Resistance Mythologies of South Borneo, Indonesia

“The real comes from the unreal.” ~Paprika (paraphrased)

Q: Why do strong and defiant chiefdoms buckle and submit to the organized religions of colonizers?


A) Efek Sinetron: The Soap Opera Effect

The forests of Borneo feel like the benevolent grandparents of the world. Yet even in the remote reaches of North Kalimantan Province, Sinetron Soap Operas rattle on through hot afternoons — beneath a wash of cicada song, and the hooting of gibbons. The visual target is driven home: Rich youth in the suburbs of the capital city live in luxury, with romance and drama, driving fancy cars and going to parties. And it looks pretty good.

The image is inlayed in the metaphysical; the youth are sold on it, predisposed to the language and religion of those they view as advanced and privileged – not realizing these teenagers on screen are as disappointing as plastic fruit.


B) Hydraulic Civilization Theory: Water!

Historically, water often handles conversions for a colonizing power, inadvertently or with deliberation.

Picture animals at a waterhole: Predators and prey pause the game to have a drink together. Around this metaphorical waterhole, human animal minority groups stop asserting their differences – in order to blend in.

In more direct examples, rivers are dammed, villages flooded, and people with different ways and different beliefs are forced to move into cities — for water. Sometimes it’s the promise of hydroelectricity, the shame of raising children without electric light, which causes parents to uproot and attempt to camouflage in with a larger group.

C) Beware the Japanese Graves!

Religious powers are often evoked when mining or palm-oil companies need to get their hands on land that is not their own. Religious figures, such as Imam, are hired to head into the interiors of Borneo (Kalimantan), and to transplant certain, toxic mythologies there, defiling whichever animistic variant is native to that area. After gaining the villagers’ respect, they often tell a story of a fierce battle transpiring on the land; they evoke an image of cursed cemeteries that often nobody can find.

While the story may involve graves of the Dutch, extinct tribes, the gerombolan, or communists (PKI), nothing clears a village faster than a well-told story of Japanese graves. They were supposedly the worst thing to happen to the country in recent memory, it’s said.

Effective grafting of these myths may involve having a person on the inside, a person in whom historian is synonymous with paranormal. Their role is to repeat the story long after the respected, religious authority has travelled on — until it takes root.

Soon villagers will blame crop failure, or water shortages, on a falsified history recently buried in the collective imagination.

I would not doubt that these disasters, such as droughts and crop failure, could be caused by the same multinational companies who are after the land.


D) Ancestry Hacking: Slipping the Trap of Lineage

Like animals at a waterhole, the fewer differences between individuals sharing the same land, the less chance of altercations. And for this reason, Imam are sometimes sent to villages to hack history.

Across this island chain, and even on Bali, animism overlaps with ancestor worship: Trees and stones are personified as deities; a tribe’s ancestors are said to dwell inside of natural objects and rivers that command respect. An effective Imam changes all of this simply by revising history.

The common story told is that of a mystical cemetery. It can be seen by some people, sometimes. Often it glows in the night, and it is filled with the corpses of royalty: The Banjarese Muslim Kings and Queens who died defending this region from greedy, foreign colonizers. Not only royals though, these graves contain the descendants of Prophet Muhammad himself. The story goes, this is their ancestral land. From the Imams, word travels to the paranormals, who tell the headmasters; headmasters tell teachers; teachers tell students, and so on.

In the end, when iterating their factual history – as noble, awesome tribespeople of the greatest rainforests in the world – a look of confusion and stress comes over them as they try to reconcile this story with the one in which they are direct descendants of The Prophet himself.


E) Zaman Gerombolan: The Time of the Gangs

In their battle for independence, many Indonesian men vowed to fight to the death. Then in 1945 their rivals, the Dutch, packed up and went home, leaving veterans with nothing – not even a common enemy. Without money to return to their hometowns, these mobs (gerombolan) ambled around the streets terrorizing Borneo (Kalimantan) more than the communists (PKI), or even the government-backed anti-communists, would.

I personally heard stories of these veterans robbing, burning entire villages down, and lopping off tattooed limbs with mandau or parang blades. I heard an old woman tell me that they’d attack you just for making a noise. I heard stories of pierced ears being hacked off and left dangling, and neck rings taken off, killing the wearers. And if you identified as Dayak you disappeared, I was told.

*Stories of these forced conversions surround you when in the interiors of Borneo; however, they have not yet been recorded or officiated anywhere else that I have looked (and I have looked in many places!). For all I know, the above two paragraphs are the only record of this event.

title-indo-mitos2 has the answers.

Resistance Mythology: A few Examples

Meditating monks disappear into the forest, becoming plant life.

“If you cut a vine, their blood will come pouring out!” warns the medicine woman of Apuai.

An elderly woman in Rantau Balai tells stories of crying ironwood trees, of tears rolling out of eye sockets on their trunks, begging not to be felled.

Another story of hers tells of a baby born with a tremendous appetite. He ate his way through the vegetables and livestock of entire villages, and was finally buried in the ground on top of Pahayangan Mountain in an attempt to pacify him. Every year people must come to make an offering to him, an also an offering of 41 different kinds of wadai cookies. The land must be appeased – as it is in the village of Pa’au.

“If that mountain is ever dug away or split, the entire world will end. It will be the end of days,” she adds.

A feature of local syncretism, the ‘Roh’ energy concentrated in Borneo (Kalimantan) is still greatly respected — though it has no foothold in Abrahamic religions. It used to be found around the trophy skulls of the headhunters, now it has moved on to gather in great forests, around great mountains – and on the island of Sumber Gelap. Oftentimes mythology and criminal mafias overlap in their control, and in the fearful reputation consecrating the area, advertently kept natural.

For more Resistance Mythology, here are a few from the archives:

Sustainability was stolen from Us: Anecdotes, Songs, & Films

Freedom From Vs. Freedom To

In certain nations with lower GDP, people enjoy a ‘freedom to’: Freedom to have loud parties, parades, and cultural events. They can set fireworks off wherever they please. Traffic regulations hardly exist. Law is enacted lightly and arbitrarily.

If you live in a developed country, picture the streets of the place where everybody goes for holidays. That’s what I’m talking about.

In well-run, organized, developed countries, people savor their ‘freedom from’: Freedom from loud parties in the street, for example. Freedom from corruption. Freedom from the grid-lock of total bureaucracy.

An experience of both is crucial (picture Australian frat boys descending on Bangkok for the first time). Meanwhile, my friends in developing countries do not have the privilege to travel – but they have more than we all may realize.

House Ownership is for Poor People

If the majority of a town’s population cannot afford property tax, or refuses to pay, then they chance achieving actual, indisputable ownership of their homes.

I’ve lived in these villages myself, where ethnic identity is strong, where no official would dare to tax or evict anyone.

Because Property Tax is Rent

There is a direct relationship between poverty and religiosity, because the poor have nearly no ‘freedom from’ religious pressure. Freedom from conformity is something people enjoy in developed countries.

But when people struggle enough, slipping the trap and escaping off to a wealthier country, many of them will have to accept that their God of Old is now The Government.

The Muslim men who immigrated to Canada and then were criticized for not standing for The National Anthem had plateaued – with no wish to adapt. However, deep down, in their seated bodies, they do receive the benefits of living in a nation where Gov. is taken somewhat seriously.

Because freedom from corruption, pollution, treatable diseases, overpopulation, gangs, and war, requires Government with a capital G. Belief in the system must be strong enough to convince you to pay the Government from your own paycheck – at the altar of the ATM.

Faith in Governance must be so strong that you will give up your rights to own the house that you built with your own hands – just for the greater good; just throw it in the national pool. The corpse of the cow you sacrificed for Idul Adha back in your home town here becomes an estate, taxes, and your life without subsidies. You will agree to pay taxes or face homelessness – the sad state of ownership in most developed countries, and especially in the supposed new world. Here The Pioneer Spirit is forced to emerge from the settlers’ sense of having been uprooted and kept uprooted – in part due to total lack of meaningful ownership rights.

Anyway, can you imagine how fast the workforce would shrink if we actually owned our homes?

A severed limb of sustainability has been buried in this small and overlooked detail. Sadly, the only way we can think to defeat absurdity is to label it under the euphemism of normality, in this way shaping one of the most affronting paradoxes of our lives: The crazier we are the saner we appear.

McCarthy’s Other Target

We thought that Cold War politics was a clash of two ideologies: Capitalism and Communism. The reality was even colder though. We have yet to account for just how much was lost to McCarthyism, when too much of this tiny world was made into a blank slate, where entire tribes awoke in parking lots and shuffled off to go shopping – like zombies.

Called the ‘resistance’, enclaves of sustainability were the actual targets, and even peaceful old women bartering vegetables were not safe.

For decades, Indonesians could have been killed for singing a simple song, the Gendjer-Gendjer (the Indonesian name for aquatic weed limnocharis flava from South and Central America). I encourage you to click here and listen as you continue reading (it is not likely to get you killed anymore).

During Japan’s occupation of Indonesia, Javanese Songwriter M. Arief wrote this song that, both in its cheery-but-snide melody and its lyrics, dared to express contentedness – in the face of ridiculous power.

And it goes a little something like this:

“Weeds are scattered in the field. A woman harvests them. She has a basket full, going home. At dawn, the weeds are taken to the market. Neatly tied in a bunch and then were offered. Mother Jebeng buys plenty. Now the weeds are ready to be cooked.”

What was this simple song saying? Why the hell did its singers deserve to die?

Gendjer Gendjer was an odd assurance to the powerless: No matter how bad it gets, there would always be an invasive, freshwater weed growing at the bottom of their ponds for them to eat. Mother Jebeng pays money for the weeds, reflecting how little the locals valued money – enough to assign it a rate of conversion: “How much is 1,000 Rupiah in aquatic weeds?” No, they dismissed money in a wonderfully jocular way, because they had weeds to eat, and more importantly, strength in solidarity between farmers as between singers.

Then in 65 The US toppled Indo’s first ruler and put Their Man in power and a bloody anti-communist movement began to sweep the islands. As the massacre was largely swept under the rug I highly recommend watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s masterpiece Documentary The Act of Killing to see what the media were trying to hide from us (for more on this, see my previous post, Hadda be Played on the Layar Tancap).

And in this new and terrifying context, ‘the weeds song’ came into new meaning. It was now less about struggle and survival, but resounded with anti-capitalist undertones, which hurt the President’s sensitive little ears. He reminded them: in death the weeds eat us.

“There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry.” ~Slavoj Zizek

While Indonesia’s previous President, Sukarno, had been obsessed with female nudes, at least The USA’s man also took art seriously – not only forbidding this song for 32 years of terror, but sending his men on a nationwide manhunt for the oddest reason. They searched everywhere for malnourished poet and stowaway Wiji Thukul – one of Indo’s brilliant Resistance Poets (please watch the beautiful 2017 film ‘Solo Solitude‘ following the fugitive through West Borneo).

Poetry, such as the following translation of Wiji’s Bunga dan Tembok, must have really infuriated Suharto:

“If we were flowers, we’d be the ones you don’t want to grow. If we were flowers, we’d be the ones you don’t want. You prefer building houses, destroying lands. You prefer building great roads, Putting up a metal fence […] But if we were flowers, you’d be a cement wall in which our seeds have already been scattered. And one day, we’ll grow all together, knowing: You must break. You must break. You must break.”

Sumbawa Aside

In 2013 I had a motorcycle accident while crossing the island of Sumbawa (following Google Maps from Bali to West Papua to live out a delusion a crazy Polish man would nearly succeed in doing just a few years later). It took two weeks of hobbling back and forth on a skinless leg before I dared ride again; during this time I was forced to slow down. I had no income, but this didn’t matter – not when you can rent a simple room with a mattress and a television for $10 a week. I was happy with my weeds at the bottom of the pond.

And in this reprieve, in this hollow of days, there was space for me to meet some simple people whom would illustrate the spectrum for me, and sort of decolonize my mind.

One day, just before noon, I sat near the beach among goats, chickens, and cows. I listened intently as a Javanese transmigrant attempted to justify (to himself) having moved to an island that was not his own to sell fruit salad (rujak). He told me that the Sumbawans don’t want to work, because they don’t feel that it’s necessary. What they require now are uprooted people accustomed to working for more than they actually need, with an understanding of supplying – even just fruit salad – to come and set an example for commerce.

Many locals still live in traditional homes, have chickens, cows, and small farms. They don’t believe they need anything else. How can they be convinced otherwise, asks the state? Just send more transmigrants!

I mentioned to him the many empty wooden storefronts I spotted along the single road that crosses the island. The small, mustached man laughed with a mixture of frustration and understanding. When a Sumbawan becomes sick or needs money for a ceremony, it’s fairly common for them to receive small business grants from the local government – whom are desperate to create economy. They usually open warung eateries, but as soon as they have enough money for treatment, or to buy something – off they walk back into the hills, leaving their businesses behind, he explained.

They don’t see the point. Their mentality is still like that,” said the Muslim man. “Still primitive.”

There were very few places to eat around town. Young children rode large horses along the beach to school. I ate fruit salad every day.

And in this flawed but peaceful hollow, without any frenzied, chaotic doing, I healed well and quickly.

If Sustainability Ends then what is Sustainability?

Filipino President Duterte has recently arranged a death squad to eliminate communism – and at this point readers should know what that actually means. Remember that bartering communities contribute nothing to a country’s GDP.

Sustainability was our security. It was our peace of mind. And we must always be forcefully weaned from it. Because it is sanity.

Sustainability – students will go into debt studying it without any irony; capital ‘G’ Governments will pretend it is their aim and the solution, though it is long behind us now.

The developed world now suffers a ‘freedom from’ sustainability in which we also police ourselves and our neighbors. It is there in the disdain towards hitchhiking and towards the neighbor whom doesn’t cut their lawn. It is there in the popularity of Air BnB over the free alternative, Couch Surfing. It is there in the locked dumpsters behind the supermarket. It’s in the vitriolic protest against so-called ‘beg-packers,’ and especially in the anti-immigrant conviction of the right.

Meanwhile, on the frontiers, what is being erased and forgotten is the ancient, platonic idea of what sustainability even is. I have watched it slipping into the past with my own eyes: The skies there are no fences facing.

That is what I have tried to define here – for posterity.

That was sustainability.

Sea Turtle Conservation Centers: Ecotourism or Scam?

Balinese turtle meat awareness cartoon

Used with permission from the Balinese Gus Dark Art @gus_dark_art (Instagram)

Dave the Turtle Guy

In 2007, Canadian David Arthur had finally saved up enough money working as an ESL Instructor to shoot an indie documentary about turtles. He kept turtles as pets for 12 years before he learned that they are sensitive animals with which it is best not to interfere – let alone keep in captivity for entertainment. When he set off to shoot Becoming Myth: Sea Turtles in Southeast Asia & Melanesia, he found tourists lining up to peek into shallow tanks full of endangered sea turtles.

Do we know what we are supporting?

tourists gather to release sea turtles

Sea turtles are cold blooded and favor cooler temperatures, which is why they usually hatch at night or early dawn – not high noon.

All 6 of 7 total species of sea turtles in one country

There are seven species of sea turtles in our oceans and six of them frequent one remarkable country in Southeast Asia. Indonesia hosts the greatest diversity of sea turtle species in the world and the coastlines are productive nesting grounds for these animals. These were the environments that enticed Arthur; his mission was to get all six species on video – but especially the critically endangered leatherback, the one species that often outweighs small cars.

His first stop was the beach of Sukamade in Meru Betiri National Park, East Java, where Arthur spent 11 days capturing images of green sea turtles digging nests and laying eggs. Rising at 3:30 a.m. to catch the radiant sunrise, Arthur encountered poachers digging at the break of dawn. They were collecting turtle eggs to sell in markets – for male stamina, of course. If the men didn’t get the eggs, however, monitor lizards, wild boars, and monkeys would have.

Beach life painted a grim picture: How could these animals even survive?

Set back 500 meters from the beach, an organized hatchery and nursery was run by local rangers. Pak Tri oversaw the operations and explained to tourists why it was necessary to raise the animals in situ. Given the rate of predation that these tiny creatures face, and the slim odds of their survival, Tri’s explanations made sense: Hatchlings are kept in tanks to protect them from all predators.

While taking shots in the hatchery one day, Tri turned to Arthur and asked him, in Bahasa Indonesia, “Mister, how much did you pay for your camera equipment?”

“It was two thousand dollars. But that doesn’t include the tripod or lenses,” Arthur said. “Or extra batteries or a camera bag or a light.”

After a pause, “Wow Mister! My family has never even known a hundred dollars,” said Tri.

During holidays, tourists came and purchased the hatchlings for just Rp 10,000 (US $0.69) each. Then they enjoyed watching their turtles disappear into Sukamade’s exploding surf – pushing off into the unknown like a prayer. This income helps to pay the rangers and fund the conservation effort.

The filmmaker became skeptical when he purchased ten hatchlings for himself. He noticed that the rangers would release these babies for him at any time of day, regardless of their size, and regardless of the species of the hatchlings themselves. There was clearly no science behind it. No method.

Bitten head-to-toe by sand flies, Arthur shook hands with Pak Tri and his family before making the 146 km trip overland to the island of Bali. In Serangan he checked in with Pak Geria, a facilitator at Bali’s Turtle Center. Here Arthur captured video of hawksbills, loggerheads, olive ridleys, and kemp’s olive ridleys – living their lives in large, clean, tiled pools.

According to Geria, headstarting turtles in these pools is the right thing to do. He reminded Arthur that in the wild, only one hatchling will survive to adulthood from each nest of about 150 eggs, while at The Turtle Center pools the animals grow to the size of dinner plates and can fend for themselves.

Another convincing storyteller.

“But what about the ritual sacrifices for full moon ceremonies?” asked Arthur.

What seemed suspicious on the island of Java appeared much worse, in Bali. Not only was the science behind The Turtle Center dubious but here Arthur learned that Bali island is one of the only places on the planet where people are allowed to consume sea turtle meat as a religious rite during full moon ceremonies. The allowance was set at 3,000 sea turtles a year – but who is keeping track? Certainly not the police, whom ate skewered sticks of turtle meat at one canteen on the island as part of their free meals.

“By raising them in tanks, we allow them to grow large, then investors and tourists pay to have them released, and the small number that we need for our religious ceremonies can be taken without causing an imbalance of their numbers in the ocean,” said Geria.

Arthur would learn that many of the turtles at The Turtle Center were not even found near the island of Bali. They had been imported along the absurdly rough roads spanning 146 km that he himself had travelled – bought from Sukamade and imported to stock the pools.

the dangers of headstarting sea turtles

Important questions nobody asks: Is this the beach where they were born? Why aren’t they being released at night or at dawn?

His final destination was nearly 5,000 km away from Bali. West Papua is an unstable province where journalists are not permitted for various reasons; Arthur gladly travelled along with members of the World Wildlife Fund Indonesia.

The small cigarette boat sped for seven hours to reach the wreckage of a WWII battleship. Here a weary family of Papuans climbed out of barnacle-covered hatches and greeted them with blank stares. These were the beaches of Wormon.

For two nights, Arthur and the WWF team did not sleep. The leatherback sea turtles were nesting in record numbers. Some of these animals had swum 22,000 km on journeys to Washington State and back again. In one night, Arthur and the rangers found six of these gigantic animals and one nesting hawksbill sea turtle.

In this remote location, unable to attract tourists, headstarting hatchlings was not a consideration. It was not necessary. At around 3 a.m. each night it was possible to stumble across a nest full of leatherbacks digging their way out of the sand and clambering to the ocean in throngs.

Only a few hours before departure, however, a woman named Mama approached him. She was the head of the 50-person village of Wormon, which had only just been hit by an earthquake. Buildings were damaged, schools, churches were in shambles. In tears, she asked him to help them rebuild. She also mentioned that, if conservation cannot bring her people any money, they will evict the World Wildlife Fund team in favor of poaching. The WWF ranger tried to assure him that Mama was stressed and more than likely, it was an empty threat.

When hatchlings make their first trip to the ocean, the location of the beach is imprinted in their memories and, if they survive, they will return to the same beach to mate and nest there one day for themselves. The practice of headstarting strips them of that decisive and perilous dawn sprint to the surf, and it also deprives them of any natural hunting experience.

An Indonesian Facebook page dedicated to marine conservation, Laut Biru, speaks out against headstarting. According to their research and practical experience, headstarting does not allow for the Darwinian process of natural selection; in other words, it could weaken the gene pool of the turtles that do survive.

A decade after Arthur shot his short doc. very little has changed. Headstarting first began in Hawaii and mainland USA before making a detrimental leap to spread across the Indonesian islands. The practice formed tourist attractions and caught on fast, and now its roots are deep. Writers with a scientific leaning tend to refute its benefits.

Ecotourism or scam?

Woke travelers please use reviews to decide if you should go, and after to inform others on whether they should go – or avoid.

The next time you go on holiday and someone asks if you would like to pay to release some sea turtles, be ready to ask them some questions: How old are they? Are they not still too young to fend for themselves? What time of day should they be released? Have you been feeding them live prey? Do people here consume sea turtle meat or eggs?

If you suspect that these people are being dishonest, or do not know what they are talking about, think twice before opening up your wallet.

Weaving, Guardian of Identity

"Weaving, Guardian of Identity" is a 75 page translation of Indonesian essays about weaving in the Nusa Tenggara Timur region of Indonesia - but also in Peru, South America.



Weaving, the Commons, & Womanhood


Forward: Chewing the Betelnut

An Asian tradition still going strong on Indonesia’s Timor island, chewing betelnut (areca nut wrapped in betel leaves) almost always happens when two parties come together for negotiation or a lengthy chat. Having a midly-intoxicating chew shows respect and humility — from the homeowner towards the guest. It also suggests that the meaning of the visit should be made clear before the chew is over. For this reason, this book starts off with an invitation to come and chew betelnut, as a show of respect to the readers, a show of humility from all contributors, to outline the intentions of this book, and to express our hopes that you enjoy each segment, as put forth by the author.

This book began with the struggles of the women of The Three Rocks: Mollo, Amanatun, and Amanuban, in South Central Timor Regency (TTS). All of the women weavers fought to stave off environmental catastrophy, in the form of a marble mining company, which they drove out with their looms — using weaving as a weapon. Their actions and stories inspired us to do the fieldwork. We encountered many other, overlapping realities along the way, realizing the full importance of weaving for the Timorese as a cultural identity, as guardian of their natural surroundings, as an economic tool, and as an archive of the knowledge and experiences that continue to amount.

This book is finally seeing the light after a long process of nearly five years. The writers and assembling team, from Poros Photo, Perhimpunan LAWE, Organisasi Attaemamus (OAT), supported by GEF SGP, were needed in order to gather data through direct contact with nine, grassroots weaving circles in eight villages around TTS Regency. These rugged inquirers spent their time in the outback, uncovering the information that has been compiled, discussing each point with friends, analyzing, writing, and finally, assembling the book that you are now holding.

Along the journey, the team became involved in weaving, became involved in the weavers’ plight, and in expanding the outreach of the promotion of their masterpieces. This book has emerged from these actions, actions which were in themselves research – recording information while getting hands dirty in support of the weavers’ movement, the weavers’ community.

This is not your average book about the exoticism of rare motifs; these writings delve into the identity of the strong, female weavers’ circles themselves — in Mollo, Amanatun, and Amanuban. What you go on to read will leave an impression of just how important weaving is to the Timorese identity, also the challenges of learning and teaching weaving to the younger generations, passed down with much cultural wisdom that would otherwise be lost. Readers will be surprised by the persistence of the weavers (not only in selling textiles, but also as a resistance movement, taking a stand for traditions and the environment). You will also read about some environmental crises; the reluctance of the youth when asked to continue the tradition of weaving; the trend of abandoning tradition to risk losing everything as ill-treated, foreign labourers, and many other subjects. Overall, this is documentation of the knowledge and experience of these peoples at one point in time.

