The Jakarta Post
The people of Alor are striving to simplify the tradition of providing an expensive belis (dowry), a burdensome obligation on the part of the bridegroom's family.
People in Alor regency, East Nusa Tenggara, are increasingly aware that for generations they have been stifled by the hereditary tradition of hefty belis (dowry), which tends to instigate fear rather than joy at weddings.
The obligation to provide the dowry, symbolized with a drum called moko, of hundreds of millions or even billions of rupiah, runs the risk of plunging the bridegroom's family into deep debt.
The high costs of the Alor wedding tradition are down to the fact that the level of dowry to be provided by the bridegroom's family is calculated based on the accumulation of previous debts that could not be fulfilled by the bridegroom's father, grandfather, great-grandfather or even great great-grandfather during their wedding arrangements.
Slamet Kusharyadi, an activist with Wahana Visi Indonesia (WVI), said that the dowry debts of all Alor families were minutely recorded by noted figures from the local indigenous clans. The records are disclosed when families begin negotiations on dowry payments.
Slamet said that in any wedding arrangements the energy of local people, represented by customary figures, uncles or other members of the extended family of the bride, was spent mostly on the lengthy and tiresome negotiations on the dowry to be paid by the bridegroom's family.
'As bridegrooms are asked to pay up to millions or even billions of rupiah each for the dowry, many couples on Alor fail to get married or if they are forced to, they end up living together out of wedlock,' Slamet said.
Other problems arise when their children enter school age. It is difficult for them to enroll because they do not have the birth certificates required for registration, he said.
Seprianus Kafolamau, a prominent tribal figure in West Lembur village, North Alor Tengah district, is among those to have had a bad experience related to belis.
After graduating from a SMEA business vocational school, Seprianus was forced to abandon his dream of continuing his studies at a university in Malang, East Java, because of the absence of support from his father. Seprianus' father was too preoccupied with how to pay his sons' dowries to worry about paying for them to continue their studies.
The wedding process in Alor usually starts with arduous and complicated customary settlements, mainly deciding the belis. Without settling the dowry, wedding processes in church and under the state arrangement cannot be carried out.
Families are forced to spend most of their income to meet the demand for dowry. Without the full dowry payment, a customary marriage can easily be revoked.
Children born under such marriage conditions are included in the wives' clan, while the husbands can be considered as slaves in the wives' families simply as a means to pay for debts in the dowry payments. It is not rare for husbands caught in such a predicament to run away from their villages and wives.
The people of Alor highly respect their cultural values of horizontal, communal settlement of problems or disputes. However, in many cases the provision of dowries to symbolize appreciation and unity among two families through marriage is easily twisted by customary leaders and family figures with the motive of wealth or revenge. This leads to irrational decisions in determining the amount to be paid by the bridegroom's family.
Rev. Hengky Anie, one of the initiators of the Alor culture revitalization and a native of Otvai village, disclosed his experience of being forced to pay hundreds of millions of rupiah to pay the dowry demanded by his wife's family.
He subsequently planned to take revenge by demanding a high dowry, or roughly the same amount of money he had paid, to families of any men intending to marry girls from Otvai village.
However, his intention was aborted upon realizing that over 70 percent of young couples in the village were unable to get married following the imposition of the high level of dowry. The high number of couples living out of wedlock has prevented members of his congregation from joining the church's holy communion and left many children unable to be baptized.
As a reverend, Hengky took it upon himself to bring together customary institutions, church and government to make changes by launching a revitalization of Alor culture.
Under the revitalization, with the help of the WVI Area Development Program (WVI ADP) Alor since 2007, dowry arrangements have been simplified. An agreement was later reached to work out the standardization of dowry requirements, simplification of customary processes and establishment of a customary institution.
As a result, out of 12 customary clans in Alor, seven have thus far agreed to the simplification of the belis arrangements in which the amount is capped at Rp 7 million (US$519). The use of moko as a dowry symbol remains, but can be replaced with money.
Tuleng village chief Markus Samoy said that the simplification was warmly welcomed by the public, as it allowed them to hold wedding ceremonies for much less, falling sharply from hundreds of millions of rupiah Rp 23 million. The people are moreover no longer burdened by the high costs of the dowry.
'The cost can be much less if they join mass wedding ceremonies,' Markus said, adding that through mass weddings, which combine church and state arrangements, the cost could be further curtailed to only Rp 2 million.
According to data from WVI ADP Alor, as of late 2014, 1,324 marriages had been carried out under the new dowry arrangements. Nearly all 38 villages in seven districts ' Teluk Mutiara, Northwest Alor, North Alor Tengah, Kabola, Pura Island, South Alor and Lembur ' have accepted the changes.
People are relieved because they are no longer haunted by vertiginous dowries or debt traps. New couples intending to get married are now far freer to start a family.
The hereditary burden that all but paralyzed generations of Alor people is no more. Now the islanders can focus on facing formidable future challenges, preparing their children to go to school and assuring the best possible education for future generations.
' Photos by Hyginus Hardoyo
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