Journey to the afterlife: Indonesia’s Toraja live among the dead

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This photo taken on September 11, 2018 shows a guide holding a light over the remains of bodies interned in a burial cave in Londa in Tana Toraja regency. (AFP)
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This photo taken on September 11, 2018 shows a human skull at the entrance of a burial cave in Londa in Tana Toraja regency. (AFP)
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This photo taken on September 11, 2018 shows the entrance to a burial cave in Londa in Tana Toraja regency, where wooden dolls known as Tau Tau are dressed in Torajan traditional clothes and displayed to represent deceased nobility. (AFP)
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This picture taken on September 12, 2018 shows the people of Toraja carrying a coffin during a funeral ceremony known as "Rambu Solo" in Londa in Tana Toraja regency. (AFP)
Updated 10 November 2018
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Journey to the afterlife: Indonesia’s Toraja live among the dead

  • Traditionally the embalming process involved sour vinegar and tea leaves but these days families usually inject a formaldehyde solution into the corpse
  • The Indonesian government is trying to promote Torajan death rituals as part of ambitious plans to boost tourism across the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago

LA’BO, Indonesia: Martha Kande’s family lived with her greying, shrivelled corpse at their home in Indonesia for seven months, as they prepared an elaborate funeral that is central to the Toraja people’s centuries-old death rituals.
“We keep the body in a coffin at home,” Meyske Latuihamallo, the 81-year-old woman’s granddaughter, told AFP.
“But it’s kept open before they are buried because we see them as sick so they are brought food and drink every day.”
Torajans — an ethnic group that numbers about a million people on Sulawesi island — have few qualms when it comes to talking with an embalmed corpse, dressing them up, brushing their hair or even taking pictures with a mummified relative.
Traditionally the embalming process involved sour vinegar and tea leaves but these days families usually inject a formaldehyde solution into the corpse.
“After a week, there’s no odour anymore,” local tourist guide Lisa Saba Palloan told AFP.
It may seem a ghoulish practice to some: living side-by-side with an embalmed body for months — or even years — before paying homage in a ritualistic display of blood and guts.
But the Toraja believe that a person is only dead — and their soul freed — after an elaborate funeral known as “Rambu Solo.”

Wild boars howled and blood poured from a sacrificial buffalo’s throat as Kande’s family prepared her mummified body for the afterlife.
Following the five-day ceremony, the octogenarian was placed in one of the many burial caves scattered around the mountainous region, where skeletal remains are arranged by social hierarchy.
They sit alongside wooden dolls in traditional clothing, representing deceased nobility, while some bodies are kept in coffins that hang from steep cliffs — owing to limited space.
“These are the customs of our ancestors,” said Kande’s 72-year-old nephew Johanes Singkali.
“We maintain them to preserve these traditions and keep them sacred from outside influences.”
Although most Torajans are Christian — a product of Dutch colonialism — they have held onto earlier traditions rooted in animiztic beliefs.
The more elaborate a funeral the more likely the person’s spirit will reach the level of the gods.
But it comes at a cost.
As many as 100 buffalo could be slaughtered for a noble person, while as few as eight will suffice for a middle-class Torajan.
Funerals can set a family back up to two billion rupiah ($133,000) — an extravagant amount in a country where more than half the population live on less than $5.50 a day, according to the World Bank.
“We used to be animizts, so we buried people with boars and buffalos to offer the spirits on the way to the afterlife,” Singkali said.
“It costs a lot and there are a lot of preparations while all the relatives living outside Toraja must come too.”

Hundreds gathered in La’Bo village for Kande’s spiritual send-off, along with dozens of picture-snapping tourists.
Her body was put into a red coffin — in the form of a traditional, boat-shaped house — which was then placed in front of her home.
Relatives clad in black dragged dozens of pigs into the center of the village for slaughter as family members danced.
At midday, a prized buffalo was led out onto a blue tarpaulin where its throat was slit — confirming the woman’s death — and the carcass butchered for a big dinner to follow.
Finally Kande’s coffin was carried around the neighborhood in a symbolic goodbye.
It’s not for the squeamish, but American visitor Ellie Eshleman took a philosophical view.
“I am passionate about death,” the 29-year-old said.
“I would like to help restore it to its spiritual place in the Western world. So, I came here to see their death customs and how it can be a time of celebration.”

