Sickness and Exorcism in the Tanimbar Islands

This piece was first published in Unmapped Magazine some time around 2014. Parts of the piece eventually found their way into my book Stealing With the Eyes. Between 1994 and 1995, I travelled to the Tanimbar islands of Indonesia, where I was studying the work of sculptors and wood-carvers. Some time during my stay, I fell ill with a recurring sickness. The sickness was to continue to recur until 1998, long after I left Indonesia, and despite the best efforts of numerous experts in tropical medicine, remained forever undiagnosed.

I woke with pains in my stomach, my head swirling with feverish images. The village of Alusi Krawain was silent. I lay awake waiting for the pain to subside, but it only intensified. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up. It was a hot night, and I had been sweating in my sleep. Sitting up, I felt dizzy, and as I slipped on my shoes, I swayed, not certain I could stand upright. Holding onto the doorpost, I eased myself to my feet and crept out of the room as quietly as I could, so as not to wake my hosts, Ibu Lin and Bapak Rerebain. I fumbled with the door and stepped out into the deserted street. The moon was growing fat in the sky, lighting up the road so the houses and trees cast dark shadows. Shivering in the soft night breeze, I held my stomach, a tightly knotted ball. Then I started to make my way down the road, stepping over the sleeping forms of hunting dogs. Coming to the corner of the street, I took the path that led along a low ridge behind the backs of the houses, and opened the door of the little thatched toilet. I fumbled for the matches and lit a candle. Squatting down, my bowels gave way.

On the wall was a huge centipede, glinting with yellowish malignancy in the candlelight. It made its way up to the grass roof where it disappeared. I waited a long time, until the pain had subsided, then I started on my way back to bed. I was shivering more violently now, feeling sick. Staggering back, I accidentally trod on one of the sleeping dogs. It slid from under me with a yelp, abruptly awakened from dreams of the hunt and turned to face me, drawing back its lips to reveal two rows of pointed teeth. I backed off as the dog began to bark. Its barking woke the others, and in a moment every dog in the village seemed to be awake, the pack clustering around, snarling and snapping at me. I aimed a kick at one of the fiercest of the dogs — it retreated with a pitiful whine — then ran back to the house, slamming the door behind me. I collapsed on the bed, my heart thudding in my chest. Outside the dogs began to bay and howl. The dull ache in my stomach returned. It was four o’clock in the morning.

When they discovered me on my sick bed the following morning, Ibu Lin and Bapak Rerebain were deeply concerned. Bapak Rerebain said he would accompany me to the village clinic so that I could be treated for my illness. So later that morning he led me up the hill to a small, neat building on the edge of the village. There was a well-tended, fenced garden outside, with a sculpture of Our Lady of Fatima on a plinth, as fine an example as any of Catholic kitsch. Bapak Rerebain knocked on the door. There did not seem to be anyone about. He knocked again. Eventually a wizened little nun appeared, dressed in immaculately starched white. She gave me a gappy smile. “Selamat datang!” she said, and led us into her consultancy room.

The room was small and dingy, without much light. A few unlabelled bottles of potion were lined up on the shelves. The nun sat opposite me. “Poor thing,” she said reflectively.

She turned to Bapak Rerebain.

“Is he ill?” she asked.

“He is,” said Bapak Rerebain. I let him answer for me.

“What is wrong with him?”

Bapak Rerebain indicated I should speak. “My stomach,” I said. The little nun’s face lit up.

“He speaks Indonesian!” she exclaimed, delighted. She turned to me. “So, you have a bad stomach?”

“Yes,” I said.

“He also has a fever,” Bapak Rerebain added.

“Are you dizzy?”

I nodded. The nun put her hand to my forehead. From the expression of worry on his face, it looked as if Bapak Rerebain did not believe that I would last until sunset. The nun took my wrist, feeling for a pulse. She appeared satisfied. “I have medicine for you,” she said. “It will make you well.”

I smiled in thanks. The nun reached up to the shelf and ran her finger along the line of jars. She selected a bottle of murky blue potion, plugged with a grubby cork and placed it on the table. Then she took down a rusting Golden Virginia tobacco tin. “This will make you better,” she said. Her smile was sweet and artless. Opening the tin, she removed a syringe and began to fill it with the blue liquid. Bapak Rerebain smiled reassuringly at me. “She has very good medicine here,’ he said. ‘It will make you better.”

