A Surprise Party in the Jungle
There is no way of communicating from the outside world with the Mentawai tribe, so we set off on a ten hour night passage from Sumatra to Siberut Island in the Indian Ocean, without an appointment.
We were a group of nine, including our guide, and penetrated the jungle by dug-out canoe, with an outboard motor, and then on foot into the steamy, muddy jungle. Being in the Equatorial region it rains every day.
Most of the Mentawaians of Siberut Island are largely unaffected by our civilization and live as they
The local currency is chicken and pigs which preclude growing vegetables and other cash crops, they say, and, in any case, there is no market for pork in Muslim mainland Sumatra. A woven chicken pen costs one chicken. A wife 30 to 60 pigs and training to become a medicine man, which involves a thorough knowledge of the jungle’s medicinal plants, singing and dancing, costs 20 pigs.
The centre section is the men’s with an open fire in the middle where they cook the food which is prepared in the women’s section at the back.
Each house holds one family: Grandparents, parents and their children. We never saw any great grandparents. Our first host family had two adult sons living in the house with their wives and young children. Their daughter was married and now lived with her husband and his family.
Another family we visited had eight brothers living with their parents and wives. They were building a massive new house of more than 4,000 sq. ft. (400 sqm). It will take three years to complete and last for thirty.
With so many fertile people living together in an open space, modesty is the order of the day, at least when the grandparents are around. Husbands and wives are allowed to have their mosquito nets next to each other, and they may even roll into one another’s, but they must be back by dawn. But the jungle is full of lovely and interesting things husband and wives want to show each other, we were told.
There were no villages and houses were scattered around the jungle connected by a network of muddy paths with logs and branches placed lengthwise to facilitate speedy barefoot progress.
We wore shoes which became big like elephant feet and slippery with mud and we would often slip and sink ankle or knee deep into the mud. It was a struggle to recover both foot and shoe without
Mentawaians are animists and believe in ghosts and souls in everything. If somebody is taken ill it is because the soul stayed out in the jungle. That is when the medicine man is called for. He will go
Their staple food is sago, which comes from the trunk of a palm tree, sometimes with grated coco added for taste. That is why they welcome outsiders with
It is the first time we have experienced anything like it, and we are lucky, because the next generation is increasingly interested in things money can buy. The last frontier will soon fall.
A friend of ours recently commented that we do seem to get around. Well, ten months ago we were in Himalaya on the Mount Everest trek. In eight months we will be on a cruise in the Caribbean with a group of friends before going through the Southern states to Mexico for a couple of months. John is right, we do get around!
Text and Photos © 2009 Angelika and Karsten Bech-Andersen - First published in Musenblätter 2009
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