Here are a few oral histories about local health and healing that I collected during my preliminary research in the Lamaholot region of East Indonesia.
- Severe Dental Pain
Suggested by Pak Tokan (late fifties, retired politician and corner-shop manager in Larantuka, East Flores)
It’s not easy to find top dental care in East Flores, Indonesia. In fact, it’s not possible. Have a cavity in your teeth that brings you fits of pain? Your options are few. You might ask a friend extract that rotten tooth with something sharp, or with the old tug-and-pull. Another option is to grow accustomed to the pain. If you have the funds, hop on an overnight boat to the city of Kupang, where the few region’s dental specialists work at a snail’s pace. Alternatively, you can squelch the pain (but not the problem) with a quick, natural remedy that begins in your kitchen cabinet.
One might note that not all families of East Indonesia host termite colonies in their homes, and so those who find themselves looking up at tumor-like mounds on their wood-paneled ceilings should consider themselves blessed.
If your problem is tooth compression (if your jaw shrinks or your teeth grow in sideways), you’re screwed. But if the problem is a simple cavity, the cure is simple. Take flakes from the termite nests inside your kitchen cabinet, crumble them, and put them in hot water. Gargle and spit like saltwater for a strep-throat. Afterwards the dental pain will subside, although the hole will remain.
2. Prostate Hyperplasia
Told by Tekla (mid-forties, office assistant at the central clinic in Lewoleba, Lembata)
Tekla’s father suffered from prostate hyperplasia (enlargement of the prostate gland) when Tekla was still a girl. Healthcare in Lembata can’t boast much today, but was truly defective twenty years ago. The closest thing to a hospital was in the city miles away from Tekla’s mountain town of Lerek, and the road to get there was as broken as a dried-and-trodden bean pod.
Tekla’s father’s condition brought him pain and poor humor. He couldn’t take a whizz, and each day the discomfort grew worse. Tekla’s mother tried to persuade her husband to visit the city clinic, but the man wouldn’t make the trek. At last, when the pain grew unbearable, he went. At the clinic, Tekla’s father received the news everyone expected. He would have to travel to a far island to receive advanced inspection, and undoubtedly stay weeks for the care.
Tekla’s father refused to go abroad. Instead he lit candles for the ancestors in front of his house, poured local liquor on the front stoop, and prayed to Father Sky, Mother Earth –Tanah Ekan and Lera Wulan – to lift his misery. He ate the roots of a medicinal tree, as a local shaman taught him its properties, and shortly thereafter found himself cured.
3. Broken Hip
Tekla. She told me this story story about her father the second day I stayed in her home, when she learned that my passions lay in collecting personal narratives which tap at local wisdom, as opposed to mere/collective origin narratives.
Tekla’s father was climbing a lontar tree when he fell and broke his hip. The break was so bad that the bone in his hip tore through the skin and the wound let out a pint of blood onto the forest floor. Tekla’s father, who was in his seventies at the time, couldn’t move anything below the pelvis. A family member called Tekla while she was working at the hospital and demanded she come home with medicine while the neighbors carried the bent body back to the house. She grabbed the pain medications and bandages the hospital had in stock and hurried home. Upon processing the news of her father’s fall, Tekla was convinced nothing could be done, and her father would surely be paralyzed for the rest of his life.
Here, logical predictions fall short of ancestral magic. When Tekla came home, the shaman, Bapak Joni, already stood in her living room. Pak Joni was a trusted healer of the Atodai people, young and gifted. Pak Joni’s ancestors were also known for their knowledge of natural herbs and strength of communication with the invisible, and when Tekla found the renowned shaman in her home, she paused in her steps, letting her bag of provisions fall by her side.
“Leave the western medicine at the door”, said Pak Joni. Tekla did as she was told, as if Pak Joni, rather than she, were the owner of the home.
Pak Joni lit candles for both his and his patient’s ancestors and placed leaves on the open wound of the reclining man, so that it clung to the man’s broken body like plaster. The shaman bid the man’s family members to leave the patient alone as he slept. Visitors might entertain him while he was awake, but he must under no conditions be accompanied at night. In the man’s bedroom Pak Joni hung a carton of Tuak (local alcohol acknowledged as milk of the ancestors) on the wall, along with other sacred totems. Then Tekla’s father was left to heal.
Tekla’s father, by this time inculcated by Western projections, thought he would be crippled forever, and threatened to kill himself. The old man lamented that someone who couldn’t work the bush, climb a tree, and couldn’t’ drink wine of the lontar tree was as good as dead. But his family bid the man to stay patient, and kept all their kitchen knives far from the bed.
Gradually, miraculously, the old man healed. Soon after the incident his youngest child pledged to marry on a faraway island, and begged his father come to give his blessing. Afraid the journey might reverse the healing process, Tekla demanded that her younger brother pay for their father fly on a plane while the rest traveled by boat. Pak Joni would also get a free ride. The shaman would travel alongside the wounded man or the old man wouldn’t travel at all. So it was done, and Tekla’s father not only survived the injury, but recovered well enough to walk and work the fields.
Now Tekla’s father, in his eighties, still works the bush. Every year the entire family attends an annual ceremony held by Pak Joni in which a chicken is slaughtered for each illness Pak Joni cures. All who are healed by Pak Joni must come with offerings to thank the local ancestors for their miracles. If they skip out on the gratitude, another accident might very well occur…
4. Fish Bite
Account by Ado Nunang (host, healer, spearfisher) and his wife, Regina
If you’ve never heard of a “fish bite”, come to the island of Lembata, where ocean currents bring some of the world’s most diverse–and deadly–sealife. There’s an especially high prevalence of Stonefish (Synanceia) on the shores, where this little-bit over-a-foot long creature sits camouflaged among the mossy rocks on the shallow sea floor. The stonefish attacks with poison so strong that it kills or cripples its victim within a matter of hours.
Ibu Regina had a cousin who, upon wading one day into shallow waters, found his fingers on the back of a stonefish. The stonefish bites with pressure equal to that put on it by its attacker, and so one prying finger prompted a narrow but deep bite in the hand. Knowing what had attacked him, the man ran out of the water. Blood drained from his finger as he ran to the home of Ado Nunang, neighbor and healer, and there he collapsed on the floor in agony.
Ado Nunang brought the roots of a medicinal plant and bade the wounded man eat them. Then he juiced some of the roots into a serum which he placed over the wound to prevent infection. The man slept and woke up in good health.
“Why travel far for a remedy and die along the way,” asked Ado Nunang to me, “when the cure is right here?”
(Above: Ado Nunang and Ibu Regina at the breakfast table in the town of Loang, Lembata)
(Typical Mountain view from a backyard of Loang, Lembata, after a funeral)