Tales from the Moluccas #3: Ibilihi’s Nutmeg
We pick up Ibilihi from his home on a narrow strand of yellow beach, backed by jungle sprouting out of coral cliffs, where he lives with his second wife and her disabled child, on a four by six sleeping platform with a fanpalm roof and a lower shelf for food and guests.
Skulls of deer and wild pig accumulate under a palm with split coconut shells, a midden for future archaeologists like the scallop shell mound we saw on Mariquit in the Philippines. There’s some scrappy cassava, a couple of coconut palms, some banana, but essentially, Ibilihi likes to live off the land.
The walking, breathing epitome of dour, Ibilihi is from the Togutil tribal minority. He’ll be one of our guides to the jungle of Eastern Halmahera, where we are going in quest of those of his people who still live as nomads, hunting and gathering in the forests.
The boy? He’s twelve, with emaciated legs, a mouthful of overgrowing teeth, a happy, laughing, playful spirit and the language of a child a decade or so younger. It’s his father’s fault, they say.
What happened to the boy?
Well, her first husband was no good, you see. Drank every day. Palm wine, beer, whatever came to hand. And when she was pregnant…
He beat her?
No, no. Worse than that. He beat a dog into unconsciousness.
I’m going to write about the Togutil and their dogs soon, but for the meantime, let’s just say they’re close. And when a man commits violence on man or dog while his wife is pregnant, the violence issues on the child.
The boy cackles, grabs at the parang with which his mother is peeling rattan stems. She threatens him with the flat. He giggles more.
She thinks she’s forty, but looks sixty.
Below his grubby T-shirt his child’s genitalia protrude in a fashion that’s kind of cute in toddlers but disconcerting in a boy who should soon be approaching puberty. Above his withered legs, his belly bulges like a tiny child’s.
I play “boo” with him. He falls into hysterics. His mother seems glad of the respite.
I’ve been re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God of late. McCarthy (and Faulkner), I think, are a better literary soundtrack to this place than Hemingway (or Jack London).
It feels, you know, quite Appalachian.
Ibilihi adjusts his Punkz baseball cap, tugs down his David Beckham Man-U T-shirt, picks up the harness he has fashioned from bamboo bark in seconds and adjusts his load of rice upon his back.
We are ready, it appears, to go.
He’s a big guy, Ibilihi. Solid muscle, Samoan face, coming up for a head taller than me in a grouping where even guys who barely come up to my chin can sit me on their shoulder and ferry me off a boat to shore.
He was nomadic growing up. Decided to settle fifteen years ago, but out here, on a beach, a long, long walk from anywhere.
He doesn’t make eye contact with strangers. Looks down and away. He’s not being rude. It’s just he, well, he doesn’t like to.
Even when he’s looking downwards, his little eyes dart constantly from side to side, his eyebrows locked in a perpetual frown.
In the very wild hinterlands of Halmahera, the warring nomads have eyes like this.
Constantly looking for danger. Scanning, scanning, scanning.
Ibilihi’s name means “ghost”.
What is the meaning of his name? Why did he get that name?
Yes, but why did his father choose that name, when his brother’s name means flower?
No reason. Just a name.
But Ibilihi moves like a ghost. Utterly silent. He can tell from the almost imperceptible movement of a leaf on a distant ridge that our local guides will return from the jungle within 30 minutes.
He seems, I guess, perpetually puzzled. He finds it hard to follow conversation in a group. His mind works very hard, it seems, to fathom out what is being said. Or, perhaps, why…
I wonder how he met his wife. It was before he became a Christian and stopped listening to his ancestral jinn.
It calls him, sure. He hears it. But he doesn’t listen to it. And he can’t see it any more.
Around Christmas time, the Christian Togutil in the kampong hold parties and drink a lot of roughly, occasionally lethally distilled palm wine.
And around this time, the forest dwellers come out of the jungle, and into town, to socialize, get drunk and, maybe, just maybe, meet a wife.
What’s he like when he’s drunk?
Oh, he’s jolly. A happy drunk.
Does he smile?
Sure. He grins from ear to ear. It’s the only time you’ll see him smile.
Anywise. That’s how they met.
And she left her little kampong and the company of her friends to come and live out here.