My mind was working slowly, and it took me a few moments to realise what was happening. I thought of HIV, hepatitis, God knows what. “No,” I mumbled, “no injections.”

The nun pretended not to hear. She withdrew the syringe from the bottle, squirted a bit of her potion into the air and looked at the needle with every appearance of satisfaction. “Roll up your sleeve,” she said.

“No,” I said.

The nun looked surprised. “You are afraid?”

I did not reply.

“It is only a very small needle,” she said. “There is no need to be afraid.”

Bapak Rerebain turned to face me. My obstinacy seemed to bring out a paternal sternness I had not seen in him before. “It would be better for you if you let her inject you,” he said. “Then you will be cured. It is only one small injection. There is no need to be afraid.”

“No,” I said. “The needle is not clean.”

The little nun paused. Then she opened a drawer and rummaged for a while. She took out some cotton wool, wiping the needle with care. “There,” she said. “It’s clean.”

“No,” I said again. “No injections.”

The nun’s hand hovered, clutching the syringe as she tried to judge whether I would change my mind. Then she put the syringe down on the table and sighed. “If you do not wish to be injected,” she said, much to my relief, “I cannot inject you.” She squirted the blue liquid back into the bottle and corked it again. Wiping off the syringe, she returned it to the sterile environment of the Golden Virginia tobacco tin, and placed the tin back on the shelf to await a more co-operative patient. Ferreting around in her drawer for a while longer, in the end she found some pills, four black, four white, and four yellow. She put them in twists of brown paper. “These are not as good as injections, but they might make you better.”

But by the following day, my condition had worsened; and when, after three more days I still showed no signs of recovery, the Rerebains were becoming very worried indeed.

The nun’s remedies having failed, Ibu Lin and her husband convened a council of villagers to discuss my illness. When they had gathered, I was summoned from my room to come before them while they worked out what to do with me. I was weak and had barely eaten in the previous few days. I had to sit down quickly before giddiness overcame me. Chairs were laid out around the edges of the room, and I looked at the gathered company. In the centre of the row of chairs facing me there was a toothless old man, his skin stretched taut over a skeletal frame. He had an air of inner tension to him that made him somehow rather frightening. He glanced around the room repeatedly, flexing his long, bare toes. Once I was seated he spoke, in a high pitched and slightly wheezing voice. He talked in the local language of Yamdenan, which I didn’t speak. He waved his arms as he talked, pointed at me repeatedly, pressed home rhetorical questions with emphatic, almost hysterical cadences. When he eventually drew to a close there was silence. Then Bapak Rerebain began to speak, still in Yamdenan, and before long everyone was debating what should be done with me. I closed my eyes and waited for the discussion to come to an end. Eventually there was silence. All eyes in the room turned to me. Bapak Rerebain shifted in his seat with unease.

“It is like this,” he said to me at last, his voice apologetic and his shoulders drooping a little. “The other day, when you were walking through the village, did you pass the house of an old man?”

I shrugged. I was having difficulty in concentrating. I wondered if I was going to be sick.

“You must think,” Bapak Rerebain said. “Did you pass the house of an old man?”

“Maybe,” I replied.

“He lives down the hill,” Bapak Rerebain prompted helpfully.

“The house made of split bamboo,” added someone else, by way of explanation. “Did you pass that house?”

“I don’t know.” There were plenty of old men in Alusi, and plenty of houses made of split bamboo.

Bapak Rerebain smiled. “He is confused,” he said.

“Poor thing!” said a young woman across the other side of the room, her maternal instincts getting the better of her. “He is a long way from home.”

“You must have passed his house,” said Bapak Rerebain. “It is on the way as you go north from here.”

“Then I suppose I did.”

“Did the old man give you anything?”

I wanted to return to my bed and sleep off the sickness. “I don’t know.”

There was a pause, and more debate in Yamdenan. “Did he give you anything to eat or drink?”

“No.” I shook my head. “Nobody gave me anything to eat or drink.” The nausea was worse now.

“Tuan!” Bapak Rerebain’s voice took on an unusually commanding tone. “This is very important. You must try hard to answer our questions. Did the old man say anything to you? Did he say anything like, ‘Oh, you have such beautiful white skin?’”

“He said nothing.”

“Not, ‘Oh! Your skin is beautiful!’?”


“He didn’t say any sweet words?”

“Please,” I said, “I want to go to bed.” I began to stand up, but wobbled as I stood, and sank back into my chair.

“Poor thing,” said the woman across the other side of the room, for a second time.

“Perhaps,” suggested Bapak Rerebain gently, “he said some sweet words, but you did not hear?”

“Perhaps,” I conceded.

“Or he fixed you with a sweet look?”

“Maybe.” I looked down at the floor. Ibu Lin leaned forwards and glowered at me.

“Beware of his sweet words,” she said. “His words sound sweet, but they are filled with poison.”

Bapak Rerebain raised his hand to quieten her. “Tuan, do not be angry with us,” he said gently. “That old man in the bamboo house is a suangi. He is a witch.”

It is a terrible thing to be a witch in the Tanimbar islands. The soul of a witch is light, unanchored. A witch has no ballast, which is why witches can fly from place to place, shuttling to the distant island of Ambon on their night flights to buy bottles of beer, or entering the bodies of others and causing them mischief. But to be without anchor in the turbulent seas of existence is a curse, and so the witches of Tanimbar long for something, anything, that might be heavy enough to lend them weight, even for a short while. Driven by whirlwinds of desire, like compulsive shoppers in the cities that few of the villagers from Alusi had ever seen, Tanimbarese witches latch now onto this, now onto that, in the hope that it will fill the flimsy hollowness of their existence. Seeing that somebody else is in possession of something shiny, something bright, they crave it; and through flattery, through deceit, or through entering the bodies of others and gnawing at their entrails, they set about attempting to acquire it. But the tragedy is, the object of the witch’s desire is no more capable of anchoring his insubstantial soul than a boat could be anchored at sea with an anchor made of balsa wood. The witch desires, possesses, and finding that there is no security in possession, desires again.

Bapak Rerebain explained. “You have been attacked by a witch,” he said. “You should have taken more care. We are ashamed that you should suffer this whilst you are a guest in our house. We do not want you to think that it is we who have hurt you. But do not worry. We know how to cure you.”

Then Bapak Rerebain went across the room to the corner cupboard, which he opened. He took out a small, insignificant looking piece of wood, and he placed it on the table in front of me. A murmur of approval ran through the room. “This will cure you,” he said.

He gave the piece of wood to his wife, Ibu Lin, and she scraped at it with the knife she used to cut up her betel nut, making a little pile of shavings on the tabletop. She called to someone to go and get a glass of water, which they did, and then she put this on the table also. Ibu Lin passed the water to Bapak Rerebain, who took it and carefully scraped the shavings into the glass with the blade of the knife. He began to mutter incantations in Yamdenan. He stirred the concoction three times clockwise, and three times anticlockwise with his knife, still muttering under his breath. As he did so, he glanced at me with uncertainty. Finally he cut the water in the form of a cross. “So Jesus will help us, too,” he explained.

As the wood shavings were settling into the bottom of the glass, he lay the knife over the top and covered the knife and glass with his hands, muttering more words I did not understand. The old man who had been responsible for my diagnosis coughed gently, and rolled his head back on his neck so that he was looking up at the ceiling. He opened his palms slightly and began to mutter in prayer. Whether he was asking the blessings of the ancestors, of Ubila’a, of the Christian God, I do not know. His prayer was long and complex, the protracted vowel sounds blending into each other seamlessly so it sounded like one long exhalation. One by one, all the other people present started to join in. They recited their prayers independently of each other, and the room filled with a Babel of interlocking voices. The sound of their prayers was disorientating. Bapak Rerebain had his eyes closed, hands cupped over the glass of water. The family dog, Riko, slept underneath Ibu Lin’s chair, utterly unperturbed by all the activity. The sound of the praying seemed to intensify my nausea and disorientation. I closed my eyes and again the room began to spin, as if there was nothing anywhere to take hold of, nothing solid. Their incantations were tossing me to and fro like a boat far from land, as if I was suddenly hollow, gnawed hollow, cut free, adrift on endless seas of nausea. Wave after wave of sickness broke over me.

The prayers ended abruptly, and Bapak Rerebain gave me the glass. “Take three sips,” he told me. I did as he asked.

Then he dribbled some water onto my head, making the sign of the cross on my forehead. He did the same on my chest, and then worked quickly, moving from the top to the bottom of my body, pressing his thumbs into my joints, my armpits, elbows, groin and knees. Finally, when he was finished, he took the glass containing the remaining water outside, and with a shout, threw the water into the road where, in a few moments, it had already evaporated.

When he came back inside, he smiled. “You will be feeling better,” he told me.