We hope that this book provides an experience, therefore a new appreciation of weaving, while fostering solidarity with the stubborn-yet-graceful female weavers themselves, and the austerity of their plight. Above all, these writings should change your perspective. In the words of Siti Maimunah, in the introduction, “our appreciation of textiles should no longer be based on the beauty of the textiles themselves, but a deeper understanding of weaving as an archive of womanhood.”



Catharina Dwihastarini

Koordinator Sekretariat Nasional GEF SGP


Weaving & Defending Identity


A woven fabric is not a piece of cloth.

For most people though, woven fabric is just that — with a unique motif, it could be wearable. Through observing the female weavers of Mollo, Amanuban, and Amanatun, my perspective has changed, though. These fabrics are no less than an archive of knowledge and experience, growing and conforming to reflect womanhood.

Weaving, as a visual summary of local wisdom, is inseparable from femininity – especially the womanhood of the weavers themselves. Looking carefully at this relationship, I came to understand what Awam Amkpa (2010) meant by, “your body is a social text”: We grow along with our bodies, occurrences shape our bodies over time, along with our perspectives, and it is the same for the weavers. Navigating through the complex contexts of their lives, it is their resilience that gives them form, and thus forms their fabrics. And this has grown into an archival, woven, social text that is ever-growing and alive. This brings us also to question how the community of weavers was shaped – as a form of females. For this is it necessary to wonder what makes anyone who they are at the moment? Another question answer is, what has transpired to shape this body of women?

The weavers of South Central Timor Regency have been weavers since childhood. Some began before entering school. They do not weave only to produce fabric, sarongs, or scarves, but also to blanket their brothers, fathers, husbands, boys, and other male family members — as well as for their mothers, sisters, and other women, too. The impressions a woman’s fabrics make can even prove to others that she is now ready to marry.

In their every day lives, the female weavers are not only in charge of domestic duties but also must provide hand-woven clothes for all. The weight of their diverse tasks and chores accumulates. Aside from taking care of the house, children, preparing food, they must also set aside time and strength to weave clothes. Capable weavers cultivate cotton and natural dyes from plants, and dye the yarn by hand. In Amanatun weavers prefer to weave bundles (puaf) as they acquire the yarn from the many gewang trees that grow around them. Meanwhile, in the highlands and coastal areas weavers prefer to use a lotus motif that does not require the binding of yarn or coloration.

Aside from their abilities to juggle these many responsibilities, the weavers now face the challenge of raising children in a new context, a changed environment. As a result of a diversity of opinions and policies within the local government, the public’s right to utilize their own lands has been revoked. Forestry Law No. 5 of 1967 demarcated the locality, and the local forests, National Forests. The land’s new status has removed their right to provide for their families, and also to complete their textiles with the abundant, natural materials. They now struggle to find natural dyes, harvest wild cotton in the forest, and to build new weaving machines using the aged wood of older trees.

The markets then offered them a solution, albeit with strings attached: Factory-produced yarn, chemical dyes, and plastic string. These conveniences come at a price however, to be paid through more intensive farming practices, and other endeavors. Furthermore, not only have the natural weaving materials changed now, the industrial revolution has cheapened fabrics, which sellers also provide at the local markets. As a result, the role of weaving is becoming less and less necessary, for the people of Mollo, Amanuban, and Amanatun.

These policies and global influences combine to threaten their way of life. Being unable to use the lands around them increases their dependence on money – not only for food, but also for buying wood to renovate houses, and also to pay for their children’s education. Their newfound-need for money affects their weavings, which once had a strong social significance, but are now often regarded chiefly for their commercial value. Woven cloths are now bought and sold in order to accumulate the red and blue notes of Rupiah.

Now plugged into the global economy, weavers supply what the market demands. And what it needs is strong cloth, light cloth, and motifs that reflect modernization – and for cheap.

In mid-2012 I swung by a weekly market. Here I met a man with a spread of goods on a bright blue tarpaulin, sitting on the floor. His pickings were slim: Either tobacco or textiles. They were either brick-red or white, lizard or crocodile motifs – at bargain prices. The fabrics, at 1.2 meters long and 40 cm wide, struck me as ratty and frayed, muted. They would have fallen apart in the wash; they were hurriedly crafted. “These were made by the mothers of the village,” said the seller. One piece of fabric was as cheap as Rp20.000,- up to Rp25.000,-; and it was then that I imagined these women, these weavers. What kind of women alter their very styles to produce as many shawls as possible – not even concerned if the lizard motifs were neat or stylish? Perhaps their looms can no longer produce a tightly-knit yarn. Perhaps it’s the fault of the women themselves as they are now desperate for money.

The amounting difficulties have yet to tax the creativity of the weavers to the nth degree, however. Actually, new corridors of creativity are being broken open in these hard times. Weavers create fewer sarongs and blankets — if they weave for their families at all – and now weave shawls of various sizes. Weaving shawls is easier, needs fewer threads, and takes less time. Weavers have also started mixing the old palettes: Yellows and pinks, baby blues with pinks, light greens with oranges, and other sundry combinations.

New motifs have also emerged. Women’s sarongs, which were usually red and white, have been made more colorful. Once following traditional motifs, amaf motifs, and others, their weavings have modernized; these days customers can even customize and tailor a motif as they see fit. Mama Bernadheta Lassa of Eon Besi Village is often asked to weave the Garuda Pancasila, the national bird and a heavy political symbol.

On closer inspection, it is clear that the role of the economy has not made the weavers’ lives easier. They are now required both to produce weaving to fulfill a social function, and also to sell. In this collision with modernity, the women’s traditional abilities have become transferable skills that are even threatening the stereotype – that men must be the breadwinners. In unforeseen crises, such as crop failure, in times when the weather can be unpredictable, women prove themselves to be capable of turning these transferable skills into money.

Not all Timorese women can weave, however. Those who graduate High School or College opt to move to the cities to find work. Oftentimes they meet their spouses there and choose not to return to their villages. For these reasons there are fewer and fewer weavers. Young girls have little time to learn weaving from their mothers. Once through with school they are attracted to the cities and other islands, or some of them choose to find work abroad. Modern education effectively deskills the villages potential, alpha females. Oftentimes it seems as though their education proactively leads them to believe that the only next step is to abandon their heritages and hometowns.

The story of the weavers of Mollo is not one of a dying tradition under the weight of capitalism, and not just because their daughters chose to work abroad, also. In 2004, weaving became a form of protest, driving out the workers of an invasive marble mine. In 2005, the women of Mollo began occupying the property of PT Teja Sekawan, in the villages of Fatumnasi and Kuanoel. They began weaving their traditional fabrics in the middle of the road, thus blocking the workers’ access to the mines. The woman behind the occupation movement was Aleta Baun.

Aleta and her peers went on to assemble the Organisasi Attaemamus (OAT), a social organization fighting the misinformation of the public, to ensure safety, and protect the environment. Three years ago, Aleta was chosen as a member of Dewan Perwaklian Rakyat Daerah (DPRD), the provincial and municipal council, of East Nusa Tenggara province. Aleta Baun became one of seven women representatives at this level, which has a total of 65 members.

Aleta’s new responsibilities made it impossible for her to continue many of her old activities, but she continues to stand up for the people, now in the arena of the council (DPRD). One subtle way that she asserts her stance as a true people’s representative is by wearing handwoven clothes as her office uniform. Her headband and shawl were woven by the women of TTS Regency — symbols that she flaunts with proud deliberation.

It is exactly the appearance of woven fabric, a worn identity, covering the female form, which I wish to discuss in this book. As for books about the exoticism of woven fabrics, weaving techniques, motifs, and history, these are easy to find. This book will fill a different role: Uncovering womanhood through their woven archive, woven by changing bodies — bodies to be clothed in textiles; uncovering the role of woven fabrics as a text that is shaped by ecological changes, socio-politics, and an economy that has grown across multiple regimes, colonialism, and the decades post-independence.

This book exists to illustrate the lived experience of the women of Mollo, Amanuban, and Amanatun – in a community that depends on a patriarchal system, where females being allowed to weave is in itself a recent occurrence. Despite this, weaving has quickly become a crutch for a regency, province, and nation, which is in search of an identity. And from the villagers’ side, weaving’s codependence on the natural world around these villages has had the communities reaching out to the local government, board members, and others – for their custom to be restored and recognized as the identity of this precise region.

To begin with this project aimed only to explain the current situation of weavings and weavers in TTS Regency. It was not until after a conversation with a few female activists in Jakarta, led by Noer Fauzi Rachman (Bang Oji) at the start of 2017, that the scope was broadened, enriched with critical theories and deeper analyses of weaving as a historical archive. For this I am grateful to Bang Oji, who encouraging me to step further, and all members of the discussion: Meinar Sapto, Catharina Dwihastarini, Voni Novita, Hening Parlan, and Linda. I feel that this is the uniqueness, also the riches, of this book. Discussion should always be valued as the key catalyst to enrich a work that is to be published.

Going a step further, this book functions to inform the public, and weaving aficionados, to view these works of fabric in a different light. Having read this book, it is likely that even they will not see weaving the same way again, nor connect with it in the same way. Our appreciation of textiles should no longer be based on the beauty of the textiles themselves, but a deeper understanding of weaving as an archive of womanhood.

It has taken more than five years to come together. In contrast to my first book, Tenun, Pemangunan & Perubahan Iklim, this book was assembled in an unusual. The preceding book came together like a puzzle, without plans, while this book itself is an answer to my personal inquiry into the world of female weavers. It was not just my idea to write this book, but it was encouraged by OAT during the second Ningkam Haumeni Festival, around Nausus Stone, Fatukoto Village. At that time a youth group, males and females, was there to write about history and traditional knowledge of weaving motifs. They interviewed the participants at the festival, community leaders, adults, and even the village youth. This is detailed in length in Chapter Two: Weaving, Lopo, and Festival.

It is hoped that this book, as it excels and as it lacks, may be of use to small communities and to the natural world.


Warm Regards,

Siti Maimunah



Chapter One

Women Protecting Identity

“For the Meto peoples, traditional clothes are as flags representing communities — to be worn on the bodies of the people.”

(Hendrik Ataupah, 1992:286)

Clothing and the history of a nation are one and the same. Its introduction is inseparable from ecological and geographic influences. For this reason traditional clothing can bespeak politics and power. On the small islands of Flores, Adonara, Lembata, Timor, Sumba, Suva, Rote, and a myriad others, weaving has become the main, worn fabric. Meanwhile, woven fabric is still used for traditional ceremonies, births, weddings, funerals, housewarmings, fertility prayers, and mid-harvest festivals (Pollock, 2012). In the TTS Regency of Mollo, woven fabric is worn as a public display of gratitude for assistance given by others, or when an agreement has been officiated and closed.

All activities affecting the lives of the Timorese, long ago and these days, cannot be seen apart from weaving. These days weaving is not only used for traditional ceremonies though, but it is used to indicate one’s conviction that the event being attended is of some importance. On the island of Timor, weaving is an identity.

When meeting someone on the road outside of an event, how else can we discern how they differ from the others? Etty Anone (46), as a female farmer of Fatumnasi Village, says, “Weaving is what differentiates our communities, atoin meto.”

Weaving only emerged because of women, sitting throughout days of spinning cotton, rolling yarn, spinning weaves and yarn, and producing long scrolls textiles every day. That the Timorese identity has been shaped by women is a clear and undeniable fact.

One cannot stand behind their community’s identity without acknowledging these bodies of women, and specifically their knowledge of weaving. This they owe to their lengthy relationship with raw nature. To start with, in the opinion of Aleta Baun, an important female figure from Mollo, the knowledge of weaving began with experimenting with cotton fibers. Progress was made through observation of black caterpillars, known as bankofak, living in the kanunak trees. These caterpillars spin white cocoons resembling cotton, known as ab neno. Cotton looks like ab neno, which is why it is called a bas, meaning ‘to embrace’. In the beginning, the ancestors of the residents of these eastern islands only knew of cotton as it existed in the forest, not as a material for making yarn. At some point they started to plant cotton, which grew well and led to the discovery of its functionality in the making of yarn.

Just when the tradition of weaving became rooted in Timorese culture is unknown, and who brought it to them is also a mystery. Since 1946, Chinese traders and ocean-farers wrote that, along with other goods traded, they also acquired weavings (Groeneveldt in Ataupah, 1992:284). It is clear that foreigners must have played a role in influencing the Timorese to use tais metan (black cloth) and krao (a rougher cloth similar to Javanese lurik). The story behind the strip cloth can also be found in Numbena Village and Haumeni, but with slight variations. In both histories, weavers produced only white fabrics, using white cotton. Following this they began using black derived from mud from riverbanks and ponds before they sourced blacks from the tarum plant.

In the morning the women would set off, carrying the yarn in a large container made from the skin of giant, dried pumpkin. Pumpkin-skinned containers differ from other containers, such as wax containers, and Japanese containers that are usually derived from other vegetation; this specific, giant pumpkin is bulbous and its leaves cannot be eaten. Anyway, in this way the yarn is brought to the edge of a muddy pond. Then the yarn would have been mixed with mud and left there until the black color permeated it. The yarn could then be washed and brought home, then rolled up and prepared to be woven.

In the opinion of Selvina Tefa (85), a proud grandmother from Tune, the ba’i, or ancestors, once wove in order to make fabric only to cover their naked bodies, especially their private parts (a poho). They used basic tools, known as monaf, nekan, and senu. To bring the lower yarn up, and to lower the upper yarn, they would have used only their fingers.

Weavings are the finest crafts of the Timorese (Nordholt, 1971:41); however, how weaving was designated as a job for women only is unknown. In Aleta Baun’s opinion, this may have been because of colonialism. “When the foreigners arrived, they were all males. They brought many women out from the villages. People were scared, and women were not allowed to leave their houses. Only men were to deal with the colonialists. In this way, then women had to busy themselves, and they chose to weave. This is how it became women’s work,” she said.

Agus Baun, the former head of Tune Village, cum-village-head of Bestobe, adds to the story told by his younger sibling. He suggests that weaving was influenced especially by the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. “The Japanese era was tough,” he said. It was perhaps the worst period for the Timorese, and especially for the women. Though the Japanese were only there for 3,5 years, in his opinion, the effect of their violence lingers more than others. Agus Baun is from an amaf family, much like modern day parliamentarians. He reiterated the old story of their ba’i ancestors, one of whom having been a temukung (like a modern-day village head), in Okbaki. At that time, the Japanese ordered the temukung to provide them with women on contract to accompany their soldiers. “Ba’i was a Temukung Okbaki. Because he was afraid, he had to send one woman. But he chose a woman whose face was unattractive, and whose appearance was scruffy,” he said. The Japanese sent her home, because it seemed as though she had never once taken a shower.

The cruelty of the Japanese brought about many controversial events still remembered by the Timorese. One of these stories is the capture of a crocodile from Oe Bubu Lake. The soldiers ordered the locals to go into the lake and coax the crocodile out. “If they didn’t do it they were shot,” said Agus Baun. Finally though, the crocodile was killed, along with a few villagers who were baiting it. “They stormed our rice fields. If they saw a healthy cow or pig, they took them, shot them, and carried the meat away. If they saw an attractive woman, they took her as well,” said Agus Baun.

The cruelty was more systematic in the west of Timor Island, in what is now Timor Leste. This region was their central military base from the invasion of 1942 onwards. It is thought that around 70 thousand Timorese died by the hands of their soldiers, and many others were wounded or starved under their rule[1]. In the book Independent Woman (Cristalis & Scott, 2005:13-14) the eye-witness accounts of the weavers themselves are presented as a tribunal concerning war crimes and sexual enslavement in particular; the transcript of which was released by a judge on the 4th of December, 2001. One of these witnesses, Esmeralda Boe was abducted and raped by a Japanese soldier named Shimimura. At the time of this crime, Esmeralda was still prepubescent. Though she was returned to her parent’s house after the first time, each evening she would again be abducted again to fulfill the needs of the Japanese men. Others, such as Marta Abu Bere, were also taken from their homes at night by Japanese soldiers and raped by as many as 10 soldiers. She was forced to provide for these men for as long as three months before her parents convinced the Japanese to let her go, because she was in poor health[2].

In the opinion of Agus Baun, during the Japanese occupation, the Timorese remained hidden out of fear, even hiding women in shacks or caves. Women could only see to the housework, which included pounding the rice, corn, and also included weaving. The situation forced them to stay in doors for long periods of time, and this is how weaving became women’s work.

The role of men in weaving has always been limited. Men assist as needed, digging out the roots of trees, removing the bark of the soga wood, and collecting tarum leaves. The younger boys are sometimes ordered to dip the yarn into various dyes while their mothers are busy weaving. However, even such limited involvement may result in them being mocked for being effeminate. At times even their parents warn them that they should not weave, or else they might become impotent (Ataupah, 1992:282-283).

The dissertation of Hendrik Ataupah, Ekologi, Persebaran Penduduk, dan Pengelopokan Orang Meto di Timor Barat, makes claims that the perception of gender amongst the Timorese is influenced by weaving itself. Men’s work is seen as more important than women’s, especially in regards to weaving. And so if men so much as assist the weavers they will be seen as inferior, and also as effeminate. Following this line of thought, there is also a myth that weavers must only ever be women. The female weavers themselves believe this myth to be true.

I met Mama Lodiya Oematan (73) in Fatukoto Village. She believed that boys would become impotent if they so much as held a weaving tool, which is called a sifo. “Weaving is women’s work. Men cannot even hold the sifo, as they will become impotent,” she said. A sifo is shaped like an arc and is used to smooth the cotton and stun the cotton fibers so they are easier to spin.

In Polo Amanuban Village, some men help in the act of nasun, spinning the cotton into yarn, and then rolling up the yarn. The workflow is then taken up by the women who start the weaving. In Saenam Amanatun Village, there are men helping to roll yarn, or thread, to be woven by their wives. In Bestobe Mollo Village, a man named Timothius Tasuab could have been considered one exception. This man had mastered all stations of weaving for himself, crafting remarkable textiles. The motifs he employed were ahead of their time. Although he had been weaving for 25 years, he was still called a banci (a dysphemism for transgender person), as he liked to weave. He passed away at the age of 106 and never married. All it takes is a few males to disprove the myth and superstition surrounding men and weaving.

In this way, weaving has always been associated with femininity, especially in the smaller villagers. Women should be able to weave, to blanket their children (mauk anak), make fabric belts (tani futu’), and cloth sacks (alu’ mamak) for boys, husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male family members. They are also in charge of creating sarongs (tais) and shawls (bete anak) for themselves, their mothers, or sisters. Young women who can create impressive woven clothing for their brothers and fathers are more likely to catch the eye of the families of their suitors, as quality, woven clothing is said to raise the status of a husband (Ataupah, 1992: 281).

Women are even considered juvenile, unfit to marry, if they cannot yet weave. Girls should learn how to spin yarn before their teens and be proficient at weaving before they can marry (Ataupah, 1992: 281). Although there are now many women in Mollo who cannot weave and are already married, they still must provide blankets for the family of their potential husbands, somehow. Usually it is the mother’s job to craft woven fabrics, or at least to buy them from the market.

In Bestobe Village, Margaritha Seba (53), the wife of the village head, still sees the quality of a woman’s woven fabric as an indication of her being a suitable wife for her son. “His would-be wife must be able to weave. If she doesn’t want to work, seeks an easy life, she must come face-to-face with me,” she says.

The problem is, women need much time to learn how to weave. From picking cotton, spinning yarn, dying, and finally using the loom. From the picking of the cotton to the completion of a quality sarong or blanket, the process can take up to three years (Ataupah, 1992: 282). The time required to weave may be only four weeks, but the dying requires more – between one and three years. Of course, modern shortcuts and crutches now allow them to work faster as they no longer need to pick cotton or dye it with natural materials. Nowadays they purchase yarn in the color they desire. If the color they want is not available, they can buy commercial dyes and color it themselves. In this way, it takes Margaritha Seba only three months to create a large blanket.

Weaving is contingent on a woman’s ability to complete the domestic chores, produce crops in the fields, find money for her family, and other community events, demanding her time and strengths. The imbalance of gender roles should be mentioned here, as the stereotype discouraging men from weaving only adds to the weight of their responsibilities.

The greatest inequality is the expectation that Timorese women belong in the house. There they are not only responsible for all chores, cooking, cleaning, raising children, and seeing to their husbands’ needs, but also need to clothe everyone in handwoven clothes, with the appropriate motif. And in certain situations, such as uncertain weather patterns causing crop failure, Timorese women may need to produce fabrics to be sold.

Timorese women are also expected to raise their children in a certain manner. Aside from pregnancy and childbirth, the demanding tasks that follow are to teach their children – usually while they themselves are weaving. What is especially important is that mothers impart to their daughters what they are allowed and not allowed to do. At the same time, mothers tell their daughters the importance of weaving, as a socio-political indicator, important for marriage, funerals, and other events. At times woven fabric is used to pay a debt following a dispute in the community. They teach their children that weaving is how to create a harmonious community, for the Timorese.

Caught in this predicament, Timorese women have a multiplicity of loads to bear and roles to perform, writes Lies Marcoes (2016). Their time, energy, and focus is nearly spent, making it impossible for them to make inquires about the world around them, or to raise their economic, social, and political status. Weaving is to be done at home, where access to information is limited. If only listening to the radio or television while weaving, the information presented will likely be of no benefit to them. From the many commercials to the soap operas, the media presents them with a view of unattainable glamour, a life which taxes both the land, the water, and the air. All factors mentioned thus far amount to the marginalization and poverity of Timorese women.

Weaving is increasingly related to poverty. In villages around TTS Regency, it is also associated with a lack of education. Those who still weave with cotton, which is harder and harder to find, are usually women over 60 years of age who never went to school, such as Mama Lodia from Fatukoto Village. Mama Milka from Bestobe village also dropped out, as did Mama Bernadetta Lassa from Eon Besi Village. This is how weaving has survived. Those who go to school do not have the time for it.

For this reason most schoolchildren cannot weave. “There is no time. Only on holidays do they have time to weave at home,” said Yosina Tampani, the mother of Eris Baun, schooling at Soe, the capital of TTS Regency. School itself is distancing Timorese women from the traditions that once empowered them.

There are still many poor female weavers on Timor Island, most of them producing fabrics to be sold in markets. As the climate is noticeably changing and crops are failing, it is their weaving that has become an alternative source of income for these women’s families. The other alternative is to find work in the city. In the area of Amanatun, crops often fail; such is the case in Sahan Village and Sanam, where weaving has emerged as the main source of income. Perhaps as the weavers only take to their looms when in need of money, even quality, woven fabric has started to lose its prestige. A single scarf with a simple motif and a width of 30 cm, at a length of 100 cm, requires two days of weaving, for a cost of Rp50.000,-. This makes for a gross income of Rp25.000,- a day, or around US $1.80. And as the difficulty of weaving depends on the complexity of the motif, oftentimes a weaver will have to settle for lesser still.

On top of this, mastering the art of weaving is seen as less of an accomplishment than finding work outside of the house. This view is maintained both by men and women themselves. And for this reason, many women choose to find work elsewhere, or even abroad, as housekeepers and servants, in order to improve their family’s welfare. That they may face hardships, and even violence abroad, either from their agents or their host families, is all too often overlooked.

