Of Life and Death on Sumba

“I have to think of a good name,” said our guide Yuli one morning as we started our day. “My sister just had a baby boy.”“What kind of a name?”

“Well, we have two names in my village, a Christian one and a tribal one.”

Local animist Marapu religion is not recognized as one of the official religions of Indonesia, that gets marked on everyone’s identity card, so people choose one of the others. (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism).

“My Christian name is Yuliana,” explained Yuli and my home name is Leda Tara.”

“Who chose your name?”

“My mom, but it is actually up to the baby to make the final decision.”

“What do you mean?”

“We will have a baby naming ceremony when the boy will be three days old. Would you like to come and see for yourself?”

Would we ever! For such a special honor and privilege we wanted to play our part so on the morning of the ceremony we stopped in town and got a selection of cakes. Yuli purchased a number of live chickens and put them in the back of the car.

“Are we sacrificing these or eating them?” I asked.

“Both,” she replied. “But first we will say sorry for killing them and ask for forgiveness. In Marapu religion we believe everything has a soul. Even stones and trees. When we cut the wood we ask for permission. If you don’t get permission from the wood, the killed wood might kill someone.”

We also wanted to give the baby a gift, so we headed for the market. Yuli suggested a small pop up mosquito net in blue and I could not help myself but add a little blue outfit for the baby and one for his older toddler brother. (We heard he had quite a hard time sharing his mom.) Thomas the Train Engine and Cars are popular themes on Sumba, too.

The ceremony was held in Yuli’s parents house in the village. The house has been only partially rebuilt with a flat roof after a recent big fire that burned half their village. We were introduced to a number of relatives, old uncles who were the Rato Adat (shamans) and civil leaders of the village and old aunts, amongst whom one was chosen to have the main role in assuring the correct name was bestowed upon the baby.

You see, the baby is put to the breast of an old woman while incantations are intoned and the baby’s new name is called out. If he suckles, it means he accepts the name, if not, another has to be offered.

No village visit or ceremony can be conducted without the basket of beetle nut being passed around on the outside porch and everyone’s teeth and lips colored blood red. I dutifully tried it in he first village we visited but I could not build up even a slight buzz, because I gagged on the incredibly bitter tasting nuts right away.

I got to hold the cute new baby while the new mom was free to run around entertaining and serving guests. When Mirek very sensitively and sensibly enquired if she perhaps should not rather take some rest and someone else could step in to help, we were told it was not necessary at all. The birth was quick and easy and she was practically like new. At least the rice harvest was over, so she was not expected to go straight back to the rice paddy.

Indeed, the new mom looked very happy and at ease and if we had not noticed the elastic belt she wore around her stomach, we would be hard pressed to identify her as the woman who gave birth just three day before.

After sufficient amount of beetle nut was chewed and we drank our alternative black tea, we moved inside where on the centrally located cooking heart the fire was ablaze. The women in traditional hand woven sarongs congregated around the heart and the men with their machetes on the bamboo bench periphery.

Plastic plates with offerings of rice and bank notes were set all around and then the Marapu priest started chanting. The baby continued to sleep through it all. The chosen old woman picked him up, and in an attempt to wake him up unwrapped and jiggled him. She lifted the still sleeping baby up into the air and down again three times calling him by his new traditional name, his grand father’s name: “Bora Duka, Bora Duka, Bora Duka!”

She whipped out her breast and offered it to the baby. Nothing. She wet his face with some water-nothing. Tried the third time without luck.

After some more chanting by the shaman a back up name was offered. Lede Kadi Wano was a great grandfather’s name from the father’s side and on the third try the baby latched on and suckled. He accepted the name and in the reverse logic the ancestor also agreed to share his name with the new baby. Much cheering ensued!

To celebrate the successful naming, the first brown chicken was ritually cut with a long knife across the neck and bled into a prepared bowl. Then it was taken to the fire to singe its feathers off.

If you ever heard the saying Running around like a chicken without a head, I can tell you that it is a real thing, and to our shock the killed chicken went into the fire with a lot of flapping around. The shaman, who acts as an intermediary between the earthly and spiritual realm, then had the chicken, thankfully now truly dead and unmoving, cut open to read his entrails and predict the child’s future. Everyone was happy to hear a healthy life and a good future was predicted for the baby boy.

We had a hard time watching all this but all the little kids present seemed to have no problem at all, even though just a short while before they were playing with the very same chicken in front of the house. The harsh realities of life on Sumba are taught early. You want to eat a chicken, you better be able to stomach its killing. No, bloodless chickens do not come from the supermarket fridge.

After the same fate befell the second, white chicken, we begged to be excused from remaining slaughter and lunch. We had to recuperate before we were to visit the funeral ceremony in the afternoon.

