Sumba’s Fragile Paradise

November 2012

The Sumbanese imagine their island as a giant loom, held together by the threads of life. Through these threads pass the island’s subsistence as rain. If the threads are weak or improperly tied, these fluids escape into the sea. For this reason, weaving is restricted to coastal regions, anchoring the island and so, preserving life.


The fragility of the island is apparent in its topography which contributes to its incomparable beauty. Unlike neighboring volcanic islands, Sumba was formed by an uplift of coral and limestone from the ocean floor. Unblemished beaches reach for the sea, guarded by monolithic rocks carved into effigies by nature.

Centuries ago, Sumaba’s tribes retreated to the hills to escape slavers whose ships breached their shores. These hills appear blue in the distance, and fringed with the grass-roofed villages, the kampung, where life continues to be experienced in its simplest form.


There is very little infrastructure in Western Sumba. To reach a village our guide four-wheels a dry riverbed and across a terrain not unlike Australia’s outback. The hills we scale by foot. They are steep and without visible trails or footholds. I slip often, cursing my treadless sandals, grateful that our guide’s calloused feet root him to this earth so he can offer me a stabilizing hand.

The village is timeless. Tribal houses are clustered together in an organic maize of elevations. We are invited to crawl from one over-hanging platform to another, incapable of recognizing what personal boundaries we cross. Ceilings are low and so squatting is essential. Livestock claims the lowest regions of each house. The floors are dirt and often swept, the dust clinging to our skin, hair, and invading our nostrils.

The Sumbanese are animists. Their religion is called Marapu. They believe in a temporary life on earth and an eternal life among the spirits. The Great Mother and Great Father of the universe are the sun and moon – the only forces of nature that have proved predictable.


Tsunamis threaten the island where rain is scarce and drought brings famine. Malaria-carrying mosquitos are rampant, with a 2003 study revealing at the time that 20% of all children born in Sumba die or suffer brain damage from malaria before they reached the age of 10. All this is changing due to the Sumba Foundation. In an effort to help the Sumbanese help themselves, the Foundation has hired villagers to dig wells, educate their youth, and man the malaria clinics. Most recent studies show malaria in Sumba eradicated by 85%.


Good news travels quickly. With malaria bridled, tourism is on the rise. Already one Indonesian newspaper referred to Sumba as the “New Bali.” For now, in this village in Western Sumba, tourism has failed to make its mark.

I purchase an ikat from a young weaver. The motif includes several animals that shed their skin or shells – a symbol of renewal. Sumba too has begun to shed its skin. Revealed is the pearl within – as beautiful as it is fragile.


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