Australian Consulate-General
Makassar, Indonesia

41. Sumba, The Island You Can't Forget

Sumba is a fascinating island at the southern edge of Indonesia, about 1,000 kilometers north of Australia and around 1,500 kilometers east of Jakarta. In the east of the island the landscape is extensive dry savannah; the west has a higher rainfall and is greener, but access to water is difficult across the island. With a population of 800,000 it is relatively thinly populated (for example, Sumba is larger than Bali which has over 4.5 million people). Many Sumba people still live in traditional villages and follow a “megalithic” culture, carrying on ancient tribal practices including burying their dead in great stone tombs in the centre of the village. Indeed, the cultures of Sumba, Flores and Toraja are similar with their traditional villages built on hills, houses built off the ground around a village square or main street filled with huge stone tombs; and buffaloes and pigs are sacrificed at major ceremonies. These cultures all lie within Wallacea, the transition zone between Asia and Australasia.

                                                                                                                 Prai Ijing Traditional Village, West Sumba

Sumba has recently attracted national attention as the location for a number of popular movies which have used its harsh and unusual landscape as backdrop. Tourists from Jakarta now visit the island to check out the locations of scenes from movies such as Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, directed by Australian Alumnus Mouly Sourya. Jakarta celebrities and film stars from around the world also regularly stay at the world-class Nihi Sumba resort in the southwest, where a villa will set you back at least USD 1,000 per night. This is an amazing resort built by an American from what was originally a surf camp.

Yet Sumba has long been regarded as “the forgotten island”. A book with this title written by a Sumba priest paints a beautiful picture of a society that has not yet entered the modern world. Sumba still is a “forgotten island” in development terms: literacy and numeracy levels are still very poor, deaths in child birth still high, and rates of malaria and other eradicable diseases well above the national norm. Only around 53 per cent of the population has access to electricity. I met the Regent (Bupati) of East Sumba, Pak Gideon and his staff and heard that over 31 per cent of the people in his kabupaten are classified as living in poverty; over 50 per cent of children suffer stunting; life expectancy was 63 years (nationally – 73); and average length of schooling was just 6 years and 6 months (ie primary school only).


Our journey in Sumba began after a one hour flight from Bali to the airport in Tambaloka in the east of the island. Our first program was to visit the Sumba Hospitality Foundation in South West Sumba regency. This is a completely off-grid eco-resort and hospitality training school, run by a foundation chaired by Ibu Redampta Tetebato and friends from around the world. I was fascinated at how they had succeeded in surviving off-grid, because this is a model for the sort of tourism development that we had discussed at our renewable energy seminar last March in Makassar (see In short, they have installed an 80kWp solar panel system with a 288kWh battery pack and 80kVa diesel genset backup (see ). They are aiming for maximum self-sufficiency: they also have solar hot water systems and a permaculture garden. Quite impressive.

Also impressive were the Foundation’s 48 students from poor families around Sumba, who are learning how to work in hotels, restaurants and cafes. After their one year course many of these students are likely to get jobs in Bali. Employment opportunities in tourism are limited on Sumba: apart from the Nihi Sumba resort there are only a few dozen small losmen or homestays scattered around the coast line. The students sang us a song they had composed about their home island, very sweet and nostalgic. All are keen to come back to their island when the tourism sector grows.


                                                                                                    Students and staff of Sumba Hospitality Foundation School


The following day I met the Bupati of West Sumba, Pak Niga and his staff. We talked a lot about our cooperation in education, especially the Australian program in Sumba called Inovasi, which aims to facilitate teacher skills upgrading, in an attempt to improve student literacy in the primary schools. It is still early days, but the program has shown some promising results. The local head of Inovasi, Pak Hironimus Sugi (Pak Hiro), has organized programs in each of the four kabupatens on Sumba, and has gained enthusiastic support from teachers, school principals, and officials. These programs are led by regional facilitators, who conduct in-service training courses that help teachers identify the best teaching methods for their specific situations.

