2016
07.13
DANCING WITH THE CHIEF

DANCING WITH THE CHIEF

SYNOPSIS:  About the life of chief Mattheo Anin in the village of Fatumnasi.  About a unique rain forest.  About kings and kingdoms.  About chiefs and how to become one.  About staying in a traditional roundhouse.

It is dark in chief Anin’s hut. Ten dogs, two caged cuscus, over thirty doves, a rooster, a chicken and a monkey share the 5-meter circular room under a thatched roof with chief Mattheus Anin and his wife Juliana. And of course, any visitor is welcome, and for that purpose about ten wooden chairs hem a half circle around the edge of the room.  One small window and a small door are not enough to provide either light or exhaust for the fire that nearly constantly burns towards the rear of the room, next to the dishes that are stacked up on a wooden shelf.  My eyes, not used to the thick smoke that is part of life here, started to burn within minutes.  I had to sit next to the door to be able to breathe and even that was challenging.   Every so often I found an excuse to leave for a few minutes to get some air.

No wonder, the Indonesian government deemed these structures a health hazard and regulated that new houses had to be built to separate cooking from sleeping.  Some of the wealthier people built the required open structures, but in the chief’s case, it at best satisfies the requirement on paper.  The structure sits empty and is used for laundry and parties or to display textiles for sale.  Cooking and sleeping continues in the original hut as it has for hundreds of years.  The government after all, is far away and his ancestors lived to a ripe old age; smoke and all.

Gemri and I arrived in Fatumnasi after hours of gut-rattling on roads that in most part don’t even deserve the name. I have some video clips of him slipping on the gravel, getting stuck in the rain channels and sinking nearly sideways into eroded parts of the path.  At times I got out, too scared to be in the car should it roll back and off the cliff.  But miracle of miracles, he made it and his car is still in one piece.

Chief Anin greeted us with a beautiful smile.  He is 77 years old, and his face tells about much laughter in his life.  He talks nearly constantly and seems to find something to smile about in everything.  He picked up a few words of English from his guest which he proudly uses, eager to add more to his vocabulary.

He immediately invited us into his traditional roundhouse and offered tea and biscuits. 

The ground of the roundhouse is pounded and the only difference to the ground outside is that it is dry and sheltered from the frequent rain that falls up here in the mountains of the Mollo Kingdom.  And it is cold!  August is the coldest month, but even during the rest of the year you will find hardly any days that will make you sweat; for me, a welcome change from Sumatra, Java, and Bali.

To this day, chief Anin walks barefoot up the hill every day at 6 AM to bring his animals to pasture.  At 6 PM he brings them home: his horse, and his two buffalos.  They recently had a calf; now he has three buffalos.  Here, the buffalo is not slaughtered for any ritual as it is in Tana Toraja; but it still is a prestige symbol and a sign of chief Anin’s wealth.  So is the horse and the car he has sitting next to his compound.  But other than that, you would never guess that you are sitting next to the richest man in town and to a man of one of the most respected families in this area. 

There is no TV, no luxury item.  Yes, there is some electricity since his village has been put on the grid, but the one single light bulb that dimly illuminates each hut at night is not even enough for my camera to register any pictures! 

After the welcome snacks I was shown to my own roundhouse, a smaller version of the chief’s.  His family compound is made up of about 5 such houses which are used for the extended family, or visitors like me.  I felt funny plugging my computer into the socket to recharge.  My computer there was likely the only one in about a 30-40 km radius.  But it came in handy as I prepared a slide show for the family with the pictures I had taken of their home.  They loved it.

Before dinner, Gemri and I embarked on a 6-km hike into the Eucalyptus Rainforest that borders Fatumnasi.  The area around Soe is mountainous.  But it would be an overstatement to call all the trees around, a forest.  Trees grow fast here and are cut down for firewood or building material even faster. 

But this rainforest is a different matter.  Fatumnasi village and the chief’s family have been the keepers of the forest for generations.  Even in their songs the forest features prominently.  Anyone caught cutting down a live tree would be punished by the community with the obligation to sacrifice a good number of animals to make good with the forest.  Only dead wood can be used of these special trees and so, for generations — without any government telling them what to do — this community has protected this primary rainforest of unique character. 

