The Tribal Villages of Sumba

Tarung village in Waikabubak, Sumba

Tribal western Sumba is without question one of the most fascinating cultural regions in all of Indonesia. Eclipsed by more famous destinations such as Papua, Sulawesi, Sumatra and Flores, remote Sumba is primarily visited by travelers with a keen interest in ethno-tourism. Way off the beaten path – or any path for that matter – you don’t just end up here by mistake; you come here specifically to take in the unique Sumbanese tribal art, architecture and cultural heritage.

Sumba is a tough place to travel: there are few hotels, roads can be terrible, English is non-existent and the tribal communities can be somewhat volatile. Conflicts can break out at any time, even in the larger population centers such as Waikabubak. In fact, on our way to dinner one evening in Waikabubak, we were turned back because a battle had broken out between two villages and mere meters ahead people were hacking each other to death with their swords. This ain’t Disneyland.

Despite the difficulty, a visit to Sumba is incredibly rewarding. While traditionally constructed tribal villages are increasingly rare on other islands, western Sumba is covered with traditional villages featuring Sumba’s unique megalithic tombs and stunning high-roofed hut architecture. These villages are a sight to behold.

Communicating with villagers is very difficult. Without a guide, basic Indonesian language skills are essential as well as a lot of patience and understanding. A good guide would be very useful to learn about the intricacies of the local culture. Thomas and I, however, decided to take off and explore on our own. Because we decided to go it alone, our focus was less on the details of the Sumbanese culture and more on an experiential exploration of tribal life, carefully feeling our way through their taboos and the complexities of their belief system. This will definitely not be the best choice for everyone. For people who do not have much experience with tribal cultures, such an approach can be awkward or, perhaps in some locations, even dangerous.

In theory, when entering traditional villages in Sumba, visitors are escorted to the head elder (kepala desa) where you are expected to offer gifts such as betel nut (sirih pinang). In practice, everybody and their brother might come out and demand gifts. While experienced travelers might initially dismiss this process as just another touristy village demanding some baksheesh, in reality most villages in Sumba are not that touristed. The process seems to be more of a modern interpretation of some traditional gift-giving ritual that applies to Indonesians and other locals as well. Unfortunately, betel nuts aren’t cheap and visitors would go through a mountain of cash if they bought betel nuts for everyone. These days, many visitors buy packs of cigarettes and pass out individual cigarettes instead. I’m no big fan of Philip Morris, but these gifts are a necessity to enter traditional villages. Occasionally, in some frequently visited villages, they may ask for cash as well (that’s when those baksheesh instincts might be more valid.)

Whereas villagers in Lombok, Flores and Alor are quite hospitable, the Sumbanese seem more aloof and often somewhat suspicious. (In a later post we’ll explain a bit better why that might be.) Despite the coolness, the fascinating villages are incredible windows into the past with massive megalithic tombs, table-like spirit stones (kateda) used for offerings to the dead, and skull trees (andung), where headhunters once hung their trophies.

But what really grabs visitors’ attention is the impressive Sumbanese hut architecture. Absurdly vertical roofs soar out of the broad-based, more functional open-sided living areas. Beams and lintels are often carved and porches are frequently decorated with lines of buffalo skulls. Unfortunately, like termites gnawing away at a masterpiece, art collectors are taking their toll on Sumba’s unique heritage.

Despite that toll, there is much here to thrill visitors with an interest in traditional culture. Local dress remains a part of daily life to some degree. Older women often go topless dressed only in their traditional ikat (a heavy, ornately woven sarong). Younger women, however, usually wear ikats with T-shirts. Men like to wear their ikat bunched up around their waist as a kind of belt over western clothing. Some men also wear a cloth chaotically tied around their head. Almost every man, young and old, carries a sword, which they unfortunately still use when tempers flare.

Don’t worry, not everyone is violent. 🙂

That violence is such a part of Sumbanese tradition that it has been ritualized into festivals such as the Pasola. Each year, the exotic Pasola season begins when village shamans along the coast determine that a specific sea worm (nyale) has arrived. Upon the arrival of the ocean worms, villages organize bloody boxing matches in which the fighters wrap their hands with razor-sharp grasses rather than using gloves. After the fights, Sumba’s warriors take part in ritual lance battles often injuring and occasionally killing each other in the process. (You kind of have to wonder if Gene Roddenberry based Klingons on the Sumbanese.)

