The Mentawai Children


写真と文   ジョンフィリップ・スレ 1997


What child has never dreamt of living like Robinson Crusoe. The perfect life in nature, a peaceful paradise where nature offers everything needed. The pleasure of making wood cabins, canoeing rivers, rolling in the mud and making your own bows and arrows for imaginary hunts. The Mentawai kids have it all. I can't help but think that there might not be a better way to raise a child. Too many western children grow up in front of the TV, computer games, or playing war games. The Mentawai children grow up learning about life. They quickly gain a great knowledge and respect for nature. During the rainy season, swollen rivers offer the best transportation. Gifted with remarkable balance, kids can paddle while standing on their unstable dugout kayaks. It took me days to learn how to sit down without capsizing the whole family on my boat. I don't remember coming across any other societies where kids seem so universally happy. They only stop smiling to laugh (usually when I did something stupid, like falling from a log on which I was walking, or missing my target with a bow). The kids never understood how a big guy like me would always manage to fall (in the water or in the mud). Life is a game, all kids know it, Mentawais better than anyone. They spend their lives taking enjoyment from what we've all forgotten, merely living.


During a hot day, when the swollen rivers produce too much current for little kids to swim, nothing beats a blowpipe fighting game in the waters of a taro field. Their blowpipe is made of a water cane. They shoot small soft pea like vegetables. A game that can last forever while mothers use a small nets to catch tiny fish from the same fields.



Like many, as a kid, I've always liked rolling myself in the mud. Of course, it isn't the acceptable thing to do, so I got scolded more than once. The mud wasn't even that great. Now here we are on an island where the monsoon brings thigh deep mud to the jungle and a nice slippery layer on the packed dirt streets of the village. No need for an ice skating rink. Here games vary from racing and diving for the longest slide to a total mud fight which usually starts by playing tag. And if you think that you just want to watch the game without participating, you're in for a big surprise. The ground is so slippery that you will certainly fall once or twice walking hut to hut. (Hey, I did it all the time. At least I made everybody laugh).


Hunting is a necessity, but here, the deer don't freeze in bright light and rifles aren't available. Hunting is a necessary art to feed the family. Kids learn it as soon as they walk. It takes years of practice to become one with the jungle and spot the animals before they notice you. Even walking in the rainforest with kids, I often felt like an elephant. Sometimes, they would turn back to me with their finger on their smiley lips and would let out a quiet "shhhhtttttttt". You think it's easy? Sometimes they even seem to hear your heartbeat.


I learned as much from the kids as I did from adults. They all have knowledge most westerners don't even know they need. Unless we leave their habitat intact and learn from them, this knowledge will be lost to all.

Girls don't hunt, but their jungle skills are as good as the boys'.  At ten years old, Laba often goes off for days in the jungle. She feeds on fruits and edible plants and comes back with bags full of durian (picture), ramboutans, mangos, or other fruits. She also collects medicinal plants for her dad (my friend and soul-mate Martinus who's the youngest medicine man of his clan). Sometimes she goes fishing with her grandmother, or stays home mending nets or playing with her cousins, but she likes walking by herself in the jungle. Every time the fruit reserves diminish, she volunteers to go. Even when all the  family goes, she often chooses a different route. At ten years old, that's independence.