Journey to the Mentawai

Siberut Island, Mentawai archipelago off West Sumatra - Indonesia: Sitting cross-legged on the wooden-slat floor inside the uma (Mentawai style long home) we take stock of our scratches and leech bites from a long jungle trek. Our clothes are soaked with sweat and mud and we are flush pink from exhaustion. The heat is stifling inside the uma and below the floorboards large pigs root around stirring up pungent smells that come in waves. We notice near the central cooking area, a long beam that runs horizontally from wall to wall. On this beam, dangles monkey and deer skulls tied to strings. This display gives the interior of the uma a haunting and primitive feel like there are more secrets to be found. We are on our third day of living amongst the Mentawai and every day we venture out on long jungle journeys traveling from uma to uma. Now, after just arriving at another uma, we are greeted by the entire household. Our guide and interpreter introduces us and we are offered tea with large amounts of sugar in it. We observe the elderly Mentawai men all wearing traditional loin cloth coverings that look similar to a sumo wrestler's mawashi. The only additional adornments that some wear are beaded headbands with flowers behind their ears, but most distinctive are the tattoo markings of each Mentawai. The traditional tattoos of the Mentawai men and women are an ancient practice making them very unique amongst other Indonesian tribes. These tattoos stretch across their chest and legs in thin lines leading to intricate designs near the shins and forearms. All the patterns have a meaning and can signify bow strings, fishing nets, animals they hunt, clan identification and other markings that tell the story of their way of life in the jungle. In modern times, full bodied tattooing is mostly seen in the older generation, as many young Mentawai opt to not have the markings. Besides their unique dress and traditional domiciles, the Mentawai are also desperately addicted to tobacco smoking and this household is no different. There is not a moment we observe, as we chat with them, that there is not a cigarette or dried banana leaf stuffed with tobacco in the mouth of someone amongst this family. This pattern has been repeated in every uma we have visited thus far and it is sad to see even the young children, aged no more than 13-years old, puffing away like compulsive chain smokers. The Mentawai are hunter gatherers that have no agricultural knowledge or desire. Men traditionally hunt with bow and poisoned arrows while women fish in small creeks with hand nets. Both of these forms of food gathering are quickly vanishing from the Mentawai way of life and within 10-years it will most likely not exist at all.

Siberut Island, Mentawai archipelago off West Sumatra - Indonesia: Sitting cross-legged on the wooden-slat floor inside the uma (Mentawai style long home) we take stock of our scratches and leech bites from a long jungle trek. Our clothes are soaked with sweat and mud and we are flush pink from exhaustion. The heat is stifling inside the uma and below the floorboards large pigs root around stirring up pungent smells that come in waves. We notice near the central cooking area, a long beam that runs horizontally from wall to wall. On this beam, dangles monkey and deer skulls tied to strings. This display gives the interior of the uma a haunting and primitive feel like there are more secrets to be found. We are on our third day of living amongst the Mentawai and every day we venture out on long jungle journeys traveling from uma to uma. Now, after just arriving at another uma, we are greeted by the entire household. Our guide and interpreter introduces us and we are offered tea with large amounts of sugar in it. We observe the elderly Mentawai men all wearing traditional loin cloth coverings that look similar to a sumo wrestler's mawashi. The only additional adornments that some wear are beaded headbands with flowers behind their ears, but most distinctive are the tattoo markings of each Mentawai. The traditional tattoos of the Mentawai men and women are an ancient practice making them very unique amongst other Indonesian tribes. These tattoos stretch across their chest and legs in thin lines leading to intricate designs near the shins and forearms. All the patterns have a meaning and can signify bow strings, fishing nets, animals they hunt, clan identification and other markings that tell the story of their way of life in the jungle. In modern times, full bodied tattooing is mostly seen in the older generation, as many young Mentawai opt to not have the markings. Besides their unique dress and traditional domiciles, the Mentawai are also desperately addicted to tobacco smoking and this household is no different. There is not a moment we observe, as we chat with them, that there is not a cigarette or dried banana leaf stuffed with tobacco in the mouth of someone amongst this family. This pattern has been repeated in every uma we have visited thus far and it is sad to see even the young children, aged no more than 13-years old, puffing away like compulsive chain smokers. The Mentawai are hunter gatherers that have no agricultural knowledge or desire. Men traditionally hunt with bow and poisoned arrows while women fish in small creeks with hand nets. Both of these forms of food gathering are quickly vanishing from the Mentawai way of life and within 10-years it will most likely not exist at all.

