In Lembata, East Indonesia, families and healers work toward a better future while holding on to tradition. What is at stake in conserving local wisdoms during times of urgent change?


By Julie Gaynes, PhD student in World Arts and Dance
Julie Gaynes received an Indonesian Studies Travel Grant for Summer 2019 to conduct her research.

LEMBATA: Smartphone technologies, economic pressures, and Western educational models spread throughout the East Indonesian region of Nusa Tenggara Timur, fueling stress among healers who see their communities’ psycho-social wellbeing as poised at a precipice.

Even as residents of rural Lembata heatedly demonstrate discontent at town halls for failing to resolve pressing concerns such as electricity failure and road collapse, even as the population rises and schools lack necessary materials and textbook-trained educators, even as local hospitals throw up their hands at advanced surgeries and local officials smoke themselves numb at meetings on potential business strategies, the people of the island of Lembata maintain a survivalist drive to create a better future for their youth.

Ibu Regina, mother, healer, and community leader, is only 44, but her face swells up as she talks about Lembata’s struggles to improve the education, public roads and schools. Ibu Regina picks off a deep-fried banana from her husband’s plate, abandoned since he left an hour earlier for a morning of spearfishing. “We here in Lembata work hard and have plenty of natural resources, but we don’t know how to market what we have.” She leans back in her chair. “Part of the problem is the roads. Can you imagine people in those mountain towns with bikes but no cars, trying to balance stalks of sugarcane and bags of coconuts on roads that have needed fixing for years?” Ibu Regina herself once aspired to go to college, but since her early twenties, all her domestic-worker and caterer savings have gone to fund her siblings’ and only child’s education.

In the few decades since Lembata earned independence from the neighboring regency of East Flores, the area has suffered economic turbulence compounded with frequent natural disasters. Floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis leave the islanders in the rebuilding stages of development rather than in the upswing of innovation. In the regions of the island not affected by landslides and tsunamis, farmers have a hard time imagining a life beyond seasonal work. Meanwhile the outside world changes faster than most can comprehend.

“Smartphones arrived only about six years ago, and since then, everything is changing,” says Pak Ado, Ibu Regina’s husband. Pak Ado and Ibu Regina run a collaborative healing practice, a combination between spiritual and herbal-remedial care, operates alongside Lembata’s clinics in treating chronic, mundane, and location-specific illnesses.

As a PhD candidate studying spiritual landscapes in Lembata, I research the ideological implications behind the effects of technology on populations whose senses-of-self rely primarily on remembering the ancestors. The ancestors’ tried-and-proven ways of engaging with the landscape prompt residents of Lembata to consider how humans, animals, spirits and plants might engage not just on organic, but intimate terms. “Remembering” takes on new forms as populations launch their best efforts forward to evolve with the times. Now that smartphone technologies occupy every home and Western logic and technoscientific notions of reality dominate the schooling curriculum, younger generations see the world differently. Local infrastructure hasn’t soared much in the past decade, but residents of Lembata are exponentially aware of the resource gap between Lembata and other islands, and more starkly, between Lembata and the outside world.

Will these changes serve to inspire young minds, or to intimidate them?

Among the most significant changes to knowledge and culture is in the field of medicine. Traditionally, local healers known as molan or dukun (Pak Ado and Ibu Regina among them) have served as paramount resources for the physically sick and psychologically ailing in Lembata. Not only did these dukun care for those whose physical conditions would not allow them to survive several hours on boat journeys to under-resourced, but these dukun provided spiritual recovery for people whose mental states inhibited the efficacy of imported medicine.

Since 2006, the hospital of Lembata, while once allowing local healers and clinically-trained doctors to work side by side, has now banned all dukun from visiting private homes. If it’s found that a dukun has been providing therapy on a patient, that dukun risks jail time—that and a fine which could plunge a whole family into debt.

While some in Lembata champion the rise of global technologies which have brought lab medicines to district hospitals—resulting in soaring survival rates among patients suffering from malaria, tetanus, and other potentially fatal bacterial infections—healers and lay people in this culture-rich region express mixed reactions to new movements prioritizing Western logic over local wisdoms.

Mama Luthok, Ibu Regina’s mother and a traditional midwife, relays accounts of her success in bringing three babies back to life after they were “thrown away” by Lembata’s hospitals. She notes that despite her helping hundreds of women in her fifty years as a midwife, she no longer invites patients into her care due to fear of being locked up. A new generation of pregnant women stand at a loss, as many midwives on hospital staff remain ill-equipped to provide urgent care. When I ask Mama Luthok if this makes her upset, she waves her hand. “I let it go. The people who pay to become doctors and midwives, they have to get patients or they don’t get money. It’s a new time.”

Of all the topics in which geographically-situated knowledges press against global-economic values, healing calls for the most urgent attention as it affects what people consider significant in their immediate environment. Healing practices also influence who one feels compelled to trust.

My hope is that, in working with communities in Lembata, I can collect and share stories which champion local wisdoms while also propelling dialogue about how to navigate resources from “the outside”. It is my and my Indonesian collaborators’ observation that local healing knowledge in Lembata can work alongside Western technoscientific interpretations of healthcare without diminishing the status of local wisdom, but not without change. Local healing knowledge will undoubtedly endure empirical scrutiny in the coming years, resulting in negotiated practices and negotiated identity.


To donate to a fundraiser for a library on Lembata that burned to the ground:

GoFundMe Help Rebuild Fire-Ravaged Library in Indonesia

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Published: Monday, January 6, 2020