Life on Sumba Island

I like to publish my own writings here, however I met a lovely Hungarian girl in Sumba, who did a very good job at penning down what life is like in Sumba. Her name is Petra and she volunteered at Sumba Hospitality Foundation over a period of 6 months. Her thoughts were originally written in Hungarian, enjoy reading my translation of her writing:

Sumba Island is located East of Bali and South of Flores. It is one of the Lesser Sunda Islands.

Sumba is the most forgotten and underdeveloped Indonesian island. There are barely any tourist, the locals are truly surprised at the sight of white people.

90% of the population live from agriculture; they eat only what they produce. They pick the coffee beans from trees and roast them for themselves. The main food is rice and corn with the occasional chicken and some seaweed-like green (water spinach).

Pork counts as luxury, cows are kept for trading purposes and export; they would only be killed as part of ceremonial traditions. Without any exaggeration trading with cows is a sign of wealth. Surprisingly enough, fish isn’t so popular, which might be due to the fact that most provinces are located far from shore. For special occasions dogs are grilled in open fire for consumption.

The population is mostly Christian, rarely would someone notice the presence of the Muslim inhabitants. The essence of the culture is derived from the animist Marapu religion. Despite being Christians, their habits and family dynamics are founded upon Marapu. However, what does it all mean?

For start, even their homes are built according to Marapu traditions, divided into 3 levels; animals, people and spirits. A traditional house stands on pillars, under which live the animals. The second level with two entrances is for the people. The left side is for women, the right side is for the male and the guests visiting the house.

The porch is for welcoming guests. This is where betelnut is served. It is popular and adored by the locals, despite its incredibly bitter taste and intense red colour.

There are many red-mouthed and toothed people in the villages.

I had the opportunity to try this local ‘delicacy’. As a guest I couldn’t refuse (and of course I was eager to try it.) First the nut has to be chewed, then spat out, finally the long, green fruit has to be dipped in limestone powder (this activates the production of saliva and brings the flavors together) and eaten to end the ritual. Only after this can any king of conversation begin.

The entire house is made of bamboo. The animals can be seen quite well from inside the house. As we enter the house, there are small sleeping places; the largest one secluded with curtains for accommodating the parents. Then there is the kitchen and the communal area. It’s rather shocking that the fire is on all day. Food is constantly being cooked and above the boiling pot, corn on the cob is being smoked and probably steamed. Bathrooms do not exist in any shape or form.

The significant and dis-proportionally tall roof is partially for ventilating the smoke, but mostly gives home to the spirits. When a family member dies, it’s not buried immediately. It’s kept in the house for days, covered with a net. It is treated entirely as a living person. It is not unusual to be given coffee and food. After the burial, the spirit of the dead makes the roof its home and looks after the family. In Indonesian culture the burial traditions and the positioning of the corps depend on the cause of death. If someone passes in a violent way, such as accident of murder, the funeral has to be kept twice. First the corps is buried in a place outside the village, then after about two years the bones are exhumed and buried again within the village border, in the family cemetery.

As you might have guessed from the separate house entrances, gender equality has not laid a foot in Sumba yet. Having more than one wife is totally acceptable and it doesn’t have any financial or legal consequences. On average there are 7 + children in a family. It is not at all unusual to have 15 children in a family. It is believed that a man’s power lies in the number of children he bears. Of course like any other custom or belief, this has also something to do with survival.

First of all, girls can only be married for a serious financial compensation. Secondly, the absence of pension makes this the only viable way of surviving old age.

Medical treatment equals with zero, therefore when someone falls ill, becomes completely dependent on the family. It is very common for someone to remain crippled for the rest of their lives after an incorrectly healed broken bone. Ambulances are replaced with motorbikes… I can’t even imagine the excruciating pain a few hours’ ride could mean (most places don’t have asphalt roads) even with only a broken limb.

Returning to gender equality and children, family planning for the common people is an unknown concept. It is possible to buy condoms or even pessary, however for their purchase one must present a marriage certificate and a written consent from the husband. As I mentioned before, a man’s power lies in the number of his children. I think everyone can guess how many women can take advantage the opportunity of contraception. The most heartbreaking part of it all, is that rape is almost totally acceptable. If a girl becomes pregnant from a rape, she has no other chance, but marry her rapist, otherwise she’ll become the shame of her tribe and will have to live in financial uncertainty. This is all topped with the 'kind tradition', where once a year for an entire week, men are free to enter the room of any unmarried girl. Whichever man to whichever girl as many times as he pleases.

And now a little bit about my job too.