At this time many children from NTT, most of them women, are leaving their villages and going abroad to find work. There are around 14,000 of them, and most of them are women. From this vast number, only 35% receive official positions prior to departure, the remainder have to take a leap of great faith. Most of the latter become fodder for human trafficking operations (Maimunah, 2016). In an account of one of these tragic stories, which occurred near the end of 2016, Mariance Kabu (31), as a native of Poli Village, North Amantun Regency, describes being physically assaulted by her employers, resulting in physical disability[3].

Local governance is attempting to raise weaving up, to fashion a local identity around it, and to push it higher – as part of the national identity itself. However, discussion about gender inequality and domestic responsibilities, such as weaving, has not elicited any response from higher forms of government. Purely for example, rules introduced by NTT Governor Herman Musakabe 20 years ago (1997) required government employees to wear local, handwoven clothing two days a week (Wednesday and Thursday). Government employees were of course free to choose which fabrics they wanted to wear, from which ethnicity, and of which quality. These policies had three goals: 1) Economic goals and the formation of a new market for the benefit of low-income weavers, hoping to bring them more into the public eye, 2) Safeguarding an old cultural tradition, and 3) Encouraging tourism to the province through the promotion of a regional identity. Unfortunately, though made by developers of local economies and protectors of cultural traditions, these policies are widely seen as failures (Polock, 2012:10).

As the government employees were ordered to purchase these fabrics for themselves, they had sought out the cheapest cloths available. As a result, weavers were forced to lower both their standards and prices. They would have chosen the cheapest yarn, simplified the motif, reduced the density of threads, and used cheap chemical dyes.

Polock (1926:6) criticizes these policies, as if these policies had created a new communal structure, replacing normal village governance with the demands of the office (Polock, 2012:6). Yes weaving is again in demand, but it is not worn with the same reverence or meaning as it should have — when men would have carried blankets and women would have worn sarongs. In the office, government employees used the fabrics to create modern clothing like sporty jackets. Little attention is given to the proper usage of the fabrics; the meaning itself has also been degraded.

These policies have in deed put more demands on the weavers, creating a textile industry of synthetic cloth that is light and comfortable, bright, and employing new motifs — even borrowing motifs from the Javanese market. In this new alignment of values, only price is of any importance. The traditional meanings of their fabrics have not been maintained, and an extravagant motif meant for a certain purpose can be worn by whoever can afford it, regardless of its meaning or relationship to nature or clan.

Since the passing of this policy, weaving has been dehumanized. These fabrics no longer carry significance in how they weave the community together with nature, but are now seen as manufactured goods. In 2011, the government forbade the sale of imported textiles from Java in an attempt to encourage the sale of local textiles. This policy has resulted in even more pressure put on the weavers as they feel obliged to compete with the creativity of all foreign fabric-makers, now fully abandoning any hints of meaning that their deeply symbolic motifs once held.

It is clear that these policies have taken weaving out of the hands of the weavers, who should rightfully be profiting more from these policies, as intended. Gender inequality and the weight of their many social roles make it impossible for these women to lay down the rules for themselves, resulting in their impoverishment — far from what is acknowledged publicly by the makers of these policies themselves.

Female weavers do not only play a reproductive and productive role, but also a socio-political role in the community. Through their roles as weavers, women safeguard the local identity, as part of the national identity itself. Therefore, their work should be more valued in and of itself, and the work involved should be justly compensated, so that these women can manage the weight of their tremendous responsibilities. What’s more, ideally men should be able to sit in behind a loom without being socially sanctioned, labelled, mocked, as is generally the case — so that this integral craft might stand a chance of surviving.


Chapter Two

Weaving, Lopo, & Festival


27th May, 2011: This is a historic day. The Mollo peoples are celebrating Ningkam Haumeni Festival for the first time. Hundreds are flocking to the stone mountain of Naususu wearing traditional, woven fabrics. They dazzle with their colors. Women sport sarongs, men cover their lower-halves with decorative blankets. Their neighboring villagers, the Amanuban and Amanatun, are also partaking.

That afternoon, Anaci Anin, a mother from Tune Village, was feeling hot at the foot of Naususu rock, along with eleven other Mollo women. They sat themselves in the grass between Naususu rock and Anjaf. Some of them spun cotton into yarn, while others used yarn to craft shawls and sarongs. Usually, their fabrics are either for their people, or for sale. Today is different, however. Today they meet for a competition, organized by Organisasi Attamemus (OAT), a collaborative venture of the peoples of The Three Rocks of Tungku.

Mama Anaci and two other women have been chosen by representatives of Tune Village to participate in competitive cotton-spinning and weaving. They call their group the Bubneo, the name of the oldest village in Tune. The festival succeeds not only in popularizing weaving, the competition requires that people understand the history of weaving, the deeper meanings of the motifs, and the natural materials that are used. “All materials must be natural, the cotton cannot be commercial, and the colors either; chemicals cannot be used,” said Mama Ananci.

Not just weaving, the institution of OAT also organized the construction of a traditional lopo house, which are always round in shape. This is because, weaving and lopo houses are central to the Mollo, Amanuban, and Amanatun identities. Secondly, these two traditions come together to paint the full picture of these people, their relationship with nature, and their Creator. Weaving and building a lopo house requires hardwood, colored dyes from plants, cotton, reeds, and other products of the forest or farms.

Lopo houses have many functions, aside from protecting their inhabitants from the afternoon heat, the cold of night, and rain; they also serve as silos for the stockpiling of corn for use in the next season. On top of this, lopo houses are believed to be the in-between, enabling villagers to communicate with the Creator. Complex village ceremonies and family gatherings all take place in the lopo, as do tatobi[4] child-birthing rites. Messages from ancestors are passed down and understood vis-à-vis the symbols carved into the structure of these round houses, which have one chamber and one door.

The ancestors of the Timorese were hunters, and they gathered birds’ nests. The Marga Clan were the first to find birds’ nests in nearby caves. Since then the name of a stone commonly found in the caves, faut kanaf, has become their new clan name. Furthermore, they started to study the art of harvesting birds’ nests, and built the first lopo houses – as they related back to the shape of the birds’ nests.

“In the beginning our ancestors living in the caves, and in the woods. Then they suddenly began to think about building houses. They sought a way to build a comfortable place to live. The first step was to learn from the forest around them, where they saw the spider (ninlao) making its nest, like a round house. Then they started trying to create a one-story lopo house (lop nimese),” said Frans Kune.

A lopo house can have many shapes, depending on its function. Typically they are round in shape. A small window is placed in the roof for ventilation. These houses require ampupu wood and straight, solid kasuari. Meanwhile the roofs are made of bamboo and dried grasses, reaching down to touch the earth at the foot of the structure. The roofs have to be replaced ever five to six years, while the wood can last for decades.

The men of Mollo are responsible for the construction of lopo buildings. Those already owning a lopo are considered ready to marry, independent, and able to stay on top his duties when married – in the same way that weavers are when the beauty of their fabrics has been refined.

Those are some of the reasons why OAT choose to open the festival with the construction of lopo houses and weaving. The celebration brought enthusiasm to those with hopes of protecting nature from exploitation by the mining companies, and combatted the pressure to build modern houses that have more of a negative impact on the environment.

In the perspective of the women of Molo, one’s identity is to be seen in the nodes of their weavings, the appreciation of their knitted motifs on sarongs and blankets used to cover the body. Men are said to feel their blankets around them as though they were being embraced by a deeper meaning. Meanwhile, women use their sarongs as a symbol of unification.

In Timor, weaving is sometimes referred to as ike suti – an expression with an air of mysticism. Ike is a short, javelin-shaped piece of wood that is 25 cm long and used to spin cotton while suti means shell. These two tools illustrate how the ike, while rotating like a top above the shell, embraces the cotton wrapped around the wood. This is akin to the role of women in Mollo: Embracing the riches of nature and human relationships, and embracing life. Not surprisingly, women are considered a part of the adult community only after completing the craft of ike suti.

Female weavers are considered adult ready to go out from their families, from their round homes. They are ready to aspire to the ideals of their own hearts. When they are ready, they must show that they are savvy, no longer dependent on their parents or others. They are considered ready to make the leap, providing for their families – either wood, clothing, or food.

Nearly all stations in the workflow of the weaver require material from farms or forests. “Women cannot weave with natural materials,” said Selvina Tefa from Tune Village, neighbor of Mama Anaci. These consist of looms (pao tenu) and cotton (a bas), the looms requiring special wood, such as ampupu and cemara, which are already old and weathered. There needs to be an atis made from this wood, functioning to close off the yarns being woven. Leaves from the enau plant or pelepah, or gewang, are used to tie the loom together, and taduk trees, with especially slippery wood, are used to separate the upper and lower threads; this device is usually called an ut. The natural dyes for weaving are also to be sourced from plants from the farms or forests. Fruits and roots are used, as well as the bark of pine trees, to create a red dye. Nila leaves create blacks, while turmeric creates yellow, and arbila ‘forest peanuts’ create a natural green.

The combination of lopo houses and weaving form a relationship with nature that acts to protect the forests as well as the animals within. Unfortunately weaving is hard to find in Mollo these days. Not just anyone can do it. “Since the convenience of manufactured clothes weaving has become left behind,” said Aleta Baun.

The rarity of traditional weaving stems from the role of cotton as the main staple of weaving – then replaced by the arrival of manufactured yarns, and then influenced by the availability of colorful, commercial dyes. Women found it easier to acquire these items in traditional marketplaces. Chinese Indonesians, Bugisnese, and Javanese made these materials available in stores. As a result, spinning and coloring yarn have become forgotten arts.

The stories around ike suti, or other stories about communities and history, swapped while spinning yarn, have begun to be forgotten ever since modern weaving materials have been made available. Modernization has also become part of the reason why weaving is no longer in the hands of the weavers themselves. Nowadays many who know how to weave do not know how to spin yarn, let alone apply the natural dyes. The next generation of weavers do not know the meaning of the symbols, the motifs they weave, which have been passed down for generations. Perhaps a few older women recall, but fewer still persist in passing that knowledge down to the younger weavers.

Traditional weaving is a dying art because the natural materials are inaccessible – from nature, or from farms. Margaretha Seba, the former village head of Bonleu Village, speaks of the many materials once sourced from nature, such as the bark of the mateos tree, the meko tree leaves, all to achieve bright and natural colors for weaving.

“Before the shade of color black was available from the tarum plant, people used the bark of a big tree, the mateos tree, mixed with meko leaves. These two materials created black easier than it is now made with tarum. With tarum the yarn needs to be dyed several times. With the older materials, it would have already been done,” said Margaretha Seba. Aside from this, arbila nuts (kot laos) were once pounded down and used to create green fabrics. Not only for colors, being similar to koro-koroan, the arbila nut can also be a food source in times of famine. All must be aware, however, that the nut needs to be boiled 12 times to remove its natural toxins. Black, red, and green, are an example of the broader spectrum of colors available straight from the forest itself.

Not only dyes, nearly all materials, including those for making looms, once came from the forests. Old and fallen kasuari trees were especially useful in creating the bninis, used to lift threads, and the pauf, and senu. Other devices, such as the nekan and ut, were made from bamboo, also brought in from the forest. Sial, appearing as large sticks, were used to create motifs, together with the leaves of the enau tree.

These days, the forest from where these natural dyes and these devices were derived has shrunken, retreating from the communities. Forest and farm lands have become sparse since undergoing the ‘greening project’ of Hutan Tanaman Industri (HTI) in this region. Since 1977 many farms and forests have been claimed as national lands. One of these restricted national properties is Cagar Alam Mutis Timau.

For as long as can be remembered, this region was a reserve managed by the community themselves. “Long ago, Bibinakan and Kuanmuk cattle grazed on this land, or the lands of bal muit,” said Agus Baun. In 1982, bal muit was processed by the government’s green program. Agus Baun, the former village head of Tune Village, says that the area of Bibinakan, at an area of 500ha, has now undergone reforestation. Then, in 1983, the community was asked to participate in finding and planting kasuari seeds. It was discovered that the area where these plants could be found had shrunken drastically. Not long afterwards, in 1994, the green project returned to Kuanmuk, and cleared 500 ha. Five years on this area was still regarded as part of Cagar Alam Mutis Timau.

Agus Baun is of amaf heritage, descended from Mollo’s parliamentary figures who served when the area was controlled by the old kings. From 1985 until 1994, he was a the Village Secretary of Tune Village, and for ten years believed he would become village head. These days, he is called Pak Manten Kades (‘Mr. Former Village Head’), or just Pak Manten (Mr. Ex). He still recalls acting as Tune Village Secretary in 1987 when Piet Talo, the Regent of TTS, called on all amaf people from three clans in the Mutis Mountains. Some came from Mollo, Amanuban, and Ammanatun. “At that meeting there was also a representative from WWF,” said Agus. During that meeting, the government hoped they would agree that the Mutis Mountains should become a closed off and protected area. The area remains a part of Cagar Alam Gunung Mutis,” he said. In 1999, this area was broadened by 12.000 ha, becoming 17,211[5].

In the opinion of the constitution, cagar alam is a nature reserve, having many endemic plants, animals, and unique ecosystems that need to be protected and fostered, in a natural matter[6]. The people are no longer allowed to partake in activities in this forested area, the offense could result in their arrest. In this way, the people have been deprived of their lands — through the green project itself.

When this green program first started out in Bibinakan, Agus Baun was still studying at SMA Kristen, Kupang. In 1984, he graduated and was asked to become Tune Village Secretary, supporting Yunus Ola, the Head of the Village. He moved forwards to replace Ola as Head of the Village on the 14th of November, 1994, and remained in this position until the end of the green project. He realized that lands for use by the villagers were becoming rare, while the population of the village was increasing, requiring more and more land to produce food.

Agus Baun struggled to create an allowance for the villagers to utilize this protected area, Cagar Alam. In 2003, he made an agreement with the Ministry of Forestry allowing people to harvest smaller plants growing at the feet of Kasuari and Ekaliptus trees. He then invited the Kepala Resor Polisi Hutan (KRPH), village and regency heads, and other figures to meet. It was agreed that the people would be allowed to plant and harvest in between the larger trees, for 25 years, and with the possibility of extending this allowance for 50 years more. This decision of this group was officiated with an offering of handwoven fabric from the Village Head of Tune to the KRPH. The people were allowed back in their forests.

The villages then fell the trees planted in a reforestation effort and occupied 260 ha of land, planting crops for 3,000 meters. More than 100 families planted perennial plants, such as candlenuts, mangoes, jackfruit, coconut trees, coffee plantations, orange trees, cassava plants, sweet potatoes, taro, corn, and rice paddies. Meanwhile, on the riverbanks, prone to landslides, they planted bamboo, guava, banyu trees, and dadap (Maimunah, 2016). Following this, nearby villages, from the Bibinakan area, began to plant in this area, as they lived near the border of Cagar Alam Mutis Timau. These villages were Bonle’e, Tobu, and Totem.

The confiscation of these territories was not only the work of the Ministry of Forestry, through the creation of conservation areas, but also the Mining Agency, a marble mining project given access to the forest and mountains – where materials from weaving and lopo homes had long been sourced. In the beginning, the government allowed PT So’e Indah Marmer and PT Karya Asta Alam to mine in Fatu Naususu and Fatu Anjaf, in Fatukoto Village. Following this, PT Setia Pramesti was allowed into Ajobaki, PT Semesta Alam Mermer was allowed into Tunau. PT Sagared Mining was allowed into Fatumnutu, and finally, PT Teja Sekawan was allowed into Fatumnasi – Kuanoel.

The marble mining companies were finally stopped by the community themselves. Why would the people of Molo not want their lands to be mined? In an interview conducted at the end of last year, Aleta Baun said, “We don’t want to lose our identity as the Mollo peoples. Our identity comes from the large, stone mountains, which we call faut kanaf. We know fautkanaf, haukanaf, and oekanaf. We know the names of the stones, the names of the trees, the names of the waterways. The Timorese, or atoen meto, have kanfatun, the essence of the stones where our ancestors once worshipped, and the basis of our large, family tree. The origins of our communities are to be found in the mountains of stone, the wood of the forests, the water sources.”

Their enthusiasm to protect the riches of nature continues to be carried by the Mollo people, the Amnuban, and Amnatun, during community festivals at the Naususu rock, Fatukoto Village. Ongoing since 2011, the people’s stand for nature will not stop, because it is under threat from reforestation, HTI, marble mines, manganese mines, and oil and gas mines too. During this festival, weaving and lopo houses are presented and discussed at length by the people of many villages. During the first festival, there was a lopo-house building competition. This was not to see who could build fastest, or whose lopo was the best, but to unite the peoples of the three rocks, the people of this specific area. As a result of this festival, lopo houses are again standing beneath the rock of Nausus, in both the styles of the Amnuban and the Amnatun. For them, it is a clear sign that the three peoples have come together as one. m


Chapter Three

Four Generations of Weavers


Corneila spun cotton,

Sofia preferred to buy yarn,

Maria liked crochet and gold,

Melisa went to school, never wove again.


Foremost this is a story of four generations of women and their experiences weaving, as told by Maria Abanet Selan (53), in Maiskolen Village. Maria relives the story of her mother, Sofia, and her grandmother, Cornelia, as well as that of her daughter, Melisa. The perspectives, ever-changing, and life experiences of weavers formed Maria’s world since childhood.

Long ago, when she was only eight, Maria and her friends studied t’sun, how to spin yarn. “At night, nearly every day, we sat around a fire, dong ba’i was there, mama, our brothers, and two of my friends too. There were not even lamps, let alone electricity. We swapped stories. Ba’i told us about Moahitu, the tallest person in the world,” she said, laughing. As she remembers it, Moahitu then died because his private parts were cut off, and that is as far as her memory goes.

In that era, the night was as important as the day. In the afternoons young Maria helped her parents in the fields, fetching water. Sofia Tateni, now already 70 years old, would always pinch Maria’s thigh if she started to nod off in the hot afternoon. And if Maria continued to be lazy, Sophia would take a chicken’s feather, dip it in water, and run it across Maria’s closed eyelids. This is how Sofia helped Maria get by.

At night, Maria helped her mother spin cotton into yarn. Cotton was picked from trees in the yard. The raw cotton was then placed on top of the nyiru, made of woven gewang leaves (a type of short shrub with long leafs like the palms of hands). If it were still fresh, the nyiru would be light green, and if it were old it would be yellow.

The pile of raw cotton on the nyiru was then separated from its seeds. Often they used their hands, sometimes they used bninis, a device that made the process faster. Before spun into yarn the cotton had to be stretched out, using a tool like an arrow, a sifo. The appearance of the cotton was now like a mound of soft snow, sitting on the nyiru leaves. From there it had to be spun, as if to create a cocoon the size of a child’s fist. A pile of these ‘cocoons’, known as t’sun, were then sun into yarn with a wooden spinning apparatus, the ike sunti.

The process of spinning cotton was usually undergone at night, and Maria was usually asked to assist. Maria still views the spinning of cotton as an important event, even enjoyable. It was a time for the family to come together and share knowledge and stories. Her mother often imparted old traditions of womanhood, how to be the head of a household, which Maria still remembers fondly. “We were taught not to be sullen when giving something to a guest. We were taught not involve our visitors in any domestic disputes, and to keep any arguments private. We had to please our visitors. But as soon as they left, the argument could go on,” said Maria, remembering the words of advice that her mother once imparted to them.

Stern teachings aside, Maria and her friends also received fables and rhymes. “We laughed often; the rhymes were so fun. Ba’i often told us long stories as well,” said Maria, chuckling.

Twenty years afterwards, Maria’s daughter Melisa is not learning to spin yarn. Maria does teach her to weave, however. “My daughter can weave, but cannot spin yarn,” she said. Having graduated Public School, Melisa continued on to study the Al-Kitab in Kupang. Finally she stopped learning to weave altogether.

“Time itself is changing, and children cannot weave anymore,” said this mother of five. The villages of Maiskolen, Dusun Besi Pa’e, and Polo, have been abandoned by most young women. Most leave in search of a higher education, to work in a shop, or fly to another country as female Immigrant Laborers, Tenaga Kerja Wanita (TKW). Malaysia, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia, are the countries which take them in, usually as housekeepers or nannies.

The change of times has also altered Maria, who no longer followers her mother’s traditions of spinning cotton. “It’s such a chore, and the yarn is available at the shop,” she said.

Commercial yarn has been circulating Miskolan since the 1970’s. The cotton used has been acquired from Bugisnese traders at the Wednesday market – or Friday in Taum. Taum Market is only one kilometer from Maiskolen Village, and is not open every day – only Thursdays and Fridays.

Market days are important. Villagers emerge from distant homes in Polo Village to sell and buy in Taum Market, open from morning until 11.00 am. It would seem as though everything were available at Taum Market. “Daily necessities, tobacco, coconut oil, rice, fruits, arbila nuts, betelnut, cotton, everything,” said Maria. People buy and sell livestock, cows and pigs, and other commodities too.

Maria buys commercial yarn at the market. “Nowadays the price of commercial yarn, per-spindle, is Rp1.500,-, the same price as wool,” she said. One shawl, with a width of one meter, as wide as spread hands of two adults, with a simple enough motif, requires 20-25 spindles. She needs one week to weave a shawl. This is not considering the time needed to roll and stretch the yarn onto the loom.

Before she sits down to weave, Maria starts her days at 4 AM. After showering and readying herself, she first waters the plants growing in her yard, prepares drinking water, and cooks porridge, or rice cakes, for her family’s breakfast. Once her husband has eaten they head to the fields, the tofa. Maria goes along with him, because if she didn’t, she would have no mode of transportation until the evenings when he comes home again.

On the afternoon when we met at her house, Maria was weaving a blue shawl, decorated with a black lotus motif. Each image in the motif was separated with a light green, pink, white, brown, or golden yarn. She prefers using store-bought yarn, which is thicker, and looks like cotton yarn but is a bit lighter. She also uses wool or yarn to finish the border. “There are more choices of colors,” she said. Woolen threads are smaller and lighter than store-bought yarn. Woolen yarn has been here since the 1980’s, while golden-colored yarn has only been around since the millennium.

Unlike her children, Sofia Tateni doesn’t like to weave with woolen yarn. She prefers cotton or store-bought yarn. Ever since the store-bought yarn appeared on the shelves, Sofia left cotton behind. The cotton trees in her yard are unkempt and overgrown.

For the last twenty years, when she was in her 50’s, Sofia stopped weaving. She could no longer see clearly, and couldn’t differentiate the many strings. As a younger woman, Sofia was well known for her abilities behind the loom. While she does still weave sometimes, while handling her 11 children. She tossed her unfinished work into a basket made of lontar leaves.

Sofia was taught to weave as a child. She learned how to spin cotton from her mother and from her grandma. She can still recall her mother’s weaving, its beauty and colors. These days most people cannot tell the difference between store-bought, chemical dyes and the natural dyes from long ago. Sofia shows off her mother’s handwoven clothes with pride.

As a teenager, Sofia used a sarong that tied above her breasts. She remembers that it was very plain. “Just two colors,” she said. Black and red. Black was sourced from the tarum leaf, after being left to rot in the water, and the red was from kosambi fruit skin, boiled in a pot.

“Mama made the colors herself,” said Sofia. She remembered her mother, Cornelia, as striven and hardheaded. Her mother continued to weave even when her asthma was causing her to cough nearly constantly.

This personal discipline made her mother a tough teacher when imparting to her only daughter how to weave. She ensured that Sofia would know how to spin cotton and weave. Her thighs were pinched until they were blue, and again every time Sofia started to tire and complain. “Women must weave, men must farm,” said Sofia, remembering a common phrase of her mother’s, and grandmother’s alike.

