Immersed in a Mentawai Community - Surfer's Path

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Immersed in a Mentawai Community

Words: Kirk Willcox

Photos: Kirk Willcox/SAI

You’ve never seen a person savour a piece of bread and butter so much, enjoying the taste of every morsel and just fully appreciating being able to eat something so simple.

Quiksilver SurfAid Community Health Training Centre.

“Ah, this tastes so good. You forget the little things you miss,” says Matt King, who has just come out of the jungle, literally. Here we are sitting in an old-style Balinese hotel eating a late breakfast buffet – all you could eat – fruit, French baguettes, eggs … spread out on tables. Matt ploughed through it all, slowly and deliberately, except for the sausages, as he’s a vego.

The 30-year-old quietly mannered Kiwi has just finished a seven-month stint living in the village at Katiet, in the Mentawai Islands, way across to the other side of Indonesia, as far west as you can go but still be in the country.

A graduate in sociology, with a post-graduate degree in community development, Matt has been designing and constructing the Quiksilver SurfAid Community Health Training Centre. He’d just finished the main buildings and planted out the experimental vitamin gardens before heading across to the “city” island of Bali for some R&R and to meet up with a local group called IDEP, who are experts in permaculture based in Ubud, the art centre in the Balinese mountains.

“I spent three months living in the local Katiet losmen with travelling surfers and then at the Centre, about two kilometres up the path, pretty much by myself for four months,” Matt says. “My role was to design and construct the Katiet Centre which involved a combination office space, community meeting space, demonstration vitamin gardens, toilet system and water management.”

Matt King and staff digging foundation holes.

Despite all his prior studies, the whole experience of living in the village with the locals has had a profound affect on Matt and he is still coming to terms with the “outside” world.

“The process of taking on this job was only about eight days from being offered the role and actually landing on the ground with no Indonesian or Mentawai language and little idea of what was involved,” he says. “I’d had past experience with this type of work living for three months in the autonomous of region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, but this experience was much more immersed in the community, whereas before I was kind of separated.”

In seven months in Katiet, Matt never heard anyone raise their voice. “People were always very friendly. And the enthusiasm for what we were doing was very high simply because a lot of the ideas would be generated by the people themselves.”

SurfAid’s philosophy is a hand up, not a handout – working with the locals, teaching them about better nutrition, hygiene and health care – and empowering them to take on the further development of their health and wellbeing. The Katiet Centre’s overriding philosophy is healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people.

SurfAid’s research shows the people of the Mentawai have high levels of malnutrition and anaemia, which makes them more susceptible to illness. Nearly one in 10 of their children don’t make it to five years of age.

Matt King checks a papaya tree at the Katiet Centre.

The Katiet region is known by the village name of Bosua, and there are about 1,300 residents in five dusun (hamlets) including the Katiet dusun.

Matt worked with seven staff from the various dusun, some on rotation so that every village shared in the project. All villages contributed to making the traditional thatch roofing for example.

“I was more a facilitator/enabler than anything,” Matt says. “I worked with the locals leading by example and showing the way.”

I witnessed this one very hot, steamy day with sweat dripping off Matt as he dug holes for the foundations for the community centre – and being an integral part of the team doing the hard yards, as opposed to a “foreman”. Matt and two locals dug 15 holes in six hours, which is incredibly hard work in the tropics.

“I think I drank eight litres of water that day, that’s a lot of water,” Matt says. “There’s constant dialogue while we work, talking about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and getting feedback from them. After all, they are the people who live there, they know the conditions and they know what works.

“As an outsider we have ideas while the people in the village have local experience and so together we can come up with new ideas and solutions.”


Matt King and the local community prepare compost.

As you would imagine, Matt made some new friends – “I think definitely some for lifetime with the SurfAid Indonesian staff who live there and people in the village,” he says.

“I would eat lunch with the same family each day, the wife of one of our staff used to cook for us, usually some fish, vegetables and rice. I had very little imported, Western-style food.”

Ninety-nine per cent of his food was obtained from the local market in Sioban (one-and-a-half hours’ north in a dugout longboat, a return trip of 55km) or from the local farms in the village.

“It was an interesting experience eating the food that everyone else eats where most of the people are undernourished or malnourished,” Matt says. “And observing the proportions of what people eat to see how their general state of health comes about. Generally people perceive that plain white rice is a modern food and that it is all you need to eat so consequently there is a minimum amount of fish and vegetables eaten with each meal. And fruit, like bananas and papaya, is eaten sporadically, maybe once or twice a week.”

A cash economy is relatively recent in Katiet, with the locals earning “new” money from the surf charter boats at Lance’s Right by selling their wood carvings of Mentawai barrels with a surfer locked inside, canoe paddles and masks, aside from their traditional farm products for market like copra, cloves and patchouli (used in perfume).

Official opening November 2007.

“There is a lot of processed foods being consumed which are high in sugar, like biscuits and soft drinks, which are advertised as being fortified with vitamins and minerals and so the villagers develop the perception that they’re healthy,” Matt says.

“For the past year, the dusun of Mongan Bosua, near the Katiet Centre, has had electricity from a diesel generator from 6pm – 10pm and about 20 to 30 per cent of the houses have television and there are more all the time. Television has a big influence on their lives due to the commercials for food and just general life aspirations and expectations.”

It’s a tough environment for an outsider to live in. Sometimes the mosquitoes were so thick on dusk that Matt had no choice other than to climb under his mosquito net at 7pm.

“I still got bitten a lot and I was concerned about getting malaria but the worst things that happened were grazes on my legs from community volleyball or hitting my thumb with a hammer.”

His best memories are all simple pleasures – riding his bike through the village and having the kids give him high fives, calling him “om” – Mentawai language for uncle; or the smoky scene on dusk with people playing takrau, foot volleyball. A few nights were spent in the village playing volleyball or cards in villagers’ homes.

SurfAid Community Facilitator Wati holds a cooking class in the Centre for Care Group mothers.

“But the one overriding thing I looked forward to each day was having a cold wash out of the bucket from the well,” Matt says.

As for surfing, he found Lance’s Right, and its razor-sharp reef, somewhat daunting. “First time I paddled out, I got dumped on the Surgeon’s Table so I quickly realised I was safer swinging the hammer than swinging around and taking off out there.”

Matt finishes gouging his way through the buffet and ponders where he is in life. “It’s more of a culture shock coming out of a village environment than going in. It’s the pace and complexity of life outside, the focus on economic issues as opposed to the social relationships that dominate village life. I’m still feeling that now being outside the village and there’s a huge contrast between the priorities and focus of life.”

With that, Matt heads off to Kuta to organise a bus trip to Ubud. “I’m going to meet with IDEP to share our experiences in developing a permaculture site, to understand the issues and challenges that they have faced in developing similar programs and to see if we can develop some synergy or cooperation,” he says.

“Now that the construction has finished and that the site is ready to be used as a community centre and a place to develop SurfAid’s programs, I feel that the easy job has been completed.”

{encode=”” title=”Kirk Willcox”} is the Communications Director for SurfAid International.


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