SYNOPSIS:  Traditional villages in Sumba.  Driving around with Yohn.

I was strolling along the beach at Oro when a voice called out:  Elisabeth?  Now who around here knows my name?!   I had mentioned, that I was looking for a guide to Ziska and Lukas.  And word had gotten around… 

Yohn, also known by his full name:  Yohanes Lende Danggaone, is one of the certified English-speaking guides of this island.  He does not come cheap. But he comes with 12 years of experience, a local upbringing, and a car.  As my time here is limited, I have a few things on my agenda, and the visit of villages would take me days of trekking — I have little choice.  In fact, I am lucky that on such short notice and during high season an experienced English-speaking guide is available for three days in a row.  We shook hands on the deal and the next morning we were off.  Not quite in the order we did things, I will write about my experiences in and thoughts about different traditional villages which I saw over the course of three days. 

But first Sumba.  Why Sumba in the first place?  It is not on most people’s itinerary. First, I was looking for yet another type of architecture and the Sumbanese scored.  And second, I am always on the lookout for unique art and once again, the Sumbanese won out over other islands where nature is the big draw.

But a few days on the beach at Oro and a few days of traveling make me no expert qualified to talk about this island.  As always, I will restrict myself in this blog to what I actually saw.  But I found a Sumba Travel-Guide website by Matthias Jungk who obviously has spent years exploring every inch of this place.  His account of history, climate, geography, festivals, foods and other details are as good as anything available on Sumba for those of you interested.

If a bungalow would have been available, I am not sure I would have left Oro Beach for even a day.  I guess, two days of sluggishness, really did me in.  But I had to leave for three days as the resort was fully booked and once we were on the road, I quickly got back into travel mode and was in awe of this very different culture I encountered.  By name, people on Sumba are about 65% Christians, 30% Animists, and 5% Muslims.  Muslims were immigrants and do not share the animist past.  But Christianity was adopted by many indigenous people (Catholicism 1/4 with the Portuguese, and Protestantism 3/4 with the Dutch) and therefore is still deeply intertwined with the animist roots of this island.

Animism, traditional architecture and traditional ways of life were the focus of the villages I chose to see.  As it happens, Yohn came from the village that is considered the primordial village of Sumba:  Wee-Lewo.  Unlike other traditional villages, where a chief may be head of the village, this village is guided by a revered shaman or rato whose family has for hundreds of years preserved the creation myth of the Sumbanese, who reads people’s fate from studying the liver or intestines of animals and who is the one who presides over annual rituals.   The well-being of the Marapu in the clan house or the Rumah Adat and by extension, the well-being of the entire village is his responsibility.

Belief in the Marapu is central to Sumbanese animists.  The Marapu in its most specific understanding is the belief in ancestors, particularly a primordial male/female, ancestral couple:  the mother of being and the father of creation.  But in the widest sense the Marapu can be any and all spiritual forces.  It can be the creator god, a spirit, or a ghost.  It is connected to the general belief that there is a life after death which is understood to be the heaven of the Marapu.  But the Marapu is also part of this earthly life in the form of trees, rocks, streams, or mountains.

The Marapu is symbolized by carvings of wood or stone that are displayed in homes, at graves, or in the center of a village.  Some are elaborate, others rather primitive.  Some are large, others small.  Some are figurative, others abstract.  I had a hard time getting a grasp of what the Marapu really is or worse, what it looked like, as it seemed that it could be just about anything you want it to be.  But then, that is part of the animist tradition:  seeing this world as imbued by forces that blur the distinction between animate and dead substances, between this and the after life.

What was missing in all the visits of Sumbanese villages was the human aspect which I had so enjoyed in Sulawesi and in Timur.  For the most part I did not get to interact with anyone in the village. 

Etiquette of a village visit is that you find the village chief.   That’s what a guide is good for.  In the chief’s house typically a guest book is kept, in which you put your name, profession, country and the amount of your village donation.  You also hand over a gift of either cigarettes or more appropriately betel nuts and siri “beans”; two of the three ingredients for chewing.  The essential limestone powder is not given, but assumed to be at hand.

You then sit with the chief or his wife or anyone who is at home at the house and make a bit of small talk.  I would convey via body language and hand gestures how many children and grand children I had and what my profession was.  Yohn would translate and expand.  As a “guru” or teacher I was always greeted with a smile and a nod of approval. 