The Indonesian government is trying to promote Torajan death rituals as part of ambitious plans to boost tourism across the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago.
While the Toraja region draws tens of thousands of tourists annually, it is a fraction of the millions who descend on holiday hotspot Bali.
Growing Toraja tourism faces several hurdles, although opposition from locals does not appear to be among them.
Rather, poor infrastructure and the absence of a major airport in the highland region make travel difficult.
Furthermore, it is difficult to plan a trip to see a Rambu Solo ceremony because dates can change as families struggle to save enough money for one.
But many visitors are still willing to take a chance and drive for hours from the nearest major airport to see one of the world’s most unique funeral rites.
“Toraja is a piece of heaven on earth,” said Harli Patriatno, North Toraja’s head of culture and tourism.
“Its natural beauty combined with the Toraja people’s spiritualism and funeral rites is extraordinary.”


Kenyan who gave earnings to poor wins $1M teacher prize

This handout photo provided on March 24, 2019 by the Global Education and Skills Forum, an initiative of the Varkey Foundation, shows Kenyan teacher Peter Tabichi (C) holding up the Global Teacher Prize (GTP) trophy after winning the US$ 1 million award during an official ceremony in Dubai presented by Australian actor Hugh Jackman (C-L) and attended by the Dubai Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed Al-Maktoum (C-R). (AFP)
Updated 4 min 23 sec ago
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Kenyan who gave earnings to poor wins $1M teacher prize

  • The winner is selected by committees comprised of teachers, journalists, officials, entrepreneurs, business leaders and scientists

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: A Kenyan teacher from a remote village who gave away most of his earnings to the poor won a $1 million prize on Sunday for his work teaching in a government-run school that has just one computer and shoddy Internet access.
The annual Global Teacher Prize was awarded to Peter Tabichi in the opulent Atlantis Hotel in Dubai in a ceremony hosted by actor Hugh Jackman.
Tabichi said the farthest he’d traveled before this was to Uganda. Coming to Dubai marked his first time on an airplane.
“I feel great. I can’t believe it. I feel so happy to be among the best teachers in the world, being the best in the world,” he told The Associated Press after his win.
Tabichi teaches science to high schoolers in the semi-arid village of Pwani where almost a third of children are orphans or have only one parent. Drought and famine are common.
He said the school has no library and no laboratory. He plans to use the million dollars from his win to improve the school and feed the poor.
Despite the obstacles Tabichi’s students face, he’s credited with helping many stay in school, qualify for international competitions in science and engineering and go on to college.
“At times, whenever I reflect on the challenges they face, I shed tears,” he said of his students, adding that his win will help give them confidence.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a statement that Tabichi’s story “is the story of Africa” and of hope for future generations.
As a member of the Roman Catholic brotherhood, Tabichi wore a plain floor-length brown robe to receive the award presented by Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
The prize is awarded by the Varkey Foundation, whose founder, Sunny Varkey, established the for-profit GEMS Education company that runs 55 schools in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar.
In his acceptance speech, Tabichi said his mother died when he was just 11 years old, leaving his father, a primary school teacher, with the job of raising him and his siblings alone.
Tabichi thanked his father for instilling Christian values in him, then pointed to his father in the audience, invited him up on stage and handed him the award to hold as the room erupted in applause and cheers.
“I found tonight to be incredibly emotional, very moving,” Jackman told the AP after hosting the ceremony and performing musical numbers from his film The Greatest Showman.
“It was a great honor, a thrill to be here and I just thought the whole evening was just filled with a really pure spirit,” he added.
Now in its fifth year, the prize is the largest of its kind. It’s quickly become one of the most coveted and prestigious for teachers. Tabichi selected out of out 10,000 applicants.
The winner is selected by committees comprised of teachers, journalists, officials, entrepreneurs, business leaders and scientists.
Last year, a British art teacher was awarded for her work in one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country. Her work was credited with helping students feel welcome and safe in a borough with high murder rates.
Other winners include a Canadian teacher for her work with indigenous students in an isolated Arctic village where suicide rates are high, and a Palestinian teacher for her work in helping West Bank refugee children traumatized by violence.
The 2015 inaugural winner was a teacher from Maine who founded a nonprofit demonstration school created for the purpose of developing and disseminating teaching methods.