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Jakarta Post

Indonesia's indigenous tribes use rituals, customs to ward off coronavirus

  • Jon Afrizal and Markus Makur

    The Jakarta Post

Jambi and East Manggarai   /   Wed, April 1, 2020   /   07:28 am
Indonesia's indigenous tribes use rituals, customs to ward off coronavirus President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo hands out gifts to members of the Suku Anak Dalam tribe in Sarolangun regency in Jambi during his visit to the area on Oct. 30, 2015. (Courtesy of President's secretariat/Rusman)

Indigenous communities across Indonesia are scrambling with their own ways to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in their homelands, with each performing their respective customs and rituals to keep the contagious respiratory disease at bay.

In East Nusa Tenggara, leaders of the indigenous Kengge, Seso and Rongga tribes gathered at Mbolata Beach in East Manggarai on Monday to perform traditional rituals known as podo to ward off the infectious disease from reaching their communities.

During the rituals, the tribe members provided a black male rooster and an egg as offertory symbols, as well as performing Pele Le Tadu Lau, or Pele Le Galu Lalu -- roughly translating as "closing all access", to ask for the spirit of their ancestors to give them help.

"We asked our ancestors to close the doors to prevent the virus from coming in," Seso tribe leader Damianus Tarung said on Monday.

Damianus said that the tribes decided to perform the rituals as many East Manggarai residents started to feel wary over the novel coronavirus, which has already killed some 136 people in Indonesia to date.

Meanwhile in Jambi, the Suku Anak Dalam nomadic tribe living in the province's Bukit Duabelas National Park (TNBD) prepared a method to deal with the infectious disease called besasandingon, a sort of physical-distancing system that they have long implemented every time such an outbreak takes place.

Tumenggung Tarib, one of the leaders of the tribe, which is also known as the Orang Rimba, said that the system had traditionally been applied to curb diseases with fast transmission such as influenza within one community.

Read also: Bappenas, UI modeling shows grim projection of COVID-19 spread in Indonesia

"Coughs and the common flu can spread very quickly from one person to another, from one group to the others," Temanggung said on Monday.

"So if one tribe member catches a cold, he will be separated from the rest of the group so the disease won't spread to other members."

The tribe believes that sickness and disease spread through river water, so the sick ones should stay around the downstream area while the healthy tribe members remain in the upstream.

"Sick people will walk to the downstream area or we will carry them if they can no longer walk. We will create a sudung [hut] for them to live in," he said.

The tribe then assigns a small group of people to hunt boars for those who are sick. Other healthy tribe members clean and roast the meat and then leave the food at a certain place close to the sick people.

The person who delivers the food gives a signal to tell the sick ones to take the meal. Tumenggung said the tribe members usually also sent them coffee, sugar and tobacco.

In the besasandingon custom, the tribe also believes that interaction with sick people should be avoided at all costs. If tribe members happen to cross paths with those who are sick, they should keep a physical distance of 10 meters, he said.

"There's no certain time limit for the separation. It can be a week or months," Temanggung said, "If the sick members have recovered, they can return to join the rest of the tribe."

According to Indonesian Conservation Community (KKI) Warsi data, there are around 5,235 people in the Suku Anak Dalam tribe, most of whom live in a 60,500-hectare area of TNBD. Only around 862 members of the tribe live outside the national park.

Read also: Indonesia bans entry of foreigners to curb spread of coronavirus

The tribe members are among millions of indigenous people from various groups living in remote and customary forests areas across the archipelago, many of whom still reportedly do not own e-ID cards and face difficulties in accessing health facilities.

So far, no confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported among indigenous tribes in the country out of the total 1,528 COVID-19 cases nationwide, however, experts believe that indigenous people are among the most vulnerable to the spread of contagious diseases.

Marahalim Siagian, an independent social consultant and forest protection specialist, said infectious diseases such as the cold, smallpox and dysentery could spread very quickly among indigenous tribes.

"Up to 50 percent of their population could be infected in the first two weeks of an outbreak," said Marahalim, who was formerly with nonprofit bird conservation organization Burung Indonesia.

Indigenous tribes therefore devise a system that allows them to keep their distance from the sick, such as in the case of the Suku Anak Dalam tribe, he said. The healthy tribe members even use different roads and water sources from those who are sick, he said.

Tribe members generally believe that they contract diseases because they interact with village residents around the forest.

Marahalim said the sick members of the tribe depended on themselves as individuals to defeat the disease. "If their body can fight the disease, they will recover and return to their tribe. If not, they will die," he said. (nal/trn)