While the naming ceremony was an intimate extended family affair, the funerals on Sumba last three days and are a huge public displays of filial piety, ostentatious wealth, and status in society.

Hundreds or even thousands of people, dressed in their Sunday best attend and expect to be fed. Numerous buffalos and pigs are killed not only to feed the guests but as a vehicle to send the deceased soul into the Marapu Heaven and as a gift to the ancestors awaiting it there with a big banquet.

As some years back we attended another funeral ceremony in Toraja, the highlands of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, we were quite apprehensive to see the Sumbanese way of saying goodbye. The slaughter in Toraja was extensive and while I am willing to accept animal sacrifice as part of tradition, cultural identity or religious belief, I do find it very hard to accept the needless and prolonged suffering of animals. The buffalos seemed unaware or resigned, but the pigs were neither. The gruesomeness there was mitigated by the beautiful costumes, processions, singing and dancing, but here on Sumba things were much less elaborate.

At the entrance to the deceased’s village we were relieved to find the elaborately decorated buffalo still in one piece.

But just a few steps further we came across his fallen comrade. We told Yuli we would not be staying long and preferably not for the second buffalo’s demise. The pigs were done in the previous days, their jaws prominently displayed in the middle of the village.

As foreigners we were quite a welcome diversion amongst the guests and the family greeted us cordially.

After tea we were offered the visit with the corpse. Mirek stepped back but I did follow the young man to the other part of the house where I mimicked my condolences to the widow, who was sitting next to a heap of cloth and bamboo.

“Do you want to meet the dead man?”

“Ok,” After all I came so far…

The covering was taken off and I found a face of a small dark man in a sitting position, his body wrapped in layers of weavings. The Marapu corpses are buried in a fetal sitting position, the Christian ones in a prone.

“We only keep the body for three days in West Sumba, but in East Sumba they sometimes keep the dead people in their houses for years,” explained Yuli. It was so in Toraja as well, where I visited a matriarch’s well embalmed corpse complete with wire glasses and black purse. Her daughter very respectfully knocked on the door before entering and politely introduced me to her mom. A loved one is not truly dead until the correct rites are performed and the soul is accompanied to heaven with the sacrificed pigs and buffalos. But in Toraja no megalithic tombs were built, the dead were put above ground in cave niches. In Sumba the loved ones might be gone, but they are never out of sight and forever part of the community as their giant tombs are right in the middle of the village. Kids are playing on them

or laundry drying or horses tethered. It takes years for a family to save enough money to give a proper funeral with the sufficient amount of sacrificed animals. And this is just part of the cost. The other is the cost of constructing those huge carved megalithic tombstones. We have seen tombstones weighing up to 70 tons and hundreds of men must be fed and entertained during the months it takes to drag them by hand from the quarries. Reminiscent of the Egyptian pyramid construction the enormous stones are dragged with the help of rolling logs underneath. Sometimes a crane is brought from the Mainland for help, but few can afford that cost. Well, no one can really afford the cost, period. The family debts incurred and passed down by the obligations of traditional funerals are crushing the Sumbanese families and keeping them in poverty.

By every ginormous tomb there is a small flat stone-a slave grave. It used to be that the personal attendant to the royalty was killed to serve the master in the afterlife. This is not done anymore, now they wait till the slave dies of natural causes. Excuse me?

Yes, you heard that right. Slavery still exists on Sumba. Everyone is born either into a caste or royalty, freemen or slaves. But of that in another post.

10 thoughts on “Of Life and Death on Sumba

  1. It is so nice to read all your adventures. And that you have the opportunity to experience these cultures and their traditions.. Wow, I’m impressed!


  2. I love how you and Mirek find yourselves in the middle of such extraordinary (to the rest of us) situations. Thank you for such great storytelling and photos! I look forward to every post!


  3. You have already given birth to a fascinating travel book with your keen eye for photos combined with your personal and down to earth observations! Your juxtaposition of the sterile modern antennae between the animal jaws and thatched hut says volumes about how colorful traditions are slowly being overtaken by our modern systems.


  4. Love the last photo of the cow!

    On Thu, May 24, 2018 at 1:19 AM, Crazy Parents Travel wrote:

    > ksenija+mirek olmer posted: ““I have to think of a good name,” said our > guide Yuli one morning as we started our day. “My sister just had a baby > boy.”“What kind of a name?” “Well, we have two names in my village, a > Christian one and a tribal one.” Local animist Marapu religion is n” >


  5. Fascinating the way different cultures have such varied rituals around the very beginning and the very end of life…


  6. Getting caught up on Sumba. Extraordinary. You are opening us up to such interesting places and people. Thank you


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