I shook my head, but Ibu Lin added impatiently, “He already looks better.” She turned to face me. “You feel better,” she said making it sound like an order. “Your face is now pink.”

“I feel sick,” I said.

“Yes, but you feel a little better, don’t you?”

I did not answer. I was battling the nausea that was rising in me as the water and wood shavings worked their way down towards my stomach. I could hear the other guests all discussing with relief the success of my cure. Ibu Lin was saying to anyone who would listen, “He is better. Look at his pink face. Before he was pale and white, and now he is healthy again.”

Then I was on my feet, running from the room, sending the chickens who were pecking around outside squawking away. Leaning against the doorpost, I was violently sick in the road. Coming back into the house, I was shivering and ice-cold. To my surprise, everyone was beaming with undisguised delight.

“See,” said Bapak Rerebain, smiling more broadly than I had seen him smile in days, “The cure is working.”

The excitement over, the crowd dispersed. Ibu Lin, convinced I was now well on the way to a full recovery, fed me some biscuits, but I could not force them down. “It is good that you are now well,” she kept repeating. I returned to my bed, and slipped into jumbled, witch-ridden dreams. I slept until long after the sun had risen the following day.

When I woke, still sick and giddy, Bapak and Ibu Rerebain made no comment about the exorcism of the day before, but Bapak Rerebain’s face was furrowed with worry. I lay in bed and could hear them arguing in the room next door about my illness. Thinking back now, after all these years, I suspect they were terrified I might not recover at all.

Some time later, Bapak Rerebain initiated a further cure. By this time I had recovered my appetite enough to take some food, and the fever, although it had not entirely gone, had abated for a while. I was sitting in the front of the house drinking tea with Bapak Rerebain. The tea was managing to stay down in my stomach, and it was warming. Bapak Rerebain smiled at me. “Your sickness is not witchcraft,” he said softly.

“Then what is it?”

“Masuk angin,” he said.

Masuk angin: that most famous of all Indonesian ailments. Literally, it means ‘wind has entered’, and whilst most Indonesian dictionaries translate masuk angin as ‘to catch a cold’, this definition is hardly adequate. Masuk angin is — potentially at least — a more serious kind of illness. In Tanimbar, the term means precisely what it says: winds in Tanimbar bring in their wake good fortune and ill, health and sickness. There are winds that are constant and steady, good for sailing and healthy for the body. Then there are winds that are fickle and changeable, particularly when the hot season begins to give way to the rainy season. These winds are dangerous for sailing, and bring disease in their train. I had been accustomed to spending my evenings in Alusi sitting in the central square of the village, enjoying the night air. There were always people around to chat with, and I enjoyed sitting underneath the stars, talking as the night drew in. Ibu Lin disapproved of this activity. She had warned me already that I risked disease from unhealthy winds. Her disapproval, however, was mild, and so I persisted in my evening conversations underneath the night sky. Now, Bapak Rerebain told me, I was suffering the consequences of my heedlessness. “But don’t worry,” he said brightly. “It is easy to cure. I am skilled in curing this illness. The wind has entered your body, and is now blowing about here and there making you ill. It needs to be driven out. May I try a cure?”

The common cure in Indonesia for masuk angin is to mengerok, to scrape at the skin with a coin so that the excess wind might be released, a process that is apparently not too painful but that leaves behind striking red weals. However, Bapak Rerebain had a different approach. “It might be a little painful,” he said somewhat ominously, as he stood up and put his hands on either side of my head.

“What are you going to do?” I was having second thoughts.

Bapak Rerebain did not reply. He began to squeeze the sides of my head, and although he was of slight build, he was remarkably strong. I tried to struggle free. “Get off!”

“Hold still,” he snapped, and increased the pressure. I had vivid images of my skull shattering under the pressure. I tried to shake free, but was weakened by days of sickness.

Bapak Rerebain, gave a final grunt and squeeze, then he released me. “There,” he said. “Done.” I glowered at him. “Drink your tea,” he said kindly. I took a sip. My head was sore. I looked at Bapak Rerebain and saw concern so deeply etched on his face that I found it hard to resent him his cure.

“I am sorry to hurt you,” he said, “but I am sure you will now get better.”

