Text and Photos : Christian Fournier.
The island of Nias, in Indonesia, has been isolated from the rest of the world until the end of the 19th century. European missionaries "discovered" there primitive people, living almost in the stone age. Today, Nias is interesting for its unique traditions.
Located off the west coast of North Sumatra, the island can be reached by air from Medan to Gunung Sitoli in the north of the island, or by sea from Sibolga to Teluk Dalam in the south. We arrive at Teluk Dalam, the main port of the island. After debating with the locals, we get a truck for a drive to the village of Bawamataluo, located nine miles from Teluk Dalam. The roads are terrible but the trip through the jungle and the rice fields is fascinating. Kids run along with the truck. We see women working in little garden patches, near by their wooden houses. Every one smiles and waves at us.
After an hour of very bumpy drive, we arrive at the foot of an impressive stone stairway. Many villagers are already there waiting for the tourists. After climbing 480 steps, we are greeted by several warriors posted along one of the three main paved streets of the village. The architecture of the village is remarkable. All houses have a high roof with an opening from which kids look out. The three main streets form a T and join into a large square ; the palace of the tribal chief is located at the junction, in front of the square. Higher than the other houses, the palace is also the center of the community. In front of the palace, are several stone tables. The dead used to be left there to decay. Today, the tables are used as benches !
There is a lot of life in the streets : vendors, kids, weird looking brown pigs, displays of local craft and fruit for sale. The males of the village have put on their war costumes. Wood, coconut fibers, feathers, metal, anything goes to make the costume and mask frightening. All men assemble in the square and take their position for the war dances.
One man leads the group of warriors. The dance is a mix of steps and jumps punctuated by loud shouts. The idea of the dance is to prepare the warriors for an attack and also to intimidate the enemy. The dances are followed by the stone jumping. The wall of stones is located in the middle of one street, about 8 feet tall, in front of the palace. Stone jumping used to be performed by the young, single males of the village. In order to get married, and also as a form of war training, the jumpers had to leap feet first over the wall surmounted by sharp pointing sticks. Today, the sticks are not used and stone jumping is mainly performed to attract the tourists.
As soon as the show is over, we are surrounded by the warriors and vendors trying to sell their wood sculptures. The tourists are now leaving, so this is the last chance to make money.
We stay in the village, wandering around. As soon as the last tourist has disappeared, it is funny to see the men take off their costumes and put on a T-shirt. The suits are left to dry in front of the houses. The streets become deserted, except for the pigs and the kids playing outside. We take a walk around the village, escorted by one of the stone jumpers. He speaks a little English and offers to guide us. The cemetery is located on the outskirts of the village : all villagers are Christians which is quite uncommon in this Muslim nation. These are remnants of the Dutch colonial days. On the trail around the village, we see women carrying bananas and mangoes on their shoulders. They are coming from the garden. Our guide does not allow us to go there : it seems that tourists in the past have damaged some trees or crops. We head back to the quiet village. It is hot. Naked kids enjoy a shower in what seems to be the communal bath and the village's only water supply. We sit under the shade of a roof. Two kids seem intrigued by Christian's naked legs. One reaches and pulls on his hair : Indonesians are not hairy and this must be the first time that these kids have the chance to see body hair closely. We all laugh.
The village is still very quiet : quite a contrast with the frenzy that took place two hours ago ! More tourists are scheduled for the afternoon : there will be a second performance of war dances and stone jumping. The village of Bawamataluo gets money for these performances and has become a tourist place : cruiseships, travel agencies organize tours of the village. The people of Nias have adapted themselves to the "modern civilization".