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Saturday, January 24, 1998 Published at 17:50 GMT

An Indonesian idyll

Both the Indonesian government and the IMF hope that their new agreement will soon stem the country's economic decline. For in Jakarta there's been panic buying, as people stocked up on basic necessities before anticipated price-rises, and in eastern Java a supermarket was burnt down and shops looted by a crowd protesting at rising prices. But on some more distant islands, like Sumbawa, the crisis seems a world away, as Jonathan Fryer discovered.

Sumbawa is one of Indonesia's larger islands, yet has remained curiously isolated from the outside world. Dry, volcanic, largely barren and thinly-populated, it attracts few visitors. Even the Dutch, who ran Indonesia before being ignominiously pushed out after the Second World War, only took control of Sumbawa in the early part of this century. Previously, three local sultans had happily ruled their respective fiefdoms.

An old wooden palace, built in 1885 by the then Sultan of western Sumbawa, still dominates the island's capital, Sumbawa Besar. It rears up in the centre of the little town, like a gigantic hen-house, raised well off the ground, on 99 hefty wooden pillars. The rest is all planks, light filtering through the cracks in between, including the floor. It's an oddly austere place, devoid of contents -- though there are plans afoot to turn it into a museum, if enough artefacts can be found to make that worthwhile. There's virtually no decoration either, except for one intricately carved grille, at about knee level, in the wall between the Sultan's main reception room and the women's quarters. Apparently, the host would sit with his back to the grille, and wiggle an appropriate number of fingers through it to indicate how many guests would be staying on for a meal. In true Muslim fashion, the women would remain demurely out of sight -- though they did have the privilege of spying on the Sultan's guests through the grille.

Islam was introduced to Sumbawa in the 17th century. And the east of the island has the reputation of sending the highest percentage of pilgrims to Mecca of anywhere in the archipelago. Yet even during the current holy fasting month of Ramadan, people seem extraordinarily relaxed. They're phenomenally friendly and hospitable, even by Indonesian standards; one's every step in town is accompanied by yells of "Hello, mister!"; invitations from strangers come in thick and fast.

For all Islam's omniprescence on Sumbawa, though, there's a strong undercurrent of something older but still vibrant, which Victorian travellers would doubtless have called "pagan". Particularly in the villages, away from the muezzin's call to prayer, the "dukun" or shaman enjoys a special rank. Magnificently attired in finest brocades when on duty, he is the first port of call when anyone falls ill, not any Western-style doctor or pharmacist. And the shaman really comes into his own when the village turns out for its favourite spectacle: buffalo racing. The shaman has the reputation of making buffaloes run faster. But the races are also a playful battle between him and the buffaloes' owners, as I found out the other day.

Farmers downed tools and hordes of children emerged squealing with anticipation from bamboo-and-palmfrond houses as I was swept along in an ever-growing procession from the village near which the race was going to take place. We crossed a gently-swaying bamboo bridge, to be confronted not, as I'd expected, by a makeshift racetrack, but by a huge, rectangular pond. The shaman danced and invoked various spirits, before thrusting a large, beautifully carved peg-doll into the pond, leaving about three feet of it protruding above the water.

Then, from the opposite end the buffaloes came thundering in pairs, their drivers percariously perched on a extended halter between them. I'd always thought of buffaloes as rather placid, plodding beasts. But these animals really could move, thrashing through the water like wild things, the driver hanging on for dear life. The aim of the race was not just to be faster and more dashing than any of the other competitors, but specifically to steer the buffaloes so precisely that their halter would knock over the shaman's pegdoll. Knock the pegdoll over, and you win a prize; miss (as most not surprisingly do), and you fall deeper under the shaman's power.

Watching this exuberant and thrilling event, it was hard to imagine that economically and financially, Indonesia has for the past few months been teetering on the brink of collapse. In the space of a week, the local currency, the rupiah, fell by almost 40% against the US dollar. Yet so far, that has meant little to the farmers and fishermen who make up most of Sumbawa's working population. And in Sumbawa Besar's supermarket there were no signs of the panic buying that has been going on in Jakarta and other more industrialised centres. One of the great advantages in living in one of the more remote parts of the world is that, so long as one's traditional life isn't disturbed too much, many of the problems which dominate the news just pass one by.

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