Basket Makers of the Highlands

The Dou Wawo of Bima, Sumbawa

By: Michael Hitchcock

Originally Published in 1986

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The varied terrain of the Island of Sumbawa is best appreciated from the air. During the wet monsoon one only catches a glimpse of it when the plane descends from the thick cloud cover to land near one of the three major towns, engendering an impression of lush rice fields sepa­rated by miles of emptiness—a perspective shared by the few maps of this part of Indonesia. Should the flight be made between April and November, however, when the island is parched by winds originating in the arid Australian conti­nent. then one is immediately struck by the extent and rugged­ness of the mountain ranges. Small villages, often perched well up the mountainsides, are also clearly vis­ible from the plane, their isolation contrasting markedly with the dense clusters of’ settlements in the verdant irrigated valleys. Indeed such is the altitude at which some of these highlanders live that they are called by the lowlanders the people of the summit or Don Donggo.

Bima, the island’s eastern re­gency, has some of the most inaccessible mountain ranges, sup­porting many of these highland peoples, including the Donggo. One of these mountains groups, known as the Duo Wawo is especially noteworthy since the people have their own separate language, a distinction not shared by most of the other highlanders who along with the Donggo speak a lan­guage common with the lowland Bimanese. Until recently the Wawo people had no contact with west­erners, although their trade and po­litical contacts with the often well-traveled lowland Bimanese have been very longstanding. Among these latter people they are particularly well known for their skills in the herding of water buffalo and in basketry, both of which are items of trade with the lowlands.

What is significant is that the lowlanders often perceive all the highlanders in similar ways despite the linguistic distinctiveness of the Don Wawo. Both the terms wawa and donggo donggo mean exactly the same thing— “summit” or “peak”—and sonic lowlanders even describe the Wawo group as the Don Donggo Ele (literally “eastern people of the summit”). The most common name for them is, however, Dou Wawo, and even though this term should logically include some of’ the ethnic Bimanese who inhabit the district called Wawo, confusion is avoided by the latter group’s emphasis on their lowland connections.

Although the linguistic distinc­tiveness of the Don Wawo was known to Peter Just (who visited one of their villages in 1980; 1984:31) and to myself, it only became apparent that two dialects of the language were spoken during the third of my journeys to these highlands when I took time away from my main research among the lowland Bimanese. Also of interest is the fact that although the Wawo vocabulary of both dialects differs substantially from lowland Bi­manese, many of’ the craft technical terms are precisely the same: it would appear that the highlands are an area of potential linguistic re­search.

Aside from language the cultural distinctiveness of the Wawo people can be discerned in their oral histo­ries, often quite dissimilar from those of the lowland Bimanese. One legend describes a great flood at the beginning of time that drove the people into the highlands, forcing them to build their village on an exposed hillside. While in this vulnerable location two chil­dren were snatched by a sparrow-hawk, only to be deposited on a stone on the opposite side of the valley, around which the people later built their permanent village, taking the action of the bird as a good omen. In another history of the origins of the ten or so highland villages it is said that the mountains were inhabited by an aboriginal group whose numbers were swelled by people fleeing the low­lands, perhaps a consequence of the political turbulence that has pe­riodically afflicted the lowlands. In­deed these histories of unrest appear to be borne out by at least one of the village place names, Kuta, meaning “fence” or “fortress.”

Some aspects of the Wawo social system also differ from that of the majority population of the low­ lands. In this respect the residence arrangements of newly married couples are noteworthy because, unlike the lowlanders who expect to live in a separate dwelling fol­lowing marriage, the highlanders may reside in the groom’s parental home for several years until they can afford their own dwelling. An­other variation on this pattern was related to me in the highland vil­lage of Tarlawi where families with numerous daughters try to per­suade their sons-in-law to move in with them. This practice, which is the reversal of the normal prefer­ence for virilocal postmarital resi­dence, is sometimes followed by wealthier families who need extra male hands to help with the animal husbandry. In common with other highlanders the Wawo people also appear to be more egalitarian than the lowland Bimanese who, when they were ruled by a Sultan, had a complex three-tier class system.

