2016
07.18

BOTI

LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW

SYNOPSIS:  About the last animist village in Timur.  About traditions and handicrafts.

Already over 30-40 years ago when tourism to Indonesia was more of a novelty than it is today, news made it to the West that among all the villages and ethnic groups in Timur one of them had preserved its animist practices:  Boti village in the former Kingdom of Amunaban.  A steady flow of tourists started to trickle in despite its remote location.  The villagers not only seem to cope but they made the best of it:  They collectively agreed and built a guest house on the chief’s compound and they collectively benefit from the money tourists pay for overnight stays and the obligatory village donations of betel nuts and cigarettes.

Collective, in fact seems to be the key word for how Boti operates.  360 people, part of 72 families still practice animism and follow chief Nama.  He decides what needs to be done, he organizes the labor force and collectively people plant, harvest, build, weave, rest, etc.  He is the wealthiest of all the chiefs in Timur, I am told.  But you would not know that looking at his modest home and his simple bed.  His house has furniture but it is by no means ostentatious.  There is more than he needs, but that is because he is the focal point for any visitors, entire groups at times.  His living room is decorated with numerous photographs of his parents and prominent visitors.  Contrary to Gemri’s father’s living room, these photos are nicely framed.   Presents from all over the world adorn his walls too; from a clock with Christian motifs to a Hindu painting.

To date, some outsiders have intermarried and even moved to Boti, so you can also find a small Catholic church down in the village.  And you can find those who abandon the traditional ways of Boti right in the chief’s family.  The current chief Nama, age 42, has no wife and no heirs.  It does not look like he has any intentions of getting married soon either.  But he was not in line for the title of chief, as he has an older brother.  That brother however, married a Christian woman from a different village and moved away.  He no longer is eligible to become chief since he abandoned the traditional ways.  The previous chief lived to the ripe old age of 110!  His wife also was over 100.  That says something about health and genes in that family. 

The current chief Nama, looks healthy as well and has likely a good 40-60 years ahead of him, if not 70, like his father.  But who is next in line?  Surprisingly, Nama in his compound is raising his older brother’s oldest child and grooming him for being the next chief.  Even though that child’s father abandoned the traditional ways, for him to become chief someday seems to be no problem.  Core requirement is to be familiar with, to be trained in, and to practice the old ways.

Roads to Boti seem to get worse rather than better by the year.  Typically a 4WD vehicle is required to make the trip.  Gemri has a sturdy van and had prepared for all eventualities, but in dry weather his car has a chance.   The weather was dry.  But I don’t think I have to say anything else about roads in Timur that I have not already said.  We just need a new word in our language for “wanna-be roads”.  That would do.

Boti is laid out in an interesting way.  It is situated on a hill and the chief’s house and his entire extended household lives inside a gated compound on top of the hill.  Meeting places and storage areas are also found on the hill whereas the actual village of Boti wraps around the chief’s home in a concentric circle at a lower level. 

As part of their animist tradition, the villagers follow a 10-day calendar.  Their 10th day is their day off and as luck dealt it, it was that 10th day when I arrived.  People from the village gather in the morning at the chief’s house to attend a prayer that the chief performs at their holy place, not unlike church.   Then the villagers hang around to socialize, chew betel nuts, carve coconuts, or spin yarn.  Towards the end of the day, they disperse.  Even though I came late in the day, I still encountered about 10 men and 10 women at the chief’s compound.  Without this gathering, I would have at best gotten a glimpse from afar of a few villagers the next day.  This way, I was able to say hello to them and photograph some of them in their traditional garb. 

One of the traditions for Boti men is not to ever cut their hair, after a once in their lifetime big deal hair cutting ceremony that is conducted when a boy turns three.  Men do not seem to have very strong hair in general, as I did not see any impressive long or thick pony tails.  Rather their hair is thin but always tied back in a knot.

Another tradition Gemri told me about is the marriage ceremony, which does not result in a big wedding, but is rather a simple affair:  a man sends offerings, animals and gifts to the house of the bride of his choice as a sign of proposing.  At that point, the parents of the bride and the parents of the groom gather with the chief to discuss the proposed union.  If the three parties are in agreement, the groom takes his wife home, that day.  Done.  Forget headhunting trophies, huge dowries, costly parties.  I guess it is helpful for the groom to have a home to take the bride to.  But as I mentioned in Sulawesi, bamboo huts are great starter homes and the way I know this village by now, the groom-to-be would probably get a lot of help building one if he needed it.

I particularly took to one woman, Muke.  She was sleeping in the guesthouse with her grandson and another woman since I was the only guest and there was room. She was one of the sisters of the chief.  I congratulated her on her beautiful grandson when Gemri told me that she had lost her daughter during the baby’s birth.  I almost burst into tears.  This hit home too closely.  What if I would have to look at any of my grandsons knowing that their mother died given birth to him?  Would it be difficult to enjoy this child’s growing up?   I know how much I enjoy my own grand-kids’ growth.  How does Muke feel about her grandson?   We could not communicate.  I only could try to show her how much that touched me.  I hope she understood. 

Once again, I had a room  with a wooden bed with a thin mattress, a dirty pillow and an aged mosquito net.  By now I know what to expect.  It was even colder than in Gemri’s village and I put on all the layers I could fit.  That did the trick.  Life here, as in all traditional villages, follows the sun.  By 9 PM at the latest everyone is asleep.  But 5:30 AM at the crack of dawn life starts.  And when a baby cried — and Muke’s grandson cried a lot last night — the whole village will wake up.  Such is life.

A stroll through Boti village the next day was uneventful but to observe the village weavers was informative.  At Boti everything that leads to a garment is done from scratch.  The villagers grow and harvest cotton.  A woman has to clean the seeds from the cotton, for which she has an old-fashioned wooden roller.  The next woman has a harp-like device over which she pulls the cotton bit by bit, softening it up for spinning. 

She then rolls her softened cotton into small tubes which are spun by the next woman in line.  Once the yarn is spun, it will be hung in bundles ready for dying.  All the ingredients for dying are grown locally.  The clay pots come from a far-away village since clay is not available in the mountains.  Once the yarn is dyed it is rolled into balls and the final step is to weave it into cloth.  Hand-spun garments can clearly be distinguished from those using industrial yarn — it is much coarser.  A small shop in the village sells everything men and women produce here, from coconut bowls and spoons to handmade bags, from bone carvings to bead jewelry, up to a replica of the chief’s crown. 

And with a few more trinkets in my bag, I left Boti, my final stop in Timur, to head back to Kupang, where I will spend my last night at a three-star hotel.  It is time for the internet, for grading, for catching up with posting the blog entries. 

Now you know why the blog trails a few days behind me, especially in this second part of the trip.   At times, there is just no opportunity to even get close to civilization. 

Goodbye. 

4 comments so far

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  1. Have you tucked in any coloring pots or fabric to bring home?

    • Of course, my whole suitcase is full of textiles… samples of Batik from Bali, weavings from various places and more will come in Sumba. 🙂

  2. Great pictures.

    How come no one seems to wear sandals? The ground looks rough.
    Also, how far is the outhouse from your guest room?

    • Indeed baffling to me too, but locals seem most comfortable with bare feet and are faster on the prickly rocks than I can ever be in my sandals… The outhouse was too far to get to in the dark – let’s say that much. 🙂