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"A Land Apart": Geography and Subsistence

The islands of the outer arc of the Lesser Sundas (map 1) do not have the great volcanoes and fertile tropical soils of Indonesia's main islands of Java, Sumatra, Bali, or Sulawesi. Largely comprising uplifted coral reefs, Sumba has low mountain ranges and a heavily weathered, rugged topography of limestone and other sedimentary rocks. It is a relatively large island of 11,500 km2 , 200 km long and from 36 to 75 km wide, dominated by wide grasslands. Southeast trade winds blowing off the Australian continent bring a hot dry climate to the eastern part of the island, which has virtually no rainfall for eight months of the year. Low, grass-covered hills appear stark and rather forbidding along the northern coast, broken only occasionally by dry gullies cutting their way toward the sea. As one moves inland and farther south, the rolling hills give way to a more rugged highland region of rocky inclines and forested mountains. None of these peaks reaches a great height, however: Mount Wanggameti in East Sumba is the island's highest point at only 1,225 meters.

Many areas are only sparsely populated; the island's four hundred thousand people are spread unevenly over the eastern and western halves of the island because of differential access to water. In the savanna grasslands of the east, population density averages only 18/km2 , whereas in the damper western half it rises to 50/km2 , with annual population growth standing at 2 percent (Helmi 1982). Rainfall differences range from a sparse thirty inches on the dry plains of the northeast, near Waingapu, to over a hundred at the wettest part of the island, Waimangura in the western highlands (Hoekstra 1948, 8). The physical contrast between the wet and dry areas seems greater than the difference in rainfall would indicate because much of the water that flows northward disappears underground, percolating into the porous limestone.

The Kodi district, to which I was headed, lies at the western tip of the island (map 2), perched at the "base of the land" (kere tana ); this area is seen by the Sumbanese as the lower half of a human body whose head lies in the east. Kodi is lush in the rainy season but dries out to a parched, dusty plain in the months from March to November. The region is not suitable for wet rice cultivation; indeed, it is ecologically closer to the eastern grasslands with their pattern of swidden cultivation of dry rice and extensive livestock grazing.

Rice and corn form the basis of Kodi subsistence. Both are planted in mixed gardens, along with beans, tubers, chilies, and vegetables. Rice is believed to have special life-giving, nutritional qualities, and hence it is the focus of collective life (it is the only proper food to serve to guests)


Map 1.
Eastern Indonesia: the Lesser Sunda Islands


Map 2.
Ethnolinguistic map of Sumba. Each area corresponds to a traditional
ceremonial domain.

and has primary importance in the ceremonial system; yet because only a single annual wet-season crop can be produced, actual eating patterns depend heavily on other inferior crops. Corn is less appreciated than rice, but it can be harvested twice a year, so it comes closer to being the true staple of most households. The absence of rice is culturally defined as "hunger" and the long period from October to January is called the "hungry season" since it comes after most rice supplies from the previous year have been exhausted. A small share of rice is always set aside for calendrical festivities in late February or early March; this meal may represent the last time rice is eaten before the new harvest in April.

The fifty thousand Kodi people live widely dispersed in garden hamlets scattered through three different river valleys (Kodi Bokol, or "Greater Kodi"; Bangedo; and Balaghar). Despite its many problems, the Kodi coast


presents a picture of fertility and abundance during much of the year. The main road that runs the eighty kilometers from the regency capital of Waikabubak is lined with banana and mango trees, and as it approaches the coast the view opens up to take in the sea and plantations of coconut and areca. The low-roofed thatch houses in garden hamlets are in fact only temporary dwellings, for the people's more permanent attachments are to the sixty-five ancestral villages that line the coast (map 3).