Sofia had eleven children. She still remembers how little Maria was obedient, but also stubborn. Maria preferred to learn through experimentation – while weaving. “I saw the weaving of my friends, and it encouraged me to start,” said Maria. The first piece that she finished was a thick, cloth belt, an ornate waste band called a futu.

Not all of Sofia’s children became weavers. Melisa Darmas (34), as one of two girls, only crafted a single shawl up until now. She created it with her mother’s help and instructions, as a teenagers. “My shawl is woven with a yellow lotus motif, because I really like yellow,” said Melisa, when asked about weaving. Her attempts to weave ended when she married at the age of 15, leaving her family to move to Nikiniki, with her husband.

In her home, Lisa – whose full-name is Melisa – has two, weaved sarongs. One was a present from her older sister, the other was bought from her neighbor. She only uses the sarongs for important social events and ceremonies of the Timorese, such as funerals and weddings.

Although the charms of weavings are faded in the eyes of young women, weaving is nevertheless tied to Timorese culture. When someone passes away, the family will always bring weaving to the funeral. If a man has died, they will bring a blanket. If a woman has died, they will bring a sarong. The rules change for weddings as well. Friends or relatives of the groom’s will bring a blanket, while those of the bride will bring a sarong, or a shawl.

And if no weavings are brought at all? “You could give them other fabrics, but that wouldn’t count, wouldn’t be valued, just seen in passing. Good weavings will be hung in front of the family’s house, signifying its value to the occupants,” said Abaya Abanet, Maria’s older brother. Weaving is a signifier for the Timorese people, the Atoin Meto. “People need to have custom motifs, because it’s cultural. It wouldn’t be right to wear a sarong from Rote or Sabu,” said Maria.

Long ago, the impression given off by a woman’s weaving showed others whether she was ready for marriage or not. For this reason, Maria’s mother was adamant to teach her daughter how to weave. Maria married at the age of 27, ten years younger than her husband, Sefnat Selan. They had five children, all of whom graduated, but for the youngest, who is still on the primary school bench.

Maria herself never felt comfortable on the school bench. “Back then school was more for the boys. My ba’i used to say that the next level of school is in the kitchen.” She wished to go to the city for further studies, but her mother wouldn’t allow it. “Those who study far away always come home pregnant,” said Maria, reiterating one of her mother’s maxims. So, while her older brother was off studying in Kupang, Maria stayed at home.

Maria and her siblings slaved away at home, helping with the crops and finding water, which is hard in Maiskolen. She and her siblings had to walk for four hours total to obtain ten liters of water from Noeminak River. “Back then there were no large roads, we went in groups with boys for safety,” she said. The forested areas they passed through were often full of violent muggers. To paraphrase Maria, it was not only water that was taken on the route, but sometimes also women too.

Every day at 4 AM, young Maria and her neighbor picked up their buckets. Back then, buckets were made of broad gewang leaves. They would reach the banks of Noeminar River two hours later. Others would have already come and gone, since the morning, to fetch water. At only four years of age, Maria had to walk for four hours just to fetch water. “We walked on a slant to keep the buckets from hitting a spike or a rock,” said Maria.

It had to be understood if the residents of Maiskolen were once protective and stingy with water. Thirsty people could beg at their doors all day. “Straight away the water was put in a pot for drinking and cooking. If people begged for it, we’d say there was none, but that sweet palm alcohol was plentiful,” said Maria. Sweet palm alcohol is brought down from the tops of the palm tree leaves nearby.

In one day, little Maria would fetch water twice: In the morning at 6 AM, and in the evening at 5 PM. “It was only enough to drink and cook for the day […] We showered in the river,” she said. Until she was 11 years old, Maria still fetched water, each day with her brothers.

It is mysterious just how the people of Miskolen Village found water. “In 1953 there was an oemata, a water source, but it often disappeared. Prigi also didn’t have water in the hot season. This oemeto would shoot out water in the rain season, but disappear completely in the dry season.” Prigi is the Dawam word for river. In 1999, suddenly the water came up and even wet the rice fields. Before that year, one would need to dig for 20-30 meters, and then suddenly clean water was available at eight meters under the surface. Stranger still, the water would be plentiful during the heat season, and much less during the rain season. Finally the village’s problems were solved. However, as per three years ago they can no longer grow rice; the water source is too inconsistent. Rice paddies that cannot be planted are better off being plowed and turned into crops again.

Not only for daily use, water is also important for weaving. It is needed for the coloring process. In the times when the weavers sourced colors from nature, such as tarum, kosambi, and pine bark, some of the trees were grown close to their homes. The leaves could be picked every three months. Tarum was used to create blacks. Meanwhile the bark of the kosambi tree’s branches created the color red.

The black color sunk in when the yarn was dipped into the tarum, which had already been left to rot, becoming a deeper shade of black. The yarn was dipped into a clay pot again and again until it was solid. “Usually twice or three times was enough,” said Sofia. Bright red was achieved by dipping yarn into the water leftover from the boiling of kosambi skin, colored red in a clay plot. Colorization required a weighty volume of water.

Aside from using natural dyes, even store-bought yarns and colors required water. “If the yarn weren’t washed before being woven they would become curly,” said Sofia. What’s more the yarns need to be washed to remove any weak, commercial colorization, which would otherwise bleed after the first wash.

As her mother, Sofia also enjoys experimenting with weaving. She explains the recipe, the materials required, to strengthen yarn. “Boil some ‘titi’ corn, then use the water. Dip the cotton in it, let it rest there, and then dry it out,” she said.

Weaving waste-bands, or futus, also requires water for colorization. “After it’s tied we apply color as wanted. We use Wantex mixed with water,” said Maria, expanding on her mother’s story.

Miskolen’s weavers have resigned cotton and natural dyes to the history books. Cotton no longer grows in their yards. Meanwhile tarum and kosambi still grow, but at a greater distance from their village now.

This portrait of four generations of weavers from Polo and Amanuban indicates the changes affecting the weaving traditions of the Timorese. The practice has gradually declined in popularity, from generation to generation. Along with it, the rigid and stable, traditional lifestyles have been broken down, and bodies of knowledge are disappearing into thin air. As the weavers switched from hand-picked cotton to commercial yarn, from natural to chemical dyes, entire archives – of women’s work at the junction of nature and community – have become nothing but old stories losing relevance over the ages. It is likely that they will be lost forever. m


Chapter Four

Amanatun, Weaving, & Immigration


When those from neighboring islands set eyes on Amanatun, preconceptions of a spent and dry island, usually associated with NTT, must be shed. The countryside of Amanatun is rolling hills, patches of forests, vast fields of grass. It would seem that any sort of vegetation could take root here.

However, with time the cons particular to this location start to accumulate. The hills, for examples, are a thin layer of soil – a mere skin – on top of stones. What’s more, water is limited. For this reason Amanatun is considered a challenging terrain, in the TTS Regency. “Plants will grow yah, but not well, and water just isn’t there. Even red nuts won’t grow, past June,” said Former Schoolteacher Elias Baun (64).

The green fields cannot be planted, because that is where the livestock graze. To everything there are limitations. And while the lands will never be more, the population is amassing. “Amanatun is crowded. It’s not possible for each family to have a hectare of land. We nearly have nowhere for livestock. What’s green over there, well that’s someone’s crop. There remains only that one, brown-colored peak. That’s where we let our livestock graze. But because there are so many animals, the grass is gone, so abis. We have two cows over there,” said Elias Baun, pointing eastward towards the brown-colored peak.

The harsh environment has influenced the people’s decision to branch out into new sectors. Weaving has become the main choice, aside from moving to another village where crops would be more productive.

Most Amanatun women are not weavers. Those who do weave do so quickly, producing as much as possible. “There are fast, fine weavings; there are also fast, ragged ones,” said Elias Baun’s wife, Yosina Tampani, to illustrate how the mindset of the weavers has changed to maximize profits.

Yosina recognizes that the current situation is far removed from what she experienced in her youth. “Back then if you wanted to marry you had to be able to weave. Many chose not to go to school. Just to weave,” she said. In those times, women struggled to maintain one thing: The fineness of what they produced behind their looms.

She remembers that weaving was once considered a true disclipline. Her mother, Nelci Tampani, was very disciplined, and instructed her on the art of weaving. If she made a mistake, her mother would hit her hands. Her mother taught her in a structured way. To start with, Yosina had to pick the cotton, separate it from the seeds, combine it with sifo, and finally to spin yarn. When she reached her teens she was ready to weave. When she was through with school, weaving replaced her course load. By the age of 11, Yosina was a fine weaver. The days of practice were not for nothing; it showed in her smooth and neat fabrics. Finally it would be the fineness of her weaving that made Elias Baun fall in love, asking for her hand.

In 1973 Elias Baun only just finished studying to become a teacher, before moving to Haumeni Village, in Amantun, Nungkolo District, TTS Regency. Upon arrival he shouldered the responsibility of opening a Primary School there, in Haumeni.

Becoming a teacher was a respected pursuit, in everyone’s eyes. Elias did not want for that respect to be wasted on him. What’s more, he was still single at that time. He went to Church whenever there was a service, singing with the choir. He could be found at village festivals, watching bonet dances, meeting many people, including girls from surrounding villages. And from all whom he met, only one tugged at his heart strings, and that was Yosina Tampani, the first child and only daughter of Lukas Tampani’s family, in the Noebona Village. Yosina was still very young, freshly graduated from Primary School, at Grade 5, and aged 11 years.

Yosina Tampani was a strikingly beautiful, young girl; a beauty that has carried through to her older age. She has posture, lively brown skin, broad eyebrows that nearly met shading wide eyes, and a high nose. Not only gorgeous, Yosina – better known as Mama Baun – is known as a Master Weaver. This landed her in Elias Baun’s favor.

Yosina never went further than Primary School, Grade Five. “I wanted to take the exam, but my parents didn’t want me to go far from home, even just to take the exam,” said Yosina. Finally Yosina chose to stay at home, practice weaving, help her mother cook, and tend to the crops and farm.

Her first two motifs were the futus and lotus. She also studied bunak. She learned how to tie the strings while dying them in order to create the desired motif. Before weaving commences, the shape of the futus motif would be discernible, after the strings were dyed. For the lotus, however, she would have to learn how to raise some of the strings, with the desired colors, to produce the motif. Otherwise, the lotus motif is achieved through combining the colors of the yarn, for the desired results.

And how about bunak? “The bunak is a painting made with yarn,” said Yosina. Bunak is a motif fastened to the fabric of the weaving itself. The motifs are often selected from a book, using materials for crocheting. Oftentimes experienced weavers combine two or three motifs at a time.

Nelci Tampani stopped weaving in 1995 at 90 years of age. She was nearly blind, but could still hear well. She could still get around with just a cane. And long ago she had planted cotton in the yard of her lopo, which she intended to harvest. However, because of ever-changing weather patterns and heat waves, it did not produce. Like other girls her age, Necli only started wearing clothes when she was 15. At that time there were only two hues available: Black and white. “Before that we were completely naked. It was too complicated to get clothes. Our mom wore only a short skirt, and that was enough then. Those in their teens didn’t need to wear clothes, because there was no cotton. Only those going to meet with villagers elsewhere were given clothes,” said Yosina, talking about her childhood.

Necli learned weaving from her mother. In the beginning, she learned tesun, or spinning yarn before weaving. In her opinion, back then there were only four main colors. “Long ago there was nothing like today, so there were only four options: White, black, red, yellow. The base was always white. After that, there was green, yellow, red, and black too.”

Colorization usually involved coconut shells. “The halved coconuts were lined up in order of the colors needed — first black then red, then others. It was also possible to use a clay pot. However, they were quite rare,” said Nelci. The textiles were sold in Timao, traded for money, or even silver.

Long ago young women sat around and wove together. “It was a girl thing. There were some older women too. The girls who were serious about weaving fell in together, and there were about ten of us,” said Nelci. They produced a dim light from burning pressed cotton, resin, and candlenut, wrapped around bamboo, under which they spun cotton and joked around. “We teased each other. We could take any event and chatter about it all together,” she said. When oil lamps were first introduced in the late 50’s, there was no need to spin yarn at all anymore.

As time passed, it became easier to acquire cotton and even clothes. Nelci started using commercial fabric when she was 25. The store-bought yarn could be bought at the market in the 1950’s. “I bought it from a Chinese-Indonesian man, Chun Ping. It cost 1 Kual and 25 Sen,” recounted the sharp grandmother. Woolen yarn came to the markets long after, in the 1980’s. The next threat to weavers was cheap, manufactured clothes, easily acquired since 1967. “After the Gestapo. After the killings,” said Nelci.

When yarn and clothing became easily obtainable, many members of the Barisan Tani Indonesia (BTI) were sought out and arrested. “They were arrested because their names were on a list, and it was ordered,” said Nelci. One of Nelci’s siblings was also arrested, but was not executed. According to Nelci, those in the BTI, which was an organization of farmers-helping-farmers, were innocent. She once watched as a school teacher was arrested, tied up, and locked away. “There were four people killed in this village alone,” she said.

Weavings are an important material during the lifecycle rituals of the Amanatun, especially during funerals and weddings. On the occasion of a death, the in-laws of the deceased would bring woven fabric. “Not all people, only close family would bring fabrics for the family of the deceased,” said Nelci. If it were a woman who had died the family would need to bring traditional clothes for her. For a man, the family would bring a woven blanket.

Woven fabrics were also required during weddings. “In Mollo, wedding ceremonies were known as matsao, here known as mate matomoen,” said Nelci. If the groom’s family put out the invitation, the groom’s family would have to bring silver in order to receive a proper seating place, known as lit oko (for men) and lit alu (for women). But if the bride’s family had put forth the invitation, a blanket and silver would have to be offered.

Weavings itself oftentimes functioned as an indication of someone’s status, along with atoin meto. “It has become a habit, when praying for the safe delivery of a child, to wear woven fabrics and carry some food as an offering,” said Nelci.

It is only now becoming a habit to tie a handwoven scarf around the neck of a visiting guest in the village. In Nelci’s grandmother’s sharp memory, that didn’t happen long ago. “It’s a new thing. Long ago, when a king visited we had to give him silver,” she said.

When Necli was younger all women had to weave so that they could be married. “So the older generations demand that you’ve got to be able to weave before you can marry. If you couldn’t, they would hit your fingers with a kah.” All of Nelci’s four sisters wove too.

Nelci’s knowledge has been passed on to her daughter, Yosina Tampani. “Back then whoever wanted to marry had to be able to weave. Many of us didn’t go to school, so we wove,” said Yosina. These days, only children of left-behind villages learn to weave. “If kids don’t go to school they must weave, if they don’t want to go to the cities to find money, they have to weave, finish a scarf a day for the market. If their parents don’t have money they have to weave,” she said. They weave tais, mau’ana (scarves), bete’naik (large blankets), and futu (decorative belts).

Yosina sold her first fabric in 1974. “At that time mama’s products were two blankets and two scarves, sold in Kupang,” she said. She received Rp50.000,- which she used to buy yarn so that she could keep weaving.

To find an income outside of weaving, Timorese women leave their villages behind to find work elsewhere. Of the entire, young population of Haumeni Village, half of them have travelled far away in search of money. “Every single location is a source of Foreign Workers (TKI). Young high-school girls lazy to study suddenly get an invite to Malaysia. Often. So, out of ten young kids, half will go off to Kupang city. Others will go to Malaysia in hopes of making more money. Those in Kupang suddenly end up with partners, and then where do they want to go together? Usually the husband will go off to Malaysia, the wife will follow. They leave their kids with their parents,” said Yosina.

Yosina makes an example using a house that we had visited. In her opinion, the older occupant of the house was not from here. “They left their kids behind last year. January they will be able to go home,” said Yosina. In Yosina’s opinion, people go far in search of work for many reasons, but mostly for money. Secondly, they often just feel an emotional need to experience a different life. “For example, if I sleep here, but tomorrow I don’t have money. As a teacher, I’d be ashamed not to have money. Better off on another island instead of feeling ashamed.”

People are not only going to Kupang and Malaysia. Many people from Haumeni end up working in Kalimantan. “Many men bring their wives and children to Kalimantan. They try to apply their skills there. Nearly every house here was occupied by a person who has now gone. I have family who has gone as far as Batam Island. There are even houses here that are entirely abandoned and empty. They started leaving in the year 2000. There are less people,” said Elias Baun.

According to Elias, many of his fellow villagers now work for palm oil plantations, either in Kalimantan or Malaysia. And that isn’t much better than becoming a domestic servant, he thinks. He has pity for those who have left their villages and traditions. He believes there must be something closer to home, closer to Haumeni, for them. “There’s work here, there’s work there. The difference is, there they take attendance. Here, if I want to take a trip with my wife and kids, I am free to go. Over there, however, 3 AM the workers are awake at and entering the palm oil plantations. Abroad, I might get Rp50,000,- a day. Here I can plant bananas, selling them for Rp25.000,- a tree. So! I should plant more banana trees then,” he said.

They often neglect to consider the costs of the trip to islands such as Kalimantan. “They’re told to save up Rp1.500.000,- for transportation. Many of them take boats. They make passports when they reach Nunukan, or ‘trip cards’. Many of them want to go, because if they can just reach the border, they’ll be met by their new bosses,” said Elias.

Economic refugees from TTS Regency are nearly the same as men from the Minangkabau Tribe of Sumatra, who have a tradition of traveling far to send money to their families at home. In Sahan Village, Duplik has just returned from Southern Malaysia, where he had been working in a palm oil plantation. To start with, he was working illegally, with a tourist passport. “Many Timorese harvest palm fruits there. The plantation itself would not be anything if it weren’t for Indonesian workers. Malaysians don’t want to do this dirty work,” said Duplik.

Duplik went to work in Malaysia, following Secondary School. He lived near the edge of the forest in the palm oil plantation. His house was provided by the agent, and was furnished. His salary would depend on how much palm he could harvest. Every month he brought home around 1.200 Ringgit. Only two months in, he decided to leave Malaysia and never return. “My father did not grant me permission though. He suggested I find my work around here instead,” he said. Duplik admitted that his savings were meager. “When men go off in search of money, it’s tough, and it’s not like when women go off, coming home with lots of money,” he said. Duplik is now a motorcycle taxi driver between Saenam, Sahan, and Amanatun.

Of the countless cases, many have also returned home negatively effected by their experiences abroad. One of these persons is Elias’ neighbor. When on the job, he accidentally drank pesticide, because he mistook it for coffee. They could not save him. It was in fact only his body that returned to Kupang, where his family did not have money to transport him to his hometown, and had to wait an additional four days for the funeral. “He is still our family. He was only 26. Worked in Malaysia just over a year,” said Elias.

Another fatal case involved Yeskiel Dualaka, a member of Elias’ family. At 28 years, he had already married but had no children. Yeskiel had only been in Malaysia for six months, and he passed away after coming home from work. His coworkers say he was overtired, which is what they told his wife as well, over the telephone. And as there were no funds to send his body home, he is buried in Malaysia.

The cases stack up – stories of the failure and death of the Timorese working outside of their villages. Some were overworked by their supervisors, tricked by their agents, or arrested for working illegally, which has happened quite often. The cumulative effect of these tales have not deterred the hopeful youth, wanting to become foreign workers. The dream of a better life, a better income, compared to their provincial life, entirely captivates their imaginations, despite the risk of failure, disability, even death.

These reckless youth feel as though they have been given a simalakama fruit, of which it is rumored that, if one is gifted such a fruit and eats it, either one’s mother or father will be killed. In other words, the youth feel they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. In the villages and in Amanatun, youth don’t bring in enough money to fulfill their daily needs. Farmland is limited, and fertile lands beyond the villages are already claimed by the amounting populations. As for weaving, few weavers have the discipline and focus to teach, as it is now no longer an art-form but a process that ends at the market. These inadequacies further drive villagers to migrate, leaving behind only their parents, girls who never went to school, and small children. It is becoming quieter every day.

Chapter Five

Women as Nature’s Safekeepers


There are many stories detailing the arrival of weaving in the lives of Timorese women. In one of these passed-down accounts, weaving was created by women. This tale bgins at a nifu, or lake, in Nunbena Village. There were two women, with their brother, departing from the lake, passing Kokneno Mountain. Arriving at the mountain, the two women were suddenly transformed into stones. The place is known as Faut, and here there are the remains of a weaving station, the tools of weaving – ike suti, sifo, and others, made of stone. This is according to Mama Anaci Anin (65) in Tune Village, recounting the true beginnings of spinning yarn and weaving in the Mollo area, from the stories of her elders. They state it like a fact: Their ancestors discovered weaving even before the colonialists arrived.

Other stories have emerged from Bobneo Village, in Tune, telling of the King’s Family and weaving, when King Oematan and Kono came together as one, Bimese from Kono and Bikaunan from Oematan. They made a claim: This place would be called Paot, the center of weavers. “That’s the reason why the Grandchildren of the Bimese and Bikaunan know how to spin yarn. Not all mamas know the origins of weaving here,” said Mama Anaci.

“Weaving began from the ancestors, who persuaded their children and grandchildren to continue it,” said Mama Anaci, weaving since the age of ten. “I was taught to clean the yarn at night and started listening to family stories, detailing who should be valued and respected. In the afternoon, we learned from grandma how to make simple clothes to cover our bodies and be respected like the others. At ten years, I received a gift, a vessel in which I could place my weaving equipment and our completed works as female weavers,” she said.

Yumina Selan, three decades older than Anaci, could add more to her recollections. In her opinion, the vast knowledge of their ancestors was mostly derived from nature itself. Their ancestors found wild cotton in the bushes. At that time, they didn’t use any clothing. They may have used natural materials for clothing, such as tree bark and wood. In Bonle’u Village, at the foot of Mutis Mountain, is another story about weavers and weaving. Here lies the aforementioned location known as Paot, owned by a woman named Bisuni Tamelab and her husband Kaos Liem.

Selvina Tefa (85), from Tune, tells of the history of weaving. In her opinion, women could not weave without the natural materials. Their ancestors once wove to create loincloths. Their weaving tools were simplistic, such as the monaf, nekan, and senu. They used their fingers to bring the lower strings up, and to lower the upper ones. The process of weaving was born from their ability to innovate, creating new tools and machines. In this way they invented the sial, wood that functioned to separate the lower and upper strings, and lay down a motif. The act of joining one string with another brought about the invention of the senu, which functioned to cut yarn, or to organize the verticle and horizontal strings.

To start with, they used their hands to separate the seeds and the cotton. The cotton was altered to become yarn by stretching it across their thighs and twisting them until fine. The hot wax of beeswax candles was used to strengthen the yarn to be easily woven. At that time, only white was used. After a while longer, because it had never been washed, the loincloths became black with dirt. Mama Sevina says that’s when they started to think about dying the cotton different colors.

Back then colorization was only done after weaving was complete, whereas these days individual threads of yarn are dyed. Back then they dunked their loincloths in crushed nila leaves, which had been crushed down prior. This would cause the cotton to become black two days after being dyed.

Selvina mentions that shawls were woven in Mollo only after the Dutch passed through. Shawls were used to cover the lower body, as per the standards of the Dutch. These foreign ideas of fashion opened the door for more creativity in weaving. In one year they had made more than 50 trials of other ways to weave, using varied colors, dunking methods, drying methods, creating new weaving tools and vibrant, woven motifs.

Originally yarn for weaving came from cotton that was picked from the yards of homes in Mollo. They had to wait one year before picking it, the plant’s flowers were yellow with a hint of orange. After the flowers bloomed, the buds would be picked, and, cracking open when they dried, white wisps of cotton would emerge from them.

