Wednesday 20 November 2019

Back to the Uma

When I close my eyes I am back in the Uma, trying to sleep on my slowly deflating air mattress, under rows of monkey skulls, surrounded by sounds. 

It is not just the expected jungle orchestra of cicadas keeping me awake; I’m listening to the rhythmic chanting of the kerei - shamans, sharing knowledge and songs in the patio adjacent to the area we sleep in. But here in Teu Reppa’s Uma in Attabai, even more is in the air. The animals know it too, as you can hear in the roaring groans of the big black bulls in the clearing around the house, the occasional cry of a pig or the cock-a-doodle-doo from the roosters that never quieten. 

Amanipai, in his element (as always)

After I came home from my stay in Siberut Island, I was straight away plunged into the madness of modern life. A school event, my son’s birthday party, things to arrange and deadlines to meet. Those two worlds are so different I struggled to collect my words. But slowly the world I left behind off the coast of Sumatra seeps back into my mind. How can I learn from the things I saw there? How can I get back that feeling of peace, of being one with the world? That feeling that what we have is enough, in fact much more than enough. That we need to simplify our lives. I gave away half the clothes I carried but I still felt embarrassed about the size of my backpack that my porter – teenage girl Toktak, lugged back out of the jungle for me. I gave her my cap. 

Teu Reppa (right) with me and his wife Goreng

Toktak and I

Our guide Amanipai carried the tiniest of string-bags for his ten days with us, the biggest thing he lugged along being his pouch of tobacco tied on top of his loincloth. The Mentawai people smoke – a lot! 

Bai-Ipai (Aman-ipai's wife) during a fishing trip

Bai-Ipai and I

Let’s not kid ourselves; life in the jungle isn’t easy. It is hard work, lugging water from the river to the house, hiking miles through rough terrain to visit friends or family. Having no electricity, mobile network, access to modern medicine or any other modern comforts. To be self-reliant. But the people we saw seemed happy, living in harmony with each other and nature. They have enough sago and plenty of livestock. I miss the starchy sour taste of sago, freshly roasted above the fire in palm leaves or bamboo. I miss bathing outside in the river, low as it was after months of drought. I miss the thankful smiles of the old ladies when we rubbed their knees with tiger balm.

The WOAM team with the Sakkudei clan

Our host Teu Reppa is not only a kerei but the head of a large clan. Just before we arrived one of his sons passed away, so we worried we were imposing - but the messenger, a son who had hiked several hours to pass us the news at the Uma of our guide Amanipai, ensured us we were still welcome. The care we got from Teu Reppa’s family was astonishing. Even without a common language we managed to bond with them, particularly the women and children. Mostly the visitors they receive (the last group having come a year ago) are men, and serious hikers. We were eleven women, there for a week. We drove Johan, our head guide and interpreter, crazy with all our questions, but also managed to elicit so many laughs. We chatted and sang with the children, several of which attend the village school and therefore speak Bahasa Indonesia. We ate sago worms, witnessed the slaughter of pigs that we feasted on ceremoniously. 

Chatting with the children
Feast of boiled pig during ceremony

There is clearly a split in the family between the traditional and modern minded – of Teu Reppa’s sons two became shamans and live in the forest with their families, where another specifically wants his children to have an education in the village. This chasm in their lives is a tricky one that raises important questions: how long can their lifestyle last? And; how can the Mentawai maintain their culture and religion in modern Indonesia? There is so much more to reflect on – and write about, but for now I digest, I reminisce. I look at the photos and transport myself back to the Uma. 

Aman-suri (Teu Reppa's son) preparing sago flour

Me in the 'bedroom'
As I try to doze off, back there, I shake awake, startled by a stampede on the wooden floor planks and screaming voices. The air in the Uma crackles with suspense, and curious, my friends and I sneak past the tribe on our way out to the bush toilet for a quick peak. We won’t find out details until Johan enlightens us the next day: The spirit of the recently deceased clan member has come back to inhabit others. In a deep trance the possessed woman rocks and sways, restrained by family members with a long piece of cloth. As we walk back to the area we sleep in she follows us, tells us not to worry in a friendly tone, then continues dancing right at our feet as we acquiesce to the fact we won’t get any sleep tonight. The woman’s beautiful yet eerie voice fills the electric atmosphere as she dances, twirling and smelling the sweet ginger flowers her mother-in-law gave her to keep her soul grounded. It goes on all night, the chanting, the singing, the trances and the stampedes. The animals, my friends and I, we don’t sleep a wink. 

From my house in Bali, I think back to Siberut. I am still alive, but I hope I can go back to that Uma too some time soon, if not in real life, then at least in spirit.

To be continued

(PS several of the photos not by me but by teammate Andrea Galkova)


  1. What a fascinating adventure! No doubt it will keep your mind busy for a long time to come. Maybe you'll write another book?

  2. Yes, another book is brewing... (and thanks for your support too!)