An even smaller sleeping platform, off by the midden, just two planks wide, holds one of Ibilihi’s brothers. He has a disease which sounds like ringworm, so hasn’t married. He’s in the jungle, now. Looking for food.
What will happen to the child when they die, I ask.
He stands no chance in the jungle and the social safety net out here is scanty as a karaoke hostess’ fishnets.
Oh, folk say vaguely, there are brothers. They will take care.
I hope they do.
And when Ibilihi’s father died – he was around Z’s age, and his mother had, as women tend to, predeceased her man – the oldest of the surviving six (of eight) children did indeed look after him. And the others, too.
Ibilihi’s an odd one. We walk slowly by Togutil standards, though the nine year old upholds the family honour by walking as well as an adult Westerner and better than a settled child his age.
And Ibilihi just, well, wanders off from time to time. Disappears for a night, leaving his clothes with us. Reappears.
Picks up messages from the shacks we pass every couple of hours. Goes silently into the jungle, returning after we wait for him a while from a different place.
One day, after 10k walking in a river and 10k slogging and sliding through hilly jungle dense with creepers and ferns, tropical rain battering off our fan palm umbrellas and racing down their stems, we emerge into an eerie grove of slender saplings with crushed stone between their roots.
It reminds me of coming across the Ho Chi Minh Trail, back in Cambodia, where the jungle gives way, all of a sudden, to abandoned road, or, rather, tall trees and roots are replaced with bamboo stands, the cover is lighter, the ceiling lower…
And in its sharpness, its incongruous flatness, it has the feel of the Roman roads which still crisscross the UK.
Which is what this is, in its way. An old logging road. Carved, like the Roman roads, on the shortest and most brutally efficient route to its objective.
Twenty years later, the jungle is returning. We break for lunch in a glade full of ferns and pink and violet orchids, hornbills overhead, butterflies the size of my hand flickering between young trees oh-too-crowded with creepers.
It’s idyllic. And a sign, I think at that moment, that jungles which are not stripcut, forests which are not stripped down to soil that then erodes, or wiped out entirely in favour of sterile ranks of oil palm, can, to some degree return.
We continue. And we come to a new road. The violence done to the landscape here is vast. Chunks blasted out of the mountain. Tumbled logs. Tall trees sledged clear to build the road. There’s a ghastly crater topped with rubbled limestone and a little clay soil where once the forest lay.
And Ibilihi speaks.
We are four days into our trek.
The last time he initiated conversation was when he realised he had put the eggs down several hours back and forgotten to pick them up. Unusually in an all-male-but-for-me expedition, but probably wisely, nobody took the piss.
“What did he say?” I say.
“Ibilihi is very angry,” he says.
Christ, I think. Ibilihi angry, even armed only with his parang face to face, rather than his spears and spear gun out of the darkness in the traditional manner, is a terrifying prospect.
My bladder clenches slightly. I rack my brains for something we could have done, and come up blank. “What is he angry about?” I ask.
“The logging company,” he says. “This is his land. He hasn’t been here for three years. And they’re cutting it, and he knows nothing about it.”
“Oh,” I say. “What’s he going to do?”
“He’s going to go to the logging company and talk to them,” he says.
I look at Ibilihi, wearing a T-shirt he cannot read in honour of a man he has not heard of and a football team he hasn’t played for in years, his bare feet gripping the soil.
I look at the big-ass bulldozers with their Chinese inscriptions – much of the natural resource “rights” here go to Chinese and Russian companies. And I cannot, for the life of me, see how this one is going to play.
“What’s he going to ask for?” I say.
“Money,” he says.
“Money?” I say. “Because it’s his land?”
“Because of his nutmeg.”
Now, nutmeg is native to these islands, the Moluccas, the Spice Islands of legend. And the best, and most valuable nutmeg in all North Maluku, which sells for more than ten dollars a kilo in Tobelo market, very much less in the forest, and very much more in the outside world, is forest nutmeg.
Our guides have been gathering it by the kilo. Ham, a switched-on fisherman from the village, is buying in bulk from the locals to turn around in Tobelo, four to ten hours from here on big or medium boat (a cost, in itself, of six to ten dollars).
“He has nutmeg trees?” I ask. “He sells the nutmeg?”
“Sure. There were many, many nutmeg trees here. Now the logging company has cut them all, and he is angry.”
He is angry about the forest, too, we establish.