Tony at Sumba-market

So who are these shamans who announce the arrival of the worms? Sumbanese follow a religion called Marafu characterized by a belief in marapu, a collective term for various gods and spiritual beings. While many people here claim to be Christian, we discovered just how tenuous that claim was when a local pointed at a Christian grave marked with a cross and said, “Muslim grave.” (I think it’s fair to say that even the most superficial Christians would recognize a cross.)

Religious realities are best displayed in Sumbanese death rituals. When a person dies, the family members must sacrifice large numbers of horses and buffalo to appease the marapu and allow the dead person to enter the invisible world. Families spend enormous sums on these sacrifices and the economic toll on surviving family members can be devastating. It’s an interesting topic to take up with more modern Sumbanese living in towns.

Sumbanese culture is beyond fascinating. For this reason, Sumba is – without a doubt – one of the most unique and rewarding regions we have experienced in Indonesia. While change is definitely coming to Sumba, there are few places on the planet where you can encounter such deeply traditional people and explore such authentic villages.

WARNING: As is the case with environmentally fragile Komodo island, certain cruise lines have discovered Sumba and plans are underway to include traditional villages here on Indonesian itineraries. At least one ship has already visited dumping hundreds of people at once on a couple of Sumba’s culturally sensitive and unprepared villages. Such plans are BEYOND ABSURD and large-scale commercial exploitation of Sumbanese village life is WHOLLY inappropriate. Any cruise line considering Sumba visits should be strongly encouraged to drop such plans.

6 responses to “The Tribal Villages of Sumba”

  1. avatar Geoff says:

    Wow. What an incredible post. I nearly went to Sumba when I was in Indonesia but ran out of time – this really makes me realise how much I missed out on.

    How good is your Indonesian? Did you enough to travel solo? And was there a reason you went without a guide – was it to save money or did you just want to explore on your own?

    • avatar Tony says:

      Hey Geoff,

      Yes, Sumba is a very rewarding destination. Our Indonesian is functional, but not super great. We can get accommodation, find our way around, interact on a basic level (names, ages etc.).

      The reason we chose to go alone is kind of strange. Thomas and I have traveled extensively and visited many tribal groups. It has been years since we visited a region like Sumba where there was such an opportunity to be thrown into a parrellel world and sink or swim. We really enjoyed the feeling of having to interact with the tribes on our own, struggling to communicate with them, and figuring out all the details for ourselves. In many ways, this allows you closer contact with the people. They often laugh hysterically at our awkwardness, invite us in, and make an extra effort to communicate with us as people rather than as tourists passing through with the buffer and distance created by a guide. We love exploring the villages and trying to figure out what things are. Often, afterwards, we look things up on the internet to see if we guessed right or not. Often we are way off. 🙂

      In reality, this kind of travel requires visitors who know what to look out for. I definitely would not advise that most people do this. But the opportunity to feel that wonderful sense of being plunged into such a different environment is an increasingly rare treasure.

  2. avatar Greeneyes says:

    Fascinating article

    It is a very sad thing to think that in the near future, cruise ships could destroy this volatile culture.
    What are they thinking???
    Oh wait, they are NOT THINKING.
    Maybe continuing to adorn those swords is a good thing.

  3. avatar Geoff says:

    That sounds like a pretty cool way to do it – it’s not something I’d be confident enough to do if I was travelling on my own, as I know from past experience when things go wrong and you’ve not got someone to share it with it can be pretty tough, but I’d love to try that kind of travel somewhere if I was with someone. Thanks for sharing such a great experience.

  4. avatar Mumun says:

    It’s interesting to read how westerners see Indonesia. From your writing, I didn’t realize Sumba was that exotic, but I feel a tour with a guide would’ve help ease out the exotics a bit. Some parts I could see was a way of a few Indonesian life, yet felt over-blown a tad bit out of proportion. But, again, it’s a good understanding for me.

    • avatar Thomas says:

      Sumba is definitely exotic, but I think that is one of the reasons why Westerners want to visit Sumba.

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