To plant cotton one must wait for the rain season, and then spread the cotton seeds, which are still connected with sinew, on top of fertile soil. The seeds will break apart, becoming plants, which do not need to be cared for – all the way into full maturation. Only in the hot season do the shoots of this plant need to be trimmed so as to grow well during the rain season.

These days, cotton trees are becoming harder and harder to find, disappearing from yards as storebought cotton and chemical dye has become commonplace. A few women say that people started leaving cotton behind in the 70’s; they prefered to buy balls of yarn and used Wantex for colours. It was cheaper, easier. The introduction of manufactured clothing tossed sarongs and blankets to the side; they were now reserved only for ceremonial purposes.

In the years after cotton disappeared, the spinning of yarn and weaving also became devalued, as did the chance for elders to spend time passing various stories down to the young. The only remaining stories now are with older women, mostly 50 years and older. And what they know is only their side of the stories, meanwhile the greater meaning of weaving itself, expressed in motifs, is a secret kept by an even older generation still.

Although it’s come to this, nevertheless weaving continues to this day, albeit in a new form – new machines, motifs, techniques, and coloration. The following study will describe the stories of the weavers of Mollo, Amanuban, and Amanatun. This has been compiled by the organization known as OAT since the start of the Ningkam Haumeni II Festival, from March to April, 2011. The following accounts seek to detail techniques of spinning cotton, colorization, and weaving.

  1. Spinning Cotton

Weaving begins with spinning cotton. The people of Mollo found cotton growing wild – it was not storebought. They called it kapas, or a bas, from the black-colored catterpillar, the bankofak, living in the kanunak trees. This animal makes white nests resembling cotton, known as ab neno. Cotton is like ab neno, therefore is called a bas, meaning ‘to embrace’. After sourcing it in nature some tried to plant cotton nearby, and it took – well. Since then cotton has been known as the precursor to yarn. There are two kinds of cotton though: That with a fiberous, long flower, often found in Mollo, and a fiberous, short flower often found on the coasts of Amanuban.

The cotton that is most often harvested from cotton trees must undergo various treatments before becoming yarn. These include: 1) separating the cotton from the seeds, 2) softening the cotton, 3) rolling the cotton up, 4) spinning it into threads, and 5) rolling it up as balls of yarn.

  • Separating Cotton from the Seed

Fresh-picked cotton is usually set on a nyiru, drying out until easily separated from its seeds (abtutas). Some of these seeds are more stubborn than others. One can usually use one’s hands, or abninis, a device made of wood. It is shaped like a pasta-maker that outputs noodles. Threads of cotton still clinging to the seeds are flattened and sucked into the abninis. The threads of cotton that are expelled are already separated from their seeds, which fall to the ground.

The abninis is made from kasuari wood and is easy to use. Raw cotton is fed into it using the left hand, while the right hand manually cranks the machine. The two wooden wheels effectively separate the cotton and the cotton seeds.

2)    Smoothing the Cotton

Once all of the seeds are removed the cotton is a mess, and so the first task is to tidy it up. Having passed through the abninis, the cotton is already smoother, strechable, and easier to shape — using a sifo, shaped like an arc, the curved part made of bamboo, with string is from the midribs of the gewang tree. To use the sifo, the string should be placed on the cotton and shaken so that the cotton sticks to it, separating it into smaller and smaller threads. In this way the cotton is also separated from other materials, dirt, and lumps – until finally it is solid and ready to be spun into uniformly thick yarn.

3)  Nasun: Rolls of Cotton.

Once smoothed, cotton will be wound into rolls resembling cocoons.

The act of rolling up the cotton is called nunu, while the rolls of cotton are called nasun. This is the final shape of the cotton before it is spun into yarn.

4)    Spinning Cotton into Yarn.

Spinning balls of cotton into yarn requires the use of an ike suti. This tool has two parts: the short javelin and a plateau for spinning the material. An ike is made from kasuari wood, resembling a javelin of 25 cm, with a pointed end. The head of the ike is narrower and small than its girth. The threads of cotton are hooked to this head, having been wet-down, and spun like a top. The ike is spun in the right hand, while the left hand holds the roll of cotton. Threads coming loose of the rolls become yarn, stuck to the ike. Meanwhile the suti provides the space for it to spin around the ike.

In the local language, suti defines an empty place, a plateau, for spinning cotton. While the ike is made of coconut shells, it also uses large clam shells. And at the very base, ashes and small pieces of wood are used to keep the ike spinning smoothly, like oil.

The ike suti tools come loaded with philosophical meanings. The small javelin (the ike) signifying the female body, slightly rounded stomach on the bottom, slighting rounded chest at the top. When spinning weaving yarn with the body of the ike, the weaver’s fingers will need to move to up, to the chest. If the ike is fully loaded with cotton, the ‘stomach’ of the stick will be extended, rounded, and then the breasts will also broaden. When all rolled up, it is called a bifel ma’apu, a pregnant lady. The spinning stops, and the yarn is removed from the ike by rolling it up around a rock, or a stick, until it takes the shape of an oval of yarn.

  • Rolling Yarn (Taunu).

Yarn from the tasun is rolled up with a none tool, made of mindi wood. A none is made of two parts: The long wood and the short woods, fastened in opposing directions at either end of the long wood. The none is held by the long wood, while the shorter sections link the threads together. Its principle function is to straighten the yarn. As a result, one roll of yarn is often called a head; heads make the colorization of the yarn easier as they’re easily dipped into the coconut shells. Before colorization, the heads of yarn are saved in a nyiru, a basket made of lontar leaves.

  1. Color

After the yarn has been prepared, the next step is colorization. Natural colors were once derived from plants growing in the yards of homes, farms, or in the forest itself. They were bled from roots, leaves, bark, fruit, and flowers. To start with there was only white, the base color of cotton. After that, to find an even whiter shade, yarn was dipped in the water in which white corn (bane) had just been boiled.

The yarn is dyed in a solution of corn, or sweet potato, flour that has been mixed with hot water. The yarn is always rotated in the same direction to keep the colors even. Repeat dunkings of the yarn will serve to make it stiff, unbreakable, as well bring it alive with colors. Bane is only used for the shade of white, however. After a quick dunking, the cotton is dried in a loan, a device that strengthens the cotton. Once dried, the cotton is wound around a rock until it resembles a standard ball of yarn.

After this black was discovered. This shade was found available in mud, mixed with grass, then fermented – usually found on the banks of the rivers. The following tells how the color red was created through the boiling of kasuari bark. Eventually the colors were no longer restricted, and all of them were natural. Here is a list of just a few of these colors, for example:

  • Black is usually sourced from the leaves of the tarum or nila, the matoj tree, mud, or meko roots.
  • Red is found in fruits and roots, pine bark, kemiri fruit, kis kase, and jati leaves. Sometimes a pressed kesum fruit or rambutan will also provide this color.
  • Bright red is a mixture of the pounded roots of the kis kase and chalk.
  • Turmeric provides an array of yellows.
  • Orange is sourced from turmeric mixed with chalk.
  • Green, from arbila leaves, can also be created with betelnut leaves.
  • White, created through a process known as bane, is made by boiling powdered corn, and then introducing the yarn.

Dying can be done as many times as necessary to achieve the desired color. Once having reached the right color, the yarn is left to dry in a breeze until it dries. It is not recommended to dry it in direct sunlight, however. The next step involves stretching and rolling the yarn into a large, rounded roll.

This way of coloring would be different if a futus motif were used, or when creating a waste-band. Before colorization, the motif should have already been lined up and prepared. The yarn would be tied with the fibers of gewang leaves (after that replaced with braded rafia) to achieve the desired motif. The colored yarn would not be knitted. It would have been done like this until all of the yarn gave off the precise, desired tone.

Gathering the Natural Colors


Pick two kilograms of nila leaaves and soak them in water; store them in clay pots for two nights. Rinse the nila leaves that are beginning to rot, and mix in a little chalk, spin it, strain it, and discard the excess liquids. Then the yarn can be submersed in the water for about one hour, or until the black color stays. Take it out and let it air dry.

Alternative: Nila leaves are picked and soaked in clay pots for three days. Follow this, the excess liquid is drains and mixed with chalk, then left for three more days. Finally, the yarn is soaked until black. To achieve a darker black, soak the yarn for longer.


Harvest four kilograms of kasuari bark, boil until the water is red. Rinse the cotton yarn before dipping it into the aforementioned boiling water.

Alternative: Mix pounded jati leaves with half a glass of water, then discard the excess water. Mix in a bit of chalk. Wet the yarn with the run-off from the pounded leaves until the red really comes out. Let it dry.


Take a kilogram of turmeric, and scar the roots. After that, rub the yarn in the open gashes in the turmeric. To get the right yellow this is often repeated, two or three times. When the right yellow is achieved, leave it to dry.


Gather some areca nut leaf shoots and arbila nut leaves. Pound these together until finely ground. Mix in just a little water, and stir. Separate the waste and put the yarn into the solution.


Chop up a kilogram of turmeric, mixing in a spoonful of chalk, and enough water to make it damp. Put the yarn into the mixture and shift it around until the desired color sets in. Let it dry.

  1. Weaving

Once the right colors have been achieved, continue on to the weaving step. The process of weaving requires much time. Weavers must be able to estimate how much yarn is needed to create one, woven textile, depending on the desired proportions. As the motif has yet to be created, that is the next step, choosing between a futus, lotis, or bunak motif. The following writings illuminate what tools are used by these talented, female weavers.

1)    Paos Niun

The tool is mounted on the back and tied with a string on both ends of the atis, so that the lolo tightens. This tools makes the weavers sit up straight. Paos niun puts pressure between the nekan, atis, and the back. Usually this tool is made from deer or goat skin, so that it is supple but hard.

2)    Lolo

This tool fastens yarn to the loom. Lolo makes yarn stiff so that it is easier to weave, so that the weaving comes tightly together. This tool is made of two stakes, above and below, and two ropes, on the left and the right. The size and length of the lol can be adjusted based on the weavers’ needs.

3)    Panaf or Atis

The atis is used to press the upper levels of yarn and the lower levels of yarn so that they will be fused into a neat textile. This tool is made from two pieces of kasuari wood that press the fabric in the middle.

4)    Nekan with Atis

The role of the nekan cannot be seen as separate from the atis. It functions to tighten the yarn that has already been organized on the loom — both the lower and the higher levels. The nekan is pressed with the foot, the atis rests on the stomach, and the paos niun on the wastes of the weavers, working together to make the yarn tense, flexible, or until it can be woven. Nekan is made from bamboo or enau wood.

5)    Senu

This wood-based tool resembles a sword. Senu serves to seal the verticle and horizontal threads so that there is no gap in the textiles.

6)    Sauban

This small, oval-shaped tool made of bamboo is coiled in yarn so that it stays together. It needs to be put in and taken out, bringing yarn along with it, in the opposite direction of the yarn at the lolo. Sauban that has already been put in, covered in yarn, is called a monaf.

7)    Pauf

The pauf plays a role in separating the yarn already organized in the lolo. It also lowers and raises the yarn so that it is easy for the sauban and senu to work. The pauf is made of the center of the kasuari wood.

8)  Ut

The ut is a piece of bamboo, holding the pauf, and separating the upper and lower threads of yarn. The ut therefore makes it possible for the sauban, sial, and senu to fill the central threads, to make motifs. The ut is made of bamboo or taduk wood. There are two kinds of ut: The large ut and the small ut. The large ut is used to support the puat, while the small ut shifts from front to back, separating the upper and lower threads. The large ut works in front of the pauf, while the small ut follows behind.

Since then the above tools have been added to, for example:

–       Sial, shaped like a stick of bamboo, functions to accurately set down the motif. Usually there is more than one sial. It is in the shape of a flat stick with a pointed end. The sial is attached to the end of the large ut. Aside from setting the motif, the sial also supports the large ut so that it doesn’t shift around, also to separate the upper and lower threads of yarn.

–       Lilin (ninik) are used to clean up the yarn, when it starts to unravel into cotton, and keeps the unwoven fabric separated.

Chapter Six

Weaving the Commons


Then there was Moa Hitu, the tall person, the tallest person in the world, whose steps were impossible to measure. If he walked, one footprint would fall in Amantun, and another in Mollo.

At one time, Moa Hitu was sitting in one of the largest trees. From there he spotted a beautiful woman weaving away behind her loom all alone. She was busy, shifting the tools, using thin wood and puat from bamboo. After a while, this weaver started shifting the senu from left to right to punch the lines of yarn into order with the others. She lifted a knee to loosen the yarn. Quietly Moa Hitu admired her. For whatever reason, he pointed his penis at her as she began to punch the senu to the direction of the yarn.

Snip…Moa Hitu was circumcized and died.

That evening, aside an incompleted building, Maria Abanat finished her story about weaving and the death of Moa Hitu.


Many versions of the Moa Hitu story live in the collective imagination of Mollo Village. In another version, this ‘tall person’ was the son of a king who, with his 11 siblings, had come here seeking to achieve a glorious destiny of some kind. However, only one Moa Hitu would be chosen, and their body would grow from a human’s form to that of a giant. Uncomfortable in his new form, he chose to return to his hometown, in shame.

When he reached his hometown, nearing his house, Moa Hitu saw his wife weaving. Suddenly, the leaves that clothed Moa’s body fell away, and a great penis, like a snake, surprised his weaving wife, to the extent that Bi Mana, his wife, pulled out hte senu and smacked his penis so hard that Moa Hitu passed away. Since then it has been the rule that weavers not hit any other person with a senu. The senu has the power to end a life.

In the public sphere, villagers over forty have likely heard the story of Moa Hitu. The legend of the tallest human, who left behind one footprint near Peke Rock, in Tune Village.

Whatever the version of the Moa Hitu story, without the senu – that weaving tool that looks like a sword, long and sharp – used by all weavers, at least one character in the story would have lived a longer life. And it was at a young age when the Pt Teja Sekawan mine, set to excavate Faut Rock Mountain, in Kuanoel Village, was shut down by the Mamas of Kuanoel and Fatumnasi Village, who sat in the middle of the road and wove.

Rock Hill in Kuanoel Village, usually white with lush bushes and tall trees surrounding, was once vibrant and exotic. There were yellows, greens, reds, blacks, oranges, blues, whites, and pinks. All the colors of the weavers’ textiles were there.

The surroundings are no longer calm, not only goats and cows are busy on top of that hill anymore. A gathering of women had arrived; they surrounding the hill, and put down their looms. Then they sat and began to weave while quietly singing and trading rhymes. One stone spoke to another, and the other replied. The language of Dawam had broken the silence of the hills, and rhymes and songs were bouncing off of the walls, named Ob and Lik, until not a single ancestral spirit remained asleep on that handsome peak.

In 1997, the Regent of TTS gave the go-ahead for the mining of marble in Fatumnasi Village and Kuanoel, located in the two stone hills, Nausus and Anjaf, which would eventually become the stage for the weavers’ occupation and stand-off with the company in charge.

In 2005, PT Teja Sekawan, from Surabaya, had received permission from Regent Daniel Banunaek, without the consent of the villagers. They arrived at the foot of the mountain with excavators, drills, thick chains, cranes, and other heavy machinary. After that they began to clear the forests and brush that blanketed the mountains walls, Ob and Lik; and they used parang (like machetes) to do so. A few of them acted quickly, drilling straight into the Ob Stone. They split it in two.

As usual, December mornings were cold with western winds tumbling heavily, carrying dust, and the temperatures in the Mutis highlands had dropped, only reaching a maximum of 20o Celcius each day. The events of that morning were unknown in the existence of Ob Stone: The mining company had broken a great stone, like a piece of a giant’s body. Villagers nearby could not take their eyes off of the damage done. A few of them even protested, hoping the company would stop and leave their lands alone. The company’s employees defended themselves, claiming they had permission from the local government – to extract marble.

Despite this, the people had become anxious – especially Yati, or Adriyati Kase (47). “I have a house only 200 meters from the mining location. The sound of machines cutting stones is loud. It’s too much,” she said. It was not only Yati who was riled up due to the mining, actually it was the entire villages of Fatumnasi and Kuanoel. They organized a few protests to stop them from breaking more stone, but the company was uneffected. As tension set in, there were a number of standoffs between the two parties. Finally the company had to stop splitting minerals, however they did not leave the site. The villagers stopped protesting, and the company then took the opportunity to continue splitting that ‘body of minerals’.

Not only against the company, the people were being turned against eachother. Sina’s Mother, Yusina Balan, for example, fell into altercations after allowing a miner to stay in her home. “The company arrived with Bapak Lambertus Oematan, an employee of the Camat Fatumnasi. Villagers disapproving of the mine were irritated with Mama Sina, throwing stones at her house. With a heavy heart Mama Sina stood her ground and refused the requests of Bapak Camat. The company cleared the area of all lower-income people, sending them home.

Actually the mothers of the community were the most anxious when the two stones were being cut. They knew that those stones were the source of the village’s water. And in Mollo itself, the people responsible for sourcing fresh water for families were also these mothers themselves. The people were further enraged to learn that their drinking water was being used to spray down the freshly-cut marble and tools.

The community then lost its patience. They had decided: The company had to leave the stones alone. It was decided that they would have to reclaim their lands – through occupation. Only hours after the decision, hundreds of villagers from Fatumnasi and Kuanoel took strategic seats on top of the stones themselves.

All types of villagers came out: Women, men, children, and even the elderly. There did seem to be more middle-aged mothers than anybody else, however. Day and night they stood their ground on the stone hill, cooking, cooking corn, drinking, chewing betelnut, swapping stories, singing, and even weaving. Since that time, this community of two villages considers the stone hill a second home between their two villages.

Weaving is an integral part of life for Timorese women. Aside from responsibilities in the kitchen and farms supplying food for their families, women also must cloth their families well. Weaving is one of their primary responsibilities. It is inseperable from the existence and image of Timorese women, what’s more as Timorese men are not supposed to help with weaving at all.

During the sit-in occupation of the mining area, the mothers of the two villages brought their craft out into the streets. They brought their looms and began crafting textiles beneath trees around the stones, which were still being cut at that time. In their opinion, if each day they sat and guarded the rocks, they would be unable to work. Therefore, if they brought their looms to the peaceful protest, these mothers could work away, and produce textiles. If the rocks were gone, then the water would also be gone, and weaving would be impossible without water. “The decision to weave around the rocks was a very good strategy,” said Mama Salin, or Marcelina Anone. Besides from being a part of womanhood here, weaving also provides an income, as an alternative to what they make through farming.

To start with it was only two or three women weaving around the stones. Day-by-day there came more. The craft of weaving breached the public sphere, left the house, and was commenced in public, on top of the stones. One of these weavers was Mama Salin. “Ma, where on earth are you taking your loom?” she was asked at that time. “I am bringing it down to the stones. I plan to make a shawl decorated with the words ‘reject mining’,” she answered.

“These moms were on the front line, where there were no men,” said Mama Vika, or Victoria Mael (48), one woman sitting in at the rocks at that time. “If there is a disturbance, we will join together as one, link hands, and protect one another,” she added.

They occupied and wove at this location from September to December, 2006. Christmas was celebrated there, at the foot of the hill of stones. The cold of rain season swept in on a western wind, not detracting from the enthusiasm of these strong women – to defeat the heavy machinary. Finally, in February 2007, the women went home – only after the last piece of heavy machinary had been lifted and removed from the foot of the legendary hill of Ob and Lik.

The stones were whole, the water still flowed, and the virgin forests were entact – and these were the motivations of the Mollo peoples in kicking the mining company out of the area. According to Mollo philosophies, nature itself is like the body of a woman, “Hair is her trees, meat is her dirt, bones are her stones, and water is the blood flowing within her body”.

Protecting these stones meant the protection of much more. It meant the protection of water, vital to an area of flat and dry lands. Water is integral. In one year, corn farmers can only plant two crops. Planting other vegetables, such as carrots, garlic leaves, and peanuts can be done twice in a year too – only if there is enough water.

However, for the last five years, the presence of water has been limited, because there has been little rain. “This year alone, until November there was no reason – just like last year. Even the leaves of the garlic plants were dry. We could not plant anything,” said Mama Elizabeth Oematan, staying in Desa Koanoel.

The experience of the occupation held to protect these stones was a powerful lesson to the people of Mollo. It was not only a fight to preserve Faut Ob and Faut Lik stones, but also a gathering of 22 villages, standing on the slope at the foot of Mutis mountain to resist a mining project, which would have destroyed Faut Nausus and Anjaf, in 1999. Faut Nauses is known as the mother of stones, the most sacred mountain there. It was so popular that it became the meeting place for the tribes of Timor.

Weaving has become the media through which women voice their daily concerns, about everything from their responsibilities in the kitchen, to strategies of resistence and demonstration. Weaving is now often taught to large groups. The teacher moves from house-to-house. Weaving is a source of income that staves off the need to abandon lands and traditions. “We usually spin the yarn together, which is then taken by members of the weaving collective to be used in weaving in their homes,” said Mama Elizabeth, a member of Kelompok Rindu Sejahtera. Weaving that has already been completed is collected and taken by Mama Elizabeth to be sold, and a portion of the income is set aside for the resistence movement branch of the community.

The weavers have formed a union, the women of Mollo, as that is their work. Very few men can do it, as they are usually on the farm. However, when women are not busy weaving or taking care of other domestic responsibilities, they are also expected to work alongside the men – on the farms. Still though, the women are expected to weave – because if they didn’t, perhaps it would be more difficult for them to marry. Brides must be able to cloth their own grooms, you see.

In this way, nearly each action of the women of Mollo is bound by nature, such as farming – requiring water from wells or stoney areas, often found at the roots of trees in the forest. And weaving is also tied to nature, what with its materials and tools all sourced from the forest itself.

Much more than weaving tools can be found in the forests and farms. The natural dyes for their textiles also grow here. For instance, arbila nut leaves, which produce greens, turmeric, which produces yellows; and pine tree bark, which produces reds; and matoj bark, nila, tarum leaves, and meko roots, which produce blacks. There are natural dyes that need to be cooked first, and others that can be used raw. In order to heat these, firewood is needed, which is also to be found in the forests, or farms.

If the forests and farmlands were gone, unprotected and uncared for, the weavers would have to work slower, and would finally stop. However, weaving is the very identity of the Timorese – not just the Mollo, but women, their labours and hardships. “If the forest is destroyed, the women would be lost, because their materials would also be gone,” said Mama Vika.

Weaving is an identity for the Mollo peoples, an identity for the community. “From birth the Mollo have a relationship to textiles. It’s almost a priceless commodity, inseperable from the body,” said Metu Salak, one of the heads of Kuanoel Village.

They are required to wear textiles for their weddings, ceremonies, and communal meetings. The Mollo also use textiles when going to Church, or for other official meetings. Textiles are also a symbol of respect and appreciation; for example, when receiving guests, inviting people to visit, or showing appreciation for someone’s help. Everything can be shown – through the gift of weaving.

For the Mollo peoples, weaving is the medium through which they end conflicts. For example, as a way of settling debts, to make ammends for an extramarital affair, or to end a dispute between livestock farmers. It is a symbol of peacemaking. What’s more, it can also function as a symbol of how much one values a guest. However, in protecting the living environment and ecosystem that the people need to survive, the weavers union is the community’s front line.

The two hills of Ob and Lik stand as testament to this non-violent weapon of the Mollo. They fight, however with a focus on spinning cotton, laid out neatly in the body of the ike suti. Gradually the motifs appear, and every few weeks a shawl or blanket is ready to behold. While sitting on the stones, the weavers produced cloths to keep the body warm; their bodies, which they believe are wrinkled by the cold itself. Weaving is a will to go on. A life force.