Despite their ethnic distinctive­ness, the Wawo people have long been politically associated with the lowland Bimanese. They were, for example, part of the Sultanate that ruled Bima until its accession to the Indonesian Republic in 1950, and each Wawo village was customarily obliged to supply servants to fill a number of specific posts in the palace, although the precise terms of this arrangement remain unre­searched. Partly because of their relations with the Sultanate and partly because of the numerical su­periority of the lowland Bimanese, the Wawo tend to be identified as Bimanese by the wider Indonesian society. The recent arrival of televi­sion and the construction of two fair-weather roads will undoubtedly make an impact on the ethnic identity of the Wawo highlanders in the years to wine, not least because the wider medium of communica­tion is the Indonesian language which is already spoken by many of the village children.

Highland Agriculture

The highlanders live in vil­lages of between 1,000 and 1,500 inhabitants each, and since many of these settlements are specialized in the production of particular handicrafts they are very dependent upon each other. Lying in the drier quarter of the Bima re­gency the Wawo highlands receive monsoon rains sufficient only for the cultivation of one rice crop a year, much of which is grown in terraced fields skillfully built into the steep mountainsides (Fig. 6), swidden (slash and burn) cultivation being gradually phased out by gov­ernment edict. Water buffalo tiff a I o are the most important domestic an­imals, and their export to the low­lands brings in much-needed cash (Figs. 7, 8). Given the significance of water buffalo in the export economy, they are rarely slaugh­tered for their meat in the high­lands, and the people usually subsist on a simple vegetarian diet. Around the settlements, gardens containing coconut, candlenut, jackfruit, mangoes, and acacia can be seen, and cotton is still grown in the fields. Although the staple diet is not especially varied, I was ac­companied for part of the way on my second visit to the highlands by a lowland woman who was peddling dried fish.

Rice remains the most prized crop, and lines of women can be seen breaking the dry ground with iron-tipped rods (often made from old sawn-off spear shafts; Fig. 9) in order to plant rice seeds before the rains begin. Women are also very much involved in the rice harvest itself, cutting the stalks with small knives and gathering the rice into hand-sized sheaves. Rice is stored while still on the sheaf in wooden barns equipped with rat baffles or, in the case of the old A-frame style houses, in the attic. (Women are completely responsible for the storage of the rice harvest because it is only they who arc permitted under customary law to enter the rice store.) Aside from being a handy means of storage, rice on the sheaf may also 1w used as a form of currency, and craft products, such as baskets, can be valued in numbers of sheaves: rice sheaves can also be readily converted into cash and therefore the approximate monetary value of each craft item can easily be gauged.

In addition to foodstuffs the highlanders cultivate a variety of plants that are used in basketry and related crafts, and they are some of the regency’s foremost suppliers of these products. Wawo is, for ex­ample, one of the few sources of a hard bamboo that is especially prized by lowland weavers: it is used to make the teeth of the reed, a comb-like tool that helps to en­sure that weft threads are evenly beaten in. It would seem likely that one of the reasons for the impor­tance of this handicraft in the high-lands is that many of the basket ­makers’ plants grow particularly well in the cool gardens.


An exquisite example of the Biman basket maker’s craft is recorded in jasper and Pirngadie’s monumental publica­tion of 1912, De Inlansche Kumsui­juerheid in Nederlarisch Indie (Fe. 11). It is possible that items such ­this were available in the lowland and since there is no record of whether or not the authors visited the highlands we cannot be pre­cisely sure of its origins; we do know, however, that Wawo alone ­with several other regions was important basket-producing area ii, the Sultanate period. Sonic esp. daily fine baskets were actually made by women in the Sultan palace and, being used as rice covers during state banquets, were embellished with silver thread and velvet (Fig, 2). These rice covers are no longer produced today and can only be seen in the Sultanate collections. Similarly much of the lowland basket industry has de­clined, items of the quality illus­trated by jasper and Pirngadie being virtually nonexistent. and today the Wawo highlanders re­main sonic of the last exponents of what was once a more widespread and especially attractive local craft.

