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Oral History as Literature: Travelling Knowledge Systems in East Indonesia and New Boundaries of the Possible

  March 23rd 2021

Photo illustration by Husniati Salma on

The religious life of indigenous people is often integrated with all aspects of their lives including health aspects. They have a sophisticated knowledge of health, even beyond Western biomedical definitions and their medical practices are part of their belief and have been for centuries. However, this knowledge is considered to be no longer in line with the times and technology today, so that their knowledge is slowly being displaced by new health technologies therefore the narratives of their knowledge are endangered. This case happened with local healers in Lamaholot region of Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia. Julie Gaynes researched this community and studied healing relationships between human and non-human persons/spirits. Gaynes is a Ph.D. candidate in Culture and Performance at UCLA. Her training in religious studies, creative writing, dance acrobatics, and visual art prompts her to explore co-authored mixed-media storytelling as a means for transitioning local/geographically-situated knowledge systems across time and space. She was a former Shansi Fellow who taught English at CRCS from 2013-2015. This research was presented at the Wednesday Forum held by ICRS and CRCS on 24 February 2021 entitled “Oral History as Literature: Travelling Knowledge Systems in East Indonesia and New Boundaries of the Possible”.

In this research, Gaynes explores how interpersonal relationships between women healers and non-human persons such as leather (ancestral souls) and nitu (nature/guardian beings) in the Lamaholot region of East Indonesia demonstrate sophisticated understandings of health beyond Western biomedical definitions. The Lamaholot region of East Indonesia spans four islands along the coast of Flores in the Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur. Lembata is the largest, and also the most recently autonomous island off the coast of Flores. She conducted a month-long oral history collaboration with a family of local healers and their diverse acquaintances on how local healing practices inform historic identity and psycho-social well-being. In this presentation, Gaynes introduced one of her informants, Mama Maria (Traditional Midwife/Dukun Beranak 76 years old). Mama Maria talked about her experience decades ago. There was a couple, a man and wife who lived in Lerek Village, and they prepared for their first child. Prior to the baby’s birth, the husband began acting strangely. He just sat and cried seemingly without a reason. Unfortunately, the pregnancy ended with the death of the child. The people in the hospital at first tried to revive the baby but the baby did not wake. Mama Maria said  “two days passed, after those two days at five o'clock on the dot when the sun had almost set, I entered the room where the baby was placed. I smacked the child. I said you live so that we can respect God. Then, the baby lived.” In the belief of the Lamaholot people, Mama Maria had withdrawn the child from the world of the ancestors and brought him back to the human world. Now the child is grown, has finished school, and is working. Besides Mama Maria, there are also Mama Bertha (a traditional herbalist and massage therapist), Mama Leny (a clinically trained midwife and “retired” pediatrician), and Ibu Ida (a former clinical midwife, now head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Lembata’s leading hospital) that served as informants for this research.

Gaynes argues that women healers of Lembata today are individuals whose knowledge derives directly from dialogue with ancestors who instruct through dreams. On the clinical end of the health spectrum are female health professionals who work in hospitals. Lembata’s clinical women healers (doctors and nurses), the large majority of them indigenous to the island, share lineage with customary healers and yet adopt technoscientific logic as a result of their training. Some clinical women healers, either consciously or unconsciously, work to dismantle the undisputed authority of respected healers in their villages. Clinical healers are trained to advise patients against the uses of local herbal medicines untested by BPOM (National Agency of Drug and Food Control), and against help from local healers whose efficacies cannot be verified through top-down logics and laboratory testing. Between these two ends of the spectrum are healers who integrate inherited and revelatory knowledge with biomedical logic. Therefore, through this research, Julie strives to demonstrate how women healers of Lembata stand as assemblages and agents of unique knowledge systems cultivated by experience and place. Each case study provides a particular lens on how customary healers of Lembata contend with empirical constraints imposed by Western technoscientific knowledge systems, and how local healing knowledge systems might at least partially be transferred across temporal and spatial boundaries.

However, according to Julie, the inheritance of knowledge is the problem here. The obstacles began in the colonial era. As colonial knowledge spread, indigenous knowledge and local identities disappear. This is also related to the accusation of local belief as a heresy when colonialists also spread their religion. Moreover, there was also no literature to document these narratives. Furthermore, as Indonesia’s Ministry of Health imposes increasingly stringent laws on “wild” or unregulated medicine, local populations increasingly embrace Western, technoscientific models of health and safety. This, alongside the increased influx of affordable technologies (especially smartphones and laptops), causes kinship and identity to also transform. In 2006, the government of Lembata passed a law that prohibited all unlicensed traditional healers from providing ingestible or prescriptive treatment in any capacity. The legal discernment of 2009 between institutionalized health systems and traditional healers shifted public views on epistemologies previously upheld for centuries.  Therefore. Gaynes and her collaborators work together to collect, and later visually depict through creative nonfiction, an archive of personal histories. This collection of micro-histories will serve as a reference for Lamaholot communities who regularly discuss the value of passing down local knowledge to their youth. Another problem was to raise consciousness when people are not reading. Regarding this obstacle, Gaynes uses creative expressions to relay this knowledge (ie, with paintings and comics) so that her stories become livelier and attract readers' attention. Gaynes has become a writer who draws. She draws the results of her research and draws stories from the sources she interviewed. Finally, Gaynes concludes that the longevity of local healing knowledge depends on three strategies. Firstly, how locals maintain practices for remembering past identities. Secondly, how locals adapt to adjacent knowledge systems without being overpowered by contending epistemologies. And, thirdly, how they contribute new or pertinent notions of the possible.