The protected rocks, seen as part of the body of the community, are therefore prominent figures. Protecting rocks means protecting water, land, and forests. Protecting their own body – which means protecting tenun, because all of the above materials are required to produce authentic, Timorese textiles.

The final pledge of the Mollo, to increase available food sources, protect the environment and water sources, is, “Haimi sosa salehaimo, et mihine. Haikami sosafa sa lehaikamo e fa.” Meaning that the Mollo can only sell what they can produce, such as textiles, and local produce. The Mollo cannot sell what they cannot make, such as rock, water, earth, and forests.


Chapter Seven

Milka’s Loyalty to Weaving


Husbands and children do not like to wear blankets, moreover sarongs made of cotton. But Milka doesn’t care, and she keeps gathering the cotton, and she keeps weaving.

Weaving is an experience, for women, that transcends time itself. Long ago, weaving was completed using the know-how of Timorese women themselves, much like what Milka is stubbornly presenting now. This knowledge has always depended on the memories of the woman weavers, as well as how it is valued by the family, and the surrounding communities.

Milka still remembers what her mother told her about weaving. “Women must weave. First, so that they have clothing, and secondly so that they can be married.” Beginning when she was six years old, her grandmother had taught her to spin cotton yarn. At 12, she could weave clothes, starting with a black sarong. Now she is 76, and only now considering to stop weaving with cotton.

Milka’s house is in RT 7, Bestobe Village. It’s a simple house made of cement; the plaster work is unfinished. Inside the house are a few plastic chairs and a wooden bench set out around two tables. The walls of the guest room are white. Two walls are decorated with the faces of prominent politicians, an old calendar and a new one. Behind the house is a lopo, a round house, which functions as the kitchen and barn.

Milka has saved a few cotton blankets and sarongs that are older than ten years. Her husband and children do not like to wear blankets, what’s more sarongs, made of cotton. They say that cotton is just not hip, and the colors are not lively enough, and they get heavier over time. They prefer using blankets or woven sarongs from commercial yarn, or wool. Milka does not care, and continues to weave with cotton.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find cotton now. There are only two or three cotton trees in the yards of their children. Milka lives with her children, who are already married. Usually she receives cotton from her neighbors who still have two or three trees in their yards, as well. Without asking, oftentimes her neighbors will come to tell her, or to give her the cotton that they have picked from their alotments. Milka’s daughter says, people who give cotton are all people of the same village.

Cotton can only be picked in the hot season, and cannot be picked all at the same time. The flowers, either white or red, do not blood at the same time. When they do flower, their pedals spreading, the head of the fruit comes forth. The head of the fruit dries, cracking, and white fibers spill out. This is the cotton, which itself is just a protective mechanism around the seeds of the cotton tree. When the seeds break open, the cotton would also catch in the wind, helping to spread the seeds around the land. Cotton is harvested when the cotton plants flower. After that, two or three days later, the same plant can usually be harvested again.

“Mama usually asks for cotton from the neighbors. Mama still has ten buckets of it that are waiting to be spun,” said Leonard Pole, Milka’s forth child. Her children are impatient, watching Milka save up the cotton. Often the children are tempted to throw away the stacks of cotton in the buckets. Sometimes they tell their mother just that. Milka is unmoved.

There remains only two people who weave with cotton in Bestobe Village: Milka and Salome Ola. Salome enjoys making short shawls. However, Milka is better known as the neighborhood cotton-weaver, because she makes entire sarongs and large blankets.

Aside from cotton, which is increasingly hard to find, natural dyes are also increasingly hard to come by. It has become harder to get colors than the cotton itself. “Tarum, for blacks, is very hard to find. There’s never enough to make black,” said Milka. She was forced to start using synthetic colors, dyes such as Wantex. Of course not all weavers use Wantex. It is, however, the primary fall-back for creating a black, and can be used with many materials. Meanwhile, for the colors of motifs, such as yellows, it is still common to use natural sources, such as turmeric, or the reds found in pine tree bark.

Long ago, tarum leaves were easily found, easily plucked from the yard. “The plants were in the yard are now disappearing, because Wantex is here now. It’s easier than searching for leaves,” said Milka, looking at the ground at her feet.

Surely as age advances it will become more difficult for Milka to find natural colors, or to dye quantities of yarn. For this reason she now combines commercial and natural dyes. She chooses simple motifs, such as the lotus – thick lines and a narrow design.

When seated her posture seems crooked, perhaps because she has done too much weaving up until now. When meeting Milka in her Bestobe house[1], she had just recovered from a sickness. Her nose had been bleeding, her body refused to bend as it had done even two months ago, and her children brought her to the clinic in the neighboring regency, Eban Village, North Central Timor (TTU). The journey was nearly one hour. Unfortunately, the Doctor could not explain to the family what Milka’s sickness was. It was just old age, he said. When this was written she was nearly 80 years old. She was told should not fold her legs beneath her when seated, which causes her legs to tremor beneath her weight. Her head sometimes quivers on its own, tremoring, but she kept on smiling. In the evening she wears a manufactered shirt, and a batik textile.

“I stopped weaving for a while after being sick,” she said. But her daughter says, though she did stop weaving, she continued to spin cotton. While recovering from her sickness, two weeks after coming home from the clinic, she was already spinning cotton. “The body can rest, but the hands cannot stay still, so I sit and spin while watching TV,” says Milka. Milka’s hands behave as though they have eyes, therefore knowing the thickness of the threads she spins.

For ten months after the unknown illness struck her, Milka could not weave; however, she had already spun five balls of yarn. The process of spinning yarn is half of the job of weaving, it is said. The next step is weaving the yarn into textiles.

Weaving cotton requires more time than weaving commercial yarn. “It’s already been a month, it’s only half done, and this blanket has two pieces, requiring two months,” she said, pointing out a beige blanket. This is only a calculation of the time it takes to weave, not including the spinning of cotton, separating the cotton from the seeds, nor picking the cotton from the trees. A portion of the blanket was still plain, requiring two more steps to be completed: Spin more yarn, and then weave.

Milka explained the steps for weaving of sarongs from cotton yarn, if broken down, are as follows:

  • Two days to pick the cotton and fill two leaf-baskets (nyiru)
  • Two days to separate the cotton from the seeds
  • Two days to separate the cotton into threads, using a sifo
  • A few days to roll up 120 balls of cotton fibers
  • Twelve nights to spin four ike, using an ike suti
  • One day to roll up the yarn with a ‘none’
  • One day to spin one ‘head’ of yarn

When the yarn is ready, the process of weaving can begin. Milka needs minimum two months to spin four heads of yarn. Including the time it takes to spin, a plain sarong requires three months. Including the time it takes to make a motif and add color, it would require even longer still.

Milka started to weave when she was ten, learning from her mother, Susana Baun. She studied at night, like most Timorese women. “So if back then there were no oil lamps, they used crushed resin seeds, sometimes mixed with candlenut. The two materials were ground down and mixed with cotton,” she said, after which it would burn like a wick.

Oil lamps were similar to torches, while the imported Javanese lamps were of the standard variety. Locally known as a paok talu, paok meaning lamp, and talu refering to the bamboo that was once tied to the cotton, making a traditional lamp, long ago. For one night of weaving, perhaps tens of these small lights would be required. The lamp oil bought would be enough for many wicks. The paok talu lamps are often sharpened before being burnt, and usually they are cut on top of bamboo.

Three materials are need to create a paok talu: Resin fruit, cotton, and candlenut, ground into a rough paste. The batter and burning fuel is then tied to the end of a stick of bamboo, threaded to the base. The material often attracts ants, because of the candlenut oil found in the mixture. To stave off the ants, the paok talu is fastened to the wall of the house. “Paok talu is lit, becomes our light source,” said one of the weavers, whose work – along with the exchange of lessons and stories — would be impossible without it.

Learning to weave as a group has long been the way of the women of Mollo. “We practice in our grandmother’s house,” said Milka. A grandmother’s house, or the house of any family member who is well-respected, usually becomes a place for weaving, en masse; what’s more if it is located strategically between the houses of most of the weavers. Younger women and children will gather there after dinner. They sit on top of the carpet or on the dirt floor of the lopo without chair or table. The apprentices form a circle, and start to weave by the flickering light of the paok talu. These groups are usually comprised of three to eight people. The kids learn to spin cotton into yarn, meanwhile the teenagers and adults weave textiles.

Milka’s story is similar to that of Margaretha Seba (53), who no longer weaves much as she must support her husband, the Village Head of Bestobe. “Once, when I was still a kid, after dinner, dad would call us to sit and weave. He also called our cousins,” said the woman, whose mother passed away when she was ten. The death of her mother caused her to leave school in 4th Grade, Primary School.

Learning by night is not only for women, but also for the men, teenagers, and children, too. Men learn to make tuke, a long bamboo tube through which a string is passed, on to which a bucket is tied, forming a comfortable device that can be worn for collecting water. Either that, or they are taught to make foka, or larger containers for collecting water, made of three segments of bamboo.

Night is a time of joviality for young Margaritha. She also wishes to learn weaving. “I am happy because I want to know what my elders know about weaving, and I want to make clothes for my own body,” said Margaritha, also known as Mama Baun (the name of her village). And they do not only learn about weaving, but also about proper conduct and character-building. “The way you sit must be corrected, the way you stand must be straight,” said Margaritha, remembering lessons from her father, how women could look after themselves and live well.

When first learning to weave, Margaritha only braved a simple black-and-white motif. The white was from the cotton, the black from tarum leaves. “Only the older weavers can do even a simplified lotus motif,” she said, remembering what she’d studied earlier.

Margaritha’s first project was a waste-band, and Milka’s was a sarong, the first she’d ever worn. It was a black cotton sarong, dyed in rotten tarum leaves. “Back then before we had sarongs, we didn’t wear clothes, and we were naked. That’s how Japan found us,” she said, recalling the time when she did not have any clothing at all.

Milka married a man named Daud Poli when she was 15 years old. Poli was a classmate from Fatumnutu Village. His family owned farms, and they worked together with Milka’s own parents. After marriage, they had seven children: Four boys, three girls. Milka taught the girls how to weave. Her oldest, Susana Poli (24), preferred weaving commercial yarn. Susana began to teach them when they were in Primary School and did not have the money to put them through Secondary School. “Mama taught me to weave with cotton, but I weave with store-bought yarn,” said Susana.

When not busy keeping the spinning of cotton alive, Milka sometimes weaves with store-bought yarn and wool. She weaves blankets from commercial yarn for her husband and children. Her husband likes textiles with many bright colors. The combination of local cotton and natural sources of color are not bright enough for them. Milka’s children do not like using local cotton. “We don’t like it, just like our dad doesn’t, because it’s heavy and isn’t not colorful enough. We want to look like the others. Cotton is different,” they said.

Milka is using store-bought yarn more often, which became available in stores when her second child was born, in around 1964. She went to Eban Market, one hour away from her house, to buy some of it. At that time synthetic colors were available from Wantex, and they were already household items.

She wove sarongs on her own. First she wove a shawl. After creating two shawls, she combined them to make a sarong, sewing them up with yarn. Using commercial yarn, a sarong could be finished in two months. Milka usually wove sarongs and blankets. In her opinion, weavers need strong feet and strong backs. “To get a strong back and strong feet, one’s got to watch their posture,” she said.

It is unfortunate that her children rarely weave anymore. “Even though if they want to marry they have got to be able to weave,” said Milka. In Margaritha Sebe’s opinion, these are traditions that have been made nearly impossible to keep alive. “Now, the kids weigh the pros and cons. Some of them believe we must weave, others believe that their life partners will be happy enough with the woven textiles of our grandparents, which we still have,” she said. In her opinion, children these days like what other children these days like — meanwhile their parents are half-alive, slaving behind the looms. “Further into the countryside, it wouldn’t be like this. There they’d have to weave,” she said.

In Bestobe Village, weaving is still a measure of a potential fiance. “If potential in-laws swing by, you’ve got to have textiles. If you can’t produce, you have to learn. We have a community and culture here. If my potential daughter-in-law doesn’t want to work and wants an easy life, she will have to come face-to-face with me,” said Margaritha. She believes that weaving must be kept alive, as a measure of one’s diligence and sacrifice as part of a community. “If we here in the villages have principles, though technology has entered in our lives, then weaving will still continue. Though less and less, at least it does still exist,” she said.

Weaving needs much time, what’s more if it begins with picking wild cotton. Since meeting with Mama Milka, I do not need to ask why her textiles are so pricey. The reason resides in the value-added quality of a textile, made of hand-picked cotton and natural coloration, being also in harmony and in keeping with the nature that surrounds the village. The growing of cotton and natural colors in the yards around the lopo, or in and around the farms, is a way in which a woman’s touch is applied to the forests. Without this relationship, the forests are likely to be commodified. Nevertheless, the need for money to buy store-bought yarn is thought to be the solution – to spinning hand-picked cotton — meanwhile natural colors have been replaced — with Wantex. m


Chapter Eight

Bernadetta & The Three Worlds of Weavers

Bernadetta doesn’t only study what is necessary, she also studies what is tough. That’s what makes her able to overcome obstacles, as a woman, a merchant, a single parent, a weaving instructor.

Bernadetta is weaving the motif of a garuda bird. Not just any garuda, but the Garuda Pancasila, a political symbol of Indonesian nationalism. First she painted the emblem on the cotton threads. She picked the cotton from in front of her house and spun it herself, what’s more. In the end, the garuda should be white and standing up, above a stretch of black.

Textiles using natural colors require first dipping the yarn. The garuda motif is created with string, so that the colors of the yarn don’t bleed into it and make it black. The shade of black is found in tarum leaves that have been left to ferment. Resin seeds and lime betel are added to ensure the black is stuck and saturated into the yarn. Once the natural dye is ready, the cotton yarns are dipped, pressed, and then taken out to be dried – a few times. A full-bodied color requires about six repititions. Bernadetta weaves with cotton. She’s been at it for six days now. In a short time the garuda bird will be released, escaping from the weaving tools.

Only a few Timorese women still want to spin and weave with cotton, and fewer still use natural dyes, such as tarum. Bernadetta is one of these select few.

Bernadetta Lassa was born in Eon Besi Village, Kulaeu District, TTS Regency. She has six sisters and three brothers. It is unfortunate that many of her siblings have died of sicknesses, and only two are still alive at this time. Bernadetta is often called Mama Kase, meaning ‘outsider’, or ‘mama from afar’, perhaps because she has some Chinese blood. Her skin is whiter than most Mollo people, and her eyes are narrower. Her father’s name is Yoseb Tan Assan, her mother, Jok Ji Moi. However, her mother’s father married a woman of the Lassa Clan, and that’s why she is sometimes called a Lassa, herself.

Bernadetta’s family sells cow skins. Her father sells cow skins from Kualeu to Kupang, on horseback. As she remembers, they were selling skins even before the Dutch came, before the sandalwood industry flourished.

From the age of seven, she learned how to spin cotton and weave from her two grandmothers, her father, and her mother. “Long ago we had to weave to become married,” she said. Her first textile was a small waste-band. “It also had string ties,” she said. Aside from weaving, she also learned embroidery, knitting, and kruistik.

Bernadetta’s schooling did not go well. She completed only Public School (SR), and at the age of 13 years. She went to school between 6am and came home at 12pm. Then it was time for her to help her parents tofa, or farm and clean. At night she learned a bit of weaving. When in Public School, these weaving lessons were her favourite. “Weaving lessons were the best for all of us. At school we learned to knit flowers, at home we wove,” she said.

Textiles produced were usually divided amongst members of the family. That’s what her mother taught. Her mother often said that, in giving the crafts of weaving away, one is giving their ignorance away as well. This was her backwards way of saying that one learns much while behind the loom, and can finally confide in one’s concrete ability to produce. “Giving to people is giving away our stupidity, and only then can we feel learned. If I give a blanket to my father, my stupidity moves to him. Then we give it away to our siblings. ‘I can weave like this’. Some people ask for it, and so I readily give it to them. ‘Here miss, here mom and dad, I give you my stupidity, so I may be smarter’,” she said. It seems as if this belief was a source of much enthusiasm, a source of motivation that finally made Bernadetta into a teacher — of weaving.

“I can made large clay pots. That’s what I learned when I used to follow my husband out near the border. Every day I practiced making pots. I am the wife of a teacher but I only teach people’s children. Children learn from me,” she said.

Bernadetta also learned much for herself when she once attempted to dye yarn. “Once I made yellow yarn myself. If wanting yellows from turmeric, that might need a little chalk. The turmeric needs to be strained, and then water needs to be added – only then can we introduce the yarn. That’s to ensure saturation. If you add chalk though, it must be boiled before introducing yarn. Some roots are great for dark reds. Now for that no chalk is needed. As for kasuari skin, the red is different from all others. It’s a little orange. The kasuari skin needs to be boiled with the yarn,” she said.

All of this is mostly forgotten knowledge, in Bernadetta’s opinion, “These days the ladies only know how to play on their phones. Long ago, we knew how to ‘play’ yarn, we knew yarn, and spinning – only then were we to be married.” When she learned how to weave, her mother was strict with her. “If I couldn’t do it, mom struck my hand with a piece of wood, on until the weaving was done.” Perhaps these experiences drove her when she instructed her own daughter, Yuliana. “I have an older siter, and when she was in Grade Two, she stopped studying at school. She didn’t want to study. I picked up a doorstop and chucked it at her. Nowadays, it’s forgiven. Nowadays, she’s the wife of the Head of the Village. That’s what she got from the doorstop,” she said.

Not only tough on her kids, she was also tough to other women who were learning to weave. “This one, I once hit her hand, this woman from Tobo. Because she couldn’t do it, I slapped her. If you smack us we won’t be mad. We’ll get smarter,” she said.

“Nowadays I can make the lotus motif – because I was hit,” said Yulia, remembering her mother’s words. It took her one year to be able to spin yarn and weave. “But the lessons didn’t last a year, because my parents were tough-to-death on us. If we didn’t want to weave or cook, we were struck. Not like kids these days, just goofing around,” she said.

Yulia’s process for learning to weaving was nearly the same for all weavers in the group, overseen by Bernadetta. They called it the Hetvin group. There were nine women, only one of whom had graduated Secondary School, and another who had finished College. The group was formed after she moved from Eban, where her husband taught.

Bernadetta was born in Kualeu and then moved to follow her husband. She was married at the age of 16 to Antonius Tefa, Teacher and Headmaster of a Primary School in Eban, TTU Regency. She followed her husband while he taught – for 30 long years. He also received a three-year project on the border of West Timor and Timor Leste, but while in Eban, Bernadetta instructed the wives of the other teachers at SDN 2 Eban School. Some of her students couldn’t do it; some of them were older than she. “Some were 60 years old. Usually I would give a whistle when class was about to start.” They practiced from the time school finished and on into the evening. On Wednesdays, the women would do sports together, such as aerobics. “We also got together a volleyball group. Some brought coffee, tea, boiled yam,” she said.

In 1979, her husband passed away due to a sickness of the stomach. Since then she has been the single parent of five children. She lives off of her husband’s pension and honors for being assistant to the wife of the Village Head. “I help her because she’s illiterate. A random sort of job that supports me,” she said. When her husband had passed, she helped the Paroki Church, hoping to make enough to support her children. Unable to make it by, she borrowed money from the bank.

Bernadetta became the head of her family. Every day she woke at 3am and made cakes. “Mornings I sold cakes and bread. They sold fast. The cakes of Solo are known as ‘kue cucur’. Sold in Eban. Or I cut some grass and sold some corn to the Bugis guys. All of them were the kids of hawkers too. Even two-year-olds were hawkers there making ends meet.” These children hawkers would sell cakes and things all morning and then head into school for the day.

Though life was increasingly difficult, Bernadetta still kept a place open for a few children from other villages who were schooling near her own home. “Not only early morning. Sometimes before lunch. We had a bell that went ting ting ting ting ting ting, and then they would go away. That was every morning. There were often children left at my house for me to care for. There were fifty-six kids all told. And if they didn’t have any money for food, I gave them money, then their parents paid me back.” In Timorese culture, it is normal to leave children at a house near the school, though originally this was done with orphans. For this reason it is called ampafa.

In 1990, Bernadetta decided to move to Kualeu with her children so that they could be closer to their grandmother, who was very old. At that time, she had five children. All of them were in school and needed money to get by. “Long ago I had five kids, all in school. I had a friend in a school in Kupang. She was already married, still in Secondary School,” she said.

Bernadetta was industrious in trying to find money for her children. She sewed clothing, wove, and filled orders for cakes. “These are strong hands. They accept what they can get. Whatever cake you want, even ‘bolu’ cakes. Whatever I can do, I finish. That’s what I was taught,” she said, while grinning. But all of a sudden weaving was to become Bernadetta’s main source of income.

She was not a puratine; she did not only spin cotton. She also wove with store-bought yarn. Before she wove, the commercial yarn was washed so it wouldn’t fall apart in the wash later. Bernadetta was one member of the group who still wove with cotton yarn. She encouraged others to sew the seeds of the plants necessary to return to natural colors. Around her tiny house can still be found many plants, such as tarum, turmeric, mengkudu, and others. She also planted cotton.

Bernadetta is the kind of woman who cannot stay quiet for long. “I could never sit still for long. Once this is done, I move on to — what’s next? I made all of this. All the rest is gone, bought by people,” she said. What drove Bernadetta to create so tirelessly? “Milk, coffee, and betelnut. So if I am tired, I drink coffee and chew betelnut. Milk keeps me strong and awake. Every day I drink milk, but not sweet milk. If you drink to strengthen yourself don’t use sugar,” she said.

This is how Bernadetta lived independently, while her three children gradually passed away, one after the other. One found work in Malaysia for five years and still communicates with her, however. He even had a wife once, but they were now divorced. Her last child, Yuliana, lives nearby. She didn’t want to live with her in-law’s family. “Yah, when living with children, sometimes we get headaches because it’s so hectic, and that’s not me. Over here, I’m free. If I want to sit or maybe play jump-rope, I can do it alone,” she said.

Yuliana has also been able to live independently on her own income, though she owes a few installments for the installation of electricity to her home, to the BRI (bank). “At BRI, I asked to borrow money for my kids but I couldn’t. For electricity I had to borrow Rp17 Juta. Because I have a son working in Malaysia, in nine months it was paid off. One month I paid them Rp800 ribu.”

These days Bernadetta often suffers from headaches. Her lower teeth have holes in them and become infected, causing aches to travel around her head. Having taken medicine from the doctor, which reduced the pain for a few moments, she now knows that this is not the solution. Despite the pain, she never stops toiling. She weaves, instructs the weaving community, and sells her cakes. “Go for a stroll in the morning. The cakes sell faster then. And if palm sugar isn’t available I use white sugar. I source the colors for the cakes at the market, make them red. If I have no money at all, selling cakes early morning is the answer. I give a slice or two to friends who guard my goods,” she said.

The lifestory of Bernadetta, the leader of the women weavers, is an act in a play about three worlds: The world of the single parent, hawker, and weaving instructor. Everything she has done was undertaken with passion and without any weariness. She learned, over the course of a hard life, that persistence is everything. Industrious in diving into her three worlds, Bernadetta handled everything herself while giving meaning to those around her. Through everything that was thrown at her she did not leave weaving behind, she did not leave wild cotton behind, she did not leave natural colorization behind – although these things have been left behind by most Timorese women. m

Chapter Nine

Weaving between Cuzco & Mollo


A photo shows Epitania Chuqque Quispe (45) in the Pusat Textil Tradisional Cuzo (Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cuzco) in Peru, complete with her birthdate and place of birth. It shows her in a brick-red, traditional, Peruvian scarf and hat as commonly worn by Chincero women — usually with a wide smile.

