Debt Collector

by Ian Lett, based on a booklet sent to parishioners by the United Evangelical Mission (VEM) circa 1909

On the morning of the third day, the prau reached Mentawai. The cool air of the morning sent a shiver through the crew as they entered Sikakap Straight, the narrow passage separating the islands of North and South Pagai. They had reached their destination. It was unusually quiet along the shore. “Strange”, Feng Lei said to himself. “Usually at this time of day people are out in their boats fishing. There is something going on”.

Traditional Indonesia prau

Fung Lei had come to the village of Taikako on business. He had sold the local villagers bush knives, and had come back to collect what he was owed. Payment would be in rattan, a tropical vine which grew in the rainforest. The Dutch warehouse in Padang paid good money for every load he delivered. Rattan had become a popular material for making furniture in Britain and Europe. Indonesia was one of the main suppliers of this versatile fibre.

Vintage rattan furniture

Fung Lei had found the Mentawai villagers slow to pay, but he had never waited this long. The last time he went to collect his debts the rimata (sacrificing priest) threatened him with a poison arrow if he didn’t leave immediately. This time he was determined to get what he was owed. “I am rowing to the village now, and will be back by sundown” he said to his crew.

They lowered a dugout into the water and dragged it through the shallows to the mouth of a creek. Fung Lei and his Malay companion got in, and with a few paddle strokes they started their trip inland to Taikako.

Uma or longhouse, Mentawai Islands

Outside the uma (longhouse) villagers were relaxing. The priest (rimata) had declared a punen, or religious festival, which meant it was a holiday. The women exchanged their old palm leaf skirts for new ones. Children played with their mother’s big hats, while the women adorned each other with flowers in their hair, around their necks and wrists. Men sat and talked in the shade. Work could wait.

The happy noise died down as the priest, Si Manu, appeared at the entrance of the uma. Heads were lowered respectfully as he descended the log stairs. He walked amongst the crowd, swinging his ceremonial staff over their heads in blessing from the gods. He held a dead chicken, onto which he would transfer the people’s sins, and in its blood, all their wrongdoings would diminish.

Jurgen’s story

by Jurgen Lett

A fertiliser silo exploded a few kilometers from my grandfather’s flower nursery. The family were picking flowers for the market when the blast knocked them all to the ground. Several lost consciousness. When they came to they found a huge boulder amongst the flowers. The glasshouses were destroyed. My mother, Martha Genaehr, was 18 years old.

The family belonged to the United Evangelical Mission (VEM) and several family members had worked as missionaries in China and Indonesia (former Dutch East Indies). They asked the church if they knew someone who could redesign the glasshouses. Ernst Lett arrived at the front door. Remarkably, he lived in the family home while the glasshouses were being designed and built. Ernst became part of the family, and later became friendly with Martha. While they were keen on each other, it was over ten years before they were married, mainly because they could not afford a wedding and setting up a house.

Ernst Lett, brick layer, master builder, architect, building inspector

Ernst was required to study architecture and learn a trade as part of his training as a Baumeister (master builder). He chose the trade of bricklayer, and here can be seen on the tools. Note the wooden clogs. He later worked as a building inspector for the City of Wuppertal, with an office in the town hall. Ernst was born in 1900 and this photo was taken in the 1920’s.

Martha was born in 1903 and had six sisters and five brothers. She worked as an au pair in Utrecht, Netherlands while she was single. All of Martha’s brothers played brass instruments and on Ernst’s birthday they stood outside his bedroom and play for him. Not wanting to miss out, Ernst jumped out of bed, climbed through the bedroom window and ran around the back of the house. He stood behind the brass quintet and played with them on his cornet, for his own birthday.

Cornet aka piston