Sulawesi is the third largest island in Indonesia. The majority of the inhabitants are Muslim and recently it suffered some sectarian violence but that’s all settled down now. It’s a pretty random shape, some people say it looks like the letter K. After Flores we flew to Makassar, the biggest city in South Sulawesi and spent the night there before heading north to the region of Tana Toraja.
Tana Toraja is probably South Sulawesi’s biggest tourist destination. It’s inhabitants, are mostly Christian and are famous for their unique culture surrounding death and funerals rites.
We ended up in Tana Toraja because of a Work Away project we found there. The three weeks we spent working and living at the project were our best volunteering experience by far. Here’s how we got on.
Natsir and his projects
The man with the plan is Natsir. He’s been accepting volunteers for about three years now. Natsir grew up in Toraja to a poor family but was able to find ways to pay for his education. He became an English teacher and for years now his regular income has come from teaching either at English schools or more recently at a public school. He is involved with three projects at the moment.
- Natsir’s Nature School: Natsir built a classroom beside his house where every day after school children from the nearby villages come to learn English and do activities for free.
- Smile Train Indonesia: Natsir is a volunteer for Smile Train, an NGO that gives free surgery to children born with cleft palet. Two of Natsir’s four children were born with cleft palet and after Smile Train helped him he began volunteering his time to find children in rural villages in Toraja and help them get surgery.
- Natsir’s Garden: All around his house and school Natsir has an amazing small farm. He grows cacao, coffee, pineapples, passionfruit, pumpkins, squash, coconuts, dragon fruit, ginger, turmeric, chilies, cinnamon, black pepper, jackfruit… you get the picture.
His wife Diana takes care of the home and they have four children. We lived with the three boys Alwi, Iksan and Winner while the eldest daughter Irma is away studying at university. The house is beside the small village of Rembon, on a hill with rice fields to one side and cacao trees creeping down the other. Natsir lives beside his mother’s house, and 20m from the local mosque where his brother is the imam. He has built four basic bungalows beside the classroom to house volunteers and guests with views of the garden.
Apart from the real family you also have a second family of volunteers to live with. We arrived to Nadine, Cat and Linh from Germany, USA and Vietnam respectively. As the girls finished their time at Natsir’s we were later joined by Jaume & Sara, two charnegos from Barcelona who have been travelling for almost 2 years and Julie & Camille, two Parisiennes taking some time off work to do something different.
We shared three meals a day with the other volunteers and learned the ropes mostly through them. Linh was the official yoga instructor and had us up early morning for classes. We played monopoly deal and other cards games at night and generally had the craic. Sharing the experience with other interesting volunteers is one of the things that puts this experience head and shoulders above the rest.
Everyone morning we’d do a couple of hours work in the garden. Weeding was the priority and we got into a good flow clearing almost the entire cacao garden.
From 2pm kids would start to arrive at the school and we’d divide up the classes between the volunteers. The classes were pretty unpredictable, some days we had 4 students other days up to 21. We never knew exactly what to expect or how many of each level would show up on a given day. The more basic group ranged from 5 to 10 years old and most had very little English. For these kids the focus was on teaching new vocabulary, basic sentences and getting them to learn through drawing and games. Most of the kids were way more motivated by the games than anything else. The more advanced group were from 10 to 14 and had a decent level. Being the only native speaker after Cat left I took these classes and worked on fun things like irregular verbs and the past tense. Sometimes it was tough because many of the kids knew so little English and we lacked the Indonesian to be able to explain but all the kids were very eager to learn and playing games at the end of the lesson was amazing.
Most of what we ate came directly from the land apart from basics like rice, oil and tea. Most morning we had fried bananas, and every lunch and dinner was a base of rice with veggies from the garden, something spicy and some protein (usually tempe or tofu). Diana is a hero and we ate like kings.
There are coffee trees scattered all over the land. We picked the berries, smashed them to separate the beans and skin and dried them in the sun for a few days. Once dry we smashed them again in a giant mortar to separate the beans from the dry skin. Once cleaned of any remaining skin or dust we put the beans through quality control where only the best are selected. Once we had a batch of sufficient quality Natsir roasts them on a bamboo fire. The roasted beans are ground and sieved into the fine aromatic powder we all know and love. So every morning while making my first coffee of the day I couldn’t help but think about all the work that had gone into one cup.
Natsir also makes his own chocolate. Any yellow Cacao pods we’d find in the garden would be taken to the house. We’d take out the beans and ferment them in a bag for 1-2 days. Afterward we’d dry the fermented beans in the sun before roasting and skinning them. The roasted black beans are added to the mortar and are pounded into a powder and pounded some more until the powder produces an oil and makes a sticky paste. We added palm sugar, shredded coconut, roasted peanuts and ginger. The mix is added to tubes of bamboo, with lining of Cacao leaves and put in the fridge to be enjoyed later. Without a doubt the best chocolate we’ve eaten on the trip.
