Goes to film, ends up farming coconuts…
What’s your experience of the Mentawai Islands, those beautiful objects unveiled to the world by the surf pioneer Martin Daly and the retinue of famous guests on his boat, the Indies Trader, back in the early nineties?
Let me guess.
You get waves. You drink beer.
If it’s flat the skipper takes you up river to see how the little brown fellas still live. You’re delighted by how primitive it all is, throw a small amount of cash at souvenirs you don’t want (Who can say no to those pleading brown eyes?), and scurry back to the air-conditioning and movies of your floating palace.
I remember, once, throwing a terrific tantrum when the waiter on my vessel attempted to serve my afternoon gin and tonic with the portions askew. (Too little gin, an abundance of warm tonic.)
One surfer who didn’t follow the usual behavioural pattern of visitors to the Ments was Rob Henry, a surfer from Melbourne. He went there filming, met a local and was entranced by the whole indigenous trip, went native himself.
“There was a young Mentawai named Andy who had been working at the resort for a year, and he just had this incredible connection to the land and what I thought might be to his culture and freedom in his eyes that was something I had not seen in a long time.”
Rob soon found himself in a remote village farming coconuts, living with a community who didn’t speak English.
“I was interested in finding a village that was as far removed from the tourism as possible. At the time I didn’t know much about the culture or the area.
“I didn’t know the language either. I was directed to this particular village, so I arrived there and it was incredibly overwhelming and frightening and challenging.”
Rob eventually learned the native language and embedded himself in the community. He learnt more about the tribe’s traditional belief system, Arat Sabulungan.
“They believe that all natural things have a spirit and if a human was to pass away, their spirit would go out into nature and become part of nature.”
The Mentawai culture became threatened after 1945, when Indonesia gained independence. The new Government forced the Mentawai to abandon their traditional beliefs, and select one of its official religions instead: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism or Buddhism.
The decades that followed eroded away the traditional Mentawai way of life, creating a new generation of Mentawai without the full knowledge of their Indigenous culture and beliefs.
“It is being lost,” Rob says, “It’s still alive within the elders, and it skipped one or two generations, a lot of Mentawai – particularly the elders still have this knowledge – and they want to pass this on to the next generations.”
Mentawai are now able to live freely, but the effects of a “skipped generation” have been profound, Rob says. He hopes his documentary As Worlds Divide, filmed over eight years, will help to shine a light on the Mentawai community.
“I learnt so much, I learnt how little is needed to be happy. It certainly doesn’t come from anything material. It’s really within yourself and your relationships with family and friends, and I think with any Indigenous culture that’s why they’ve been able to survive for tens of thousands of years.”
It’s a beautiful story.