Land is used in three different ways in Kodi: as gardens (mango ), as fallow plots (rama ), and as pastures for livestock (marada ). Traditional methods of shifting cultivation have become less effective now that so much land has been brought under cultivation, and the Kodi are well aware of the diminished fertility of their fields. Pastoralism—raising herds of buffalo, horses, and cattle—has long been the center of the Kodi prestige economy, but it is becoming more important to subsistence as well. Grass-land farming is still possible, but it requires extensive time and effort. The coarse, tall tufts of swordgrass are burned off in the dry season, to expose new tender green shoots that can be grazed by herds of horses and buffalo. The ground must then be broken up, turned, and allowed to dry for six weeks to remove plant residues. It is worked again, the soil being chopped into smaller chunks and dried for a second burning. Such methods are similar to those used in grassland areas of Sumatra (Sherman 1990) and highland Burma (Leach 1954b), which share the high cultural valuation placed on rice but also suffer from severe ecological constraints.

Because of climatic variation and the uncertainty of agricultural production, relations between the interior and the coastal regions have long been based on a system of internal trade known as mandara (literally, to ride on a horse in search of food). Toward the end of the dry season, people from Kodi and other seaside districts travel inland to find vegetables, tubers, and other early-ripening foods to sustain them through the hunger months. These crops are exchanged for salt, dried fish, lime, pigs or livestock, and cloth. Gifts of cloth—a product largely of the coastal regions, where indigo plants grow in profusion—are particularly important, since textiles are required for all traditional exchanges. Although commercial dyes have largely replaced natural ones in textile production in many areas of the interior, making the Kodi monopoly on indigo less important, natural dyes are still required for the finest ritual cloths. In this domain, several older Kodi women maintain their preeminence as specialists in the secret art of dye-making (Hoskins 1989c).

In years of serious drought or famine, the line between the subsistence sphere and the prestige sphere of livestock raising becomes blurred, and then not only textiles but even horses or buffalo are exchanged for food.




Kabihu Pola Kodi ("the trunk of Kodi")


1. Bukubani

9. Wei Ratu Rambi

17. Ndelo


2. Wei Karoko

10. Wei Hyati Wyora

18. Watu Pakadu


3. Nggalu Watu

11. Pakare

19. Tossi


4. Lawudi

12. Kere Homba

20. Kalirnbu Atur


5. Ramba Lodo

13. Mabaha

21. Mboro Mbake


6. Wei Yengo

14. Bahewa

22. Wondo


7. Linngyaro

15. Bondo Gole


8. Hambali Atur

16. Mete


Kabihu Mbali Hangali ("the other side of the embankment")


23. Wei Kadoki

29. Ngi Pyandak

35. Pou Dawa


24. Bondo Maliti

30. Kere Tana

36. Bondo Kamodo


25. Bondo Kawango

31. Toda

37. Bondo Kodi


26. Malere

32. Menakaho

38. Rambi


27. Malandi

33. Lewata


28. Wei Kahumbu

34. Bongu




Kabihu Mahemba


39. Hali Kandangar

41. Balengger

43. Manu Longge


40. Waindimu

42. Parona Baroro

44. Kabota


Kabihu Pawungo


45. Mehang Mata

49. Homba Wawi

53. Hangga Koki


46. Pakare

50. Watu Lade

54. Ratenggaro


47. Rangga Baki

51. Ngahu Watu


48. Nggalu

52. Bondo Tamiyo




55. Weingyali

59. Maghamba

63. Baroro


56. Wei Hyombo

60, Weinjolo Wawa

64. Kaha Malagho


57. Weinjolo Deta

61. Wei Katari

65. Kaha Katoda


58. Mahendak

62. Weinjoko

66. Kaha Deta

Map 3.
The location of traditional territories (kabihu) and ancestral villages in Kodi


In 1977, locusts destroyed a large number of gardens, and 1982 saw a plague of mice and the spread of new crop disease. In Kodi terms, such disasters are disruptions of seasonal temporality ("the months of hunger are not the only hungry ones; the months of plenty are also lean"), upsetting an already precarious balance of ecological factors and human activity; they require the ritual mediation of traditional timekeepers to set them right.

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