably the wrong word for it since, despite its often extractive nature, the word itself conjures up a sense of husbandry, of orderly enterprise. Nothing remotely orderly could be responsible for this foul torrent. In recent years cash cropping had followed the timber cutters. There was nothing orderly about this process, except that it was a systematic rape of a fragile environment and culture, unrestrained by the rapacious demands of the market place and the corruption of Suharto’s New Order regime.
Beyond the village we reached the river again. Our boat had traveled up stream without us, while we’d cut off a section of sinuous meanders by trekking overland. The walk had been a welcome relief. Now back in the boat the torrent had subsided, the morning was fine and the river snaked past rainforest covered hills. Straggling rotan palms, swamps of squat sago palms and a scatterings of coconut palms slipped by. Progress was slow at times where fallen coconut and sago palms temporarily blocked our passage along the main channel
Another two and a half hours up stream we arrived at Matatonan. Here some 80 dwellings occupied a flat area at the mouth of a small tributary. It was a missionary village with houses set in a tight grid pattern around a vast silver domed mosque. A place of enforced resettlement, it was difficult to imagine a more dramatic departure from the Mentawai tradition of solitary dwellings in subtle relationship with rainforest, gardens and a pantheon of forest spirits.
Our destination was a large uma situated on a prominence above the village. This was the original uma in this region. It housed an extended family of about 25 people. Two brothers headed the family, the older was formally the head of the uma, but his younger brother was the shaman.
They were most welcoming. Despite having little in material terms they were warm and remarkably strong in their culture. After a short time they
became very relaxed with us and quickly shed the western clothes they’d worn on our arrival, explaining that they’d been frightened by the official looking hat that Paul was wearing, assuming he was a government official.
Traditional Mentawai people resemble many of the world’s forest people. They wear very little, just loin cloths for men and a type of lap-lap or skirt for women. Both men and women wear multiple strands of brightly coloured African beads traded into the area by the original pepper traders supplemented by amber coloured ceramic electrical insulators introduced by the Dutch and silver watch bands from cheap Chinese watches. All the adults we met were heavily tattooed with simple symmetrical patterns.
Women were often ministering to the needs of disproportionately large numbers of children. They were often breast-feeding. Their minimal attire made the signs of frequent pregnancy and childbirth most obvious. All had noticeable stretch marks and many were lactating. As a father I found their fertile femininity very beautiful.
In remote communities such as these people that have been to secondary school speak Indonesian well, even if they’ve only completed the middle school years. Others prefer to converse in their bahasa daerah or regional language.
|Bahasa Rereiket [v]||Bahasa Indonesia||English|
|Kai pa ubara||Datang dari mana||Where are you coming from?|
|Kai pa uee||Pergi ke mana||Where are you going|
This opens up many opportunities for misunderstanding, particularly when talking about relationships or responding politely to traditional status. Pronouns can be very important, particularly the simple word you. There’s intimate, respectful and plural you. We can be inclusive of the person being addressed or exclusive of them. It’s easy to give offence without even being aware it had happened. Sensitivity and a good guide can help.
It was 1989 and by this stage my Indonesian was functionally quite fluent. Just how fluent it was depended on the context. My constant mistakes and syntactic oddities, my foolish attempts to render metaphor directly from English into Indonesian had been largely eliminated. Despite my developing fluency being the only non-Indonesian in our small group meant I was often the butt of elaborate intercultural jokes. These frequently had quite a patriarchal twist, particularly when we visited isolated indigenous communities.
Just before arriving in the Mentawai islands we’d been eating a lot of durian. There’s nothing quite like the intoxicating effects of durian. Many Westerners baulk at its unusual smell, their reservations reinforced by Eurocentric guidebooks that liken it to eating crème caramel in a public toilet, or offer some other rather disgusting image. In truth it’s delicious and can be mildly intoxicating with a slightly disinhibiting effect not unlike a couple of glasses of red wine. In such disinhibited spaces my companions’ conversation was apt to stray into more risqué realms. Then I was subtlety regaled with stories about remote clans or tribes renown for wanting to enrich their gene pools with those of exotic outsiders, particularly westerners. One such story had it that in the Mentawais to refuse such a request from a patriarch would cause profound offence. My inclination was to dismiss it all as fantasy but the story stuck in my mind.
