Fields near Bokong. Threads of Life botanists have collected rare plants in these fields.

Threads of Life field teams have been visiting Bokong for three years, but had never had an opportunity to visit their traditional clan houses, which stand about three kilometers away from the village proper. On this trip, Wenten made sure to set aside a few hours to see the clan houses.

That morning Wenten, Willy, Sujata climbed into the car with driver, Om Hanis, for the short trip. Wenten invited a small number of villagers to join them, community members whose accounts of local traditions were the most reliable. But the open door was taken as an open invitation: villagers stuffed themselves into the car until it was jammed solid.

Some of the members of Nek Mese cooperative, Bokong.
One of the clan pavilions, with a concrete floor and ring wall.

Clan houses are the ceremonial centers of traditional communities. The community of Bokong has embraced Christianity with some vigor, and it was intriguing to discover that they still gather at their traditional houses several times each year to perform rituals associated with planting, harvest, collection of betel nuts, births, and deaths. Many other communities in the area burnt down their clan houses under the direction of Christian missionaries.

There were two large buildings called sae tobe, each paired with a smaller one called a sae tnana. The houses were circular, with conical roofs of thatch resting on four pillars. Traditionally the posts were made of wood, and carved with uniquely stylized images of large and small lizards, crocodiles, human figures, butterflies, fish, and more. These motifs were familiar; they closely resembled the patterns of ikat and buna on Bokong textiles.

A carving of a gecko, similar to Bokong’s textile motifs.
Concrete posts for a replacement building.

According to the villagers, wooden houses last only ten years or so. Each of the sae tobe already has a concrete floor and a ring of concrete benches, and a new sae tobe,already under construction, will have concrete pillars as well. The function of these buildings does not depend on the use of traditional materials; but the concrete will not be carved with the beautiful figures that adorn the wooden posts and beams of the older houses.

The road out from the main village had been rough, and Wenten decided to return to Bokong on foot. The footpath cut through Bokong’s large traditional forest, which is protected by strong local taboos; outside of a designated season, villagers are almost never permitted to enter the forest at all. The path climbed a steep ridge before tumbling down the far side, and Wenten was exhausted when he arrived back at the village.

The forest near Bokong. The tall, straight trunks are betel nut palms.
Ikat and buna textiles for sale in Bokong.

“But my tiredness was overcome by the energy of the cooperative,” he said. In fact, the Bokong cooperative has made huge strides with their savings and credit union, and with their production planning, working together to diversify and improve their work. “I came to Bokong with a particular budget,” said Wenten. “But when I saw their cloth, I couldn’t stop buying! I had to call the office for approval to spend more.”

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