A journey through SumbaA journey through Sumba


December 8, 2017

7 min read
Words: Rohan Maclaren, Jennifer Lane

Australian Rohan Maclaren is an ex-representative of the Rwandan government, a model (he features in our spring/summer 2018 shoot), and the founder of a charity project.

Through his many adventures, he’s learned about life, about the beauty and diversity of humanity, and about how we can work together for the common good. Here’s his story of how a solo bike ride through Indonesia ended up not only enriching his own life, but also the lives of many others.

The beginning of the road

My journey started as a bicycle ride but like most adventures it took many unexpected turns. Before it began, I was working for the Rwandan Government, having put my modelling career on hold when I finished university. But after three years of 12 hour days and high stress, I asked myself if this was the life that was destined for me. This question set me off on a twisting and turning journey to find out what it was I wanted.

I bought a bike and began following my nose across the Indonesian island, Archipelago. Along the way, I heard talk of the island of Sumba, a unique place where an ancient warrior culture still thrives, where “old-world” animist practices mix with Christianity. It sounded like it existed in a time warp. I was intrigued!

After a full day of mountain climbing, I arrived at the bustling port of Sape to catch an overnight ferry to Sumba, a route never travelled by tourists. The ferry was reaching bursting point – due to the high seas, it was the first crossing in a week – but I boarded, stepping over live chickens and bags of rice, to the bemusement of smiling onlookers.

I was beckoned to a sleeping platform by some locals, including a police officer and a school teacher. With only my Indonesian phrasebook, and an intense desire to connect, conversations were slow going but enjoyable. Relying heavily on non-verbal communication, we spoke of our lives, joked around, became friends. When we reached Sumba, I promised to visit my new friends in Waikebubak.

fishing with a villager
  1. Spear fishing with a villager.

"Through discovery, exploration and telling stories we can change the lives of thousands of people, but if issues remain in the dark nothing will ever change."

buffalo sacrifice ritual
  1. The buffalo sacrifice ritual.

The other-worldness of Koki village

Arriving at Koki village at dusk, I was in awe of the traditional three-tier architecture of the Sumbanese huts. The tall roofs store the harvest, below is the living space, and the livestock live underneath. I was led to one of the bamboo huts and shown the bed I’d sleep in for the night, alongside another villager – a recently departed family member in his veiled coffin! It didn’t phase me; I was just grateful for the hospitality.

The next morning, I woke to the rumble of drums, and yelling and shrieking. Emerging from the hut, I saw the village with fresh eyes in the light of day. It was like being in another world! People dancing and drinking, men brandishing swords – thrusting them into the air with ferocity – a traditional pre-battle show of force. It might have been intimidating if it wasn’t for the beaming smiles of everyone who greeted me. I felt so welcome.

Encircled by the huts, tombs are a central part of the village. The dead are special to the Sumbanese, to who they are and their lives – their spirits are said to bring greater prosperity for the future. ‘Sad’ is not how I’d describe the atmosphere, because while there was mourning, there was a celebration, an appreciation and an honouring of an important community member. It’s such a contrast to how the western world treats death, at arm’s length – out of sight, out of mind.

Buffalo and pigs were led by rope between the tombs, taking what would be their last steps. It’s believed that the buffalo carries the soul of the departed to the afterlife. I watched on as they were sacrificed by sword to the excited cheers of the villagers, rivers of crimson blood turning the earth to mud. It was a brutal and bloody scene. My hands shook with the enormity of the rawness of what I was seeing. I was offered a sword to sacrifice one of the buffalo – a high honour, but I declined. It’s their culture and beliefs – not mine. I can’t justify taking a life like that.

When the last buffalo took its final breath, a strange scene unfolded. Call it a sign, an omen or a coincidence, but the heavens opened up and the crowds of villagers scattered, retreating to their huts. Was this an acceptance of the sacrifice?

That night, as the men sat among the tombs, butchering the carcasses, I noticed how beautiful the sky was. I tried to explain to the local children how lucky they were to have such a night sky, but since perfection is all they knew, the comment was lost.

This made me think: How do we even begin to consider and solve the world’s problems if we only have one perspective on life? People by nature want to help others, they just need to be shown how. Through discovery, exploration and telling stories we can change the lives of thousands of people, but if issues remain in the dark nothing will ever change.

On my departure a couple of weeks later, I was presented with a traditional sword, a beautiful gift boys receive when they become men. I strapped it to my back, and set off on my bike, feeling like a warrior from one of the fantasy novels I read as a child.

"Once you know there’s a problem and you know there’s a solution, how can you put your head back in the sand and deny the needs of others?"

Police escort
  1. Police escort in Waikebubak.
Traditional village
  1. Traditional village daytime.

A wake-up call at Waikebubak

“Rohan, I’m happy to see you. The school is expecting you!” the police offer greeted me. By this time I’d crossed the island to Waikebubak and tracked down the police officer I’d met on the ferry.

We drove by police car to visit the local school so I could observe a lesson taught by my other friend from the ferry. It was a life-changing experience. The quality of education was so poor that the children’s tests had incorrect questions and answers. The children didn’t even get the chance to respond to questions before the teacher stepped in – they were passive learners.

I sat down with the principal afterwards and asked him what he thought were the biggest difficulties for the school. I learned that the school desperately needed computers so they could link with other schools and improve the quality of their tests. Computers were essential for giving the children a more interactive and modern education.

I said I couldn’t promise anything, but I would try. How could I not? Once you know there’s a problem and you know there’s a solution, how can you put your head back in the sand and deny the needs of others? I knew that having computers and a structured education program could change the outcomes of the lives of those young kids. I had to make it happen.

fishing with the police
  1. Spear fishing with the police.
village life
  1. Village life.

Connecting children with the future

I returned to Australia, where perfectly good computers are thrown away, and spread the word about what I’d witnessed. You’d be surprised how willing people are to help when they hear the story of a journey and about a desire to change the lives of others. I eventually returned to Waikebubak to fulfil my promise and provide the village school with computers.

The computer project has since grown into something exciting, expanding into multiple countries – but I’ll leave that story for next time. I’ll write again explaining how I did everything and how you can do these things too!

Follow this project and more of my adventures on: