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A Woman is sewing in a village in Ende (Photo: Kitadankota.wordpress.com)

Women and Poverty in Ende

OurIndonesia – This is about the meaning of poor in Ende, East Nusa Tenggara. Marlin Bato, an activist working to preserve Lio-Ende culture, defines that the land in Ende is what binds the three local ethnic groups, Lio and Ende and Nga’o, together. The land serves as the centre of their movements, a centre which, with most of the men having gone elsewhere to seek their fortunes, lies with the women.

The Lio-Ende are dry-field farmers. Along the north and south coasts, people work in fishing, or a combination of fishing and farming. The Lio-Ende community recognises social and class distinctions. In the traditional structure of Ende society, men are the centre of power. The informal leaders are called mosalaki.

They are generally eldest sons who inherit the traditional land, live on it, and control the Sa’opu’u or the main traditional house. At the lower layer of this social structure are the common people, known as ana (h)kalo faiwal, or literally ‘widows and orphans’. This category includes not only women and widows but also men and boys who are poor in terms of land ownership.

As dry-field farmers, the Lio-Ende community live in their original villages, or nuaola. The nuaola is a community unit that controls a certain plot of traditional land that is centred on the Sa’opu’u. Nuaola usually occupy the ridges and slopes of hills and are surrounded by the land that its members farm – large expanses of one or two hectares each.

Members of a nuaola are usually descended from one family that has been expanded through marriage. Houses, commonly with walls of woven bamboo and thatched roofs, are owned by the men, but maintained entirely by women. When it is the growing season, the women go into the fields, carrying their equipment on their heads.

The farming culture of Lio-Ende is closely associated with traditional and religious rituals and ceremonies. Most of the traditional ceremonies are rooted in the Catholic religion and carried out by the community, such as the Virgin Mary Month celebration, to give thanks for the harvest. All of these traditional religious activities are mobilised entirely by the women.

Until the 1980s, the life of the farming community was the major aspect of social life for the Lio-Ende, and for Flores in general. Women were at the centre of community activities, as they carried out the full range of farming activities. But then during the New Order era, other types of farming started to come into the region, such as wet-field farming and industrial farming.

With these new industrial crops, the allocation of roles between men and women was much stricter than had been the case before. The term ‘hard plants’ came into use, commonly associated with men. The community developed new commodity crops with high economic value, such as cloves, cacao, and candlenuts. Much of the traditional farmland that had been controlled by women was converted to these new commodity crops.

Habitation patterns, in connection with ecology and demographics, changed as well. The houses in the traditional village social structure are still there on the hillsides, but in poor condition. Married women, responsible for maintaining the traditional villages, stayed on, farming as best they could. Some people moved to new homes along the provincial highway.

These new residential areas were a way of adapting to the shrinking space in the traditional villages, or to internal conflicts within families that were no longer willing to submit to the dominant role of the musolaki. No longer associated with traditional social structures, this new residential space also eliminated women’s control over the home and the land they occupied.

As in Ende, most of the work in Palue, an island off the coast of Ende, is done by women. Home gardens are the source of livelihood for the villagers, and all the work is done by women. As in many other islands in East Nusa Tenggara, most of the men left long ago to seek their fortune on other islands.

The women stay on, working the land they own, as they have done since childhood. They grow cassava, yams, and beans. They also raise pigs, which need root crops for their feed. Their long-term income comes from cashews, mung beans, weaving, and raising pigs. On the island, barter, rather than cash is the common means of transaction.

The illustration above shows how women are tied to the land, and the impact when changes occur. Land is more than just an empty place to grow crops, but rather the source of knowledge and strength for village women. Changes in land ownership alter social structures and can also destroy women’s strength drawn from their knowledge about how to manage the land.

Women’s impoverishment is compounded by forced use of rice as the staple food. In regions with different environments from those where people commonly eat rice, this forced uniformity has changed people’s perceptions of the types of food they eat every day and ignored women’s knowledge of land use, food production, and how to feed their families.

For the residents of Palue island and throughout the highlands of Flores, the main staple foods are yams, beans, corn and bananas. Beans are not only nutritious but also contain a lot of fibre, which makes stomachs feel full. The money they earn from selling cashews and woven goods is set aside to pay school fees or to live on during the long dry season. But, the Java-centric concept of development created a discourse on wealth and poverty that used rice as a parameter.

Using this benchmark, all the residents of Palue were defined by the state as poor. This discourse has gradually changed how they look at their own staple foods and their situation. The mountain people of Palue island are very friendly and show great respect and welcome to visitors.

When we visited the foster parents of my research assistants on the island, all the villagers immediately gathered, bringing some of their food to share. One woman whispered to us, embarrassed ‘Sorry, madam, we only have cassava. Are you willing to eat cassava with us? To me it is quite clear they are being poor because government said so.