Where mantras trump medicine, vaccines are a 'breach'

KANEKES, Indonesia – When their ancestors warned them, through dreams and an icy wind, to be careful, the community leaders of the Baduy...


KANEKES, Indonesia – When their ancestors warned them, through dreams and an icy wind, to be careful, the community leaders of the Baduy people in Indonesia knew they had to protect their villages from something bad that was coming.

So Jaro Nalim, one of the high rulers of the Baduy hamlet of Cikertawana on the island of Java, began to perform the rites intended to ward off disease, including placing bamboo vessels filled with holy water in the four directions. of the village boundaries so that no disease could enter.

“We held ceremonies, traditional rituals, asking God and our ancestors to protect us from disease,” Nalim said. “We think we are protected.”

Government signs promoting health protocols could be seen around the village: Wash your hands, wear a mask, do not gather in groups. But on a recent visit there were no masks in sight among the villagers, who were aware of the coronavirus but did not appear to be concerned about it.

“We are already protected by mantras,” Jawi, 19, said on the patio outside her house where her toddler was sleeping inside. “The air here is fresh and clean. Why wear a mask and breathe the dirty air of our breath?

As the Indonesian government seeks to control the spread of the coronavirus in a vast archipelago, home to some 275 million people with multiple belief systems, getting people to wear masks is just a challenge. Vaccinations are perhaps an even more important one, especially in indigenous communities like the Baduy.

About 70 million Indonesians are considered indigenous people, often living in remote locations that significantly complicate vaccination efforts, with some villages only accessible after hours-long treks. The government has also struggled to communicate to indigenous groups what vaccines are and why they are important, according to Annas Radin Syarif, head of the emergency response division of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, a advocacy organization in Indonesia.

And some Indigenous groups adhere to deep-rooted traditions that may run counter to modern health policies.

The Baduy generally refuse vaccinations, although some have reluctantly accepted them to travel outside the area.

“For the Baduys, the vaccine is a violation,” Mr Nalim said. “It ruins our purity. Why put chemicals in our body when all the remedies were provided by nature? Our ancestors taught us mantras to heal and prevent disease.

Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin, while conceding it was a “difficult” task, said the government was determined to vaccinate as many people as possible. “Yes, there are traditional beliefs, and for that we need a special approach,” he said in an interview. “We want them to be protected as well.”

The Baduy live in the hinterland of Banten, the westernmost province of Java, where they practice the Sunda Wiwitan, a religion whose followers are monotheistic, but who at the same time revere the power of nature and the spirits of the ancestors.

All Baduy are taught to respect the principle that the natural world should not be harmed. While most make a living as farmers, much of the forest around them is considered sacred and off-limits to plowing.

There are about 13,300 Baduy, living in 68 hamlets on the slope of Mount Kendeng, and they are divided into two groups: the Baduy Luar, who interact with outsiders and use some modern conveniences; and the Baduy Dalam, totally cut off from technology and the outside world.

The approximately 1,200 Baduy Dalam live in three hamlets where electricity, electronics, pesticides (and foreigners) are banned, although their remote villages are only a four-hour drive from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital of 11 million inhabitants.

Also on the long list of taboo items for the Dalam: soap, shoes, pants and nails.

For both Baduy groups, four-legged animals, other than dogs and cats, are prohibited within village boundaries.

The easiest way to distinguish the two groups: Baduy Dalam men wear white turbans while Baduy Luar men wear batik.

Over the past decade, the Baduy Luar have welcomed tourists, who have come for the natural beauty and cultural richness of the region. The Baduy Luar also welcomed some changes.

Women weave with headphones plugged in. The children stare at their mobile phones, which are charged on the small battery in the village office. Store-bought drugs now compete with natural remedies and their mantras.

Nevertheless, the villagers of Baduy Luar still deeply respect their traditions. Children playing could be spotted all around. They are prohibited from attending formal schools.

There is no electricity, television or radio, and the houses are plunged into darkness after sunset. Cooking is done on wood stoves. Families gather for dinner under twinkling kerosene lanterns.

“We still maintain our customs. If we flout our customary laws or break customary law, we are afraid of karma. There will always be punishments,” said Jaro Saija, the chief of Kanekes, as all the hamlets of Baduy are known.

Choosing not to be vaccinated, said Mr. Budi, the Minister of Health, is a human right. “We have to be patient. We should never force them,” he said. “It has to be the right method, with the right communication and the right person,” he added, referring to influencers in indigenous communities who could help persuade people.

Despite their stance on vaccinations, the Baduys, who live in one of the provinces hardest hit by Covid, appear to have managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic.

There were no deaths attributed to Covid in the Baduy region. During the first year and a half of the pandemic, until June 2021, no cases of Covid were reported. The first was recorded in July last year, and there were a total of eight known cases until mid-June, according to Iton Rustandi, a local health official.

Health officials and the Baduys themselves believe it was their lifestyle and distance from congested city life that spared them. Outside visitors are few. The concept of social distancing is embedded in their beliefs, with their airy homes widely spaced and physical contact limited. They don’t shake hands. Many villagers walk to cultivate their fields, which are entirely organic.

“The Baduy protect their immunity by ensuring that their relationships with God, nature and their ancestors are pure,” said Uday Suhada, a sociologist who has long studied the Baduy. “Whether you believe it or not. It may not sound logical, but it is a fact.

As isolated as the Baduy are, part of their economy is tied to the outside world and some villagers travel by train to provincial towns to sell their handicrafts and agricultural products.

The Indonesian government, however, requires all passengers on the train to present a vaccination certificate, and thus some Baduy Luar obtain special dispensation to be vaccinated. As long as it’s done for the greater good of the community, the body that oversees Baduy customs gives people the freedom to choose.

By the end of May, 299 Badui Luar had received a first dose and 66 a second.

The Baduys “are very flexible and considerate,” Mr. Uday said. “Yes, there is a local wisdom, inherited over the centuries, that they defend. But if something is needed, well communicated, and for the greater good, senior leaders will allow it to happen.

Mr. Saija, the village chief, travels to meet with government officials, and he was the first among the members of the Baduy Luar community to receive a vaccine. (With perhaps one unconfirmed exception, no Baduy Dalam have been vaccinated.) He pointed out that at least initially he and others agreed to be vaccinated just so they could move freely.

“The only reason why some residents of Baduy agree to be vaccinated is so that they can travel,” said Mr Saija. “We believe that through our prayers and mantras, we are already protected.”

And, he said, villagers who get vaccinated are forced to perform purification rituals that included prayer and fasting. “It is important for us to do our traditional rituals to regain our purity,” Mr Saija said. “So that our mantras are sharpened again.”

Yet, upon reflection, he conceded that there might be some merit in this blending of modernity with his ancient faith.

“For me, the most important thing is to protect my community and stay healthy,” he said. “Therefore, I do everything: the medical stuff and the mantra stuff.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Where mantras trump medicine, vaccines are a 'breach'
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