During our stay Natsir hosted two young women from Sulawesi who were studying to become teachers. Their names were Russia and Andromeda (Not their real names but their “beautiful” names chosen with their classmates). Both girls were very eager to improve their English and learn from the teaching methods that the school was using. On a more cultural side the group of Western volunteers were the first foreigners they had ever spoken to properly. The girls were Muslim and very dedicated to their faith. In fact they were probably the two most zealous young people from any religion that I can recall meeting. They went to the mosque five times a day starting at 04:30AM. This lead to some fascinating conversations.
Over the first few days the girls interviewed us asking all the details about our lives from work history, home towns and parents. One night they asked the group about religion. Learning that they had more or less 6 atheists living with them lead to a mixture of disbelief and excitement. They had debated about atheists in university but never actually met one before so they didn’t really know where to start.
The conversation touched on topics like gender equality, the origin of humans and the after life to mention a few. They really struggled with the idea of us not believing in any creator, let alone Allah. I admire them for being curious and open to listening to others, but it was clear there is a very large gap between us on many issues.
We took two day trips to the tourist hub of Rentapao. Here there are several traditional villages and its the epicentre for all the big Torajan funerals. To give some context, when a Torajan dies their body is kept with the family, this can last many years as the family settle disputes or save funds for the funeral. They build the funeral installation from scratch, which usually takes many months of work. The funerals themselves usually last about a week. The importance of the deceased or the prosperity of the family of the deceased is measured by the offerings the family make. These offerings are usually the sacrifice of animals with water buffaloes being the most valuable offering of all. Make sense? Don’t worry we were at one and it still doesn’t make sense.
We went to the funeral of a woman, from a family who had made a lot of money working in Java. She had died 5 years ago. The family had built about 80 boothes to host all the extended family members and guests for the duration of the funeral. Like many funerals I’m familiar with there was a procession, and a eulogy. Unlike most funerals, in the centre of everything a buffalo had had it’s throat slit and had bled to death in front of the crowd and a team of people then started to butcher the animal. 80 buffaloes were going to be slaughtered over the next 7 days, as well as 100s of pigs. Rare buffaloes can cost up to €50k, which is an insane amount of money.
We left the place not really sure what to make of it all. Other people’s culture and beliefs are obviously going to be different to your own but here I really struggled with how much money was being invested to celebrate someone’s passing when there were clearly many better uses for that money. The concepts of status and prestige involved was mind boggling. The more buffaloes slaughtered the more important you were, and the less money your family has towards education or other needs. The visual part of the slaughter was also tough to take. I eat meat and have no illusions as to where it comes from but publicly slaughtering and butchering so many animals seems extreme. Natsir is Torajan and is proud of his culture and region but doesn’t agree with the funeral practices. He sees them as hugely wasteful. When his father passed away he refused to kill a buffalo for him despite pressure from the community to do so.
In the end we found it very hard to say goodbye to everyone. 3 weeks had flown by and we felt very much at home with the family and volunteers. I also felt a bit guilty when leaving. Here was Natsir who has faced and continues to face many challenges. Yet he still gives so much of himself to doing what’s good for his family, community and beyond. We had stopped in to help out but it was all so easy for us. A few hour weeding and teaching and before you know it we’re back on the road. It’s hard to put into words but the experience really touched us and we won’t forget Natsir or the community in Rembon anytime soon.
- The call to prayer fives times a day gets intense. Especially the 4:30 AM one.
- Natsir’s name was originally Nasir, but his headmaster in school added a t to it because he thought it sounded better.
- The Indonesian Minister for Communication was at the funeral and gave a speech. I gave him a point and wink.
- Much to my surprise I’ve come to really enjoy eating rice two or three times a day. Rice is great.
- We call the home made chocolate “Dirty Chocolate”, watch out for it at an organic shop near you.
- In Toraja when you have your first child,they call you Papa” first child’s name”. Eg: Natsir is Papa Irma.
- I have 1kg of coffee I picked and processed myself to bring back home.
- Listening to rap music made my weeding days way more productive.
- Julie was invited to the mosque to observe prayer one evening.
- Buffalo fights are a big thing at funerals. Two big beasts in a circle of people clash heads and horns until one runs away.
- We spent three weeks with a squat toilet with no toilet paper and a bucket of water shower.
- Every meal was taken sitting on the ground which was very nice but tough on the ass and legs.
- Despacito has followed us to Asia, there’s even a version in Indonesian as the original lyrics are too spicy for local tastes.