Sabu Island

While we at DTT are busy organising a visa for Wendy in Europe and planning theĀ project’s future; We would like to kick-offĀ 2016 with our first guest article by our dear friend Nick Metherall. Nick has spent several years living, studying and volunteering in Indonesia, during which time his heart was captured by Eastern Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT, ‘Southeastern Land’s East’). Nick is a specialist in the remote region, often neglected by politicians, international markets and researchers alike. NickĀ was an absolute wealth of knowledge for our journey through Indonesia, putting us in touch with some truly amazing communities and families. Eastern Indonesia is one of the most special places we visited in our journey and thanks to these connections, we were able to dive into the depths of its complexities. While we are still finding the words to describe our experiences in the region, we know we’ll be returning to this topic again. We wish to stress that this is a most fascinating place, because of the cultural diversity ofĀ the region from which there is so much that can be learnt, not to mention its picturesque beauty. As Australia’s closest neighbour, Eastern Indonesia certainly deserves a greater focus. But let’s hear Nick’s voice first…

Almost exactly a year ago I was on the small island of Sabu Raijua, in Eastern Indonesia. Far off the beaten track, SabuĀ is located southwest of Kupang, Timor and northwest of Darwin, Australia. This is one of the driest and most remote islands in the province of East Nusa Tenggara and Indonesia more widely. Through visiting Sabu I learned a great deal about how the small-scale farming communities in such rural areas are able to survive the challenging conditions of living onĀ one of the driest islands of Indonesia. I also had some adventures along the way which involved riding my motorbike all around the semi-arid island, staying in villages and farms, learning of sabu sugarĀ and even a bomb scare…


In October 2014, I began interning with a development program run by the local government of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). This brought me to a number of interesting remote island communities within NTT.Ā There were two key focuses of my fieldwork. The first involved working alongside small farmers’ groups. These groups worked in collectives, sharing equipment and working together within communal plots of land. I was to make and deliver visual rainfall charts, based on data from the Bureau of Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics, to these farmers’ groups. My second task involved making short video documentaries of everyday life, climate change resilience and key challenges and strengths in these villages and agriculture ecosystems. I set off for Sabu with just my motorbike, a large backpack, rainfall charts, a video camera and tripod.

On the morning I left, I had to rush to get the charts from the poster printing shop before driving down to the docks to catch the large ferry which leave only once every week from Kupang, the capital of NTT. It was a hot day at the end of the dry season and I luckily made it to the docks in time. I had caught the local ferries many times for my research field work. The process usually involved getting a special ticket for your motorbike and then hanging around for a few hours before the doors opened and you were able to drive your motorbike across the slippery draw bridge into the ferry where it was parked with hundreds of other motorbikes, a couple of trucks, a few dozen goats and pigs and hundreds of passengers.

Once aboard the ferry, you have to rush to find a place to sit before all thatā€™s left is some floor space next to the toilets, eughā€¦ Ships create enough nausea already without sitting somewhere uncomfortable like that! I found a nice bench space, set up my bags as pillows and got ready to sleep. Even though it was only 1 pm, experience had taught me the best way to get through these 12-16 hour ferry trips was to catch up on all the sleep youā€™ve neglected over the past months. So I slept through most of it, only waking up a few times in the middle of the night, listening to music on my old ipod and reading books.Ā [For another DTT description ofĀ Indonesian ferry travels, see Wendy’s post here.]

At 4.30 am and still before dawn, the ferry reached Sabu Raijua. I remember seeing the faces of people waiting at the dock peering in through the open windows of the ship, looking for their families. Others were motorbike taxis looking for passengers or people selling food, Sabu sugar, spices, resins, sandalwood and other commodities. I snapped some footage of dawn breaking, the sun rising over the palm trees and the waves spilling onto the shore, and then ran down to prepare my motorbike.


Sunrise over Sabu, as the ferry arrived.

I drove onto the dock and out into the market place of Sabu. I had never been here before and had no idea which way to go first. It was only 5.00 am, too early to meet my colleague based here, so I decided to drive around town a little. The capital of Sabu is Seba, hardly a town, almost like a large collection of villages with some small shops and houses interspersed between rice fields and palm trees. The town is small enough to circle itĀ in 25 minutes.

