Spectacular Sumba

In Uma Dangu, wearing traditional attire
31 October 2019

CW: Animal deaths 

Each year, ANU anthropology lecturer Dr Patrick Guinness, in partnership with the Duta Wacana Christian University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, runs the Indonesia Field School. The field school gives Indonesian and Australian students the opportunity to become completely immersed in Indonesian village life for a month. The students live amongst the villagers and try to understand their way of living and culture. They also identify a key issue their host village faces, and work to come up with a potential solution. At the end of the field school, the students present their findings to the local government.

This year, the Indonesia Field School was held on the island of Sumba, Nusa Tenggara in eastern Indonesia.

3rd year Bachelor of Arts and Law (Honours) student Christina Lee wrote about her experience.

Arrival and everyday life

When we jumped on the truck with our matching black Sumba team jackets on, we were overflowing with excitement and curiosity of what was to come in the next unpredictable, phenomenal 21 days of our lives. Two Australian students plus four Indonesian students made up our team, with the other nine teams scattered around Central Sumba. From development studies, law, medicine, product design to architecture, everyone was studying a different degree, born from a different city. It didn't take long for us to become a family. 

As soon as we hopped out of the truck into Uma Dangu, we noticed that our phones had lost signal. We were very far away from anything we deemed familiar. On the ground, we were welcomed with teas with incredible amounts of sugar in them, and the elderly members of the families offered us betel nuts. We were the first foreigners that most of the villagers had ever seen. Today in Uma Dangu, there are 14 houses and approximately 83 residents including 38 children (aged one to 16). The oldest resident is 92 years old and the youngest is 12 months old.

I acknowledge that we were researching for only a short period of time and that we did not get to see or experience everything of the Sumbanese culture. However, I write honestly from my personal experiences and interactions, at least as an attempt to share the Spectacular Sumba I saw through my eyes.  

Less than an hour after arriving in Uma Dangu, our host family conducted a sacrificial ceremony in our honour. We watched as a black dog, still alive, howled in agony as the flames swiftly consumed its life. Despite the initial shock we experienced, I do not want to diminish the incredible culture of Uma Dangu by recounting the sacrificial rituals of theirs that were foreign to us. Nevertheless, I admit that it was definitely not easy to watch, and we quickly learnt not to become so attached to the animals around us and to never name them – for instance, we named a black pig, which lived outside the squat toilet in the bush with no door, as ‘Burt’ only to find out three weeks later that he became a roast. 

My team member Kath and I lived with a host family comprised of Papa and Mama Ines, their children, Ines and Celestine, and other various members. The family quickly learned that Kath and I do not eat dog meat and tailored the meals for us. From spicy chilli tofu and tempeh to spinach broths, we were well looked after. Mama Ines even gave us the precious soursop (custard apple) that came in as a present from a neighbour. If it weren’t for our host family, Kath and I would have had a very different experience, perhaps an even more difficult one. 

Apart from us, many children and poorer families relied on the hospitality of our host family, which reflected the generous and nurturing quality of this particular village. Poorer families expressed relief that they live in Uma Dangu, as they can depend upon neighbours for food and support. Something that illustrated this was that I could not see a vivid boundary between the houses. We even encountered an example where ownership of land was transferred at no monetary cost to a neighbour who was previously borrowing the land. We identified this selflessness as a community strength and were blessed to be a recipient of this gift. 

Each night, we were ready for bed by 8:30pm. Our sleeping bags were placed carefully across wooden pallets that separated us and the horses. Each morning, we were woken up around 5am with the sound of the horses getting ready to go to the field. We would wake up and make our way to the front porch, where the floor was less prone to breakages. We soon became experts at walking through the house, as standing on the wrong part would lead one to immediately falling through the house. We got into the habit of writing in our journals and drinking tea as we prepared ourselves for another day of primary research. It is wise to start the day early, as the sun around noon is deadly. Even a single arm movement was enough to amount to heat stroke. We went from house to house to acquire cultural, historical, family information and also to identify a prevalent issue of this village and how we could be of some support. 

It was a true exposure to everyday life in Sumba. 


During our research, our final question to all the interviewees was ‘Is there anything you would like to see changed in your village?’ Every resident answered ‘no’ and reiterated how content they are and wanted to make sure we knew how grateful they are. Every time our Indonesian team members translated the response to us, I reflected on my life and my choices. 

Being in Sumba was an absolute isolation from everything we were used to, yet utter gratification was felt through and through from every little thing. These were things that wouldn’t have even crossed my mind back home. Did I measure how much water I was consuming every day in Canberra? No. Do I know the name of the lovely checkout lady who I always see at Coles? No. Did I ever go to sleep thinking this is the comfiest mattress ever? Not really. Did I ever look at the bowl of fruit on the kitchen bench or know how my mum is only a phone call away and feel utterly grateful? No, not until Sumba.   

Kath (the best teammate I could've asked for) and I learnt to live with pure gratitude. I didn't know Kath before the trip – I met her at the departure lounge of Sydney International Airport just an hour before our flight to Bali. Today, only she can truly understand how I felt in the moments I’m about to recount. I look even more fondly back at my memories of Sumba because of her.
To have a shower, we had to walk about 40 minutes to the fresh water spring. However, our friends at a nearby village offered for us to use their well and we went there for a shower every four days. Kath and I would fill our bags with a new set of clothes and some money. We would go at the end of the day when we felt the dirtiest. For every shower, half a bucket was enough to wash our hair and bodies. I can still feel the cold water hitting the back of my neck and the layers of dirt coming off me, and remember how happy we were on the walk back home. Why? Because we would always treat ourselves at the Toko - a tiny hut-like store. Anik always welcomed us with the biggest smile as she knew we were going to buy at least three packets of Roma coconut biscuits (and there were about 40 biscuits per packet!). Sometimes we'd even get a Coca Cola, if we really felt like spoiling ourselves. Who knew a little shop could provide so much comfort? Despite our limited Bahasa Indonesia skills, Anik was an expert at understanding what we were after and giving us the exact change every single time.