That evening as we sat with our hosts, and talked what emerged, in particular, was the peacefulness of their life. There had been much inter-tribal conflict in the past but these days they peace reigned. Some of this family had converted to Christianity while more recently several had also been exposed to the Ba’hai faith.
Our local guide Anton was extraordinary in his rapid translation skills. As the evening progressed I fell into a conversation with the shaman and came to rely less and less on the guide’s translation. Some how we managed to conducted a conversation in very simple Bahasa Indonesia and sign language. As the evening drew on he eventually smiled and said,
Mau tidur sama kita? Do you want to sleep with us?
As he asked the question he gestured to part of the uma where a most beautiful woman was sitting.
He’d just used the inclusive we. Combined with the gesture it sent amber lights flashing in my head. It seemed the story I’d dismissed as fantasy could well be true.
What was the level of individuation in this culture? I didn’t know.
With whom was I being asked to sleep? Was it her? Were the stories true? He must mean her, wow! What do I say next?
I was quite shocked. The emotions I felt are hard to describe. She was extremely beautiful, sitting bare breasted, looking at us.
How old was this woman? It was impossible to be certain.
I was drawn to her beauty but then pulled sharply in the opposite direction registering an equally negative impulse. Privileged Westerners preying on innocence distressed me. There was a feeling of anger that my guide and Indonesian companions had allowed this situation to arise. There was no way I was going to sleep with her but how to extract myself from this situation. It didn’t make sense that the people claimed to be Christian and yet could maintain such practices. On the other hand I was aware of just now nominal conversion could be. Perhaps the whole Christian story was just for Anton’s benefit, after all he was a Catholic.
The moment pressed in on me, what to say. Finally I blurted out
Maaf, saya tidak bisa. Saya sudah kawin.
Sorry I can’t. I’m already married
The silence seemed endless, the laughter, when it came, was a blessed relief.
Bukan itu. Kalau mau tidur dengan isteri ada kamar di belakang. Mau tidur dengan laki-laki? Di situ
Not that. If we want to sleep with our wife there’s a room at the back. Do you want to sleep with the men? Over there.
Now it was clear and I felt very embarrassed. He gestured again to the place where the woman still sat. Finally I got it. That was the spot where the men slept.
I quickly agreed to save any further embarrassment.
Soon it was time to bed down. Dressed in a long sleeved shirt, track suit bottoms and thick socks as extra protection against dangerous falsiparum bearing malarial mosquitoes I was hot, to say the least. Swiftly the men hung up their mosquito net, not the light nylon type that I had but a heavy shroud of unbleached calico covering a double bed sized space for four men. They could only sleep draped over one another. I didn’t fancy this, the body heat would be intense and one more made five. There was only one way out. I strung up my net right next to the men and invited them to share it. Much to my relief they all preferred to sleep draped together under their calico shroud. We slept soundly.
[i] Saving Siberut: A Conservation Master Plan. World Wildlife Fund Indonesia Program, For The Government of Indonesia. Bogor, February 1980. Page 66.
[ii] Nowadays Uma are less common in the eastern part of the island where logging has been most extensive. Here the process of change has seen people concentrated in various administrative villages.
[iii] Adapted by Russell Darnley from Saving Siberut a Conservation Master Plan. A World Wildlife Fund Report. Bogor, Indonesia 1980 pp.62
[iv] Rokdok – 1°37’S, 99° 7’E, elevation 79 metres
[v] Spoken in Matatonan, Rokdok and Ugai and other locations along the catchment of the Rereiket River. The region is know as Sarareiket.