The people of Sabu have an interesting ancestry and culture. Sabu’s languageĀ patternsĀ are unique inĀ Indonesia, having an exceptionalĀ number of basic words which are not at all related to the Malayo-Polinesian language group with it’s core in the regionĀ but spanning from Madagascar to Hawaii and Easter Island. In pre-colonial times, the tiny islandĀ had six independent politico-religious kingdoms.Ā When compared to other parts of Indonesia, the influence of the Dutch and Portuguese was relatively minor in Sabu since the island was poor in natural resources and thus largely overlooked. Yet, itĀ could not completely evade the legacy of colonialism. Through colonial divide and rule tactics, a regent (raja or king) and a second regent were chosen as vassalsĀ of the colonial power, creating new classes in the community.Ā The Dutch brought Protestant Christianity to the island which to a large extent has displaced the traditional mystical belief systems and moon ceremonies of Jingi Tiu. I recommend this source about SabuĀ for anyone interested. Because research on Sabu is so limited, most of what I have learned about Sabu is from my conversations with the local people.

Instead of looking at the diverse cultures of the six kingdomsĀ of Sabu, I only really had time to learn about the more everyday details of local conditions within the areas of farming, water security and livelihoods across 3 main villages. After meeting my resourceful colleague, Pace, whose background was in social research, we decided to set off for the first village: Eimau.

Agriculture in Sabu

Eimau was a coastal village. We were met by locals who introduced me to the local crop varieties and the climatic conditions of their village. Because it is so dry in Sabu, locals are vulnerable to crop failure. This is a concerning issue for the wider province as well, with two thirdsĀ of the population dependent on agriculture and livestock as their primary source of food and income. Much of this group is made up of subsistence farming – farmers who areĀ just able toĀ grow enough food to feed their families, and thus don’t focus onĀ selling their crops.

I learned more about these conditions after meeting with the head of the village and the head of one of the farmers’ collectives. I visited some of the fields which had been prepared for planting season. Many of the fields had been left scorched by the dry season. The soil was begging for the first rains which would allow the farmers to begin planting. However, the farmers would have to be wary that they could not plant at the very first sign of rain. Instead they would have to make sure that the rainy season had truly begunĀ –Ā sometimes there are false rains, a short burst of rainfall which appears to mark the end of the dry season but is actually followed by another period of dryness before the proper rains begin. If the farmers get deceived by theĀ false rains and plant too early, their seeds might be wasted.

Farming in Sabu is very challenging due to the unfriendly climate

Farming in Sabu is very challenging due to the unfriendly climate

Visiting the fields and seeing first-hand how these conditions of drought affected agriculture, the primary (if notĀ only) source of income and livelihood, I was humbled to see how dependent humanity was on the climate and earth itself. These farmers’ groups were so resilient and self-sufficient, living independently from most markets and far from the consumer models of commerce we depended on in the West. Yet, at the same time they are so vulnerable to fluctuating rainfall, environmental phenomena like El NiƱo and La NiƱa, and the changing climate.

SabuĀ Sugar

The farmers’ collectives showed me how during the dry or hungry seasonĀ when crop failures are widespread, the people have traditionally survived for hundreds of years by climbing the tall lontar palm trees and extracting the sugary juice from the top. This sugary extract can be kept in the form of a syrup which acts as a key staple of both food and drink, although it cannot fully substitute water. For the people of Sabu and many of the surrounding islands, the lontar brings life. Such is the resourcefulness of the people of Sabu who can survive some of the toughest conditions of drought.


Sabu sugar – the sugary sap of the Lontar Palm has enabled survival for the people of Sabu during the dry season for centuries.

Water security

The intense dry conditions on Sabu affect not only agriculture but also water and food security as well as livelihoods. I saw that many of the wells had to reach far down below the topsoil, often as far as 20-30 metres before they hit water! The people dig these wells by hand, using hoes and shovels. Breaking through coral rock is no easy task and digging down 20-30 metres could take up to 6 months or even more. Without any water detection tools, like geo-electric detectors, these communities have very few ways of knowing where to dig. The most heart-breaking feeling would be to dig for many months only to find no water source.

Water security

Water security is a key issue for the communities on Sabu Raijua. You can see the soil is kept in place by coral rocks which were extracted through the digging process. One well often provides drinking water for a number of households in a village.

The bomb scare

It was 10pm my first night on Sabu and I was sitting with Orlando, one of the heads of the village farmers’ collective we were working with, sharing stories and eating lontar palm syrup on the porch outside his house.

