After dinner in Sulawesi, chatting with a man who speaks with Moses
BOGANI NANI WARTABONE NATIONAL PARK, Sulawesi
Over the grilled fish I asked about spirits.
We were eating lunch in a simple warung outside Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park in north Sulawesi. I sensed that my companions had tales to tell.
Endie’s father was a senior official in the Indonesian customs service. Suddenly he fell ill, and for three years he passed blood in his urine. The eerie thing was that this only happened when he was in Indonesia. When he went for treatment in Singapore, Taiwan and Belgium his urine was normal, but once he returned to Indonesia the blood returned. The doctors were baffled. One day, when it was clear he was dying, her father’s assistant came to the house and announced: “My mother, who is a dukun [shaman or medium] told me to come.”
The younger man confessed that he wanted Endie’s father’s job, and to get it had put a spell on the older man, the materials for which included the boss’s picture, a small kris, some rice husks, palm fibers, needles and a shroud. By way of explaining his strange admission he added: “My mother says I must confess that I put a spell on you in order to cleanse my soul.”
The young man came from Aceh, a land in north Sumatra some three times zones to the west, a region with a reputation for strong magic, which made it easier for the family to understand his behaviour.
Endie and her siblings asked her father whether they should take revenge. “No,” he answered. “God will decide his fate.” Her father died three days later. The murderer, if such he may be called, got the coveted job, but was arrested four months later for corruption.
I asked Endie what she made of all this. “I used to not believe in this mumbo-jumbo,” she said. “I do now.”
She asked me what I made of it. “If I believed that the man actually did put a spell on my father, then I would have taken revenge. That’s the western approach. An eye for an eye and all that.”
Endie shook her head. “No. Let it be. The account will even out by itself.”
* * * * *
Alfred Russel Wallace was deeply interested in things that go bump in the night. No doubt he heard strange stories almost daily, like this tale from The Malay Archipelago, Wallace’s classic book written about his eight-years in Southeast Asia.
I was rather surprised one evening to hear the following curious fact stated; I am inclined to accept it provisionally…. A Bornean Malay who had been for many years resident here said to Manuel [an assistant], “One thing is strange in this country [Lombok] — the scarcity of ghosts.” “How so?” asked Manuel. “Why, you know,” said the Malay, “that in our countries to the westward, if a man dies, we dare not pass near the place at night, for all sorts of noises are heard, which show that ghosts are about. But here there are numbers of men killed, and their bodies lie unburied in the fields …, and yet you can walk by them at night and never hear or see any thing at all, which is not the case in our country”….And so it was settled that ghosts were very scarce, if not altogether unkown in Lombock [sic]. I would observe, however, that as the evidence is purely negative, we should be wanting in scientific caution if we accepted this fact as sufficiently well established.
Curiously, this single passage is the only mention of the spirit world in The Malay Archipelago. Odd, because Wallace was traveling in a land inhabited by people who acknowledged that they co-habited with spirits, and enhanced by the fact that Wallace himself was intrigued by psychic phenomena.
Wallace learned mesmerism (hypnotism) in 1844, ten years before leaving for Asia, and defensively said of his controversial talent:
My first great lesson in the inquiry into these obscure fields of knowledge, [was] never to accept the disbelief of great men … as of any weight when opposed to the repeated observation of facts by other men admittedly sane and honest.
In later life Alfred Russel Wallace was not at all shy about experimenting with, and writing about, spiritualism, seances and other practices that risked his scientific credibility.
Perhaps this interest in the occult blossomed while Wallace was in Southeast Asia, and that the challenge of trying to figure out what wasn’t-meant-to-be-figured-out-using-Cartesian-logic was actually one of the reasons he stayed in Asia as long as he did.
I regularly came across stories that challenged my Western-belief system, my understanding of how the world was structured.
Travelling through Java I frequently heard stories about how some Javanese believe that a wavy-bladed kris can be endowed with magic. Such a dagger can fly on the volition of its owner, can take an enemy’s life with no human hand guiding it, and can so intimately represent its owner that there are tales of men who got married by sending their krises to stand in for them while the men were occupied with more substantial matters than betrothal. I heard tales of men trading the soul of a child for the ability to turn into a were-pig, and with it the ability to steal from neighbors. I heard stories of the elusive and reclusive Badui in West Java teleporting themselves from their jungle redoubt to the capital. Every day, it seemed, I heard stories that were told with a wink and a shrug but also with a touch of “I don’t want to mess too much with this stuff because what if it’s actually true?”