“The Togutil,” says our guide, with a note of slight disapproval, “Think they own the forest.”
But it is the nutmeg which provides a focus point, a clarity to his rage.
“How does he own the land?” I ask. There is a shelf in Ibilihi’s home, but, clearly, Togutil don’t do paperwork.
“His grandfather hunted here when they were nomads,” he says. “It has always been their land.”
Would all the Togutil agree that this was Ibilihi and his family’s land?
Our guide doesn’t know, isn’t sure.
Though all are clear on who owns the land that Lima nomads on (and it isn’t Lima, though the guy is happy for him to stay there), Tete, another local guide, lives in the forest specifically so he can hang onto his land.
“OK,” I say, letting it lie. “Do you think they will give him money?”
“I think so,” says the guide.
“How much are we talking?” I ask. “A few hundred dollars? . . . A few million rupiah?”
He doesn’t know. “And what will he do if they don’t?”
“He will be angry and block the road. Him and all his family.”
I try and figure out how on earth a few Togutil are going to block the road against bulldozers and dynamite. Then I think back to the war dance at the wedding we attended (which I will write about soon), and realize I am being obtuse.
“You mean they’ll go to war?” I say. “They’ll do the dance, perform the magic, head into the forest with spears and start killing people?”
“Um, yes, that’s what he said,” he says, embarrassedly. (His family are Togutil, but settled long ago.)
And here, I guess, is the problem of indigenous land rights in microcosm.
I figure it will, most likely, be worth this company’s while to pay the value of a couple of hardwood trees to Ibilihi and his family to keep them quiet.
The Indonesian government sends in both army and police whenever logging or mining begins. After that, unless and until the killing starts, the businesses are on their own.
If they don’t pay up? Well, the amiable local logging workers from the settled coastal villages who cut the ancient hardwoods here will be picked off one by one. They’ll refuse to work.
Perhaps the guys up top, in their offices, will bring in outside workers, from Sulawesi or further afield. Settle them in grim clapboard kampong, all male but for the girls in the “karaoke bars” and the local family manning the palm wine-noodles-cigarettes store, like the gold mine settlements we passed through in the centre of the island.
Perhaps they’ll go straight to armed corporate guards.
Y’know. Just like the Amazon. Shoot the savages first. Ask questions later. Wipe out entire communities. Cut the crap like you cut the wood. Keep the wood flowing and the shareholder value coming.
Because these simple people who live by spears, parang, sometimes even bow and arrows, can hunt and kill their unarmed workers, men from poor families, providing for their families, more easily than they hunt and kill their pig and deer…
I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that there are other species gone, besides the nutmeg.
And I believe that Ibilihi’s people have the basic, human right to live as they have always lived on land that they have always used. No matter how hard, barbaric, primitive that life may be.
They know about villages. The government builds them for them by the truckload.
But, many of them, just don’t like them. The walls. The confinement. The battering of rain on tin roofs.
That said, the land owner we met back in Ternate, in a $20 air-con guesthouse with plastic flowers gleaming against the white tiled floor and IndoTV in every room, believes in progress. He was running a mining survey.
He thinks it will bring progress. Fishing villages will get richer. More equipment means larger catches. Settling the Togutil will pull them out of poverty and barbarism.
And I honestly believe he is sincere.
The nine year old? Well, he fulminates. He wants to set up a protest group for children.
More immediately, he wants to vandalise the bulldozer.
No way Jose, I say. I am not bribing our way out of here if anything happens, and anyway you’ll blunt the parang.
Instead, he paints FUCK LOGGING in dirty clay on the bulldozer. A pointless protest but safer, I guess, than Ibilihi’s choice.
He’s a good guy, Ibilihi. A man of few words. But he provides. First for his own children, and his first wife, before she died. Now for his second wife, and her child who needs lifelong care.
And as we leave the peninsula, on a big boat we board from a little boat in heavy swell, clambering through an access point that’s sometimes ten feet above our boat, sometimes only three, with Z yelling pirate cries, we cruise past the shore in a twilight so dark it is almost night.
Miles of low forest hug the slim shoreline, low and dark below the mountains. And a single, tiny light shines out golden, like a lighthouse, against the mighty dark. It’s Ibilihi’s kerosene lamp.
I think of him, his wife and her little boy out there in the darkness. And I hope his meeting goes well. I really, really do.