To see Inovasi in action I visited Paolo Umbu School in West Sumba, where the primary school teachers are participating in the Inovasi program. The junior high school on the same site also happened to be one of the SATAP (single-roof) schools built under the now competed Australia Indonesia Education Partnership.[1] The students and teachers performed a welcome dance which included girls moving serenely while a pair of young men jumped about waving large swords (called katoppo) and a group of older women ululated joyfully in the background.

In a meeting with the teachers and the principal, and a representative from the kabupaten government, I learnt that Inovasi is helping teachers learn some really basic, important stuff, such as how to develop effective lesson plans; and how to develop programs to help children transition from their mother tongue to Indonesian, the national language. Some teachers are setting up reading corners in their classrooms, and decorating their classrooms with children’s work. As a former teacher myself I was quite amazed to learn how little preparation primary school teachers get before they’re sent out to these isolated schools. Inovasi will help remedy that; from my conversation with the teachers I noted that Inovasi is also building a greater sense of enthusiasm and dedication among the teaching body of Sumba. They are getting the attention and help they need and deserve!


Sumba is indeed a beautiful island. I enjoyed a few peaceful, early morning walks along the perfect white sand beach in front of the losmen where we stayed in West Sumba. There was little plastic refuse on the beach, perhaps the winds had not brought it our way from other more populated parts of the archipelago. A broken coral cliff rose up from the beach: I noticed the remains of a giant clam shell embedded in a part of the old reef about three meters up from the shore-line. Was this uplifting caused by the Australian continent’s slow drift northwards? Most of this island, like many others throughout eastern Indonesia, was built by trillions of tiny coral polyps over millions of years.

We should better look after this amazing inheritance – but the attractiveness of this part of the world has not been lost on the speculators. Most of the northern coastline of West Sumba, abutting the beautiful beaches and looking out over perfect aquamarine seas, has been bought by outsiders and investors already. Our driver, Pak Vincent, told us of several planned tourism developments. He and others, also told us that the local communities who had sold their land had little understanding of what they were doing - many families would sell their land to outsiders when they needed money for the expensive animal sacrifices required for the funeral of a departed loved one.


On our third day we drove from Waikabubak in West Sumba, to Waingapu, the capital of East Sumba. East Sumba appeared very different to the west: dry and treeless, a bit like parts of northern Australia, with herds of cattle and horses ranging over it. Pak Vincent stopped just outside Waingapu and showed us a row of hills called the “sleeping giant”. Looking back at these hills I could make out a big nose pointing up to the sky, a round chest and the form of what could be arms diving down into a ravine.

In Waingapu we opened an Australia Corner at the only university on the island, the Wira Wacana Christian University, student body of about 2,000, headed by Rector Mrs Nurlina Kalunga. We also received an enthusiastic traditional welcome here (see my video on Facebook). This university is a sister-uni to the famous Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Java. Our little Oz corner in the university library provides useful information to potential scholarship students and those who would like to apply for study at universities across Australia. A small group of Australian alumni in Waingapu lead by the energetic Pak Salmon who runs the English language course at Wira Wacana University, will look after and use the Australia Corner.

                                                                                                   Opening of Oz Corner at Wira Wacana University, Sumba

After five busy days on Sumba it was time for us to leave the island, this time via the Umbu Mehang airport in East Sumba. As we flew west towards Bali I reflected on the beauty of the traditional villages we had visited; the ancient weaving skills still maintained by the women of these villages; the great stone tombs that families still build for their departed loved ones; and the culture of sacrificing those large, sleepy animals that you see everywhere on the island, the water buffaloes with their huge curving horns. I recalled the poor literacy and numeracy rates among children – and adults; the poverty and lack of health knowledge among the villagers; and the NGOs I had come across working to help government and communities to address these development challenges. And I realized that Australia is doing the right thing, particularly by helping improve education outcomes, for the people of Sumba.


                                                                                                                                            May 2018


[1] Under this program, between 2012 – 2015 Australia built 30 schools in Sumba at a cost of AUD3.38 million.