I work for a private, non-profit organization as a teacher at Sumba Hospitality Foundation (SHF). Their goal is to enable the young locals who live in poverty to live a better life. One would rightly ask who is and what makes someone eligible when everyone lives in poverty here and why do they have to be disrupted from their ways and be offered the vision of a materialistic life. I often wondered about this myself, but by now I managed to piece the pieces together.

First of all, the arrival of tourism is unavoidable. There are already signs of it: All beach land has been sold, the airport has been extended and works have began on making an asphalt road across the entire island. Sumba is mentioned more and more frequently in Indonesian travel guides and blogs.

The aim is to have employable Sumbanese on the Island to avoid the employment of people from other islands. This would aid in preserving the culture and would keep the locals on the island.

Many of you probably don’t know, it came to me as a surprise too, that in Indonesia human trafficking is very common.

From places like Sumba, an unmonitored island, would traffickers take the locals to the wealthier Asian countries such as Singapore, Japan and China. There they are sold as slaves, to a promise of a better life in order to be able to support their families. Their documents are taken and are kept as slaves. This is the better version… the others, I don’t even want to mention.

The other reason that makes the organization’s work so important is sustainability. In Indonesia the lack of waste management and horticulture is a huge problem. Trash cans are unknown of, everyone throws their rubbish in the rivers that carry everything in the ocean. Soil is used until complete exhaustion.

The fundamental concept behind the organization is sustainability. Everything runs with solar energy and we eat what comes out of the schools’ garden. The soil is fertilized with the compost made from kitchen waste and no chemicals can reach any of the crops. Everything from doing the laundry to bathing, happens in a sustainable way with the use of natural resources.

There is a Farming and Sustainability class for the students. Families of many students are already using the techniques they’ve learned here. Yaaaay! The next big step will be the cooking gas obtained from pigs’ manure. The foundation aims to develop this to a consumer level.

The foreigners who live on the Island are very supportive of each other and they are all basing their hotel businesses (approximately 5, including Villa Amidala in Waingapu, run by a Hungarian couple) on the same principles. The owner of the foundation is rather influential and the ultimate goal is to set a standard for sustainability under which no business can be operated. This is not at all impossible, however surprising it might sound. In Bali the problem is already huge (to go into the ocean one has to tread on a beach full of garbage) and the government is already trying to do something about it. The change ahead is unavoidable, the only thing we can do is prepare the locals for it.

The school is located between the Airport and the beach. Everybody lives here, in separate houses made for the students and the teachers. Every task is delivered by the students, it follows the same principals as the school I went to. Students do the cooking, the cleaning and serve tables. There is Communication class, basic mathematics, farming, Sustainability, English and Emotional Intelligence classes too.

Every student specializes in one area of hotel work. I’m responsible for restaurant and bar classes. This covers everything from waiting tables to making dishes and drinks like cappuccino, strawberry vodka, French fries. From time to time, of course we get side tracked and start talking about what are metros and trams like or the fact that in Europe not everyone is religious. This is totally incomprehensible for them by the way. If visiting locals, the best strategy is to say that you are Christian, married with 3 children, otherwise they don’t comprehend.

Life is hectic and colorful. There are customers all the time, either friends or business related big names who come for giving lectures. We have a yoga teacher, a karaoke machine, many movies, board games and beer – this would end the list resources for entertainment.

I was afraid of isolation a little bit, however it has turned out much better than I'd expected. The students give us a lot of energy; they are pure-hearted and can truly appreciate things and can love everybody. It’s strange, but the Sumbanese are very emotional. They notice the smallest notions and would ask what happened if there is a slightest change in one’s mood. When someone leaves, they begin such a painful cry as if someone has died. They practice a farewell song and would spend hours in their rooms mourning. By afternoon they are as if nothing had happened. At the same time they are able to enjoy music without the influence of any alcohol and can dance and sing for hours. I often wonder whether they will lose this ability when they start working under Western circumstances.

I am also able to appreciate small things, the lack of noise and light makes me more aware of nature. I read a lot, I go for walks and finally I can practice staring (my favorite past time), without and consequences. The team is great, we always have plans for doing things together. Most of us are in our late 20s and all of us have international backgrounds. My parents really enjoyed their 2 weeks here. We spent 1 week in Bali. It was great to spend time together. The crowd of people and the traffic dawned on me as rather shocking in Bali. It might come as a surprise, but I much prefer the close to nature atmosphere of Sumba.

Unfortunately I often catch myself wondering about the future or the past rather than enjoying the present moment, but I’m working on correcting this.

Probably enjoying the moment is what I’d like to learn from the locals the most.

All photos are the property of Petra Kőrössy.

Thanks for reading, I hope you've enjoyed it.

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