Sun, 13 Feb 2000

German finds going native second nature

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): Each time Claudia Lang visits her friends in the remote highlands of central Irian Jaya, she seldom fails to notice that they remain as curious about her as she is about them.

A speaker in the Indonesian Heritage Society lecture series at Erasmus Huis recently, Lang said that many of the penis-sheathed and grass-skirted highlanders find it difficult to recognize the sex of those visiting them from outside their own territory. One member of the tribe even felt all over Lang's body to determine that she was a woman!

It is because the variation in attire is along sexual lines among these people. The sexual separation begins at the age of five years when a girl begins to wear a little hanging grass skirt and a boy a koteka (penis gourd) to protect their respective modesty.

"They watch me silently for hours as I read. They don't really want to know how I am or where I come from, but are very interested in what I do," said Lang, a German expatriate living in Jakarta.

"They are fascinated with all my pens and want to know what I write. They smile watching me brush my teeth or bathing in the river nearby. They want to know how I cook and if I always eat with a spoon."

Adopted by one of the clans that live in the highlands west of the valley and known as the Dani, Lang was first introduced to Indonesia's easternmost province by anthropologist Carl G. Heider's careful description of the Dani in his book Gentle Warriors, in which he wrote the culture was "trembling on the edge of change". About a decade ago as a student of ethnology she saw a film at the University of Augsburg, Germany, on the grand Baliem Valley in central Irian Jaya and could not get the images of the landscape and the people out of her mind.

She was naturally ecstatic when she actually came to live in Indonesia two years ago; one of the first things she did was to visit the valley of her dreams. She is now preparing for her fourth trip, along with a group of about 10 other people interested in visiting her adopted village and trekking along the lush green valley, dotted with smoking huts and laced with purple-green sweet potato vines.

Adopted by the clan in a formal ceremony that included a feast of roast pig and much singing and dancing, Lang is welcomed as a member of the community now. "I always return back to 'civilization' healthy but extremely unhappy at having to leave."

She said it was difficult to put in words her love for the people.

The Dani have remained Stone Age farmers who practice ancestor worship and occasionally engage in tribal warfare. Some of the western Dani, who settled along the steep valley slopes, have found work in cities and wear clothes.

They are more "modern" than those in the valley itself who live on a wide, rich alluvial plain where the wardrobe still consists of penis sheaths made from gourd, and skirts braided from natural fibers. The sweet potato is eaten in every form, from roasted to steamed, and more than 70 percent of the different varieties are cultivated in the area. They also grow taro and yams, bananas, ginger, tobacco and colorful cucumbers.

They believe that men and birds once lived together in harmony, not realizing they were different. As a result of this former relationship, each clan has developed an affinity with a particular species of bird which are themselves considered clan members.

If Lang had the clout and means to do something more, she would help the Dani to educate themselves and to teach them a little about the legal system. But she said she would hate to see them forced out of their natural environment to earn a living.

"They seem most happy when left to farm, hunt and dance," Lang said.

Those who have migrated to nearby cities and wear clothes look out of place, lack confidence and seem to have little pride in themselves, she said.

She does not view the tribal people as uncivilized or primitive, but merely very different from the rest of the world. She finds them extremely attractive, sensitive and a very emotional lot. Despite the fact that the men always get to eat all of the roasted pig at feasts while the women sit separately and are left with vegetables and fruit, Lang still loves to be in their company.

Unlike the Javanese, they do not express themselves in flowery words nor feel that it is a flaw to show emotions. They express their feelings of love, anger and happiness with surprising spontaneity.

Recalling one of her most emotional experiences in the valley, Lang said that Aman, one of the chiefs of ceremonies, did not believe her when she promised to return after her first trip. When she finally did, she said the expression on Aman's face had to be seen to be believed.

"He had tears in his eyes and love poured out of his very being," Lang said.

"Elanius is a young porter who helps me during my visits and I saw him dance with joy when he found me standing before him the second time."

After flying into Wamena, the bustling commercial and administrative center of the Baliem Valley, it takes Lang about three days of walking to get to her adopted village into the interior, past sweet potato fields, spectacular scenery and stunning gorges. She sleeps in one of the many round huts used by women, surrounded by pigs and vegetable gardens.

Inside the hut there is an elevation for a bed that is covered with soft grass, which is spotlessly clean and extremely comfortable. Lang said that during her two weeks in the valley she does not miss her tiled toilet or television. However, some others feel that the Dani should be "civilized".

When the government launched operasi koteka in an attempt to coax the Dani to give up their bodily decorations and to wear clothes, there was a backlash. The Dani also refused to live in tin-roofed shacks that turned out to be too hot during the day and too cold at night. Their traditional thatched roofs and double outer walls help to keep out the heat during the day and keep it in at night.

She respects them for never asking her for money. She prefers to give them souvenirs like a key chain or bracelet, but they seem happiest when she leaves behind photographs and, of course, the promise that she will return sometime soon.