Meeting the undead in Toraja: an unexpected lesson.
In the coaching and leadership world, where our organizations are global, we try to be culturally competent. But are we? Do we see past ourselves?
I walk up the spotless cement steps in trepidation, about to meet a person I would call dead, but is not seen as dead here. I’m in Toraja, an area in the mountainous center of the island of Sulawesi. This area gets about 1,000 visitors a year. Most people are rice farmers. Everywhere I walk people flock to me so they can take a selfie with this exotic pale person. Even in the rice paddies, everyone has a smart phone.
So where am I? Looking at a map, head to China, go down to Kuala Laumpur or Singapore. Slide to the right to Borneo, and keep going right and you’ll see Sulawesi, the island that looks like a “K.” I’m being driven to the middle of the K, up from the south on roads where I shut my eyes a lot. You know when you get to Toraja because suddenly you see houses with fantastical roofs. My guide explains, the roofs look like this because they represent the horns of the water buffalo, there are two high peaks on either side, with a shallow U in the middle, it’s called a saddleback. These homes and rice barns are all elaborately carved, painted and decorated with columns of water buffalo horns.
Why is this? Water buffalo are sacred here as you can only get to heaven with the spirit of the buffalo to take you there. The mythology is complex and while the Toraja are no longer head hunters, they are strongly animistic; their world is alive in ways quite different from the west. The belief is absolute. You cannot get to heaven without the sacrifice of the buffalo. Depending on your caste: softwood, hardwood, silver or gold, you need to sacrifice from one to over two dozen animals at your funeral rite. But these beautifully muscled animals cost over $10,000 (US) each, there are often years between when you become “sick” (no longer alive) and when your family can afford to have your funeral, and only then do you die.
The woman I am to meet has been dead about five years. At the top of the stairs I’m swarmed with excited laughing children wanting “kondee!” This I didn’t know and I have no sweets for them. There is an open area, four bedrooms on the right side, one of these reserved for grandma. I open the curtain and walk in. It’s a small room, her son is waiting, there are photos of her. Her head is facing south, toward where their heaven is located and she’s in a kind of small casket, shaped like an oval log, made of rough wood. The first thing I notice are her glasses, which with time and heat, have crackled and now sparkle like many tiny mirrors. It is expected that I greet her.
What happens next is not expected. I am terribly squeamish and won’t even go to an open casket wake or funeral, I just can’t. I expect to be horrified by the home-mummified being. I lean over and look at her. Yes, her skin is blackened and she is shrunken. But this wave of warmth and love washes over me, surrounds and infuses me. This room is filled with her memories and the son looks at her with tenderness, and includes me in somehow. I find that my right hand is over my heart and I am deeply, deeply touched. It is an exquisitely beautiful moment and I seem to feel her presence.
Now think about this for a second.
You might not be having an anthropological moment, but even familiar looking cultures and people are not necessarily what we think. How many assumptions do you (and I) make about others that could be wrong?
What we expect to see can blind us to what possibilities lie right there before us. I’d like you to remember this story the next time you feel an automatic judgement about someone. Maybe they look scary, or superficial or just different in some way that you react to in a reflexive way.
Just stop. Step back. Go from conviction to curiosity. Maybe you’ll be surprised.
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