During my visits to Wawo I saw evidence of an active trade in baskets. On one occasion I encoun­tered a group of men on a steep mountain trail who were returning home with rice sheaves, the result they told me of a trip to a neigh­boring village where they had sold all their baskets. In the mornings highlanders could also he seen making their way along the new’ fair-weather roads with piles of baskets on their heads, destined for the lowland markets. Some of the most popularly traded baskets are the tough open bamboo containers that have a multiplicity of uses; 1 tracked down the source of these to the village of upper Tarlawi.

During my visit to TarIawi I was fortunate enough to see the bas­ketry craft being practiced, since I had arrived in the period before the rice seeds were planted in readi­ness for the monsoon. The women were taking advantage of this sea­sonal lull to plait baskets, which were made in the following manner. Bamboo strips approxi­mately a yard in length were put on the floor and held in place by a slim stick under the weaver’s foot. Using a simple under and over plait, equally long weft strips were beaten in with a hard wooden sword (Figs. 13, 14), the bamboo being kept supple by sprinkling it with water. Unplaited ends of ap­proximately eight inches in length were left on each of the corners and these were turned up to make the sides of the basket (Fig. 15). Around the inside of the neck of the basket a strip of bamboo was placed and secured by rattan stitches to a willow-like lath around the outside. A short metal spike was used to punch holes through the bamboo for the rattan ties. These baskets were plaited fairly rapidly, and I was told that the women can comfortably make at least three a day and sometimes as many as ten, which could be sold in 1981 for between Rupiah (Rp) 150 (30 cents) and Rp250 (50 cents) each.

Although baskets were not made in the neighboring village of lower Tarlawi, they did have an inter­esting variant of this craft—rain capes from pandanus leaves. While I did not see any being made, I was told how they had been put to­gether. Two sheets, each made of five leaves compressed together along their long sides, had been joined together end to end to make one long strip. This strip had been folded in the middle and sewn along one side so as to make a roof-like structure that could be hung over the head. The sides of the cape reached as far as the upper back, and with its open front the garment was ideal for working in the rice fields during the wet season, especially for tasks such as transplanting rice seedlings when the wearer would be bent double. For children the garment was par­ticularly snug since it would almost envelop them (Fig. 17). Another practical application for pandanus leaves could be seen in the village of Teta where hard-wearing house mats, the usual interior furnishing of highland homes, were plaited.

More delicate examples of the basket maker’s craft could be seen in the village of Sambori where I purchased three different varieties. The first one, kaleru, was a soft plaited bag that was used for storing either a packed lunch of boiled rice or the owner’s betel chewing kit (Fig. 18); its flexible neck could be folded over to pre­vent the contents from spilling out. The second kind of basket, saduku, was used for carrying seeds or plants and therefore had a broad round opening and a strap for sus­pending from the wrist. Dyed strips were incorporated into the third basket, kola bake toi, which was shaped like a small hexagonal cylinder. Its lid was detachable and the basket could be used for car­rying a woman’s personal effects by stowing it in a fold in the sarong.

Basketry is a craft well adapted to highland life: all the materials can be grown there and it is the kind of occupation that can easily be re­sumed during lulls in the agricul­tural cycle. Both highly practical and aesthetically pleasing items are made, and their sale earns much-appreciated cash for the highland economy. Although the industry was in good health when I visited Wawo, I did feel that perhaps the highlanders might be able to utilize the vacuum left by the disappear­ance of the high-quality lowland basketry crafts, for it would be a shame if these were to be entirely superseded by modern factory-made goods.

Cite This Article

Hitchcock, Michael. "Basket Makers of the Highlands." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 1 (March, 1986): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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