Wallace refused to mention the dark arts in The Malay Archipelago. Perhaps he felt that to disuss the occult world of djins and dukuns, pawangs and prophets, would have somehow lessened the value of book, and turned it from a scholarly travelogue into a lesser work?
Once Wallace returned to England, however, his interest in the spiritual world blossomed. In 1865, just three years after returning from Asia, he publicly adopted “spiritualism”, a catch-all phrase that for Wallace included phrenology, the occult, mesmerism, table-thumping and communication with the dead. This was a brave move for a man who was intent on proving his credentials as a serious scientist. A year later Wallace wrote The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural, and in 1875 published On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism. Charles H. Smith, a history professor at Western Kentucky University, who maintains the most complete website devoted to Wallace’s writings and life, notes, with an even-tone, that “Wallace’s association with spiritualism has generally been regarded as his greatest intellectual inconsistency.”
Actually, lots of people thought Wallace was a little nuts and was jeopardizing his hard fought scientific position with this interest in ghosts.
Nevertheless Carl Jung noted that Wallace’s interest in mesmerism, phrenology, seance, and spirit manifestations merited praise for “having thrown the whole of [Wallace's] authority on to the side of non-material facts, regardless of…the cheap derision of [his] contemporaries; even at a time when the intellect of the educated classes was spellbound by the new dogma of materialism, [Wallace] drew public attention to phenomena of an irrational nature, contrary to accepted convictions.”
Harry Clements, a Wallace biographer, said: “Unlike Darwin, who had no stomach for such social, political and economic polemics, Wallace revelled in them and lost no opportunity in making known his own views, no matter what the risk to his own professional and scientific status.”
This interest in the occult was more than a parlour game, although Wallace certainly went to his share of séances, incuding one where a photograph was taken with him and the ghost of his deceased mother. He saw spiritualism not as a curious phenomenon, but as part of a progression, a form of psychic evolution.
The universal teaching of modern spiritualism is that the world and the whole material universe exist for the purpose of developing spiritual beings — that death is simply a transition from material existence to the first grade of spirit-life — and that our happiness and the degree of our progress will be wholly dependent upon the use we have made of our faculties and opportunities here.
* * * * *
One finds magic throughout Indonesia, indeed throughout Asia, but Sulawesi, shaped like a malnourished orchid and the world’s 11th largest island, has a particularly powerful reputation as a place where strange things happen.
The Protestant part of north Sulawesi, called Minahasa, is famed for its spicy and curious dining options - spicy dog, blazing bat, char-broiled wild animals of all description can be found in the smaller village restaurants of the region. However we were in the southern, predominantly Muslim region of north Sulawesi where the diet is more generically-Indonesian. We ate curried chicken with our fingers and traded ghost stories.
We talked about how Manado is famed for black magic, and someone joked that Yuli, one of the women in our group, a woman who knows how to make herself attractive to men, resorted to black magic to snare her current husband, a much older senior government official who happened to also be present at the table. The understanding was that trophy-wife Yuli snagged her husband by putting a powerful spell on her paramour. Such “love-magic” is commonly used, or at least commonly accepted as real, by many Indonesians throughout the archipelago. There was some nervous laughter, but Yuli and her husband took it well and didn’t deny it.
We turned to Yan Mokoginta, a member of Parliament, and he told us a startling story that no one questioned. Yan’s daughter is a physician. She had a patient who complained of chest pains and coughs. An X-ray showed that the patient’s lungs were filled with needles, a common mystical condition that is often cited when people trade stories about voodoo-like spells. Yan’s daughter told the man that there was nothing she and her western-medicine could do for him and suggested he see a dukun, a shaman. The man with needles in his lungs went for a dukun-treatment and returned a few weeks later, feeling just fine. The second X-ray showed nothing in his lungs. The needles had disappeared.
When I heard this I shuddered, as Wallace probably did when he wrote: “I have heard of strange phenomena but many accounts [seem] too wild and outre to be anything but the ravings of madmen.”
As we got into the cars Yan Mokoginta took me aside. “Come to my family’s house. There is someone you should meet.”
* * * * *
Of particular interest to me in north Sulawesi was Wallace’s thinking on the possibility that the soul lives after death. “Man is a duality,” he wrote, “consisting of an organised spiritual form, evolved coincidently and permeating the physical body….Death is the separation of this duality, and effects no change in the spirit.” And he added, “Spirits can communicate through properly-endowed mediums.”
Yan Mokoginta invited me for dinner at his brother’s house. The family has large landholdings in this part of northern Sulawesi, but the house was simple, Indonesian middle class. Stone floor, whitewashed walls. Plastic flowers. Brown upholstered furniture. Straight curtains over the doorways — red and grey leaf pattern. Two paintings hang on a far wall, fish and reindeer, in dull colors.
We are four — Yan, a family friend named Sukardi, and Yan’s brother, Usman Mokoginta, who has a long face like a seal’s, with slicked back hair. Casually, almost off-handedly, Usman tells me he sees two other men in the room. I see nothing, but Usman assures me that he sees two other visitors — a big man with a long white beard and long white hair, who wears a white wool cap, jacket and tie; and a second man, also tall, wearing a black jacket and tie, bald. Usman asks if this second man could be my father, who died years ago. “No,” I answer. “My father was short and had all his hair.”
“Then he must be a jaga,” he decides. Guardian. Bodyguard.
What more natural than that [the spirits] should wish, whenever possible, to give some message to their friends, if only to assure them that death is not the end, that they still live, and are not unhappy. Many facts seem to show us that the beautiful idea of guardian spirits is not a mere dream, but a frequent, perhaps universal reality.
I have been to see numerous fortune tellers, mystics, prophets and holy men. Usually I feel neutral in their presence. I am curious but not a believer. I wait to hear what they have to say. I am cynical; I am strong. Like the song, I am a rock.
Although Usman gave me a wrong guess about my father’s physical stature, tonight I find myself apprehensive. My posture is twisted. I try to center myself. My body remains off balance. I taste my lunch.
I am sitting with my back to the doorway. I sense someone at the entrance and I turn around just in time to see a man poke his head in the front door, then withdraw it. In that instant I felt frightened, partly because of his unusual entrance and immediate exit, but more because of what I saw. The man, whose name I learn later is Mansur, has a generous moustache, wavy black hair and a mischievous smile. After a moment he enters the room and we shake hands. He reminds me of a man I have never met. He resembles my Pavarotti-resembling grandfather, whom I know only from a single photo.
“Makan dulu,” Yan says. Let’s eat first. We enjoy a robust, dog-free meal and then retreat into a smaller room, a bedroom. Through the thin walls we hear the soundtrack of the TV in the next room — an international tennis match is being played in distant Jakarta, several thousand kilometers away; Carl Uwe Steeb is beating Michael Chang.
The room is hot and crowded. We sit on the floor. My back hurts and I lean against a bed post.
Mansur — the man who reminds me of my never-met grandfather — sits cross-legged. He bends forward, puts his right hand to his forehead, then thrusts out his hand. At that moment Sukardi, who is the medium, suddenly shivers, pounds his chest, hits his forehead with a fist, shakes the fist and makes an abrupt rowing motion. He hunches his shoulders and his posture resembles that of a bear. His hands shake. He points to a spot next to me. “Your father. He’s there. Small body.” I look at Sukardi’s eyes. Previously normal, his eyes now protrude like those of an ornamental goldfish, inbred for generations to create grotesque bubble-like eyes.
“Your father is very clever, likes to write,” Yan says, trying to translate. But Yan has trouble following, since Sukardi speaks partly in an archaic form of Bahasa Mongondow, the local dialect.
Sukardi hunches again and lurches, a stylized movement that reminds me of Javanese wayang wong, where men dance like wooden puppets. He reaches to shake each of our hands.
“You’ve made contact with your father three times,” he says. This is true if you count that I had visited three other mediums who claim to have made contact with him.
I ask if my father is all right.
Sukardi speaks with a gruff, theatrical voice. Mixed in with the words are many guttural, animal-like sounds. “He’s a writer, like you.”
No, I think. You’re wrong. He’s not a writer like me. He’s a dreamer, like me.