There are hundreds of other photos there, of men and women from different provinces and districts in the Cuzco area, such as Chahuaytire, Pisac, Pithumarca, Mahuaypampa, and others. These photos are tucked away behind a few colorful textiles of varied shapes, colors, and motifs. Some are still long, and others are shaped as scarves, shawls, even decorative wall-covers, hats, clothes, bags, wallets, pencil cases, skirts, sarongs, pillows, jackets, and various other designs. The textiles are vivid, bright, and meticulously tight in their weaving.

All items in the museum have a name, have a face, have an identity. That was the most impressive feature of the exhibit in the textile center, on the 22nd of October, 2012.

Why was this impressive? Because not many of us can pay respect where it is due – to the weavers, although weaving is an artform that produces artworks that are personal, intimate, just like paintings or photos. It is important to recognize them, the faces behind the textiles, especially for the textiles that were made using entirely natural sources.

Textiles from Cuzco, made by a woman and a man of the Aymara and Qechua Tribes, used the wool of llamas, alpakas, and sheep. These animals were kept and cared for by the family of the weaver, kept until the wool was long enough to sheer, when the animal reacher the age of three-to-four years. Before being used, the wool had to be cleaned, the fibers stretched to be made into yarn.

I have watched a Cuzco woman weave but I have never seen them spin cotton. Spinning is not an easy task, as I have seen in Indonesia, especially in Mollo. The difference is, in Cuzco, their yarn is from wool, while the people of Molo use cotton fibers. Despite this key difference, the textiles produced are remarkably similar.

Cotton that has already been cleaned is shaped into small balls, stretched out to appear like cocoons, which the Mollo call nasun. Tens or hundreds of nasun are needed to create enough yarn, then spun around pieces of wood. After being wrapped up neatly, the desired amount of yarn is then prepared to be colored. The colorization is customized for different motifs. The richer the color, the more natural materials would be required. And when colorization is finished, yarn already dried, it is then wound up again into balls, ready for weaving.

Weaving is not spoken of in terms of days — at least weeks — depending on the length and complexity of the motif. Imagine the steps of weaving, like a succession of chores to achieve a work of art. These do not only require time and strength, but also a good eye and good taste, a vast body of knowledge, traditional wisdom, and strong community ties, a relationship with nature, and god(s). These relationships need to be formed and maintained from time to time as they have been since the ancestors of Aymara and Quechua created weaving.

The exhibit of weaving helped me to understand weaving as a record of history, civilization, artwork.

To understand the bigger picture of weaving in Cuzco, I decided to visit the textile museum where there was also an exhibit at the time.

Do not imagine a grandeous museum with a vast display room such as you might find in Indonesia. The museums of Cuzco are humble with long hallways, with rooms only big enough for two-to-three people at a time. However, there is still such a quantity and variety of museums here; there’s a chocolate museum covering the story of the chocolate trees, their benefits, and the means of production. There is an Incan museum, which is more spacious, where we can learn the history of Peru – before the Inca rose to power, and then after they were colonized by the Spanish. A cocoa museum tells the history of the cocoa tree and its relationship to the socio-cultural sphere of the highlanders of the Andes, and ways of producing cocaine from its leaves. There were many other museums in Peru as well.

The textile museum is humble but full of knowledge. If the rooms were a story, then weaving begins at what its function was for the Aymara and Quecha, the native tribes of Peru. The function of textiles were diverse, from warming the body, also for the farmers, who needs buckets and rope. Weaving was also used in rituals and religious rites, at births, weddings, and other life events.

On one wall of the museum hangs a few large photos of a wedding ceremony in highland villages, in the Andes — full of color and flowers. These were wedding photos from a time gone by. One was black and white, the groom looking tidy, wearing only textiles, though the couple were standing and barefoot. Other photos are in color, detailing a rowdy wedding, the couple overflowing with color, in textiles with flowers spread everywhere. The two of them smile openly.

A majority of women and men in Peruvian villages still use tradition textiles. Usually they are made of three parts: Hat, something worn on the upper part of the body, and something for the lower. The upper half is often a jacket with a shawl on the outside. The lower half is sometimes long pants for men and broadening dresses for the women. Their traditional clothes are alive with color, as in Mollo.

In Mollo, textiles signal whether or not a woman is ready to be married or not. Women who can weave are considered capable of facing a new life away from their parents. Textiles are even required to be worn during rituals.

In the Cuzco Museum, it also mentioned the beginnings of the weaving of motifs. Most of them arose from the people’s experience of nature. For example, large intersecting lines often signify the slopes of the mountains where the highlanders lived. A long, windy line running the length of the textiles usually signifies a river running towards a stone.

Nature herself taught them about color and how to source the materials to produce it. Natural dyes are taken from farms, forests, and even the air. Not only from plants, leaves, seeds, bark, or roots, natural dyes can also be found in nests and mixed with other natural colors. Materials are usually ground down until fine, though some are ready to use as they are found others need to be boiled, or mixed with other materials before being applied. I was unfamiliar with most of their natural sources, as they were written in the Quechua and Aymara languages.

In Mollo, natural colors are taken from farms and forests. Fruits and roots are used to produce reds, or perhaps the bark of pines. Nila leaves give off a dark black, while turmeric produces yellows, and arbila nuts create the color green. These natural sources are being used less and less, however. What’s more since the forest has been changed into an industrial production forest. The trees of the forest are diverse, and they are slowly being cut down. In Tune, a village of Mollo, noba trees were once used to strengthen the color red applied to yarn, but they can no longer be found. Along a few trails that lead to Amanuban, nila plants grow wild without any help, but are not sought after. The people have already switched to commercial-industrial dyes.

The fate of natural coloration for the Cuzco seems to converge with the accounts from Mollo. From the moment dyes were available in stores, the natural sources were forgotten about. They prefer to purchase it because the price is cheap and the colors are more diverse. The same goes for yarn. Synthetic yarns are now replacing wool. For this reason, textiles that still use wool are much more expensive now. The price goes higher if the motif is complex and rich with colors. Scarves made by Epitania, for example, are 90% sheep wool and 10% alpaka, using 100% natural coloration; at the exhibit, the prices were as high as 696 Soles. The currency of Peru, one Soles is equal to around IDR 4,000.-, or US $213.

The greatest challenge for the succession of weaving, in the written opinions found in this museum, is the regeneration of weavers themselves. In the city of Cuzco, most people wear modern clothes, pants, and dresses from manufactured fabrics. In Plaza De Maras, for example, one of Cuzco’s largest parks, hardly anyone uses traditional clothes. Those who do are likely to be elderly. All Peruvians sport modern clothes, shirts, and normal pants these days.

The irony is that, the scarcity of traditional clothing has become an opportunity for a tourist attraction. There are some proud Peruvians who deliberately wear their traditional attire, and head for the crowded city centers. Oftentimes they can be seen walking a llama.

Cuzco is the capital city of the Incan peoples, which makes it an attraction for visiting foreigners. There are many old buildings and historical objects from the Incans and the Spanish — their colonizers — including temples, artifacts, old settlements, stone roads, parklands, and houses with terraces on the upper stories. The tourists who come here are usually snapping photos of anything that has ties to history, such as locals dressed in textiles covered in bright colors. And in the center of the bustling city, traditional clothing stands out starkly. Oftentimes the people wearing these clothes will be cradling a baby llama, acting out a life only known to the llama farmers of the Andes.

Slowly but surely the practice of weaving is being eroded and is becoming less colorful too. Nowadays weaving is only a icon, an object, from another time. This is the case in the center of the city, however; in the villages, weaving is still in use and the weavers are kept busy.

The ability to weave is taught from generation-to-generation, in Cuzco. Some begin learning when they are only toddlers. To start with, the children are given hand-woven toys to play with when they are very small. After this, when they reach six years of age, they start imitating the actions of the adult weavers around them. When they are 12, they can realize the need to continue the craft. Once mastering the basics, they usually accelerate, weaving all lengths of textiles, using various colors, and fashioning complicated motifs.

As in Mollo, mothers teach their daughters how to weave. This is often done at night, in a group, in a lopo round-house. “The men tell stories from the farm while making a rope to tie the cows, while the mothers spin cotton to be woven another day. That’s how their daughters learn,” said Aleta Baun, a woman weaver of Mollo.

It is unfortunate that the nights are now shorter and the time to learn as a family is less. Radio, television, handphones – entertainments have ployed the youth of Mollo to leave weaving behind. Meanwhile their mothers themselves no longer spin cotton anymore; at night they have other things to do. The story of weaving has gone awry.

Cuzco is in Peru, South America, while Mollo is on the island of Timor, Indonesia. The time difference is about 13 hours. However, both of these places are facing a similar problem. In Cuzco, the knowledge of weaving has at least been recorded in a single place, the textile museum, where all can study about the craft. At the same time, the museum informs visitors how weaving is still being continued. This is because weaving has a socio-cultural function, tied to their geography and identity. One way that the museum pays respects to the weavers is through postcards with photos of the weavers on them, such as Ephilia and her colleagues.

Perhaps this could be a lesson for what needs to happen in Mollo. The data needs to be dug, the knowledge needs to be archived, along with all socio-cultural intrigues behind it. The chronological story needs to written so that generations to come can connect with their heritage. It can be studied for centuries to help people remember the importance of weaving.

In Cuzco, the work of archiving has already begun, springing from the hopes of life-long weavers, that the artform should continue, instead of being lost. The hopes of Nilda Cllnaup, the owner of the museum, have been surmized in writing that can be read as one leaves the museum:

“It is the responsibility of our children to accept what their parents already know. Even though the older generations are bound to pass away, and it is their children who will replace them in the future, continuing to weave and value our traditional clothes”. m


Chapter Ten

In the Event of Crises: Just Weave


“I wear woven textiles in the House of Representatives any chance I get. They called me out for wearing unusual clothes but it was no sweat for me. I brought the identity of the common people in to remind them all who we are standing for.”

Aleta Baun, 2017

Indonesia’s Partai Damai Sejahtera (PDS) in TTS once entered a discussion with Santian Village in Amantun. One man in the audience did not know that they were waiting for Aleta Baun to appear, who is herself a member of PDS. When she entered, the man began to look nervous. He could not sit still, and was noticeably uncomfortable, clearly wanting to leave. Because of his responsibilities as an important figure in his village, a police officer, he was required to stay.

Not after the discussion and the event kicked off, the officer stood and came closer to Aleta Baun. He began speaking by asking her forgiveness. The officer felt ashamed for having had the responsibility of breaking up a peaceful protest that Baun had once led — in which the people drove a mining company out of their lands, at Faut Lik, between 2004 and 2006.

Aleta Baun recalls the day they managed to kick the marble mining company, who were destroying their stones and source of clean water, out from Faut Lik rock. She paints a stirring picture:

“Along with friends, I faced the terror of these thugs, at home, in the streets, and the regent’s office, where we protested. We were insulted, rocks were thrown at us. I was threatened with rape. I was terrorized by the agency of safety itself. They threatened to arrest and imprison me because I was disrupting their project.

I could only go out at night to meet the village. One night, a motorcycle taxi was bringing me home from another village. I was coming home to give milk to the baby, who was just two months. On the way to Kapan Village, the road was blocked by seven people. They said they were acting on the orders of the Regent. These were thugs with black rags over their faces, threatening to kill me. They pulled my hair, slapped and kicked repeatedly. They almost chopped off my foot, but we escaped. I got away, but they emptied my wallet first.

One week after, again I was threatened by the employeess of the mining company. My house was under siege. Nobody could go in or out. I escaped into the woods with my baby, separated from my husband and two children, for six long months. My family were also victims of violence. My second child was hit by rocks, splitting open his head. My children were not safe at school in the city, so they moved back to go to school in the village.” (Maimunah, 2016, Perempuan Pejuang Tanah Air)

Situations of this intensity were also known by other villagers at this time. They were threatened by thugs; families were deliberately made to fight against one another, local officials were suddenly their enemies. However, none of this had dampered the fight of the women. They had decided to be rid of the company that was lifting out their marble from their grounds once and for all.

And how to be rid of such a large company? Well they sat, they wove, they occupied the road in to the mining site.

“The mothers, the young women, more than a hundred of them, came to the mining site, and there we sat and did not back down until the company packed their bags. We discussed, we wove, we had a kitchen set up. Women’s work came out of the home and onto the stones. We left our families at home, brought our looms, and got to work there. When Christmas came we celebrated it there, at the foot of Faut Lik and Faut Ob. We wove for two months, and finally the miners had to stop,” said Aleta Baun, in an interview for an article in the book Merayakan Ibu Bangsa (Celebrating Women of the Nation), published by The Ministry of Education & Culture, in 2016.

Weaving at the mining site succeeded in stopping their operations. The weavers had turned a crisis, the violent intimidation of the people of Mollo, accusations of communism and anti-governence, anti-mining – a tight situation that made the villagers feel cornered – into a reason to celebrate their freedom.

When mining had stopped, the villagers celebrated Christmas at the mining site. That night, at the end of 2006, for the first time, the villagers of Fatumnasi and Kua Noel villages celebrated Christmas outside of the Church. They walked with candles lit from the Church to the rocks of Faut Lik. A Priest stood in the center, above a broken slab of marble, and delivered his Christmas sermon.

This was not the first time in history that weaving had become a means of resistence. When the Naususu and Anjaf stones of Fatukoto Village were mined in the 2000’s, the Mollo occupied the site for months on end, all the while weaving – as is their identity. Weaving became the main sign separating them from the miners, those outsiders who had tricked them into destroying their communal lands. These outsiders, crafty at greasing the palms and persuading the local governance to hand over entire mountains of stone.

Those who sat in at the mining location, both young and old man or woman, wore textiles and repeated their claims that to a part of their lands viewed as sacred to their ancestors and to them as well. They believed that Naususu rock was like the mother of all stones, and as such gave nutrients and strength to all other stones on the island of Timor. The stones themselves all demarcated areas where fresh water could be found. If the rocks were destroyed by the miners the people of Mollo would not only be without water, but the name of the clans, the name of their extended family, which exists so long as their relationship to their ancestors is continued. The names of their clans are inseperable to the names of the stones, the rivers, the forests, the woods – in their own words: faut kanaf, oe kanaf, and hau kanaf.

The mountains of stone are more than the sacred sites of the old clans that must be protected, but also ensure the survival of their living descendants — each individual. The people of Mollo believe that nature is like the human body. Its stones are its bones, its water is its blood, its earth is its flesh, and its forest its hair. When nature is destroyed, it is an act of self-harm, or even suicide.

During the occupy movement, which saved the stones of Nausus and Anjaf, weaving was not only undertaken to represent the identity of their clan, but also as weaving creates fabrics that protect the body from harm. The women wore textile sarongs, while men used large blankets, to protect themselves from the night’s cold, and the heat of the afternoon sun, the wind and the shivers, for the months that they held their ground out in wild nature.

The ceasation of mining signaled a new phase in the fight to save and restore the communal grounds. The next step was to reclaim their land, their commons. One of these locations was Leloboko Village.

Leloboko is an important village in the Mollo district. “The oldest ‘sonaf’ is there,” said Sole Tausuk, a member of the people’s organization, OAT. Sonaf refers to the king’s castle. Sole, together with his colleagues, reclaimed 48ha of forest, which had been communal grounds before the Ministry of Forestry of TTS claimed that the land belonged to the country itself. While these claims stood, the land had become unuseable, especially for planting.

In 2012, Sole assembled a group of farmers to clear the forest so that they could plant perennial and agricultural plants there. The land was worked by 78 families divided into three groups. A year later and the land was already producing. However, Sole had run into a large problem: He had now been accused as a culprit for cutting down national forests. The Police and Ministry of Forestry came to Leloboko to investigate and find evidence against the suspect. Sole went back and forth to So’e, the capital of TTS Regency, where he was ordered to report.

A year later, the peaceful protest had succeeded in reclaiming the forests of Leloboko Village, between OAT and the Government. This was achieved via the use of traditional round houses as places to store harvested crops, like rice. Many officials arrived at that time, members of the House of Representatives of NTT, The Ministry of Tourism, Forestry, the Regent of TTS, Minstry of Agriculture and Livestock, Police, and the Vice Police Chief. People were brought together by shows of appreciation, which involved giving textiles to guests, and textiles being worn with pride and grace by the locals.

Culturally there is much emphasis on how one accommodates guests who visit a village. A guest’s arrival is usually an occassion to give oko’ mama, or betelnut. However, in observing the case’s being much more political than usual, involving government officials, it was decided that betelnut would not be enough. The arrival of guests in Leloboko was marked with the gifting of large shawls from the heads of households. The gifting and receiving of these textiles signified an agreement, in the eyes of the locals. Afterwards an agreement was successfully made to allow the reclamation of the people’s forests. The officiation of the agreement was again marked by the giving of textiles, a red-and-white blanket, with a motif meant for kings — to the Regent.

The gifting of weaving is also used by the Bibinakan and Kuanmuk Clans of Tune Dua Village. In this area, the grounds were being reclaimed by local governance as they had also been made national forests. The areas reserve, of 1.000 ha, was meant for shepherding, grazing, was now a part of the aforementioned Cagar Alam Mutis reserve of national forests. The people would be unable to utilize the forests at all, unless they were ready to be accused or arrested – on their own ancestral grounds.

In 2003 a working contract was made between the Ministry of Forestry to allow the planting of kasuari and eucalyptus trees for 25 years, with a possible extension. This agreement was officiated with the gifting of a woven blanket from the Head of Tune Village to the Head of KRPH. This signified that the community could again enter into the forest. As many as 100 families began occupying the full 260ha of land, gated off as far as 3.000 meters, and began processing it for use.

In these two cases — of reclaiming communal space — weaving was used to officiate the decision: The people of Mollo should be able to use their lands.

Besides being a part of the reclaimation process, weaving also appears, repeatedly, to open new arenas of resistence for the community, many of which have never been opened before, regionally and provincially: An arena of politics in the House of Representatives, NTT.

Since 2014, Aleta’s fight has entered a new phase. She was chosen by the people of the TTS Regency to become their representative in the House of Representatives, NTT. There she is one of seven female representatives. At the moment she is a part of the Fraksi Kebangkitan Bangsa (FKB), DPRD, NTT, and works in Komisi V, which handles social welfare, is involved in health-care, education, spots, dealing with natural disasters, social issues, labour, and women issues. Her appearance has changed slightly, because she has had to adapt and fill a new role at the moment. However, what she wears on her body and around her head is never anything but traditional weavings, because her mission to help the people of Indonesia also remains the same. She is most enthusiastic when dealing with manganese mining contracts from PT Soe Makmur Resources, meanwhile she does as much as she can for the women of NTT, who often become meat in the gears of the human trafficking machine.

Aleta Baun’s declaration of a strong community identity, not apart from the nature that also needs to be protected, follows the wisdom of the Mollo peoples, and has joined together with OAT to hold events and foster the recovery of the art of weaving. The Ninkam Haumeni Festival is held each year, by the communities of the Three Tungku Rocks, with the aim of protecting nature. Through this festival, the local ties to tradition are strengthened, in the social and natural spheres, through consolidation, solidarity, and skill-sharing sessions.

These events are to help recover weaving from a crises, and are put together by OAT through various means. The best example might be the Ningkam Haumeni Festival, when representatives from 95 weaving communities came together with OAT, sharing their experiences, and held a friendly competition to see who could make the best motif — using only natural coloration. They also discussed strategies to streamline their weaving organizations, attract investments, and improve the quality of their textiles.

In the following paragraphs, weaving is explored as an economic tool. The weaving communities joined in OAT have received training for the development of simple products, with systematic, hand-knitting, in the Weaving for Life Program, as result of a collaboration between LAWE and GEF-SGP. Weaving for Life is moving forwards to support the livelihoods of the community through a multi-party collaboration to restore and develop traditional, woven textiles.

The events which kicked off the program involved the bringing together of three young designers from Yogyakarta: Lia Popperca, Lulu Lutfi Labibi, and Dede Bastam. What they all had in common was that their material of preference, when designing for fashion, is the textiles of Mollo, Amanatun, and Amanuban. Their work was then documented in two series of photo books. Meanwhile their fashionable creations were exhibitioned at Indonesia Handycraft (INACRAFT, in Jakarta, 2012. The resulting fashions received much praise from admirers. One of these works, from Lia Popperca, received praise from Femina Magazine. The profits from the sales of these clothes were used to increase the quality of weaving in the three areas, starting from the purchasing of yarn and colors that do not fade, also the purchase of a sewing machine. The creations of these weaving communities were then sold off in various venues around the country.

To increase the strength of weaving as a form of resistence, OAT has been working together with Poros Photo, with support from an investor, GEF-SGP, undertaking a trip to nine weavers’ villages within eight villages in TTS. The winding journey brought them in direct contact with weaving communities, deriving information about their community’s traditions, the history of weaving, the philosophy of traditional weaving, and more. Lots of evidence was gathered of the positive influence of textile production on the lives of ordinary people in TTS. The data that has been gathered has been put into book form, which it can be presumed you are reading now.

All events undertaken, whether by Aleta Baun individually, OAT as a collective, or via other smaller collaboratives outside of TTS, share the goal of returning the strength and dignity to the weavers, as an identity, as a means of protecting nature, as an archive of knowledge, a tool of the economy, or a weapon of resistence for the people. Their goal is to promote weaving as a way of strengthening solidarity with outside parties also. With these events, it is hoped that weaving will remain a means of reversing a crisis – immortally, as weaving itself can evolve and adapt to the bodies of its wearers, through the bodies of the weavers themselves.


Ataupah, Hendrik. 1992. Ekologi Persebaran Penduduk, Dan pengelompokan Orang Meto di Timor Barat. Disertasi. Universitas Indonesia. Jakarta.

Cristalis, Irena & Scott, Chaterina. I2005. ndependent Women, The Story of Women’s Activism in East Timor. Catholic Institute for International Relations. London.

H.G. Schulte-Nordholt, The Political System of the Antoni, Martinus Nijhoff, The I; Iague, 1971.

Marcoes, Lies. 2016. Materi Pelatihan gender Setapak. Jakarta

Maimunah, Siti. 2015. Mollo, Pembungunan & Perubahan Iklim, Komas Gramedia, Jakarta

Pollock, Ian, “Ancient Emblems, Modern Cuts: Weaving and the State in Southeastern Indonesia”  (2012).  Textile  Society  of  America  Symposium  Proceedings.  Paper 731.h p://


  1. Aleta Baun,
  2. Agustinus Baun
  3. Lodyana Kaba’
  4. Harlenci Tampani,
  5. Arid Oematan
  6. Aren Kune.
  7. Etty Anone
  8. Lodiana Oematan
  9. Margaretha Seba
  10. Bernadetta Lassa
  11. Yosina Tampani
  12. Anaci Anin
  13. Frans Kune
  14. Maria Abanet Selan
  15. Sofia Tateni
  16. Melisa Darmais
  17. Elias Baun
  18. Nelci Tampani
  19. Duplik
  20. Cornelia Tuan
  21. Yumina Selan
  22. Selfina Tefa
  23. Yuliana Tefa
  24. Veronica Mael
  25. Salome Ola
  26. Milka Teffa
  27. Yusina Balan
  28. Elizabeth Oematan
  29. Thomas Ola
  30. Petrus Almeit
  31. Yakoba Baun
  32. Thus Tamonof
  33. Niko Demos
  34. Solek Tausu


Meanings and Abbreviations

A bas          : cotton

A poho        : very basic clothing, like a loin cloth

Ab neno      : the cocoon of the bankofak

Abninis       : a tool to separate cotton and seeds

Abutatas     : separating cotton from seeds

alu’ mamak : a small bag

Amaf           : a member of parliament when there were still kingdoms

Ampafa       : orphans

Atis             : a weaving tool that pinches the yarn

Atoin meto  : Timorese people

Ba’i            : elderly person or ancestor

Bal muit      : land reserved for livestock

Bane           : the whitening of yarn using water that had boiled crushed, white corn, or powdered yam

Bankofak    : a black grub that lives in kanunak trees

bete’ anak   : shawl

Bete’ naik   : large blanket

Bifel ma’apu: pregnant woman

Bodok         : idiot

BTI             : Barisan Tani Indonesia

Bunak         : ‘sulam’ yarn

DPR            : Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat

DPRD         : Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah

faut kanaf   : the name of stones

FKB            : Fraksi Kebangkitan Bangsa

Foka’          : a section of bamboo used to collect water

Hau kanaf   : the name of wood

HTI            : Hutan Tanaman Industri

Ike Suti       : a symbollic reference for weavers; ike: a piece of wood like an arrow, 25 cm, used to spin cotton, suti: the place in which the cotton is spun.