When the government rolled in in 1998 to make a big deal out of protecting this area, there were quite a few squabbles.  The villagers won, asserted their age-old rights of collecting firewood.  And the government now has an official gate marking the entrance to the rainforest and keeping an eye on the ins and outs of the forest, including a shabby old guest book whose history proved that I was the first American visitor this year.  Yeah!

Almost 20,000 hectares are filled nearly exclusively with eucalyptus trees.  These trees don’t grow close to each other and there are hardly any shrubs growing below them.  Cows and horses graze there and leave a smooth, short-trimmed green lawn beneath the trees, looking like a velvet carpet.  Of course, it was raining — it’s a rain forest, duh!  The rain created a mist that hung between the trees and transformed the whole environment into an enchanted fairytale land.  I was just waiting for some little people to poke their heads out of some tree trunks. 

About three km into the forest the character of the soil changes.  In one patch, the eucalyptus trees only reached dwarf size compared to their brothers and sisters just meters away.  It is known as the “Bonsai forest” and made for an even more picturesque backdrop.

Chief Anin had announced earlier that in honor of my stay, he would call over his son-in-law in the evening to play some traditional music and that we would dance.  We, that would be the chief, his wife, his sister, himself, Gemri and I.  Oy veh… I had to dance!

For occasions like this people put on sarongs, the traditional dress for men and women around here.  These are ingenious pieces of clothing.  Long enough to be a full skirt, they are woven in a cylinder — one size fits all.  Depending on your size, you roll over the top part as much as it takes to shorten the garment to a perfect length.  And then you fold over the extra part into a knot-like tie.  If you look at markets, you will see people with sarongs on their heads for sun protection or wrapped around their shoulders for warmth in the mornings and evenings.

Each region has its traditional and distinct patterns; for sure, each kingdom has.  The region I will be traveling for the most part was ruled by three kingdoms:  Mollo, Amanuban and Amanatun.  The kings lost power with Indonesian independence. Their families still live on and are honored locally, but without any political power unless they decided to take on important government posts of mayors and the like, which they often did. 

Being chief of a village usually means to be the wealthiest man in town due to the simple fact that the chief’s family by designation is the one that first settled in any given region, taking over the land that then would constitute a village.  It was up to the chief to allow newcomers to settle.  He then would sell the land or collect tribute from the land.  The title of chief is hereditary.  Chief Anin is the fourth generation of chiefs in Fatumnasi.

Typically, these high-up mountain villages formed when new settlers crowded the coastal regions or the lowlands, and in some cases when people decided to evade either colonial powers or conversion to a new religion, typically, Christianity or Islam.  Funny enough, when you ask the locals how many religions there are in Timur (or Indonesia), they always list Catholics and Protestants as two religions.  Even though Gemri understood my explanation of these two being mere branches or sects of one religion, I don’t think he will change his count.

After the wet walk through the rain forest I had retreated to my hut to organize things for the night.  Soon, gentle string music was trickling out of the chief’s hut — time for the evening program.  What looked close to a guitar but was tuned on a very different scale produced simple chords which soon prompted the chief to break out into an improvised welcome song.  I could make out my name and America.  With his big smile, clapping his hand and singing, the chief kept making up verse after verse about who or what he was welcoming.  I had to chime in, clap and soon dance — after being properly dressed in a local sarong of course, and equipped with a colorful woven shawl which is put over both shoulders.  You hold the ends in each hand and then use it for dance movements which are made up of simple steps from side to side, in a circle or back and forth.  The chief got fancy and wiggled his hips lowering himself down to the ground like a Russian Cossack.  Gemri soon followed suit.

Picture the scene: three dogs huddling by the fire, the chickens lying on a chair each to sleep on — in the dark I almost accidentally sat on one, mistaking it for a blanket! — the nocturnal cuscuses scratching their cages, and the doves that had finally settled on the cupboards; the fire quietly bristling and a stream of smoke dimming the already dim light of the lone bulb, and the five of us swinging back and forth to the tune of the instrument.   There was something magic to this scene.

After a delicious meal of rice, meat and vegetables that miraculously was produced from another dark corner of the room we all retreated into our respective huts and the day in Fatumnasi came to an end.

Good night.