I ask about a man called David, without explaining that he is my son.
“He is smart. Do whatever you feel is right. Your father will help.”
“What will happen to my son?”
“He will be like you.”
I am not sure this is a good thing.
Sukardi has been giving me vague answers and I am full yet unsatisfied, the Chinese dinner syndrome in a spiritual context — I have eaten well but I am still hungry.
I reflect on the strange circumstances that brought me here. I had met Yan Mokoginta in Jakarta more than a year earlier, through Russ Betts, head of WWF in Indonesia. I was interested in Yan’s work in developing the Wallace University in the Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park. Since then we had lost contact. Then, in an example of traveller’s serendipity, I ran into Yan at the Ujung Pandang airport in south Sulawesi.
The circumstances were curious, as if a benign cosmic intelligence was at work. I had planned to fly on a Sunday from Denpasar to Manado, and then go by road down to Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park. My flight had to transit in Ujung Pandang. A friend convinced me to leave on the Monday instead. Turns out that Yan was on a Monday flight from Jakarta to Ujung Pandang which connected to my flight. His destination? Manado and then Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park. He was travelling with Gunawan Satari, the number two man in the Ministry of Research and Technology, and officials of the Indonesian Red Cross, the British Council and the Wallacea Development Institute. They were preparing a workshop on biodiversity in the Wallace region. They invited me to join them for the recce and to come back for the workshop several weeks later. Coincidence? Destiny?
“Your son is in Java,” Sukardi says, taking a guess.
Not really. He is in Bogor, 45 minutes away. Close enough.
“You’ve never met him.”
I sit stunned. This man has no way of knowing that. He has no business in knowing that. I stare at the man with Marty Feldman-like bulbous eyes, legs folded, shoulders hunched like a Neanderthal, speaking an ancient language. He’s been giving me softball answers and then comes out and tells me I’ve never seen my son. It’s almost true; I haven’t seen him since he was a baby and now he’s 15. I had planned to visit him a few weeks later. The medium grunts. My spine feels like a pretzel.
“What about jodoh?” What is my fate?
“You have two destinies. Romance and work. You have success in both, but need great patience.”
Predictable softball answers. “My mother?”
“Sick.” He makes asthma sounds, massages his leg.
I explain she’s dead.
Sukardi extends his hand, and, acting as medium, conveys my parents’ love to me.
Most of the medium’s comments have been vague, generic, inconclusive and unconvincing. But he was right about my not having seen my son, and Mansur uncannily resembles my grandfather. Logically, there is nothing to this, but I am strangely, uncomfortably distraught. Sukardi and I are both shaking. “Your parents protect you.”
Sukardi closes his eyes and shudders. His body relaxes and he “awakes”. He does not remember the previous half hour and asks what happened.
This was the first two-person séance I had attended, with Mansur doing the channeling and Sukardi speaking. Later I ask Mansur how he got his gift. He explains he has only had it for two years, since he was 40. He had had a dream in which he was fighting against many people when the force came to him and he was able to vanquish his enemies. Now, whenever he is in trouble he listens to a voice which tells him what to do. I am reminded of Wallace’s comment:
If there be a spiritual world, if those whose existence on earth has come to an end still live….What more natural than that they should wish…to give some message to their friends, if only to assure them that death is not the end, that they still live, and are not unhappy. Many facts seem to show us that the beautiful idea of guardian spirits is not a mere dream, but a frequent, perhaps universal reality.
Before we leave, Yan Mokoginta, the politician and land-holder disappears with his brother into another room. I assume they are talking about family matters. Back in the car, however, Yan tells me what his brother said.
“Remember the man my brother saw protecting you at the beginning of the evening? The big man in white?”
“That was Moses. Moses protects you.”
I don’t know what to make of that. I don’t want to hurt Yan’s feelings, but I also have trouble taking this too seriously. Again, someone (or something) gives me the wisdom to shut up.
“My brother also saw Moses protecting me,” Yan says. “We both have a task. You are Jewish. I am Muslim.”
“And what is the task?” I ask.
“Peace in the Middle East.”
“Yan, I can’t get away. I have a book to write,” I protest, trying to lighten the mood.
“Not now. You don’t have to go now. The time will come,” Yan says. “But that was Moses.”