Wangongira and Its River Rice


Labodalih SembiringJakarta Globe, April 2012

Once upon a time on an island of spices, an old woman went to the jungle to collect rice. At that time, rice stalks grew in the woods, tall and verdant. On her way home, she slipped and fell into a stream. Stuck at the bottom of the river, the grains that she had collected would grow each year, and the woman’s spirit would become the guardian of the springs.

The story may be true only to the people of Wangongira, a remote village in West Tobelo, North Halmahera, North Maluku Province. However, the rice that grows at the bottom of the river really exists. The villagers call it akere mapine, or river rice, and the crystal clear stream molulu, which means “she who tumbled down.”

The legend makes both the water and the rice sacred to the villagers. They start planting rice in their fields only after akere mapine sprouts are seen near the headwaters’ rapids. And they believe that as long as the hallowed plants yield good grains, the community’s rice harvest will be good as well. Apdon Datti, the Village Head, claimed the rice as being of siang and pulo varieties, both having three sub-varieties, with each producing either white, black, or red grains.

apdon datti

Sadly, today, only a few stalks can be seen, and not where they are supposed to. This has been going on for several years.

“The point where the rice usually grew is now dammed and the stones covered by concertina wires by the PDAM [Municipal Waterworks],” Apdon Datti, the Village Head of Wangongira, said. “They are building the suction mechanism too close to the springs. The village people, especially the elders, are deeply troubled by this.”

Last week, five of the village’s eight elders stayed in Tobelo City, the capital of North Halmahera, and shared the history of their people. The earliest settlers of Wangongira, they said, came from a nomadic tribe who usually lived near the coastline’s vast jungle. One day they arrived near Talaga Lina, a small lake in what is today North Halmahera’s West Kao Subdistrict, and founded Hoana Lina, the area’s earliest settlement. Some of them then moved to Wangongira and became the village’s first elders.

During Indonesia’s New Order administration, the village became one of the locations for the Resettlement for Alienated Peoples program. More Tobelo Dalam [Inner Tobelo] people — a term referring to indigenous people who lived in the woods and “could sleep standing up under a leaf during rain” — were brought in to Wangongira to stay. These people, however, are still accustomed to abandoning their houses for weeks to stay near their rice fields about eight kilometers seaward.

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“Our first people were strangers to rice; we only ate sago and tubers,” Estepanus Gasa, head of the elders, said. “We came from a coastal tradition, but after seeing rice growing at the bottom of a stream, we decided to stay. Our daily food is still sago, but our yearly food [for sale] is rice. The river rice has since become very important to us.”

The elders came downtown — or seaward as locals call it — to take part in the opening of the fourth congress of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN), especially in the Archipelago Water Ritual. On April 19, 2012, water from sacred springs all over the country were brought together. Filling a pond at the District Headquarters’ water monument, the ritual marked the union of the indigenous peoples’ spirit to attain economic efficiency, political rights, and cultural dignity.


“I was reminded of the story of Gadjah Mada [a chief minister in the ancient Majapahit Kingdom]. He made an oath to bring Nusantara [the Archipelago] together. With the Archipelago Water Ritual, we will,” Hein Namotemo, Head of North Halmahera District, said.

Yesaya Benari, a member of North Halmahera’s House of Representatives, pointed out one irony.

“The people of Wangongira willingly share the sanctity of their springs for the Archipelago Water Ritual, but at the same time the springs are in danger,” Benari, who also heads a local music and dance group, said.

It was a rainy Tuesday in Wangongira. Mist covered the hills all around. People stayed inside their houses — neat rows of wooden walls under red, tin roofs supporting solar panels sufficient only for lighting. Rinto Kehega was sitting near piles of dried coffee next to a kitchen. He may be young, and he did not grow up in Wangongira. But the 22-year-old moved to the village from Efi Efi, South Tobelo, seven years ago, making him a witness of the sacred rice’s final thriving years.

“The villagers held a meeting there, at the village hall, with representatives from the Municipal Waterworks in 2009,” Kehega said. “They told us that they wanted to build a water mechanism here. We rejected the idea. But they said that it was the government’s decision, so it was not to be questioned. We all fell silent.”

Their fear to say no, they believed, became one of the reasons 2008 was the last year akere mapine flourished, making it the last year the villagers hold their annual homaniata procession.

“The homaniata feast is our promise to guard the water rice for as long as we live here, so that the growth of the rice may represent the rice that we plant in our fields,” Apdon Datti said.

“The feast in 2008 was a really joyous one. We built our sabua [traditional tent]; people came down to the river; some wore our traditional costume, leading a procession where people walked around the rice stalks. Once clockwise, and once the other way around,” Rinto Kehega, who speaks better Indonesian than most of the villagers, said. “But in 2009, there was almost no water rice. Maybe God is angry.”

The Wangongirans thought that they were cursed aso because they could not stop visitors from plucking the water rice’s grains. This, according to Kehega, happened many times.

“We have the rice growing at a different spot now, and we are guarding them very seriously. We always tell visitors not to pluck the rice, or else. We might hit them [if they disobeyed],” he said with a smile. “About the waterwork, our lips may say yes to it, but our hearts say no. We are fearful [of the government].”

Noer Fauzi Rahman, a lecturer of Agrarian Politics and Movement at Bogor Institute of Agriculture, said that natural springs must not be privatized, including by the Waterworks Agency.

“Springs and streams have social and ecological functions, serving natural habitats, rice fields, as well as traditional community plantations and settlements. This is why springs are usually, traditionally sanctified,” he said. “The rice growing near the [Molulu] springs have long become an indicator for planting season for the people who considers them sacred. If the springs are privatized, the rice dislocated, and the people’s access to the springs closed, the government and the indigenous people must quickly act in response.”

The District Head, who is also a jiko makulano or head of the Tobelo indigenous group, said that he had instructed the Municipal Waterworks to respect and consider the values held by the people of Wangongira.

“Everywhere you go, you must say tabea [excuse me] to show respect. If not, don’t be surprised if the people you have crossed show their wrath,” Hein Namotemo said. “I am supposed to receive reports about the building of the dam and the suction system, but up until today I have received nothing.”

Head of North Halmahera’s Waterworks, Jerry Joel, said that he had kept the District Head informed about the construction. However, the one responsible for the construction itself is the Provincial Public Works’ Water Resources Division.

“We acknowledge that the level of the construction site is too low, and that is a problem,” Joel said. “Therefore we are postponing the completion until 2013.”

For Rinto, and maybe to all of the villagers, their only hope is that the rice would return in a large number.

“We only want the water rice to stay, so that visitors can also see just how beautiful they are,” Rinto said. “But look at that. No more water rice, and the trees near the construction site have been cut down. It’s so ugly.”

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