Wednesday 23 October 2019

Eating worms for charity

My ‘modern’ life is safe, clean and comfortable. It is also hectic, more connected to devices than nature – and leaves a disproportionately large ecological footprint. Living in Bali I am starting to realise this more and more, as I witness how people live in the villages surrounding us. The Balinese lifestyle puts a bigger emphasis on spiritual wellbeing than on economical growth. Work is easily abandoned for yet another ceremony – to the despair of many expats. To be fair, at times that includes me, but at the same time I am glad to see there are still people in this world that don’t think everything is about money. That is not to say there are no challenges here – that many Balinese don’t also want that new handphone or a faster scooter. But life does seem to flow at a different pace, and there is a lot to learn for bule like us. 

As fascinating as the Balinese culture is, I have an old dream: to dip my toes in even deeper mud than that of the Balinese sawahs. Triggered by memories from my childhood in Malaysian Borneo, I have always been fascinated by tribes living in the deep jungle, trying as much as they can to live in and off the forest. This dream, however, is not that easy to fulfil when you have young children – one doesn’t just bugger off and say ‘bye guys, mummy is of on her own to stay with some headhunters for a few weeks…’ 

So when I heard of the upcoming expedition organised by Women on a Mission, I knew this was my chance. With a group of twelve women I’m going on a ten-day trek to stay with an indigenous tribe in the Indonesian jungle. The twelve women joining are Singaporean or (former) expats in Singapore. Twelve privileged women, used to comfortable hotels, clean sheets and air-conditioning – trekking through dense jungle, sleeping in makeshift shelters full of creepy crawlies, bathing in rivers, eating sago worms; it has to be an unforgettable experience!

The original plan was to visit the Korowai tribe in West Papua – the most Eastern part of Indonesia that harbours the largest stretch of unspoilt rainforest in the region and ranks very high on my bucket list, not only for the amazing nature, but also the fascinating yet tragic Papuan people. The political situation in West Papua has been unstable for a long time. The Papuans are fighting for independence from Indonesia, and violence has escalated recently after racist incidents on Java. It would be irresponsible to travel to the region at this time. The Papuan struggle for peace is far from over, nor is my dream to visit them, and I hope both can be accomplished in the future.

Thankfully, Indonesia is huge, and WOAM managed to find another tribe that will welcome us. We will stay with the Sakuddei, one of the tribes that live on Pulau Siberut - the largest of the Mentawai - a group of islands west of Sumatra. Almost half of the island is a national park, covered in dense jungle. The tribes eat what the jungle provides, sago, fish and shrimp from the rivers, wild boar and the famous sago worms I’m particularly looking forward to! 

The Indonesian government ‘encourages’ indigenous tribes like these to assimilate, leave their homes in the jungle and re-settle in villages on the coast. Their habitat of primary forest is cut down for timber, or redeveloped for palm oil. I am keen to learn how the Sakkudei manage to preserve their tribal identity in the modern world. In preparation for the trip, I have been in touch with Suku Mentawai, a local NGO whose mission is to improve the health, well-being and livelihood of the Mentawai community by supporting indigenous culture and teaching its wisdom to the younger generation. They have agreed to meet when we are there, to discuss in what ways we can support this important cause.

The wisdom Suku Mentawai teaches young people on Siberut is old. Whilst life in new resettlement villages is often one of poverty, as there are few jobs there, tribal forest lifestyles are infinitely rich; developed over centuries to be in tune with their surroundings. The Mentawai traditionally live in uma, communities where everything is focused on balance: with each other and nature. Central to their beliefs is that everything has a soul, plants, objects and animals as well as people – and these souls need to be in a good relationship with each other. Every community has a kerei – or shaman - who can communicate with souls and the spirits of ancestors.  These shamans also have a wealth of knowledge of magical medical plants from the jungle.

Shamans, astonishing nature, eating worms; there is a lot to look forward to on this trip. The other thing the rainforest surrounding the Sukkadei is famous for is mud. Knee and thigh deep mud that we will have to hike through for hours – because the best things in life don’t come easy. What there won’t be is Wi-Fi, or even a mobile network – which will provide us with a much needed digital detox. And the upside is that not many tourists venture out there, so we will have all the privacy we crave. Aside from these physical and mental challenges I hope there will be much to learn in the forest, particularly about living together on this planet, in harmony with each other and nature. 

About Women on a Mission

Women on a Mission (WOAM) is a non-profit organisation, headquartered in Singapore, which aims to raise awareness and funds for women’s rights and empowerment, partnering with existing non-profit institutions that serve the underprivileged, with a particular focus on women's issues. Every year they organise challenging expeditions - self-funded by each participant - to raise money for the chosen charities. This will be WOAM’s 10thexpedition and they have raised over SDG 1 million to date for their chosen charities. The upcoming expedition’s objective is to raise $100,000 SGD for Women for Women International – UK, a charity which provides women survivors of war and conflict with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. 

So whilst the participants of the trek are roughing it in the jungle, with their blisters, belly bugs and jungle meals, they ask their friends to sponsor them. Not for them - they themselves are lucky to go on this amazing adventure. But because there are many women in the world who have been through terrible events, and they need our help. 

Please consider supporting me to reach our target, donations made through the page below go directly to Women for Women UK 

Photos courtesy of Rob Henry of the Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF), partner of Suku Mentawai 

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