As we slowly start to cool down from the extremely hot trek through the bush, we notice a lone elderly Mentawai woman, sitting by herself, near an opening at the back of the uma. She seems to be talking to someone, but is unaware that no one is near her. We ask our guide to come over with us to greet this frail looking grandmother. We sit near her and she begins to speak in a sweet and tender tone. She is clear in her words, but only fails to make eye contact with us. Instead she seems to look through us with a stare like we are a thousand yards away. She fidgets her head toward our voices when we introduce ourselves and we realize that she is blind. She is gaunt and frail, yet has a demeanor that is childlike and tender.  She is the type of grandmother that makes you want hug and embrace her all the time. Our guide, who is a woman also, tells us that she has just recently become blind. The elderly woman who we call Tet-Teo (the Mentawai commonly call all elders Tet-Teo rather than addressing a person by name) tells us that she is hungry because no one has brought her food today. We are heartbroken to hear this and tell her we will make her some food from our stock. Our guide quickly sets our porter to the task of cooking rice, chicken and eggs for her. The other Mentawai are indifferent to us chatting with the elderly woman and it becomes obvious that she is viewed simply as a burden to the group and not long for this earth. As we chat and share with her about who we are, she is overcome with feelings and becomes emotional. She grips our hands tightly like a mother would a son and says in a soft voice with tears in her eyes, which our guide interprets, “I wish I could see your faces.” She is lonely beyond words. She crawls into her mosquito net each night directly behind her and then comes out the next morning only a few feet away to sit by herself. It is appalling that she is so neglected by the other Mentawai. As the days pass, we keep coming back to visit this elderly woman, and each day she brightens when she hears us coming. On one occasion we see a dog licking her water cup as we approach.  She is unaware to shoo it away, so we chase the mutt from her midst and sit with her. She is eating a portion of our remaining bat that our guide prepared the night before for our dinner. Tet-Teo puts the small strips of meat in her mouth and smiles and says. “I am very happy that I have a little bat and rice to eat. Thank you for coming to me.”  

As we sit with her over the days and share with her and the other Mentawai, it makes us think about all the parents out there that are neglected by their children. Ephesians 6:1-2 says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.” Life cannot be well for the person who does not honor their mother and father. This doesn't mean that your parents should lead or decide your whole life, but you should honor and love them, and not forget them.  If you have a hard relationship with your mother or father, do not hold grudges and do not waste time.  Repair your relationship and love them. Embrace them, comfort them and be a son or daughter to them again.  Even if you are not estranged from your mother or father, never forget to tell them you appreciate them and love them for all that they have done.  If you do this, it will be well with you and you will have a long life on this earth.  

As we minister the Gospel around the world, we encounter so many unique situations and people groups.  This glimpse of a small moment with the Mentawai is just one of the many experiences and as tragic as this lonely Grandmothers story is, we know that the wounds and hurts can be healed by the Good News.  Jesus never forsakes or abandons those who believe in Him and this is the comfort we have.  God, our Father, cares for us and calls us His children.  This is the message we bring to all mankind, and this is the message that can set all people free.      

We are so humbled and honored by all of you who partner with us in prayer and financial support.  Many of you take us under your wing and intercede for us with such love.  You pray for our safety, health, guidance and path to reach the unreached and we do not forget this.  You are in our hearts always and your are family to us.  Additionally, your financial partnership is a blessing beyond words and the means by which we can reach remote and distant peoples like the Mentawai with the Gospel.  Thank you so much for your faithfulness and please continue in every way!  We will need your support even more for the Gospel Expeditions ahead (Myanmar, Nepal, Tibet).  The best is yet to come.  Peace be with you.  

In Him,

Tim and Will