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The Shaman of Siberut

Getting down to business




People bed down early on Pulau Siberut, the largest of the Mentawai islands that lie 120km off the West Coast of Sumatra, and for good reason.

Early morning wake up calls arrive, not by prior arrangement but automatically, courtesy of the pigs and chickens that spend their nights beneath the village huts.

This open-air larder is the scene of a never-ending opera of squealing and crowing that reaches its crescendo in the early hours of the morning. Sleep does not come easy.

Arising after one such performance I peer through the misty veil that drapes the village and surrounding forest. I can just make out the figures of already active villagers their slight but athletic frames moving swiftly between the shadows.

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Stepping from the hut my host Lacha smiles. "Albeit kipa sosoa," he says, bidding me good morning, a machete tucked casually under one arm and a troubled looking chicken held firm by the other. Maybe he was woken by it too.

I am here with my guide Lala whom I met in the town of Bukittingi on mainland Sumatra. He had promised me ten days of adventure, new cultural experiences and discomfort. The discomfort began on the overnight journey across a moody and threatening sea needed to reach the island. Our vessel looked old enough and rickety enough for Noah to have once rejected it. This was followed the
next morning by an arduous trek through the Siberut forest, the ground thick with mud and the air heavy with humidity.

A Malevolent Spirit

This is not an easy place to get to. For the villagers today is special. A malevolent spirit has held their meetinghouse (uma) hostage. The uma is regarded as the spiritual center of the village its well being is pivotal to the villagers spiritual health.

Tonight a ceremony will take place to evict it.

As one of the islands eldest and most respected shaman or kerei, as they are known here, Lacha will lead the ceremony. He will be assisted by four neighboring kerei.

It is the responsibility of the kerei to maintain harmony between the villagers and the spirits and souls that surround them. The Mentawains are animists believing that everything has a soul from the plants and trees to the rocks and stones in the river, all must be treated with respect.

Everyone's role in the preparation for the ceremony is dictated by village custom. The women have the duty of growing and picking the taro, sweet potato, sago and cassava. For two backbreaking days, tortured by the baking sun, they have been plucking their harvest from the heavy, marshy ground.

These are the hard-earned accompaniments for the fresh flesh, donated by the monkeys and pigs that the men have been hunting. All will be enjoyed at the celebratory feast.

As the sun beats its harshest path to the village Lachas four allies arrive. Their attire is as bright and alive as the forest from which they emerged. Long, sharp, dart-like leaves strike out from their elbows, waist and knees, reds, yellows and greens clashing with vigor.

Closing rank they disappear into Lachas hut. Their preparations involve secret rituals that are forbidden viewing. As the night rolls over the village everyone makes their way to the uma. Deep in meditation the five shaman remain oblivious to their growing audience. Silence fills the uma.

As one, the shaman begin to sing. Their sweet voices float gently on the still night air and as the half-light from the fire produces dancing shadows on the walls and floor, one cannot help but feel hypnotized. Rising to their feet the calm is suddenly shattered.

Jagged Dance

Armed with hand bells and powerful chants the quest to stir the malevolent spirits begins. Ancient words and primal fears meet as the uma comes alive, everyone alert with anticipation. Mirroring the atmosphere the shaman strike out in a jagged dance. Arms, legs and hips rise, fall and circle, mimicking the animals of the forest, taunting the spirits.

As the performance intensifies the uma rattles with the chanting, stomping and bell ringing. Gradually the shaman enter into a state of trance, their eyes distant, searching, staring through the air toward something beyond.

Pulses caught in the rhythm accelerate with the increasing pace, overworked vessels pound alarmingly. Fearing a hemorrhage I welcome an abrupt halt in the proceedings. Lacha collapses to the ground, his prone body jerking in violent spasms. He has captured a spirit.

Intoxicated by the magic and mystery of the moment the audience also appears in a trance, static and speechless, paralyzed witnesses to a spiritual spring clean. Collecting him from the dusty floor the spirit free shaman escort his quivering body from the hut. From outside a harsh untamed scream strangles
the silent forest as Lacha expels the spirit from deep within.

Unburdened he returns leading his tireless troupe through a succession of encores, continuing relentlessly until finally all unwanted spirits have been ejected. To ensure the ceremony is successfully completed there is one final ritual to perform.

Preparing for the rituals.  photo: Gary Long..

For the enlightened shaman of Siberut the intestines of a chicken offer a sign as to the success of the ceremony. Unfortunately for the chicken they have to be removed first. Lines on the membrane are interpreted in positive or negative ways depending on their formation.

Lacha holds the membrane up to the light so that judgement may be passed. Everyone waits silently and expectantly for his verdict. After a minute of serious study Lacha turns, a broad grin across his face, his reading is positive.

To the joy of the villagers and distress of a selection of pigs and chickens the celebrations can begin.

The next day we leave the village with the sound of drumming and singing reverberating around the surrounding forest. The feast will continue for at least one more day to demonstrate how important a healthy uma is to their daily lives.

Want to to Go?

Getting there
Most flights to Indonesia arrive in Jakarta. From here it is possible to catch express buses to Sumatra and on to the town of Bukittingi, prices are around $20 but the journey is long especially during the wet season. A better idea is to break the journey, Bengkulu and Kerinci are interesting diversions. It is also possible to fly Jakarta to Jambi ($40-50) and then get a shorter bus journey ($5-10) of four to five hours to Bukittingi.

In Bukittingi there are many cheap hostels in which to stay, prices can be as low as around $2-4 for a basic room. Guides to Siberut can be found in the many coffee shops in town most of whom have a tour desk on site. The Canyon coffee shop and the Harau cliff cafe are particularly recommended.

The cost of a ten-day tour is $100 - 150, make sure this includes all transport between Bukittingi and the island along with porters, local guide and trekking food.

If you wish to go it alone ferries leave the port of Padang, two and a half-hours from Bukittingi, four times a week but services can be a bit erratic so double check before buying a ticket. Guides can be found once you are on the island but this can often be more expensive and time-consuming.

When to go.
The dry season runs between May and September and although this is the best time to visit you could still find ourself knee deep in mud. The Mentawaiins lay felled trees along their paths to walk along so a good sense of balance is helpful to avoid the quagmire beneath.

Health
It is advisable to take at least a basic first aid kit cuts and grazes can soon become infected in the tropics. Also make sure not to get dehydrated the heat and humid can soon drain you. Suitable anti malarial precautions should be taken. Chloroquine resistant malaria has been reported so consult your doctor before going for the latest advice.

Gifts.
It is a good idea, although it's not expected, to take gifts to offer your hosts and guides; cigarettes and sweets are always welcomed.


Gary Long writes from East Sussex, England.

 

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