From Single to Couple and Somewhere In Between

Barnabus is a cosmopolitan lad, having lived for most of his life in Muara Siberut, although he was born in Madobag and his immediate family is to be found there. He lived as an adoptee of various families in both the Muslim and Christian areas of the coastal town, which is quite a common circumstance. The Minangkabau residents of Muara often adopt children just prior to adolescence, one reason being that they see themselves as a conduit of change.

These children give those amongst them who are concerned, the opportunity to instill what they view as “progressive” values, the key to advancement by the “backward” locals being seen as a change in their “thinking”. The opportunity to expand the umat [the Muslim religious community] is also a motivating factor. Barnabus lived with Muslim families as well as Christian families, the latter being the offspring of immigrant Christians, from Nias, the Batak region or Java, who have intermarried with indigenous Christians. After he graduated from primary school in Muara, where he gained a good grasp of the national language (Bahasa Indonesia), he returned to Madobag for a year or so. He then went to Sipora where he remained until his return a few years later, just after I took up residence in the settlement.

Josephine is a daughter of one of the petty officials attached to the Desa administration, which overseas several settlements. Her father, Julianus, had not only graduated from primary school, but had also received a secondary education on the mainland. This made a job for him in the lower levels of the state administrative apparatus virtually assured. He had also, accordingly, taken steps to see that at least one of his children go down the same road. Hence Josephine had spent most of her younger years in the care of foster parents in Muara Siberut, although she completed her education in the administrative center for north Siberut, Muara Sikabaluan, in the school attached to the missionary complex there. Having completed her education, she had also recently returned to the settlement dwelling in her father’s hut.

The young people of the village like to associate after dark around the one “shop” owned and run by a local person. Liaisons are embarked upon and just as quickly abandoned as the shifting complex of relationships changes from day to day, week to week. Word soon got around that Barnabus and Josephine were an “item” shall we say. And once a relationship received that level of public acknowledgment, then it was sure that the more formal processes of inter-group politics would begin to swing into operation alongside of an audible increase in the level of hubbub, of public commentary and analysis.

Robertus was one of those contributing to public “analysis”. He belonged to an uma “faction” closely allied with Barnabus’s, which had split from the larger group some years before. Although technically separate suku, the two groups nonetheless often acted in concert. Robertus had a bit of a moral axe to grind, legacy of a strong commitment to values resulting from his close association with the Pastoran (missionary complex) at Muara Siberut. His observations of the unfolding affair revolved around concerns that the couple were possibly being too hasty. “Having a family is a big responsibility”, he observed sagely sounding, paradoxically, as if he would support the idea of defacto marriage (which was an institution, known as “rusuk”, on the Pagai islands to the south in colonial times).

“People should not embark upon this course of action lightly. It’s no good to fall in love, get married quickly and have it end in divorce or other problems. Barnabus and Josephine may present themselves as neat and clean. But who knows what they are really like. These things have to be established beforehand. You have to make sure, for example, that a woman can look after her younger brothers and sisters. If she can’t do this, then how can she be expected to look after her own children”. “True”, I nodded, “true,” whilst speculating on what he was really getting at here.

Josephine’s father was one who was very keen to see the match go ahead. To his way of thinking a cosmopolitan lad belongs with a cosmopolitan girl. And then there was the issue of the bridewealth, of course. Josephine was a good catch; and the catcher whoever he was would have to pay, which meant a substantial amount of pigs, sagu trees, coconut trees, durian trees, large cooking pots (rarely used for cooking and hung on the walls of an uma for display purposes), as well as material for mosquito “nets” (actually mosquito cloths) to name the major items. Happy days for Julianus’s suku. Not so for Barnabus and his father, who were right on the spot, faced as they were with the major task of obtaining these massive amounts of bridewealth. However the burden for them was eased since they could count on the help of the extended family and could also try calling in long outstanding debts with various individuals.

Barnabus would much prefer that the wedding take place in a Church, particularly the Church at Muara Siberut, with the ceremony preferably carried out by the Pastor himself. The other option was to have it in the local Church, although this was less desirable since it was less “pure”. Whatever the outcome there, the bridewealth negotiations and associated proceedings (pangurei) were unavoidable. If the truth be known, all of this was happening a little too fast for Barnabus who claimed to be planning a trip to Padang on the mainland for a training course or to generally investigate what other options might be available! If he had the money (hint hint) for the boat journey down to Muara he would most likely head down there to have the wedding. “How about paddling down in an abag[canoe]”, I countered. “I don’t really feel up to that”, was the reply. Touché! Barnabus’s mind was also turning to the post-wedding realities that he faced which included the purchasing of utensils for the hut that was just being put together with help from his extended family. He was also worried about having to buy clothes for his wife, wondering how on earth he was going to manage it. However events were now largely unstoppable, with preliminary discussions as to the amount of bridewealth just concluded, preliminary agreement as to the respective amounts of each item having been reached.

So things were going fairly well up until the day when both sides met to thrash out exactly how many pigs and other items would be demanded of Barnabus’ group, the wife-takers. The wife-givers did not muck around. They immediately demanded twice as many pigs than had been agreed to, as well as a massive increase in their demands for the cloth utilised in the absence of mosquito nets. Barnabus just about lost his temper, although he managed to contain himself. When the other group headed back to their corner of the settlement the pressure was put on various family members to come up with the pigs, which was not so hard, but also the extra cloth which potentially posed big problems.

Barnabus’ elder brother’s wife had recently acquired large amounts of such cloth, a fact she attempted to keep concealed from the rest of the group. The brother, Amanroigetkunen, spent a lot of time over at his wife’s father’s uma, too much time in the opinion of most of those in his group. A critically primed atmosphere led to the absent Amanroigetkunen having the hard word put on him. Despite bitter recriminations from his wife and the passive but palpable disapproval of her natal family, he got her to surrender a good deal of the cloth on the proviso that Barnabus and his wife-to-be do the right thing by her in the not too distant future! All in all, the entire group had been comprehensively cleaned out of most of the few items of value they possessed. Still, the union went ahead to the satisfaction of more or less everyone involved.

The case of Barnabus and Josephine was one way to go about the important transition from single to couple. But having arrived at the couple stage a couple then had to face the realities of the continual negotiation of that status.

Situppai often went out into the hills to seek Simoitek (a raw material used to make incense abroad), leaving his wife Marta in the settlement with their several children. His eldest daughter one day reported that her mother had been sleeping with an unmarried member of another group who spend most of their time outside the settlement, Mateus.

When confronted with the accusation she at first denied it. However as soon as people became of aware of what might have been going on (I refer the reader to comments on the nature of public discourse in Sigobai and Akbar Get Out and About), she was forced to admit it, whereupon she was on the receiving end of a beating from her husband. They also wanted to cut her hair as a marker of an unfaithful wife. However Situppai’s sister stepped in and urged that this not be done since she surely had been punished enough. Then Mateus was confronted denying any part in it as a matter of form, until Marta was brought along to one meeting as a witness. The game was up. He was required to hand over pigs, rights to sagu trees and durian trees in compensation for, at the very least, assuming rights that he had not formally been granted access to.

Situppai often grumbled about what had happened in the weeks subsequent to the event saying that he ought to divorce Marta. But nothing ever came of it. A similar misfortune had befallen one of the administration’s officials who had gone over to Padang to attend a course on agriculture. This particular fellow, quite matter-of-factly, related that after his wife had confessed all to him he had pursued her with a machete. Others in the settlement reported that she cleared out down to Taileleu; and it took a fair effort on quite a few people’s part to get her to return. Anyhow all was forgiven, eventually.

And then there were the cases when it all fell apart, or rather came together elsewhere without having first been appropriately dismantled previously, as with Sigugungan a chap originally from a settlement over on Siberut’s west coast. Sigugungan was in his late 20s and had appeared in one of the settlements not far from Madobag around a year earlier. To the surprise of more than a few, one day his wife came looking for him, staying with some distant relatives in Madobag, people who had lived for some time at Puro on the east coast, but had also recently returned to their natal area. It caused surprise since these people were also the family of Sigugungan’s second wife with whom he was living and whom was also several months into a pregnancy. Other issues began to coalesce and assume the outlines of a major scandal, issues which would otherwise not have been of great concern to anyone at all. These included the facts that no (puliaijat/pangureijat) ceremonies had taken place, and that there was also no record of this marriage lodged with village authorities, a circumstance of which one official sternly reminded those who attended the meeting convened in order to sort things out.
The meeting was held at the office where the Desa (an administrative unit encompassing several settlements) head would work when in the area, and was attended by most of those people who happened to be in the settlement on that day, as well as the relevant relatives. The story with the largely unremarkable Sigugungan, up until this day anyway, was that he had divorced his wife, a circumstance now declared to be a fiction (I again refer the reader to comments on the nature of public discourse in Sigobai and Akbar Get Out and About). The position of Sigugungan’s first wife was simply that she did not want a divorce and would actually be content to live with the second wife in the one house, a feeling reciprocated by the second wife. However this was now a community issue and Sigugungan was not about to get away with it that easily.

The main concern of the men—and this was largely a men’s meeting since although as many women as men were present it was the men who did most of the talking—was that of “compensation” (tulou), Sigugungan’s primary sin, similar to Mateus, having been to have entered into this relationship without firstly compensating his new wife’s natal group. The tulou was formidable. It was demanded of Sigugungan that he hand over two large pigs, one large cooking vat, several durian trees, and enough material for several mosquito nets/cloths. Sigugungan said that he could not pay them now and how about they give him a week! He told them he had yet to collect Rp.45 000 from the Niasian shopkeeper who whom he had sold a quantity of Simoitek.

Around this time Singarap turned up demanding to know who this person was, where was he from, what was his suku, and just what the hell was going on! Having been filled in he proceeded to give advice, whereupon Amanmengmengkunen also arrived to contribute to the discussion. The end result was an increase in the amount of goods that the hapless Sigugungan would have to produce to appease the growing crowd. Almost in tears he said there was no way he could come up with what they demanded, although he was off to the hills in the next day or so to look for more Simoitek. No quarter was yet given: the demand in lieu of goods was Rp. 750 000, a fortune in anyone’s terms.

The day wore on, people came and went, contributed, lost interest, which subsequently led to an significant lessening in demands. In the end Sigugungan was required to part with a significantly reduced parcel of goods whenever he could come up with them. All things considered this was a reasonably good outcome for him. I was later privy to a discussion between the Niasian shopkeeper and Sigugungan that evening: “You know, there is no way I would have paid any of that stuff. If they had kept the pressure on I would have skipped town”, something of which he had had much more experience than most.

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