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Sumba’s traditions and customs

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One of the main reasons to visit Sumba is to experience the extraordinary agrarian animist cultures in the villages. These villages, or kampung, comprise huge clan houses set on fortified hills, centred around megalithic graves and topped by a totem made from a petrified tree, from which villagers would hang the heads of conquered enemies. The national government insisted that all totems be removed back in the 1970s, and though some do remain, many have disappeared.

The most important part of life for the Sumbanese is death, when the mortal soul makes the journey into the spirit world. Sumbanese funerals can be extremely impressive spectacles, inspiring several days’ worth of slaughter and feasting, the corpse wrapped in hundreds of exquisite ikat cloths.

Ostensibly, visiting the villages often involves nothing more than hiring a motorbike, but the difficulty for Western visitors to Sumba is that traditions and taboos in Sumbanese village life are still very powerful and sit ill at ease with the demands of modern tourism. A visitor to a Sumbanese village should first take the time to share sirih pinang (betel nut) with both the kepala desa (village headman) and his hosts. Bringing betel nut is seen as a peace offering (enemies would rarely turn up brandishing gifts), while its use is a sign of unity; Sumbanese ritual culture sets great store by returning blood to the earth, and the bright-red gobs of saliva produced by chewing sirih represent this. (The central purpose of the Pasola festivals is similarly to return blood to the soil). Many villages that are on the regular trail for tourists have supplanted the tradition of sharing betel with a simple request for money, but if you come with gifts (betel nuts, cigarettes, or anything else that can be shared) you’ll be far more welcome.

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