As it happened, I did not recover. It took one more cure before I was back on my feet, at least for a short while, and well enough to continue my travels in Indonesia. In the days after the head squeezing, my health seemed to fluctuate, getting now better, now worse; but after a few days it became apparent that the general direction was towards the worse. Once again I could no longer keep food down, could no longer eat. I just lay on the bed all day, sweating and trembling, watching the spiders mark time by their passage across the walls of the house. Outside my room, I could hear the anxious whispered discussions — and sometimes arguments — between Bapak Rerebain and his wife Ibu Lin about what they should do with me.

Then one day, Ibu Lin came to speak with me. She sat down gently on the bed, and put her hand on my arm. “Anak saya,” she said to me. “My child.”

I tried to smile at her. She leaned towards me. “I know the reason for your sickness,” she said.

“You do? What is it?”

She hesitated. “Sawang,” she said.

“What is sawang?”

And so Ibu Lin explained. Inside my stomach, she told me, there was an insect. This insect, known only to the Tanimbarese, came in two forms. The first was in the form of a human being, and the second took the form of an octopus. Whatever form it took, the little beast was usually relaxed and docile, but at times it might wake up and cause trouble. When this happened, the solution was to pacify the creature through vigorous massage. With great authority, Ibu Lin then pronounced that the insect I had in my stomach had the form of an octopus, and as she spoke it was spreading its tentacles through my body. This was the cause of my sickness. Sawang was dangerous, she said, because it drained blood from the stomach. It could lead to jaundice, internal bleeding, or even death.

Later I wondered if, in some feverish delirium, I had invented the story about the octopus-insect. Perhaps, I thought, I had misunderstood Ibu Lin’s meaning. It was only later, whilst reading Pat Barker’s novel, The Ghost Road, that I came across a similar case, from almost a hundred years before, and from hundreds of miles away. Parts of Barker’s novel were based on the notes of the psychologist and anthropologist WHR Rivers, who was involved in the Torres Strait expedition of 1898. In Barker’s book, which was based upon a close study of Rivers’ notes, there is a meeting between Rivers and a medicine man Njiru. The passage reads as follows:

‘Meanwhile Rivers and Njiru talked. Namboko Taru’s complaint belonged to a group of illnesses called tagosoro, which were inflicted by the spirit called Mateana. This particular condition — nggasin — was caused by an octopus that had taken up residence in the lower intestine, from where its tentacles might spread until they reached the throat. At this point the disease would prove fatal.’

In Barker’s book, Njiru cures his patient using exactly the same methods as Ibu Lin: massage. And so, when she had completed her diagnosis, Ibu Lin smiled a terrible smile. What great fortune, she said, that I had been staying in her house, for she was skilled in the pacification of stomach insects, and had saved a good many lives through the deployment of this particular cure. Then she leaned over my prostrate body, yanked up my shirt to expose my bare stomach, and sucking in her breath, tensed herself like an overweight cat preparing to pounce on its prey. She began to pummel my stomach with her podgy fingers, pressing her thumbs hard into the softest parts. In a few moments, she found a point that, when she subjected it to the pressure of her considerable bulk, made me cry out in pain.

“See!” she exclaimed, triumphant, her face lighting up. “I have found it.” Under her fingers, I could feel something inside me pulsate.

“Can you feel the insect breathing?” she asked, and she made a noise, imitating the pulse. “Bu-DUM. Bu-DUM. Bu-DUM. Can you feel it?”

I could certainly feel it. I nodded, gasping for breath. Then Ibu Lin jabbed her fingers sharply into my stomach. I yelled out in pain, doubling up. Ibu Lin sought out the sensitive point again, and gave it another poke. “One more,” she said, breathless from pummelling my entrails, “and then you will be well.”

She plunged her fingers sharply downwards one last time, and then released them. I lay gasping on the bed. Sweat had broken out on my forehead. I was shaking. Ibu Lin looked at me with sympathy, and putting her hand on my forehead in a motherly fashion, gave me a genuinely beautiful smile. “I will get you a cup of tea,” she told me.

When I woke the following morning, after the first good sleep I had had in days, I felt better. The sawang, or whatever it was, seemed to have been temporarily pacified. I got up and ate breakfast. Ibu Lin and Bapak Rerebain both smiled to see me eating properly for the first time in days.

“You are lucky,” Bapak Rerebain said as I ate breakfast. “You are lucky that you got sick in our household, where we know how to treat you.”

And just at that precise moment — despite my scepticism when it came to suangis, and masuk angin and sawangs — as I looked at my two hosts, and the expressions of relief on their face, I felt fortunate that I was within their care.

All images © Will Buckingham 1995

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