Went to bed last night to Hotel California played by the really rather competent local band in the cafe just behind the room we’re renting. And we woke to a wonderful choir of men and women singing hymns in practice for a Christening, outside our bedroom door. Slightly bizarre to hear Latin being sung in a remote mountain village in Flores, but not as odd as finding not one, but two, bottles of the revolting Hungarian liquor Unicum in the drinks cabinet of our guesthouse – it is a drink that I have endured only in Hungary, which is where I hoped it might stay.
All-embracing Catholicism is embraced by all here in Bajawa, a town in the heartland of the Ngada tribal region. Most houses have Christian tombs, mausoleums or graves (depending on their wealth) outside the front of their houses. Visitors must walk past the family’s dead before entering the home. Churches are more common than mosques here.
We rent a motor bike and head into the surrounding countryside: two bubble-heads on a spluttering 50cc scooter that dies on steep inclines and is overtaken by every other vehicle. We enter clouds, shivering through the white-out, unable to see more than a metre ahead. Then rise above them, our cataracts removed. Every man woman, child and puppy we pass waves hello or wags their tail. We pass simple wooden houses with tin or thatched roofs, yards where satellite receivers grow like vast metal buttercups, and every boy has an old bike tyre with a hitting stick to roll it along the road, and everyone we pass wants to know where we are going to.
We arrive at Bena, an ancient village where the people have made few concessions to modernity. It is arranged in traditional Ngada style, with the steeply pitched thatched-roof houses in two rows opposite each other. Between, are the village megaliths, stones used for sacrifices, gory ceremonial rituals that persist despite their 100% conversion to Catholicism. Other animist practices are also in evidence here, from the proudly displayed buffalo skulls and horns that decorate the house fronts, to the ancestor worship megaliths, and the stone sacrificial alter that butts up against the newly built Catholic shrine with its hanging picture of the smiling Virgin Mary. I guess if you can swallow Old Testament goriness with cheek-turning Jesus, then what’s a little ancestor worship?
The village people are very welcoming and all busy at their tasks – the old women are spinning threads on wooden bobbins, or weaving the intricately designed itak cloth sarongs that everyone wears here; the younger men and women are engaged in wall building, and thatch repair – essential jobs before the wet season damages the villages in a couple of months.
We leave the village, which is stunningly located on the edge of the volcano with views down the valleys and across to the sea beyond, and head over the hills to find hot springs. There, under mango and papaya trees, I find my heaven: a cauldron of piping hot water that bubbles up through the rocks and then cascades down a waterfall to mix with cool waters from the stream. We stay a couple of hours in this magical spot till the soles of my feet look like cottage cheese and we’ve told everyone our names and confirmed that Anglican is the religion of England. Riding back to Bajawa takes us just long enough to get properly cold again – time for a hot lime, honey and arak, I think.
Unicum is revolting, perahaps yes, but only one svallow will make again alive the deads!
In my country, South Africa, reverence for ancestors not only co-exists with Catholicism (and Christianity in general), but has even asserted itself within theological discourse – particularly in the context of the church’s need to bolster recruitment of clergy, nuns, etc.
In fact proponents of a role for ancestor-reverence in the church point to the early church in Europe to back up their case. Just as Christmas, Easter and so on combine biblical narrative with pagan seasonal celebration, so the concept of saints originally accommodated both scriptural characters and dearly departed family members.
In theological terms a saint is merely a person whose soul is in heaven. While the Vatican bureaucracy has instituted an elaborate canonisation process with itself as gatekeeper, ordinary people are free to request intercession from any soul they believe capable, by virtue of acquaintance with the person’s life and death. In fact this is the first precondition required in the official canonisation process – that the candidate saint has a practicing “cult”. The other requirement, that evidence of successful intercession in the form of miracles be established, constitutes proof that the faith was not misplaced.
Naturally family members are acquainted with the lives and deaths of ancestors, and have lower standards of proof (or as they might see it, more direct contact with the evidence) than the theocracy.