The Island of Sumba is part of the southern archipelago of the Lesser Sunda Islands in Indonesia. A small Christian community lives there practicing the Gospel through understanding and respect for traditions.
Lukas is very good at grabbing his audience’s attention and if one listens to him he cannot but acknowledge that biblical stories are seldom so charmingly narrated. Lukas Pati Maramba Awang, this is his full name, is explaining the parable of the wheat and the weeds. “There is a specific time for everything. It is not up to any of us but to Jesus alone to decide what is wheat and what is weed”, Lukas explains to the people who gathered in the garden of the “PusPas” Pastoral Centre to listen to him.
The Pastoral Centre, which is located in the small village of Katiku Loku, was established in 1980 after the Government had announced that all foreigners including missionaries would have to leave the country. “Luckily, that provision was never put in place,” says Sister Mathilde Franke, of the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, who coordinates the activities of the Centre. In a predominantly Muslim country like Indonesia, this Christian enclave is pursuing its work of evangelization. Sister Mathilde says they have never had problems with the members of other religions, while she is critical of the central Government. “In Jakarta, they seem to have forgotten Sumba, where in several areas, people still have no access to water, or where infant mortality is one of the highest in the world and where schools and teaching resources are inadequate and job opportunities are practically nil”. “Besides, the population experiences cyclical periods of malnutrition due to poor harvests. The limestone soil does not retain water and the forest which was aggressively exploited during the colonial period is only a memory by now. The vegetation of the island consists of just vast grassy areas and savannah now”, Sister Mathilde adds.
During the lunch break, the inhabitants of Sumba rest in the dormitories of the PusPas Centre in order to escape the oppressive heat. Lukas is not tired and is seated under the shade of a tree, where there are still some people around him. “Christianity is love”, he says raising his hands and looking up to the sky, “we don’t have to do anything to get that love, because it exists simply for us”.
Lukas has eleven children and several grandchildren, he is a farmer and a fervent catechist. Like most of the inhabitants of Sumba he was introduced to Marapu, the local religion. Later, Lukas was appointed catechist after attending a formation program. Every day he reaches the most remote places of the island travelling on horseback. One day he invited us to accompany him.
After several hours of horse riding, we reached Waimanu. We were welcomed by the village chief who wore a red t-shirt over the traditional sarong. He told us that Waimanu is a village consisting of six houses with typical bamboo terraces, the ‘bale bale’, where inhabitants spend most of their time. Some buffalo horns were hanging on the wall of a house and are the symbol of high social rank. In Sumba, in fact, horse and buffalo ownership, not money, determines social wealth.
The houses in Sumba aren’t just houses, meant as places to inhabit, but also places where ceremonies and social gatherings are held.
Every family owns a three-story house. The animal stables are located on the ground floor, people inhabit the first floor while the ancestors are believed to inhabit the last floor which is covered with leaves. The access to the roof is prohibited.
The houses of Waimanu are disposed around an open space where there is an altar for sacrifices and the graves of the dead. The writing, carved into the surface of some steles, tells the history of the place. There is also an equestrian statue in the square which represents the former village chief and his wife. The symbols of a crocodile and a turtle show that the chief was a severe but also an understanding man. We noted some stains of dried blood on the altar, “Yesterday a wedding ceremony was celebrated”, an old woman explained to us, “and we sacrificed a buffalo”. “We feel compelled to organize big celebrations”, said Lukas, “even though we can no longer afford them. The dowry that once consisted of a spear, a knife, animals and jewelry, today is reduced to a few animals. But here nobody dares to interrupt this tradition because they fear Marapu’s anger”, Lukas told us.
The Sumbanese believe in temporary life in the world and eternal life in the Doomsday, the world of spirits in Marapu heaven – Prai Marapu. The word ‘Marapu’ means, firstly, the occupants of the eternal heaven, who lead a similar existence to men. They live in couples and one of these couples is the ancestor of the Sumbanese. Secondly, the spirits of Sumbanese ancestors in Prai Marupu, thirdly, the spirits of their relatives and, fourthly, all spirits dwelling in the universe. Marapu has mysterious and magical authority over human life. In the evening we returned to the PusPas Pastoral Center. Some people were still talking and exchanging opinions about what Lukas had explained to them during the day. Many of them, the next day, would return to their villages and tell the others about the lesson from the Gospel they had learned. (J.L.)