A special relationship with sago

A special relationship with sago

Although members of the Marind tribe of Woboyu village in Papua's interior cultivate rice, sago still holds an important place in their diet - and culture.

Woboyu is one of 23 villages in Okaba district, about 100 kilometers north of Merauke City at the most eastern tip of Indonesia.

It takes one-and-a-half days to reach Woboyu by motorcycle - or longer, depending on road conditions.

For generations, the Marind have been traditionally growing and processing sago into what they call sago sep - steamed sago wrapped in banana leaves.

"We know that a few tribes in other places have been eating rice rather than sago," according to Martin, a community leader in Woboyu. "In contrast, our community still has been consuming sago, though we also often keep eating rice."

According to the 40-year-old, Javanese migrants, who began to arrive in Merauke in 1962 after the Dutch colonists ceded Irian Jaya to Indonesia, introduced rice cultivation to the village.

"Sago is more nutritious than rice. People here almost never suffer from diabetes. When our supply of extract sago is out of stock at all, we can consume rice," Martin says.

While sago grows wild in nearby swamps, many families have started planted their own sago palms in private plots or behind their houses to avoid long walks into the forest to find food, he says.

Yohanis Mahuze said that some people let sago palms grow for five years before a harvest.

"Sago palms aged to five years usually contain much sago," Yohanis said. "We can observe whether it has fissured or not. If its fissure is white, then it is ready to be harvested."

The Marind - who also cultivate taro, yams, sweet potatoes and wati betel leaf - hunt boar, deer, and kangaroos with bows, spears, and sharpened kahanggat bamboo sticks.

Federikus Gebze, who heads the research centre of the Marind, said that sago needed to be served with meat. "No family can be separated from meat as a side dish."

Another resident, Thomas Balaigeze, said that sago was used in traditional rituals, customary justice sessions, traditional meeting, weddings, wakes and to welcome guests.

Martha Mahuze said that women typically chopped down and processed the sago with traditional axes while the men cleared weeds and cut down sago palms.

The sago is crushed, squeezed, watered and drained to obtain the extract needed to make sago sep, which is then cooked in a musamus - a stone stove fueled by banana leaves and dry wood.

The wood is burned to embers that are removed when the stone is heated, after which the musamus can burn, cook and warm sago sep for eight hours

Kneaded sago is also placed on heated banana leaves, mixed with fish or coconut meat and cooked in the musamus, according to another resident, Johana Gebze.

"When it is ripe, the sago must be cut again, then wrapped with banana leaves and tied up," Johana said. "As a result, it can be distributed to families, guests, and neighbours. Ripe sago can last for six hours. Since the 1980s, modern cooking spices have always been added to become flavorful dishes," Johana said.

Federikus said that processed sago could not be sold. "If anyone wants to buy sago, ask the owner. If anyone wants to give money as a gift voluntarily, [farmers] may accept it. It is not considered as payment. "

Thomas Balaigeze, a local youth leader, said that development was encroaching on the Marind. "A few companies have offered to 'free' our land, which has plentiful sago palms, for palm oil production. But we rejected the offer since a lot of other villages have suffered great losses."

Federikus said that the Marind treated sago like a child to be nurtured or a deity that protects and provides.

"Sago is the main livelihood for us. It supports our lives. We must eat the sago until its gone without any left," said Lambert, another resident.

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