Father Johannes, keeper of Nias forgotten culture

Sunday, November 7, 2004
By nias

Sunday, Nov. 7, 2004
Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post/North Nias, North Sumatra

Dutch tourist Hank Vermeulen was having difficulty in explaining to a bank teller that he wanted to exchange his euro banknotes for rupiah in Gunungsitoli, North Nias.

In an attempt to get help in interpreting, he greeted a passing Westerner.

“Excuse me, what language do you speak? I need help here,” Vermeulen said.

“Oh, I speak the Nias language,” Father Johannes Hummerle, OFMCap said warmly.

The 63-year-old German does indeed speak Niassan, including the dialects of the north, central and southern areas.

“Basically, the Nias language is the same. But in different areas, they often have different words for the same thing,” he told The Jakarta Post at the small but cozy library of the Nias Heritage Foundation (YPN).

Father Johannes is the authority on Nias culture, its traditional ceremonies and songs, knowing them better than those born and bred on the island.

A resident of Nias since 1971, he has taken the lead in putting its prehistoric traditions and customs down in writing, as well as building up an extensive collection of artifacts. He has written nine books about his second home, most of them in Niassan and one in German.

The first, Famat¡¨ Harimau, written in 1986, tells of a forgotten tradition in some villages in South Nias, in which the villagers threw a wooden tiger effigy into the river to cast away bad luck.

“When I was a priest for a parish in Teluk Dalam, South Nias, I met a villager who was the only one with comprehensive knowledge about the long-gone traditions in the village of Onohondr¡¨,” Johannes said of the man, A.F. Hondro.

It eventually took seven years for them to complete the story of Famat¡¨ Harimau.

“It was because he didn’t remember all the stories behind the tradition in his immediate memory. Sometimes he would wake up suddenly with a revelation of the tradition, and he immediately tried to find me to write it down.”

He even drew a map depicting the ceremonial route from the village to the spot where the effigy was tossed into the river.

Another was a massive 300-page tome, produced on a manual typewriter, on Ho Ho Niassan traditional songs. The book contains about 20 songs.

“Niassans nowadays don’t know about Ho Ho. They cannot sing them, they don’t even know what they are,” Johannes said.

“I wrote down the Ho Ho from a South Niassan villager, who, like Hondro, was also the only villager with comprehensive knowledge on Ho Ho.”

The songs tell of Nias’ rich cultural traditions, including beliefs in spirits and ancestor worship.

One describes a family who cannot lift their father’s dead body. Then the spirit of their father tells them to take his heart, store it inside a bottle and put it in the house, Father Johannes explained.

Unfortunately, much of the knowledge of Nias’ customs, passed down from generation to generation in the oral tradition but suppressed with the wave of Christianization of the island, had been lost with the death of older citizens by the time Father Johannes arrived.

“During my first years in Nias in the 1970s, I saw that most Niassans had forgotten their traditions. The had converted to Christianity, whose priests at that time did not allow them to carry out the traditions.”

Many foreign friends and acquaintances often asked him about the Nias traditions.

“Their questions prompted me to learn more about Nias and document that knowledge,” he said.

One of his most recent books is about the origins of Niassans, Asal Usul Masyarakat Nias, published by the Nias Heritage Foundation in 2001.

It has already become a valued textbook for high school students in Nias; as the Post waited for the interview with Father Johannes, about 10 high school students entered the library, asking the librarian if they could borrow the book for their homework.

“My latest book in 2003 concerns Niassan traditional herbal medicine. I learned about the medicines during a workshop attended by about 25 shamans from Nias.”

In 1999 he wrote a German-language book on Nias’ legends and myths for the Academia Verlag Sankt Augustin.

“I wanted to straighten out some false beliefs about Nias. Nias culture has been the subject of international seminars, where sometimes the wrong premises about Nias were shared with anthropologists, including Indonesians.”

The ridiculous thing was, he added, that Indonesian anthropologists returned home and sometimes spread the false beliefs, which in turn were believed by Niassans ignorant of their own traditions.

But Father Johannes is not merely a human storehouse of information about the island’s culture and traditions. He is also a keeper of its remaining precious treasures, including at least 6,000 items, from megalithic stone carvings, wood carvings, sets of Niassan traditional attire, ancient cooking utensils, weapons, even coffins.

He has contributed all his own personal collection to the Nias Heritage Foundation, which is run by his Catholic Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (OFMCap.)

Unfortunately, although the island’s artifacts are protected by law, he said many had already been lost to lucrative smuggling in ancient objects.

“Every time I went to the villages, there were Niassans who needed money who asked me to buy the ancient items from them,” he said. “Occasionally, if I refused, they said they would sell them to foreigners instead.”

His great worry is that if the artifacts continue to be plundered, and there is no concerted effort by the government to stop it, one day Indonesians will have to go abroad to see them.

“For example, there are about 770 items of Niassan artifacts in an ethnographic museum in Copenhagen,” he said.

“I heard that a Niassan two-meter-high stone statue went up for auction in New York. The opening price (for bidding) was said to be between US$100,000 to S$200,000. What we have here in our museum is priceless. It is too precious to be put in numbers.”

Indeed, his collection, his knowledge and his books are invaluable, although his dedication has received little acknowledgement.

As a Franciscan, dedicated to serving others, he is not seeking praise for his efforts. But he does get them from the people who count the most.

For when you ask Niassans about Father Johannes, they flash a warm smile and give the same answer: “Ah, Father Johannes, of course we know him. He used to live among us here.”

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November 2004