Your visit with the chief or shaman gives you permission to walk around the village and photograph.  During the day, most of the people are in the fields or at work.  Manola village, one of the most pure traditional villages, was literally void of people as there was a big funeral of one of their villagers just a few miles away.  However, there was also a big stink about it as the funeral should have taken place in the village itself, not in the middle of nowhere.  Villagers were upset about the deceased wife’s decision on the location of the grave, and a few of them had boycotted the attendance of the funeral.  With those, Yohn engaged in a lively discussion which allowed me to photograph a few of them.  In other villages merely the elderly were sitting under the eaves of their homes weaving baskets or making other small-scale artifacts.  Others were inside the home but invisible to me.  I had no opportunity to stay in any of the villages; it does not seem to be as customary here as it was in Timur. 

Each village, also known as a kampung, had its unique layout, character, and setting.  But a few commonalities emerged:  Villages were more often than not lined along two parallel rows.  The center of the village had spaces reserved for one or two communal areas for dancing, slaughter and village meetings as well as the clan house (Rumah Adat).  Surprisingly that one often was rather small and unobtrusive and definitely off limits for visitors.  Most of the central space in the village not used by the living was taken up by the dead.  Stone tombs dominated everywhere.  Here, as in Tana Toraja death plays a major role. 

Houses were built with a combination of wood, bamboo and alang grass.  Wooden posts are aligned in the four cardinal directions with a central hearth on the second floor symbolizing the sun.  Each house is conceived in three layers.  The bottom one beneath the poles is reserved for the animals.  The central floor is occupied by humans and the pointed roof is the seat of the Marapu (as well as being helpful for air circulation and smoke reduction).  The higher the roof, the higher is the social standing of the occupant and the closer his connection to the Marapu.  Here as everywhere, social hierarchy is strictly observed and no amount of money can overcome low-class origin.  On the other hand, no amount of poverty can undo a high-class heritage.  This is as far removed as it gets from the American ideal of picking oneself up by the boot straps. 

Building a house is a communal affair and goes along with lots of rituals and animal slaughter.  Not at the scale of Torajan funerals though, but on the scale of feeding all of those involved in construction and a bit more than that for the Marapu and a bit more to show your social standing.  But 10 buffalos would be considered a very wealthy man’s affair compared with the over 100 buffalos that would be common in Tana Toraja for a man of similar standing.

Floors and ceilings of the house are made up of bamboo stalks.  I was allowed to enter one chief’s house and I felt like an infant learning to walk.  The rounded bamboo sticks — which you can’t see in the pitch dark (!) made me slip and slide.  I guess, except for the central fireplace, where cooking illuminates a small space, operating inside a traditional house is like living in the twilight between seeing and blindness.  There is no light in these houses; there are no windows.  Your eyes surely adjust to the darkness, but you’d better know where your things are.  Candles and the occasional kerosene lamp are all there is in the truly remote villages and they are used sparingly.  The biggest enemy for these villages is lightning and fire.  Entire villages have burned down multiple times over the centuries as a result of natural causes and arson in case of village feuds and disputes.

Houses without a pitch indicate people of the lowest standing.  And one village, Ratenggaro — known for the highest pitched roofs was made of up of ever-competing villagers of the same standing who kept raising their roof lines inch by inch, meter by meter until they reached an almost unsustainable height of 13-14 meters resulting in bends and tilts.  But to outdo the Joneses seems to be a universally known and practiced phenomenon. 

Some of these villages were set in spectacular settings on high hill tops or near the ocean.  Hilltops were the preferred location as villages could be surrounded by stone walls providing protection and lookouts.  Those were the days of headhunters and attacks… Today, these locations provide cooler temperatures and a nice breeze. 

The closer to towns these villages were located, the more they were used to visitors and tourists and the more obnoxious the attempt to sell trinkets became.  Tarung in Waikabubak was a prime example.  Some of these villages were outfitted with concrete roads and had crossed over to the use of electricity.  Many homes no longer were built using alang-grass thatched roofs but corrugated metal.  And here and there the satellite dish, the motorbike, or even the car parked next to a hut indicated that times were changing.

But outward signs of change should not be mistaken for an automatic change of belief systems or a lessening of the importance of traditions.  Metal or straw, it is the Marapu who rules around here and decides your fate.  And you never know, he just might!