The women's majlis: Woven into the fabric of local life in Indonesia

With the hustle and bustle of city life behind me, I arrive in the village of Ngadu Radi in Sumba Tengah, ­Indonesia, where I have travelled with some of my Australian National ­University coursemates to conduct my first fieldwork assignment. Surrounded by nature, traditional houses and livestock, I prepare to meet my host family. I’m […]

With the hustle and bustle of city life behind me, I arrive in the village of Ngadu Radi in Sumba Tengah, ­Indonesia, where I have travelled with some of my Australian National ­University coursemates to conduct my first fieldwork assignment. Surrounded by nature, traditional houses and livestock, I prepare to meet my host family. I’m excited and a little nervous. What should I say? How should I greet them?

The head of the hamlet I will be staying in arrives with the biggest smile I have ever seen. He’s carrying a pouch in his hand, and asks my team to take what’s inside and chew on it. Apparently it is synonymous with Sumba Tengah. But alas, it is betel nut, and I’m fasting, so I politely refuse and instead gently touch the pouch. ­Betel nut is an important part of welcoming guests to the village.

Then it’s time to get acquainted with the family. Each shakes my hand and exchanges a smile. Because of the language barrier, I’m unable to share much with them. After initial introductions, myself and an Indonesian student are escorted to our room and asked to rest.

The next morning, the Sun is shining and it’s time for our intensive fieldwork. We have been tasked with concentrating our studies on three of the local hamlets. Our main goal is to involve ourselves in community life. There are more than 100 people living here. Their livelihood is dependent on subsistence farming. We have two weeks to identify some key issues affecting the area.

Reviving the tradition of textile weaving is one of our study areas. Many Sumbanese women can weave, and it’s core to their identity. But in our hamlets, a lack of weavers has led to the ancient practice slowly disappearing. The last piece of woven cloth produced here was in 2009. We’re told only three old women have the skill, but their deteriorating health means they’re unable to pass down this knowledge.

We hold a focus group where 13 women join us. All of them are keen to renew interest in weaving among the village people. Some already have basic weaving knowledge and want to learn pattern-making skills. Women from other hamlets begin to show up and donate weaving equipment. Shortly after this, we decide to hold our first weaving workshop. It’s a joyous day. Women, men, children and village elders take part.

There’s something special about village life and being part of it. The experience matures me. I will always remember the gentleness of my host family, the smiles of my neighbours, the innocence of the beautiful children and the overwhelming love. A piece of Sumba Tengah will always be with me.

Asmaa Al Hameli is a former features writer at The National who’s now studying in Australia.

If you have a good story to tell or an interesting issue to debate, contact Melinda Healy on mhealy@thenational.ae.

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Source: art & life

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