Trekking to Save a Life – Mentawai Culture and Infant Mortality

by Glenn Reeves

skin disease Mentawai indigenous people

Scabies on an African Infant

Canoe on the way down.
Trekking on the way back.
Motorboat all the way down to the coast.
A busy day.
The kid lived.

I entered the hut (sapou) where the baby’s dad cradled him. He was maybe two months old but listless. Eyes slightly open, burning up. The gaping ulcers over several parts of his body said there was major suffering happening here.

The reason I don’t have a photograph of all this is that taking photos is too expensive. The locals will hit you up for Rp. 100,000 in a jiffy. The kind of research I was doing did not need photos anyway. It was about words, texts, discourse. Lucky.

Jeez, I coulda made my fortune by selling my photos to National Geographic. Or so thought my hosts. And they have a point.

The kid has an horrendous scabies infection that has become, duly, infected. The kid squirms, not complaining, just mouthing. Life sucks around here. But you only really appreciate that aspect when you’re not from this part of the world.

For most of the rest of the world who passes through on one of the standard treks, it’s a “paradise, man!”

“Have you got some medicine?”, says his Dad.

“Not for this. He’s gonna die like this. Gotta get him down to the coast, right?” For anything life-threatening around here, you have to go down to Muara Siberut or “Monga” as the locals refer to it.

He looks around. “I gotta lotta work to do today”. His wife looks on.

Like, fuck off. What? “Look, I’m gonna go organize a speedboat.” WE ARE GOING TO TAKE HIM TO MONGA…otherwise he’ll die!

Early lesson. He’s got no money to pay for speedboat fuel or the cost of the Muara Siberut clinic. Of course he’s going to say he’s busy.

So off I rush to the Village Head. Speedboat is down in Rogdog, a several hour trek towards the coast, further down the Rereiket river.

Quickest way to get there is by canoe. Sorted. “Ladies, let’s go.” The women I ask say it’ll cost you Rp. 50,000. “But this is not for me, it’s for saveing a kid for chrissake!”

Rp.50,000. Duly paid. “Move up a bit towards the front, ka edda peiek” she waves at me with her hand. I glower but obey; the canoe is unbalanced. The paddles dip and we glide on a languid current.

“Fuel’ll cost ya…” says the boat driver at Rogdog. “Whatever.” But it’ll be later tomorrow, ok. “Whatever.” Not wanting to spend the night in Rogdog, I trek back along the trail to Madobag, slog through the mud, taking wrong turns, backtracking, working out the right way thinking “I’m gonna get caught in the dark.”

I get back as darkness falls.

The boat’s engine echoes across the valley and telescopes along the river way in advance of arrival just after daybreak. Eventually the family boards and off they go to a happy ending in Monga.

Death is common around here.

No, I mean really common. In developing countries (hardly much developing going on around here though) if you are make it to your 1st birthday you’ve done exceptionally well. If you make it to your 5th, you’ll likely make it to adulthood.

Accepting death without weeping is how you get through (another) bad day. Mentawai culture at work. Culture at work everywhere.

This time it was ok. Most of the other times, not.

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