Sleeping wasn't easy at first. The animals were so loud and every time the horse under us moved, the whole house would shake, and a pile of dust would land on my lips. But as days passed, we learnt how to position ourselves perfectly, to feel less of the wooden pallets digging into our spines. Once the horses started excreting, breathing became difficult too. However, smart Kath brought a can of deet spray which soon became our signature scent. As insignificant of a feat it might seem, sleeping well became something I wrote on the list of 'Things I am grateful for today'. 

Finally, not having internet connection also became a source of utter gratitude. As I had no idea what was going on in the outside world, I was able to focus solely and wholeheartedly on the people in front of me. There was no need to scroll down Instagram to see beautiful pictures of people's dream destinations. I was living in one. Every scenery was a perfectly captured panorama shot, especially those afternoons on the rice fields. 

We would walk down to the fields and play cards while watching the sunset, without a single worry of our lives back home; our hearts just filled with utter happiness that we were in this moment, together. It was funnier because we had someone to laugh with (even when I was bitten by a dog). It was yummier because we ate together, and it was more special because we had each other, both in times of pure joy and on scary nights.

Lessons and learnings

One night, we left our village in the traditional attire our host mum gave us to attend a wedding near the city centre of Central Sumba. We were meant to stay until dawn, but were summoned back to our village early after our host mum called our host dad that a suspicious man with a machete had entered the village. She told him that she was scared. I felt scared too. 

All the villagers congregated together on our front porch and we weren't allowed to go anywhere. In this moment of potential danger, I witnessed the strength of this community. The young children shared a blanket together, the men searched for any suspicious movements and the women went to each other’s houses to check that everyone was doing okay. No one was hiding in their own house for their personal security. In Uma Dangu, collective protection was the priority. In that moment, I learnt the importance and power of togetherness.
Today when I bump into my Sumba friends in Kambri, a mere second of eye contact is enough to spark reminiscence of all those days. How lucky I am to have had them by my side. 

So what did we find through our research? Well, various residents informed us that countless animals had been dying from an unknown livestock disease in Uma Dangu for decades. Post-field school, our research revealed the name of this livestock disease to be Surra - a vector-borne disease transmitted by tabanid flies that originated in Africa. It is prevalent in numerous developing countries and the consequences are detrimental. 

While in Sumba though, we discovered that even healthy livestock are affected as a result of the government’s poor vaccine administration practice in Uma Dangu. A single needle is shared between animals and is merely cleaned with alcohol between administrations. This finding demonstrated a distrust of residents in the government programs and also the lack of an effective communication channel between the villagers and the government. This issue creates not only a financial burden but also a social one as livestock is the most significant resource to the people of Sumba. We witnessed firsthand the prevalence and detrimental impact of this disease, and it is crucial that government investment, preventative measures and educational programs are introduced and continued. 

We held workshops and community meetings to gather data on how Surra has been affecting the residents. We collected numerous signatures for a petition from the Central Sumba community. On the day of our presentation to the local government, we started our speech by proudly declaring that “We are the voice of Uma Dangu”, even it was only for 15 minutes. It was cathartic to stand in front of the politicians of Central Sumba and inform them of this issue that the villagers have been suffering for decades. It is my deep desire that our petition was heard and the officials have started something, or at least plan to. 


Although I have written about all these beautiful moments of Sumba, I do not sit here at my desk with complete contentment and relief. I think of the little building at the entrance of Uma Dangu that the villagers call a library, yet contains only 35 books. I think of the same space being used as a pregnancy check-up place, which is infested with hornet nests. I think of the elderly man across from my host family’s home who everyone calls 'crazy' and whose wife has forgotten who he is and refers to him as an intruder. I wonder if the children of Uma Dangu are doing well, the incredibly smart ones who are so eager to learn. 

I think of the beautiful lady who lost her husband three years ago and is raising three children on her own; I wonder if she's really okay. I think of the village leaders who treated us well and asked us endless questions; I wonder if they are asking their villagers the same questions with the same interest. I don't want to but I can still feel the firsthand frustration I felt with those in power, like when our request to talk to one the key leaders of Sumba was refused as he was preoccupied with getting his photo taken, pretending to lay a brick on a government funded house. 

I wonder if any of the issues we raised with the local government are being addressed and being added to their next agenda. I wonder if next year they'll come with more than just one vaccination needle. I wonder what there is for us to do now. But then I remember what they told me, their earnest declaration of contentment with their current lives and that they don't need anything more. So do I rest easy in what they've said or continue to question what more there is to do from an outsider's point of view of development? What about for students here at the ANU? What is the right thing for us to do? These questions remain unanswered. 

Perhaps it is our duty as students to continue to question, continue to challenge the wrong and try to understand the lives of these precious people. 

Our professor told us to remember that is not a right but a privilege that we were welcomed in these people’s homes. 

I remember what I felt when the whole village came to say goodbye to Kath and I. As the timed camera took the final group shot, I wondered what I did to receive so much love and kindness. Who am I that they call me their sister and daughter? I kept asking myself again and again. Then I realised, it’s all them. Their big hearts, their generous giving hands and their unconditional love that made this journey unforgettable. 

Here's to Dr Patrick Guinness for taking us on a trip of a lifetime.

Here's to my teammates for being by my side through it all. 

Here's to our Uma Dangu family for welcoming us with open arms. 

Here's to Spectacular Sumba. 

Image gallery

Search this site only

Updated:  26 May 2021/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications