The King of the District: Part 1

21 Oct

[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false] Governor Hain’s people pick us up early. 9.30pm, not 10.

It’s a big, slick, maroon people-carrier, a Toyota, I think, not quite as pristine as his personal vehicle, but it stands out a mile among the motor-rickshaws, scooters and mikrolet on the streets of Tobelo, Halmahera.

They call him the King of North Halmahera, Hain. He’s run the top of the island for the last decade and now he’s heading into his third term. There are two books on him in print: one sixth of the population of the capital, or thereabouts, will turn out for his (long-planned) reelection party.

But we’re not here to talk politics. We’re here, sitting in the back of this big, slick car, trundling through the dark, to meet the Moro, the long-vanished ancestors of all nineteen tribes on Halmahera.

Who are the Moro? Well….

They are the aboriginal inhabitants of the island, the orang asli. No one here will define themselves as orang asli, because the orang asli are the Moro. You can be orang suku – native and traditional. But never orang asli.

The Moro disappeared into the forest several hundred years ago. Nobody knows exactly when. But when Dutch slavetakers or tax collectors came, they ran. Now they live in the forest, but we cannot see them.

Hain’s ability to commune with the Moro, not as ghosts, nebulous forest spirits, invisible people, but as flesh, has been both blessing and curse in his political life.

Now, it is nigh-on impossible to find anyone in the Moluccas who does not believe in the supernatural – whether as bad magic, black magic or good magic. Almost everyone will go and see a wise woman or a man who talks to spirits if things go wrong in their lives: there’s one in every village, and plenty in Ternate.

So for many of the folk of Halmahera, Hain’s ability inspires nothing but awe.

For more conventional, nay, judgemental Christians, they’re a stick to beat him with.

They say he’s animist. A black magician. Because, you see, he can talk to spirits.

Hain? Well, they’re not spirits, he says. They’re real people. Flesh and blood, like us. A privileged few can even shake their hands.

We are, Z and I, tonight to be among those privileged few. It’s fascinating for me, because, since I first heard about the Moro, on Ternate Island, I’ve been trying to understand just what they are.

Are they ghosts? Spirits?

No, no. They’re real. My uncle went into the forest and lived with them for six months. He had a Moro wife… You remember the footprints I showed you in the photo?

I have heard much about the Moro’s footprints. There is one who is so tall that his head is as broad as an umbrella.

It’s a curious thing to work around, for someone from a rationalist background. And I’m not sure this evening will leave me significantly easier.

Z? Well, he’s curious. Sceptical, but curious.

“I will,” he announces solemnly. “Keep a firmly rationalist perspective on this evening.”

“Yes,” I say. “But be respectful. We’re privileged to see this.”

Hain is from the Tobelo tribal culture. His surname means cockcrow, an old name given by the sultan of Ternate, because his ancestors were his soldiers.

He has charisma in spades. Dark, watchful eyes with wide pupils that kind of hold you. He was a civil servant before. Didn’t touch magic, in fact, until he ran for election the first time when, well, either he sought out the Moro, or they sought him.

Hain’s home, his third home, sits opposite the elaborate hexagon of the district office, with its pirate boat atop the gate, one the folk in these parts used for pirating, in darkness. It’s a big old place, expanding as we visit, with broad views across low atolls in the bay.

Between us, we know precisely two words of the Ur tribal language here, words common to all cultures, which date back to the Moro, the invisible progenitors of all cultures on this island.

Jo: a respectful call of assent and welcome.

Tabeya: please excuse us or thank you.

Some of Hain’s people lead us through to the dark balcony.

How many staff here?

I don’t know. A lot.

On the balcony balustrade, where in daylight one can look across the bay and the low islands to Morotai in the distance, there sits a china bowl with areca (betel) nut, alkaline powder and a catkin type plant known as sili in these parts for the heat it gives.

I look. I almost look with my hands.

No, no. Those are for the Moro.

There is a short, bulky woman of late middle-age, her hair dyed, in purple slacks, sitting by the Moro’s food. She has second sight, and powerful magic. From the Tobaru tribe, she will facilitate tonight’s meeting with the Moro.

There is also a guy from Java. Jakarta, in fact. He’s 60ish. Wearing all black, up to his neck. Professorial, even priestly. With a mature, but unlined face. Neat, Chinese-influenced features. A Java nose. White hair, trimmed neatly.

What’s your name?


There was a great queen of that name.

You know the empress? The Byzantine empress?

Only a little.

She did so much. Some people say she’s a saint. And then Procopius…

He nods. He knows Procopius! Not many people, unless they’ve seen her mosaic in Ravenna, know the empress, who rose from exotic dancer to proselytizer of fallen women by way of a well-caught husband.

Even fewer know Procopius, whose scurrilous biography, accusing her of black magic and erotic acts with geese, has lasted almost sixteen centuries by now.

What do you do?

Me? I don’t do anything.

Then there’s our guide, Alex. Another one with magic of his own. Comes from his grandfather. And his grandfather’s sister.

Though, since he became a Pentecostal, he’s put the magic aside. The pastor made him burn the belt that saved his life. Black magic, you see…

We sit on the balcony. I’ve equipped Z with biscuits, fluids and drawing equipment. The woman with magic seems uneasy to see him there.

There are flashlights on the table. He picks up one, shines it under his chin, makes a ghost face in the half darkness.

“Z!” I say, quietly, in English. “Be respectful.”

The torchplay, it turns out, is enough. She goes away, consults the Moro.

The Moro do not want to see him. His attitude is wrong.

I communicate this to Z. He goes off, willingly enough, with a driver-guard, his drawing gear, the biscuits, water and the mobile phone (which has games), into the largest of three buildings, round the back where guards sit smoking, playing chess or shuffling cards.

Do you speak English?


Z! Tell me how to say, “I want my mum,” in Bahasa.

Saya mau mama.

OK. If you get scared, just tell the guy that and he’ll come and get me.

Off he goes.

There is smoking. Much smoking. Only water is drunk.

And the lights go out. We progress, by torchlight, through the half-built new wing to the small room where we will meet…

Well, I’m not quite sure who, or what, we’re meeting. And, treading over the concrete in the blackness, in this half-finished house in this unfamiliar land, with little Z out back with the guards, and me with three guys I do not know, I feel, well, some way outside my comfort zone.

We sit, the three of us, cross-legged, side by side on beautiful hand-woven mats, our backs against cool concrete in pitch blackness. No smoking. Only Hain can smoke, dipping his clove cigarette into a little pot of dusty incense.

The clove cigarette hisses, fizzes and burns in the incense, bright and glowing in the darkness. Our only light source. It’s hypnotic, this silent waiting, cross-legged on a rattan mat with my back against a concrete wall, time marked by the long inhalations and the glowing kretek tip.

Then come the footsteps. The thump of bare feet on stone. Coughing. Heavy breathing, like that of someone very, very old.

A subtle, but distinguishable breeze. The Moro we are to meet is here.

There’s something mildly psychoactive in the incense. Probably only nutmeg, I figure.

But it worries me. I did every drug under the sun and then some in my teens and twenties. Quite possibly for that reason, they are now extremely bad for my head.

And of all the places in which to lose the plot, a three-foreign-language meeting with ancestral spirits in total darkness while solely responsible for the care of my young son is close to the worst I can imagine.

There is the crunch, crunch, crunch of betel chewing…

And the Moro speaks…

Like this? Why not Try…

This was posted remotely. We’re currently on the island of Lelei, back Saturday or Sunday (boats permitting).

One Response to “The King of the District: Part 1”

  1. mish October 22, 2010 at 2:35 am #

    I’m out of my comfort zone too.Please post Part 2 as soon as possible M x

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