“Investigating the Rumors about Head Hunting in Sumba”

Meta Ose Ginting | CRCS | Wednesday Forum Report

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Adriana spoke about the rumors of head hunting in Sumba

The aim of this research is to examine the background of the rumors spread in Sumba especially in relation to “foreign intruders”. For Kabova, Sumbanese rumors in general are an effort to define themselves in opposition to outside forces and also a tool for maintaining the norms within the society. Rumors according to Kabova are uncertain knowledge that spread rapidly. She added also that rumors are stories which are believed by the community and transmitted to them because they resonate with their life circumstances and address their social and/or moral concerns. Rumors also are not something that needs to be proved or disproved.

In Sumba, Kabova focused her research in Waikabubak the west part of Sumba island. In her previous research, Kabova tried to find some pattern and relation in the motivation and imagination of the incoming tourists. In this project, she did some structured interview with local people as well as participant observation. In her efforts to gather information, Kabova also tried to gather some informal narratives to her time spent with the local people of Sumba.

One of the myths perceived by the Sumbanese is the myth about sacrifices for bridge construction. Resurfacing from time to time, these rumors say that victims’ heads and other parts of the body are used to help the building construction. They use the terms penyamun and djawa toris to refer to anyone trying to kidnap local people, especially children, and take their body parts. One of the participants told her: “In the past we recognized djawa toris immediately, because a djawa, unlike us, would wear long trousers.”  Djawa in the Lali dialect is anyone whose immediate ancestry is not from Sumba; djawa toris are those looking for body parts.

Following that, another idea about djawa toris or penyamun also talk about suspiciousness. Maybe during the day he is good, but inside he is rotten.  He is alone, he has a machete and in the night we will slit our children’s throat”.  (Sumbanese woman talking about an Australian tourist). Due to this suspiciousness, tourists who do something outside the norm are considered djawa toris. Some places that tourist normally don’t go to will invite suspicion for the locals; tourists should stay in the cities and villages, should not go to the forest.  If they go somewhere outside the norm, they should explain where they are going, what they are going to do, how long, and why.

Another aspect of the rumors is the prominence of electricity. Kabova told her stories about how the old people are usually afraid of the electricity because they think it consists of human fresh blood. Blood in Sumbanese narrative is a symbol of power. In the context of Sumba, blood has duality. The cold blood and the hot blood. Hot blood is the blood where people die in a harmful way, like in violence. This hot blood believed to has ability to speak. By her explanation, the roots of the rumors could be traced back to the era of slave trade past centuries ago. The cultural memories remain in people’s remembrance through the narratives that have been told times to times. For example, she quoted Needham (one of the researchers in Sumba): “When I lived in Kodi , in the mid-fifties, the appearance of a strange vessel out at sea, or just a rumor of one, would provoke all the signs of a general panic; men look fiercely serious, and screaming women dashed to pick up their children.”

The scenario of the rumors happened in this way. The victims are the Sumbanese, Lolinese, Kabihu members, uma members.  The offenders are outsiders: missionaries, colonizers, Indonesian incomers, tourists, and state agents.  Rumors can also be understood as a form of protest against the loss of political autonomy. The last point Kabova made about the circulation of the rumors as the mechanism of social control. It is a way of the local people to maintain norms. Deviation is punished by with accusations and then ostracism. For example, a man (former prisoner) accused of being a penyamun was completely ostracized by the community and those around. Mentally ill people are also often accused of being penyamun. The other way this rumors also have been used perpetually by the thieves who want to steal the animals in their neighborhood.

Some fascinating questions came up in the Q and A session. One of them is the role of religious leaders in the rumors spreading and why people still believe it up to now? Kabova told that the reactions toward the rumors are different between people in the village and in town. People keep using the story for some reason like to educate their children even though they do not believe in it. Also, the social gap between the old and younger generation shows different reaction. Subandri also came up with the story that almost in every place of Indonesia we can find narratives of head hunters. And children are always the target. Kabova thinks it is because the children are the weakest among the society because they need protection from others.

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