I always feel a bit of stage fright, or more accurately stage thrill, when I discover a new place I’ve never travelled before. Especially when I know the place is not too touristic where I can blend with nature completely. So when I had an opportunity to do social work in Siberut Island, Mentawai, my travel lust hit me strongly and I couldn’t help but eagerly pack my bag and go.
Siberut Island is one of island in Mentawai, West Sumatra which, according to CNN, is also known as one of 10 best surfing spots in the world. But I would not be exploring surfing beaches. My real destination was deep in the forest where I would stay with a remote tribe and blend with the nature and culture offered there.
After flying to Padang, followed by 3.5 hours on the boat to Siberut Island, I finally arrived in Muara Siberut, the main village. The plan was to go to the tribe the next day. Siberut, which is also a National Park under Unesco’s Man and Biosphere program, is the island where the Mentawaian Tribe lives.
Two thirds of the island is covered by tropical forests, swamps and hills. There are four big villages where the tribes are located. I decided to go to the closest one, called Rokdok village. It took 2.5 hours by dugout canoe, made by cutting a single tree in half and hollowing it out by hand. Oh yes, you have to sit still in these narrow boats or you will fall off into the river! This is followed by trekking through a swamp and a small forest before arriving in Rokdok, where the Sakaliauw Clan live.
I arrived in Rokdok at noon and was warmly greeted by Pak Kiku, the head of the clan. The family let me helping them prepare the lunch and we were sitting together enjoying our lunch and talking about his family.
The Sakaliauw live in Uma which means house in Mentawaian language. Each clan, formed of up to 15 people across three generations, live in a single long house. Uma, built without nails, uses only rope tied through holes to form each joint. They don’t have a front door for an entry, using the big terrace in front to receive guests.
They divide the Uma into three big parts. Beyond the front terrace mentioned before there is the middle or central part where they hold some ceremonial events, the main kitchen and a place to sleep. The back area is used for storage and as a second kitchen to process the harvest from their small farm. It is here they make Sagu, their main food, taken from a certain kind of palm family. The palm is hollowed out to access the Sagu inside. Once processed it looks like rough flour. They cook this after wrapping it in a Sagu leaf directly over an open fire.
On the walls of the Uma I was fascinated to see the many drawings symbolising the relationships between humans, plants and animals. The drawings, done with charcoal and other natural dyes, depict a life of harmony, of living side by side and hunting out of need, working with nature rather than destroying it. Above the wooden lintel spanning the wide entrance to the Uma they tie domestic pig bones. They believe this will insure the domestic pigs’ spirits will remain domesticated.
Inside wild animal bones such as deer, monkey, turtle, and wild pig are displayed throughout. Through this the Mentawaians believe that these wild animals’ spirits will protect the family from harm and will be easier to hunt in the future. They have two primary ways of hunting and catching animals. All hunting activities are done by the men using arrows poisoned with a mix of ingredients, while catching fish is done by the women. Food preparation and cooking is done by both.
Any animal caught will be shared with everyone in the village no matter how small the portion for each. The concept of sharing is essential to the Mentawaian ethic. It is their way of protecting the clan from hunger, jealousy, hatred and insuring a sense of fairness.
I was lucky enough to stay in a Sikerei place. The Sikerei have the highest position in the village cultural status. They are the guardians of the tribe’s traditions, serving as the highest priest and also the medicine man. Mentawaians don’t have a village chief. Everybody has his or her own responsibilities and role, each considered as important as the Sikerei. Like the tattoo maker who is called Sipatiti.
Researchers and anthropologists acknowledge that the Mentawaian tradition of tattoos is one of the oldest in the world. For Mentawaians, like the wall drawings, the tattoo represents the balance between humans, plants and animals. Besides all the lines drawn in their body to describe which clan they are from Mentawaians also make animal-shaped tattoos to describe their connection with the nature.
So…not just any member of the tribe can do this. To make tattoos they hold a special ceremony and each drawing has special meaning. One particular tattoo that only the Sikerei is allowed to have is Sibalu Balu, the sun-shaped tattoo which means “star of life”. This shows how important the role of Sikerei in their tradition.
Spending two days in the tribe was not enough. The simplicity of their life coupled with the richness of their culture and local wisdom left me with a deep appreciation for this unique tribe. Pak Toikod, who is Pak Kiku’s brother take me to the river side where the canoe was put. One last word he said was Saraina, Meikai Boiki… means sister, we will meet again. No wonder I can barely resist the urge to go back to Siberut Island and to venture further afield to discover other remote tribes.