Suddenly, a man sped up to the house on an old clattery motorbike. He stopped abruptly in front of us with an air of panic. The young man approached us and began to explain. He was a fisherman. During the day he had been out fishing on his canoe when he found a small floating object not far off the coast. He pulled it up and found a chain underneath. He pulled up the length of the chain to find a small sealed pipe which he brought back to the village. Many of his neighbours had crowded around as he opened the pipe. To their horror, a small gadget fell out and started flashing and beeping. Many of the older villagers yelled out in fear and panic, “This must be a bomb left over from the Japanese invasion!” The fear was contagious, spreading from the old to the young who fled leaving the pipe and gadget in a small hole in the ground near the village.

This was now more than 8 hours ago and the man had been driving around looking for help before he showed up on Orlandoā€™s doorstep. The young fisher turned to me and showed me a small label he had taken from the pipe. No one could understand English so he passed it to me hoping I could interpret.


The label taken from the ‘bomb’

I laughed. My reaction came as a surprise to my Sabunese friends who could not understand what I found funny about this drastic situation. I explained what the label said and the fisher asked me to come back to the village to look at the gadget.

So after what had already been a long day, we set off on our motorbikes late at night, driving in darkness through villages without electricity. After 20 minutes we arrived at the young fisherman’s village. A small crowd had congregated over the hole and the terrifying foreign object. Orlando and I walked up to the hole. Many of the villagers protested “Stay back! Itā€™s dangerous!”

“We will be careful.” I responded. I dropped down into the small hole surrounded by the young and old, all clearly too anxious to sleep despite it being far beyond their usual bedtimes. I slowly picked up the pipe. The crowd grew tense, protesting and retreating at the same time. I opened up the pipe. The crowd grew silent. Inside was a pass the parcelĀ package wrapped in Australian newspaper. I chuckled seeing Queensland news and TV show review articles. How on earth did you end up here? I thought to myself.

I unwrapped the newspaper much to the excitement of the young and horror of the elderly. Inside was a small phone like device. I took it out the flashing thing to realize that it was in fact a GPS mapping device. I laughed again, further surprising the crowds.

ā€œI had better make an announcement.ā€ I told Orlando and the fisher. I stood and addressed the village.Ā ā€œLadies and gentlemenā€¦ As a representative of Australia, I can tell you all that this is not a bomb but in fact a mapping device for research from Australiaā€¦ You can all now rest easy and return to your homes to sleep if you want… Please donā€™t worry any more. You are all safe.ā€

The atmosphere changed. This news clearly allowed the community to finally relax and we were able to talk without fear. Many of the villagers started to laugh. Some of the teenagers reacted humorously, jumping out and yelling ā€˜Boom!ā€™ to startle their grandmothersā€¦

We said goodnight to the villagers who wished us the best for our work and began to drive back to Orlandoā€™s house. Along the way in the dark forest, we passed a convoy of police officers on motorbikes who had driven for hours from town in response to the bomb threat. We told them the story and showed them the device. They laughed and we parted ways.

It was only a few months later after returning to Kupang that I was able to skype call the Australian Institute for Marine Sciencesā€¦ When they answered the phone, the first thing I said was ā€œBoy, have I got a story for you.ā€

Sabu coastline

Coastal village terrain in Sabu Raijua

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons from my visit was derived from the very intrinsic value of being in a place such as Sabu. The fact ofĀ even being here. Or especially being here, so far from ivory towers of education, the monolithic onyx skyscrapers of commerce, multinational corporations and hubs of activity. The experience of being in these small villages on small remote islands so far from what the Dutch and Portuguese colonial fleets, and even todayā€™s Western minds, might have labelled ā€˜civilizationā€™. Yet it was precisely here in these remote fields and villages where I was able to learn the most about both the resilience and vulnerability of humanity and our dependence on our natural environment. This relationship formed between people and their environment and the knowledge gained were part of a wider experience in rural and remote areas which I wonā€™t soon forget.


You can read more about Nick’s experiences in rural and remote peripheral areas by following him on Twitter here:Ā and learn about his study experience in TimorĀ in his article in The Australian. Subscribe to Nick’s blog The SasandoĀ to learn more about NTT. You’re also more than welcome to read about Drop the tension’s experience with MITRA, the groundbreaking East Indonesian Students Foreign Relations Society that exists thanks to Nick’s initiative.

About Nick Metherall

Nick is an Aussie graduate from La Trobe University. He recently spent around 2 years doing research and working in rural and remote developing contexts. Most of this time was spent in Eastern Indonesia, Timor and Papua. Nick also briefly visited Kenya for the first Environment Assembly Conference. He believes that the world is made up of core and peripheral zones and that while humanity often flock to core areas and big cities, there is still much we can learn from peripheries which are too often overlooked. In his free time Nick enjoys learning to play the accordion and the sasando amongst other instruments.