A Year in a Mentawai Tribe

Rob Henry

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Updated 1321d ago

In 2008 I turned 27. I had been working in an office job in Melbourne for three years. I was frustrated by the state of the global economy, or rather by the systems and greed behind what had become its demise. I was annoyed too because I felt like I was a part of this machine. Still trying to make sense of my own existence, I resigned and – guided by a connection to surfing – went to Mentawai.

It was tough at the beginning. I had found a small coconut-farming village to live in but I didn’t speak Indonesian or the Mentawai language and nobody there spoke English. I would always be surrounded by groups of people talking – and generally laughing – about me. This, however, also proved quite helpful. I pointed, watched, listened and studied extremely hard.

As the language came I learnt that life for the villagers here was also quite difficult. Opportunity for employment was scarce. I saw the people behave quite desperately at times, which had already resulted in the community’s segregation. I tried to look beyond these struggles though and focus more on the native practices helping enable them to survive, which weren’t many – sago, fishing, and the Mentawai dialect.

© 2018 - Rob Henry

Within about six months I was living much the same way as the villagers – many of whom I had grown quite close to. Despite my acceptance though, I actually felt no closer to understanding what it meant to be Mentawai. Instead, I was learning a great deal about the difficulties faced by people trying to conform to a way of life that is neither native nor suited to their environment.

My journey then suddenly deviated. I heard about a Mentawai tribe living deep in the forests of Siberut Island who were still practising the ancient traditions and rituals of their indigenous culture. I set off in search almost immediately.

I had some preconceived ideas (and fears) but nothing could have prepared me for what I would find. The people were so confident, so sure of their role and purpose, so different to any Mentawai I had met. I was in awe. They kept talking to me about this ‘Arat Sabulungan’ way of life; they were so proud of their existence and so generous to me. I didn’t want to leave.

© 2018 - Rob Henry

Soon I realised the reason for this demeanor; they were living a lifestyle that had been developed and refined over thousands of years. They had such an understanding and intimate relationship with the forest that survival here seemed… effortless. A stark contrast to the resettled community where I had just left. This connection to their native culture appeared the difference between wealth and poverty.

After a little over a year here I decided to return home to Australia. I had shared many wonderful – and some terrifying – experiences living amongst the tribes; including the near-death of my closest friend and shaman, Aman Masit Dere. I had become so immersed in their way of life that I had lost track of my own place and purpose. I needed to clear my head.

Back home I quickly realised how much this community and experience had impacted me and become a part of me. I was troubled knowing that vast majorities of the indigenous population who have been resettled (99%) were now facing a life of long-term poverty. This really got to me because I had also seen how rich a life they once had.

© 2018 - Rob Henry

Still in Australia, I found myself obsessing over studies and reports about the history of Mentawai, and researching this pattern of evolution amongst indigenous groups around the world.

I also began reaching out to Mentawai youth – particularly those who had continued on to university education on the mainland – and engaged in discussions regarding these concerns. It was here that I met Esmat Sakulok and August Sikatsila. After a while our conversation evolved to a level that required action and I once again returned to Mentawai.

It has been over six years now since first arriving to the islands. During the last four, Esmat, August and I have conducted extensive research throughout Siberut in an effort to better understand the situation and the wants and needs of the community. Our findings have lead to the development of an indigenous education program called Suku Mentawai.

© 2018 - Rob Henry

Having Esmat and August in charge of Suku Mentawai, it seemed my efforts could be of purpose by helping relay their voice to an audience beyond just their homeland; and also by facilitating a platform to generate some initial funding and collaborative support – the Indigenous Education Foundation.

I had filmed this entire journey (not fully knowing why at the time), but – as with all aspects of this project – a need soon arrived and the compulsion for doing so suddenly became clear and found meaning.

© 2018 - Rob Henry

As surfers we view Mentawai as an idyllic tropical island paradise – and rightly so, it is – but there is also a very serious threat to its future that I believe we should all take interest in. Surf tourism can play an enormous role here by specifically supporting implementation of community-driven programs that are conducive to sustainable development for the local people and environment.

Waves are indeed Mentawai’s most prolific and viable resource and, with the right structures in place, are an ideal source for providing ongoing protection and a better future for all.

© 2018 - Rob Henry

If you would like to learn more about the community’s Suku Mentawai program, visit www.sukumentawai.org. If you would like to learn more about the As Worlds Divide film, visit www.asworldsdivide.com.

To show your support, partner, or give a tax-deductible donation toward the Suku Mentawai program, visit www.iefprograms.org or contact Rob at admin@iefprograms.org.

© 2018 - Rob Henry

© 2018 - Tariq Zaidi

© 2018 - Rob Henry

© 2018 - Rob Henry

© 2018 - Rob Henry


Rob Henry

Documentary filmmaker