SYNOPSIS:  Another day of explorations in Sumba.  About a very late wedding celebration, about funerary practices early and delayed and about a unique cultural center. 

People had gathered at a temporary structure and sat on numerous colorful plastic chairs at a front yard in a little village.  A few trucks were lined up at the fence of the property.  Something was happening.   Can we stop?  Yohn didn’t mind. 

It was a wedding — well, sort of.  The wedding had taken place a couple of years ago.  The couple already had a child.  But no marriage is complete in the eyes of the locals if the village wasn’t involved and if the traditional move of the bride to the groom’s house had not been completed along with a few pigs and quite a bit of stuff.  The couple had lived abroad for all these years and had returned to do their tribal duty — to officially move the bride out of her parent’s house.  The celebrations had already taken place the previous nights most likely accompanied by dancing, music and eating a lot of food; only the bride’s things had to be moved this morning.

Why bother with all of this?  Well, a marriage not properly completed might curse the union and even cast bad luck onto the next generation.  Who would chance it?!

The “stuff” had already been loaded but various men were working hard to maneuver two large pigs onto the trucks.  They could learn a thing or two from the Torajans…  A few futile attempts and finally, somebody took command and the pigs were loaded, accompanied by the customary squeaking.  A dead pig followed — that was easy.  A small bloody spot on the grass attested to its recent slaughter. 

A nicely dressed, English-speaking man welcomed me, the brother of the groom.  He inquired about my whereabouts and engaged me in a bit of small talk.  Could I meet the bride?  Of course.  She was summoned and when I took her hands loosely into both of my palms — you don’t use firm handshakes around here — she whispered to me in perfect English:  We have to rub noses now or the people will think I don’t like you

Thankfully, I had observed what she was talking about and so we rubbed noses.  That was perfect, she whispered when we were done.  Do you want to sit down? 

I had not expected a beautiful, highly educated, bespectacled, English speaking bride in this little village and was even more surprised when it turned out that she could speak German as well!  She was one of the political party-head’s daughters.  There was money in this family and obviously education and a cosmopolitan attitude. 

Corruption money?  Perhaps.  Political parties, government officials, and just about anyone associated with the “establishment” in Indonesia is suspected of participating in corruption in one form or another.   It is a sad truth around here.  But there are also a few in the political world who try to campaign against it. 

One thing is clear.  If Indonesia could root out the still widespread corruption issue, this country would have a chance of becoming one of the leading forces in the world.  It has the size, the population, and the resources for it.  But it is currently its own worst enemy.

Some people are late, others are planning ahead.  We passed another village and if I had not “wasted” time earlier, perhaps, I would have seen this crew in full swing.  As it was, I only caught them about 2 minutes before they stopped for a rather extended lunch break, too long for me to hang around.  At least 20 if not 30 men of all ages had gathered in this village for a topping-stone ceremony.  A new tomb had been carved out of a large cubical stone and the customary large stone slab had to be placed on top.  This is a ceremony that takes a few pigs to be slaughtered and eaten, and the manpower of an entire village to be accomplished. 

In the good old days, these stones had to be rolled and maneuvered by hand with the aid of bamboo rollers and ropes.  Today, a truck does much of the work.  But still a ramp had to be built at the final destination and the stone slab had to be rocked off the truck and onto the tomb just so.  Scaffolding had to be erected for this purpose and singing and loud shouting helped to coordinate all the muscles in one direction.  Nobody had died yet, but one of the families was preparing for the future.   

Funerals here in Sumba are almost as important as funerals in Tana Toraja.  Rituals have to be observed and the hierarchy of the status of the living is reflected in the hierarchy of burials.  Animals are slaughtered just as in Tana Toraja; the numbers however are not nearly as excessive.  Still, some people are not able to afford the full funerary rites and have to save up.  Just as in the wedding described above, the final touches of a funeral can be performed years after the fact.  If need be, a full ceremony can be combined for a dead couple of even more family members. 

But unlike Tana Toraja, where the dead person is embalmed, considered “sick” and kept among the living, here in Sumba the dead are buried.  Either the burial is temporary and a secondary burial will be performed later, or the burial is final, then the door to the tomb chamber is left open.  In one particular region I saw quite a few open tomb doors.  Was it a poor region?  Sumba is poor in general.  Or, was it an area of high-class people who now were too impoverished to live up to the high expectations of their class?  Perhaps, it was a combination of both or even more factors.  It could even be that important family members were at the time unable to attend the funeral ceremony. 

Once again I wondered why one could not skip the parts of a funeral that one could not afford?  But this is a thought that could only cross a secularized Westerner’s mind.  For these Christian villagers who in this case, still clung to some of their animist past, there were no questions and there was no choice.

Preserving this tribal history is one of the priorities father Robert Ramone has set himself in his Rumah Budaya Sumba, a Cultural Research & Conservation Institute near Tambolaka.   A seed collection of tribal artifacts had fallen into his hands and he worked tirelessly to secure funding as well as local workers to establish a unique home, museum, homestay and event center.  Since he is a local and lives on the property, the museum is “open” at all hours.  All you have to do is knock at the priest’s door and either he or an attendant will be happy to show you around. 

Unfortunately, father Ramone was busy showing around a small group of Indonesian visitors and so I was left with the collection’s labels written only in Bahasa.  But I marveled at the textiles, the stones, the wooden objects, and the spread of artifacts representing the various cultures and artistic traditions of  the entire island.  What a worthwhile endeavor and thank goodness, somebody lived up to the task.

This too, took “a village”.  In fact, it took international donors and it will take the efforts of all the villages and villagers to realize the value of their heritage to keep it going.  It is a step in the right direction to counter the impending “development” of this island by other foreigners into a Disneyland beach resort…

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