Kades          : Kepala Desa

Kanfatun     : a name derived from the ancestral stones, roots, and wood, of the family tree

Kot laos      : ‘forest nuts’, arbila; similar to koro-koroan, definitely poisonous

Krao           : rough cloth, like Javanese ‘lurik’

KRPH         : Kepala Resor Polisi Hutan

Lilin (ninik) : a tool to clean up rough yarn when it starts to bunch up into balls, so that the weaving doesn’t get sticky, so that the yarn remains easily separated

Lit alu         : a place where women chew betelnut

Lit oko        : a place where men chew betelnut

Loan           : a tool to stretch yarn

Lolo            : a tool for fastening yarn

lop nimense   : a traditional round house with a single story

Lopo           : a round house

Lotis            : a lotus flower motif

Mate matomoen: wedding ceremony (Amanatun)

Matsao        : wedding ceremony (Mollo)

mauk anak  : a blanket

Monaf         : a sauban that has already been filled with yarn

Nasun         : a roll of smooth and fine cotton similar to a cocoon

Nekan         : a weaving tool that stretches the yarn that has already been arranged on the loom, either upper or lower threads

Nifu             : a lake

ninlao         : bees

None           : a tool to roll up cotton

NTT           : Nusa Tenggara Timur, or South-Eastern Indonesia

Nunu           : the rolling of nasun (rolls of cotton)

Nyiru           : a tray made of the gewang-leaf webbing

OAT           : Organisasi Attaemamus (the Organization of Attaemamus)

Oe kanaf     : the name for water

Oehani        : a well

Oemata       : a water source

Oko’ mama   : the betel leaf

Pao tenu     : a tool for weaving

Paok talu    : a resin lamp

Paos niun   : a tool to encourage weavers to sit up straight and keep good posture

Paot tenu    : the wood used for weaving tools

Pauf            : a weaving tool that separates the yarn already joined by the lolo

PDS            : Partai Damai Sejahtera

Prigi           : a river

PT              : Perseroan Terbatas

Puaf            : belt or wasteband weaving

Sapa’          : a round ‘timba’, composed of stitches from stitches of wide gewang leaves

Sauban       : a weaving tool to complete the center yarns, going in an opposite direction from the yarn at the lolo

SD               : Sekolah Dasar (Primary School)

SDN            : Sekolah Dasar Negeri (National Primary School)

Senu           : a weaving tool, like a sword, to organize the verticle and horizontal threads, closing gaps in between

Sial             : a weaving tool, like a big stick (made from the stems of leafs or bamboo) used to separate the upper-and-lower yarn – to make a motif

Sifo             : an arc-shaped weaving tool used to smooth and stretch the cotton fibers for easy spinning

SMA           : Sekolah Menengah Atas (Upper Secondary School)

SMK           : Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan (Secondary School)

SMP            : Sekolah Menengah Pertama (First Secondary School)

Sonaf          : the king’s castle

Sopi            : palm alcohol

Suf              : community

Tais             : sarong

Tais metan  : black cloth or sarong

Tani futu’    : wasteband or belt

Tasun          : spinning cotton

Tatobi         : initiation ritual at the start of childbirth

Taum          : tarum: indigo

Taunu         : spinning yarn

Tendes        : to push

TKI            : Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (Immigrant Labourers)

TKW          : Tenaga Kerja Wanita (Female Immigrant Labourers)

Tofa            : tidying up the farm

TTS            : Timor Tengah Selatan (South-Central Timor Island)

TTU           : Timor Tengah Utara (North-Central Timor Island)

Tuke’           : a tube of bamboo for collecting much water

Usif             : a king

Ut               : a weaving tool used to separate upper-and-lower yarn, made from taduk trees or bamboo

WWF          : World Wide Fund for Nature




Every book has a soul and every book has its own feet, so they say. What this means is that this book will find its own function, its usefulness will be discovered by readers. I am certain it will make its own path.

My appreciation is to Allah SWT, who blessed me to be able to study and write all the way to this conclusion of this long-awaited book.

I also wish to show appreciation to the natural Universe of Mollo, Amanuban, and Amanatun, which showed me countless opportunities to learn with them, knows no limitations. Thus it embraces Aleta Baun and friends at OAT, working together with the weavers of Mollo, Amanuban, and Amantun. Many thanks to Ibu Chatarina D. Hastarini (GEF-SGP), Henri Ismail (Poros), and Adinindyah (Lawe), Rina Kusuma (Mama Aleta Fund), for the collaborative spirit, and the support throughout the process of writing this book.

It is likely this book would not exist without the help of Noer Fauzi Rachman and Meilani Abdul Kadir Sunito, who never tired of giving feedback and enthusiasm to see this book finalized and published.



[1] Around 400 Australian and Dutch soldiers also died during the Japanese occupation of Timor Leste.


[2] [Source: Violence Against Women in War – Network Japan website,]


[3] diunduh pada 5 Januari 2017.

[4] Tatobi is a ritual performed following childbirth, in south Central Timor. After giving birth, the mother and the child will be left alone in a lopo house for one entire month. The mother would then be given a special bath, and traditional drinks, while underneath the bed embers continually give off heat for the mother and her child.

[5]      The letter of ruling mentioned was revised, becoming Surat Keputusan Menhutbun No.423/Kpts-II/1999 15th June 1999, becoming Cagar Alam Gunung Mutis, as broadened to 17,211.95 ha.

[6]      See the definition of Cagar Alam from UU Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam dan Ekosistem, in the first segment (10)


A Dayak Ceremony in the Meratus Rainforest (translation)

Banjarmasin to Loksado and Meratus with Walhi Kalsel


The song Abah by Iwan Abdurahman played first, followed by some Ebiet G. Ade, then others – all lyrics were about nature. The playlist lasted all the way from Banjarbaru to Kandangan. Traveling together with Walhi, South Borneo (Kalsel), I approached Loksado, the settlements of the Dayak-Meratus scattered throughout the Meratus Mountains, South Hulu Sungai Regency.

Dayak ceremonies are often connected to the seasons of farming – from opening farm lands, sewing crops, to the first appearance of sprouts, up until harvest season. Other ceremonies serve to continue ancestral traditions, conduct nature rituals, and rites of passage: Birth, courtship, marriage, and death (though these ‘seasons of life’ are sometimes entwined with the seasons of farming themselves).

Basambuk umang is not the largest of ceremonies,” said Dwi, meeting at the event ‘A Poetic Dialectic: Save Meratus’ at the Regional Library of South Borneo the night before. The venue was enlivened by the usual poets – and activists – from Banjarmasin, Banjarbaru, Kandangan, Barabai, and even Pleihari. “Though not a large ceremony, it’s integral – before proceeding to the harvest season. What’s more, Meratus is a threatened ecosystem, friend. The coal mines would like to stretch into the very interior,” said Dwi with confidence.

Kisworo Dwi Cahyono, Senior Executive of Walhi Kalsel (South Borneo)

Kisworo Dwi Cahyono, Senior Executive of Walhi Kalsel was at the wheel.

“Yah, and if coal miners get to the heart of Meratus, it’s over and out! That’s our water source, the only area with drinkable water. All other corners of the province are already plundered, all the way to Tanah Laut,” said Bang Budi ‘Dayak’ Kurniawan, an elder and part of the external circle surrounding the Walhi South Borneo team.

Having heard the facts, I felt implored to set off with the team to explore the rainforested mountains for myself. Together with Walhi’s people, I was the journalist, there was a student from Lambung Mangkurat University (Unlam) named Mbak Dian, and David Arthur, a Writer and Videographer from Canada. Members of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) had taken off in another vehicle just before our’s, promising to meet up at the crossroads in Kandangan.

Kandangan is the capital of South Hulu Sungai Regency, where roads diverge and one leads up to Loksado. Their neighboring city, Barabai, is the capital of Central Hulu Sungai Regency, the one and largest area not yet befouled by the coal industry of South Borneo. Socio-ecologically speaking, the area of Hulu Sungai might be called the last fortress of the Meratus Mountains.

In a heavy rain, both Walhi and Aman came together on Kandangan’s legendary culinary street. We placed our orders with the women merchants in haste, goodies such as apem and lupis. Others chose to eat a full meal, such as hot green bean porridge, and ketupat. Ketupat Kandangan, served with gabus fish (aruan in Bahasa Indonesia), is at the top of the long list of Banjarese / South Bornean cuisine. Finally, following the Maghrib call to prayer, with stomachs full, we ascended on Loksado.

Near-Disaster on the Cliffs of Harantang


The way to Loksado is steep, narrow – twisting and turning sharply. In the dark and heavy rain, we were becoming uneasy, when in a snap our situation changed for the worse. What we experienced next was bitter – panic! – though as a memory it may one day be sweet. On the slope of Harantang, our vehicle stalled. Starting it up again, Mas Dwi hit the gas, but the vehicle only rolled backwards. Brakes were gone and we were approaching a vertical drop-off to our right, a gaping view of dark, wet trees far below – while on the left there was a forested hill and a deep storm drain.

It was our fortune Mas Dwi kept a clear head. He threw us left, and…braaak! The body of the vehicle crunched, toppling like a heavy horse. We climbed out of a the slanted car only to be welcomed by a dark forest and heavy rain. We were just glad to be unharmed. No one was hurt.

A while later a truck and a motorcycle passed but could not assist. Finally the other half of our caravan, our friends from Aman, having received word of our situation, came to Harantang to pick us up.

And so the trip to Loksado continued. Along the way, we are told that there are often accidents on the slopes of Harantang. First the vehicle stalls and then the brakes stop working. It always happens that we here. The slopes and forests of Harantang are occupied by a guardian, Roh Alam, a spirit who has never been seen.

Malaris' female leader, the wife of the Balian

Balian Damang Ayal Kusal’s Wife, one of the matriarchal leaders of Malaris, settles in for 12 hours of drumming.

Loud Drumming in the Malaris Longhouse of Loksado


Loud ceremony had already commenced in the Malaris Longhouse, the other side of Amandit river. Latecomers swayed across a narrow, suspended foot bridge, handphones lighting their way.

From the distances we had already passed, lucid with adrenaline, still I felt a little streamlined and dazed as we approached the structure. The traditional drumming diffused into the night and became an abstraction, as if the rain on the metal roof were keeping the rhythm. We had our first glimpse at the great, wooden building: 70 x 90 meters, 48 rooms, 15 windows, with 6 entrances; Balai Malaris is the largest ceremonial longhouse in the province of South Borneo.

Feet washed in a barrel of rain water, I ascended the wooden steps into a warm ambience. The amount of space, the strength of the structure – here sundry dishes sat open for the taking, steaming atop handwoven mats. The centerpiece of the warehouse-sized room was a tremendous flurry of organic materials hung on wooden hooks. Illuminated like a cryptic piece of art, this earthen chandelier of raw materials – braided rice shoots (ringgitan), thick, winding cloth – suggested a rich cosmogony, a world of symbols foreign to all outsiders. The hooks draped in offerings led up to the ceiling – a symbol of the heavens.

Alter of the Balai Malaris Longhouse, Loksado

Over the course of 14 hours of ceremony, the alter became increasingly decorated with every cycle.

In contrast to urban facades of modernity, the use of raw materials here did not detract – but further infused the night with a sense of considerable majesty. Each detail, each string, each braid, emerged out of oral instructions, lips speaking to ears, across millennia. The men continued to circle the ornament as their forefathers had, gripping thick metal rings in their hands that gave off the sound of sifting rice when shaken. They recited mantras that had never been written down, which were both incomprehensible and fitting. Passing through clouds of smoke, Balian Damang Ayal Kusal (72 years), Chief and Healer, danced around the centerpiece. For myself, the whole scene recalled the novel Upacara (1978), the works of Korrie Layun Rampan.

The sturdy steps forward of Damang Ayal were followed by those of other men, all of them farmers, gripping braided ringgitan. Their heads were wrapped in thick fabrics and kapur clamshell powder whitened their cheeks. Though at the building’s center, they were also enclosed – in a ring of women – some of whom were nursing babies. The women’s bare feet pointed towards the men; they played the drums like an endless, harmonizing heartbeat – for no less than twelve hours.

Led by Balian Damang, the train of farmers in their regal fabrics circled the tree of offerings. As they circled, each man had to perform in front of each woman, chanting their hearts out, in their varied styles and expressions. If their performance was lazy or disheartening, women withheld their offerings until the mantras rang sincere. I realized that this was an enactment of the harsh reality – that you reap what you sow.

The longhouse filled as the night passed – not only with people from Lklahung where the longhouse presides, but also from surrounding villages in the Loksado sub-district of the Meratus Mountains. Two candidates for regent popped by to drop off parcels and hurriedly took leave to return to the cities. In this way the ceremony cycled – from the evening until ten in the morning. The drums, dancing, chanting, and rattling of the bracelets was a non-porous flurry, a drone, a whir.

Perhaps not as intent, rehearsed, and inspired as the dances of Bali, and though against a backdrop of monotone drums, the ceremony still upheld a sense of identity that came off as strong, unifying, and loving. Families lit fires in doors and drifted to sleep in warmth, and the farmers orbiting the great shrine channeled a holistic, earthen energy. Their slow movements seemed to pause time – a challenge for someone with a touristic frame of mind to enjoy. They seem to lack the fiery exoticism found on other islands, what’s more in this building – metal roof and bamboo floor; but all of this is as unimportant as appearances are. Their traditional ways are a resistance, and it is working.

Balian Damang Kusal, following a sleepless night of dancing, then sat shoulder-to-shoulder with his community and had a chat. Here there is no distance between the Balian (Chief and Healer), and the farmers in the community. In a small group I found myself in a conversation about a large mining operation that was, transcending all of the festivities, occupying their minds in a worrisome way.

“For those of us embracing the Kaharingan religion, trees themselves are spirits. Not to be needlessly felled. What’s more mining! That’s just a free-for-all!” said the Balian.

We nodded in full agreement, and knew it to be true.

Memories of West Java’s Kampung Naga


In the ephemeral cool between sunrise and noon, I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat sipping, surrounded by an array of food, scented offerings, and children at play. After such an event, there was a sense of camaraderie that extended to us outsiders.

After coffee I had a breakfast of lemang (sticky rice with coconut milk and spices), and then our group strolled through Loklahung village, a line of houses on the banks of the stoney Amandit River. If visitors have time, they can take a traditional bamboo raft downstream. I had tried it once, four years ago: Starting near the hanging bridge to Malaris and ending up in the hot waters of Tanuhi.

Instead, on this visit I was stilled by the forests fat on rain, and the quaint homes underneath. The ceremony had washed over me and left its mark, but I would also call Loklahung village something to see. Here, traditional houses form two rows, separated by 2,5 meters of road, most standing on cement foundations. They build with concrete these days, only one of two are wooden, and antennas protrude from roofs, motorcycles str parked on front porches – signs of the gradual decentralization of urban conveniences. Encroaching capitalism.

As it always has been, the village rests in the chill shade of fruit-bearing trees: Rambutan, oranges, mangosteen, jack fruit, and durian. Trying to paint a picture for my readers, I could compare this place to Kampung Naga, Tasikmalaya. Though the houses may be a different shape, a stroll through Loklahung gave me a familiar feeling.

At the end of the road there are three rivers: Barajang, Hanai, and Rampah Menjangan. True rivers, each was shallow but with steep waterfalls. The taller of these falls stands in Haratai, in Tanuhi Village. A splash in the falls at the end of the road was enough for us, however. Unable to resist, David jumped in while I rested in the gazebo, taking in the nature and going over the details of last night’s ceremony, the longhouse, the Balian, the Aruh Besambuk Umang.

My best wishes to you, Balian Damang, for standing for Meratus.


Original Article: Menyambang Aruh Basambuk Umang di Hulu Meratus

~Raudal Tanjung Banua, lover of the road, from Yogyakarta

~Photos, Video, and Translation by David Arthur, Writer and Videographer, Canada

Is Climate Change the New Headhunting? Local Skepticism of Foreign ‘Stories’, in ‘Borneo’

The third largest island on this planet has now had its global identity refashioned, and is now known as The Lungs of the World.

The first foreigners named it Borneo, because the name ‘rang with adventure’. Some first accounts suggest even orangutans were hostile man-eaters back then. Heavy-handed marketing painted a picture to support the ego-driven conquests of early colonial parties. It was the wild jungles of the savages, a primitive place of treachery, headhunting, cannibalism, paganism. Enterprises brought home fists full of clichés and spices.


This image soon changed thanks to reasonable people, like The White Rajah of Sarawak, who wrote of things this way:

“It is true that they are very unlike…the older philosophers, whose every action proceeded from a nice and logical calculation of the algebraic sum of pleasures and pains to be derived from alternative lines of conduct; but we ourselves are equally unlike that purely mythical personage. The Kayan or the Iban often acts impulsively in way which by no means conduce to further his best interests or deeper purposes; but so do we also. He often reaches conclusions by processes that cannot be logically justified; but so do we also. He often holds, and upon successive occasions acts upon, beliefs that are logically inconsistent with one another; but so do we also.”

The rule of this British Rajah was viewed positively, ending tribal warfare and headhunting in Sarawak and beyond. He may be part of the reason why the Malay word for foreigner (Mat Salleh) is more complimentary than the Indonesian word for foreigner (bule), as Indonesia’s colonizers seem to have been a little less considerate.

One-by-one the resident Rajah canned the colonial clichés, writing that,

“The rapid growth of the practice [of headhunting] among Ibans was no doubt largely due to the influence of the Malays, who had been taught by Arabs and others the arts of piracy, and with whom the Ibans were associated in the piratical enterprises that gave the waters around Borneo a sinister notoriety during the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the settlements of Ibans were practically confined to the rivers of the southern part of Sarawak; and there the Malays of Bruni (Brunei) and of other coast settlements enlisted them as crews for their pirate ships. In these piratical enterprises the Malays assigned the heads of their victims as the booty of their Iban allies, while they kept for themselves the forms of property of greater cash value. The Malays were thus interested in encouraging in the Ibans the passion for head-hunting […].

[…] The Kenyahs themselves preserve the tradition of the origin of the talking of heads; […] the legend of TOKONG, which is widely known, but is probably of Kenyah origin […], according to which a [talking] frog admonished a great Kenyah chief that he should cease to take only the hair of the fallen foe, but should take their heads also.”

In 2018, those same boatloads of Arabs have made Indonesia host of the largest population of Muslims of any country in the world. And as Islamification creeps into every pristine forest and down every river, the old headhunting narrative has grown back as means of supporting this new religious conquest. Dayaks around Borneo are shamed into converting. The bitter irony is of course that the practice of headhunting came to this country via the Middle East, likely from Muslims themselves.

Anyway, Islam and capitalism now combine to form the confusing face of neocolonialism here. Aboriginals are also suspicious of any other foreign narratives, however — such as environmentalism itself.

As a Canadian English teacher living on the southeastern tip of Borneo, after ten years in Indonesia, the locals’ skepticism of all foreign narratives has influenced me to think that the term ‘the lungs of the world,’ and even global warming (of human causality), may only be a surreptitious brand of neocolonialism. This suspicion is fostered in that only multinational corporations are stripping the mountains bare of trees and mining coal, while media, which is also multinational, never shuts up about how we are individually to blame for all of this. Again it is a heavy-handed narrative, tough to buy into this story from ground zero.

Many of the mining and logging contracts here in Indonesian Borneo were signed by the Dutch colonialists themselves, and there is always consequences when the extension of these contracts is threatened by the locals’ own love for their lands and realization of their pricelessness (#SaveMeratus). Oh, and in the new picture painted by conservationists, the orangutans of Borneo no longer want to eat you; these potentially dangerous animals are now an embodiment of innocence, a reason not to torch your own forests. No, the government will do that for you as they did in 2015, even throughout designated national parks.

One is reminded of the theory suggesting that the Brahmana caste forbade the eating of beef in India, by the lower Sudras and Satriyas, to keep it all for themselves.

One of the most revealing studies on climate change that I have read appeared in A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, stating that nature itself produces around 400 times more carbon dioxide than humans do. According to Bill, however, the minuscule amount of carbon dioxide that we are contributing is the straw that is breaking the camel’s back.

Others wonder, should we not try to seed the oceans with algae to produce more oxygen? The greatest polluters on the planet are the same volcanic vents that have been spewing since the first forms of life, in great crags beneath the ocean’s surface, after all.

I am only struggling to be as reflective and transformative as the White Rajah was when he wrote:

“let us remember that, after our own race had professed Christianity for many generations, the authority of Church and State publicly decreed and systematically inflicted in cold blood tortures far more hideous and atrocious than any the Kayan imagination has ever conceived.”

Now it is 2018, and the Church is now Media, telling us what we should believe.

Now it is 2018 and most people know this island as either Malaysian Borneo or Indonesian Borneo. And this must change, my friends!

The right word is Kalimantan (‘rivers of diamonds’ (Kali-Mainten)).

Borneo’s Prometheus: Mythical Origins of Burning Rainforests

Mythical Origins of Burning Rainforests: The Prometheus of Borneo

Indonesian Myths

“In Laki Oi, we recognize the Kayan ‘Prometheus,’ whose memory is revered by sanctifying the fire procured after his manner of teaching […]”

-Charles Hose & William McDougall, The Pagan Tribes of Borneo

According to some Dayak beliefs, soot and ash symbolize fertility, virility, and progress.

The Dayak tribes of Indonesia have always used fire to clear land. While this may have been sustainable — on a small scale — for tens of thousands of years, incentivized by reckless investments, the oldest rainforests on this planet are now under threat. Local landowners are left to do the job as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and fire is still their go-to, as it has been for millennia.

1-CmwWr86g9ZLxJ7MUByeXkASatellite image from: []

A Kayan Creation Myth

In the beginning there was only rock, which worms then digested and turned into soil. A great tree took root, and from…

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The New Diwali Love Story: Rahwana & Sita

Diwali comes next week! So, here is The New Diwali Love Story: Rahwana & Sita.

Indonesian Myths

rahwana The traditional, non-Indonesian image of Rahwana & Sita.

Diwali Festival: Victory of Light over Darkness

In the West, when a man is romantic we call him Romeo. In the East, men are told to be as Rama, and women are told to be as Sita. Asia’s most popular love story, Rama & Sita is often compared to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Don’t expect to be swept away, however: remember that Romeo & Juliet is a brutal tragedy. The eastern legend serves as a description of a certain flavor of fatalism, concepts of love, reincarnation, spirituality, and philosophy – however modestly the story starts:

In the beginning, wherein many suitors had already tried and failed, Rama launches an arrow from Sita’s especially stiff bow thereby winning the competition to have her as his bride.

Be As Rama

Rama is set to be the next king of Adohya. There is a problem…

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