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Home » Mentawai Island » Uma: The heart of Mentawai Culture

Uma: The heart of Mentawai Culture

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Overview

Uma is the name for the traditional house built by the indigenous tribal communities of the Mentawai Islands in the province of West Sumatera. Although it looks simple, the Uma is not only important as a place of dwelling, but as a cultural center as well.  

An Uma is typically occupied by 5 to 7 descendants from the same family, following patrilineal lineage. Women living in the Uma are usually from other families, who later moved in with their husbands after marriage. If a woman’s husband dies, and she becomes a widow, she must return to her native Uma where she was born.
 
Headed by a chief and a few elders, the Uma serves many purposes. It functions not only as a place to live, but it is also considered the center of life for the Mentawai Tribes and is used for work, meetings, ceremonies and rituals.
 
Uma houses sit on stilts, and are constructed almost entirely of wood. A number of wooden rods in the core of the house are the main support for the Uma, whose size is determined by how many logs are used in the core. The foundation of the house is made of rock, usually rocks from coral reefs which have proven sturdy and suitable for the foundation. Five types of wood are used in the construction of an Uma, which are white meranti, rattan, bamboo, aloe and coconut wood. The roofs are made of thatched sago leaves, and can last for tens of years. An Uma is built without the use of nails, but instead use wooden pegs, ropes, and interlocking techniques.
 
The Uma has no door, but the front of the house forms into an open porch, which is used as a place to gather, chat and receive visitors by day, and as a bedroom for the men by night. The front of the house also has another section, consisting of a platform with rough floor boards. This area is used as a place of storage for tools such as sharpening stones, axes and knives.
 
Upon entry into the Uma, the first chamber is used for entertaining guests, and as a venue for meetings and ceremonies. The next chamber is divided into two rooms. The first contains a fireplace and functions as a kitchen. This room is usually also used as the family bedroom. The adjoining room is used as a central hall and place to dance. The floor in this hall is made of wide planks, sanded until they are very smooth, making an excellent surface for dancing. Musical instruments can often also be found in this room. The upper level of the house is used as a second sleeping room, and is made of coconut wood.
 
The first level of the house is approximately one meter from the ground. The contours of the uneven ground are overcome by the pillars upon which the house is built, hence establishing a solid and stable home. The space beneath the house is used as a pigsty.
 
The Uma is decorated with an array of animal skulls on display at the entrance of the main hall. The hanging skulls are believed to invite good fortune, and are also used to signify the number of parties that have been held in that uma.
 
The building of an Uma is a festival in itself, and is accompanied by special rituals and ceremonies celebrating the kinship of the Mentawai Tribes.
 
Aside from the Uma, there are other types of homes built by the Mentawai Tribe, such as the Lalep, and the Rusuk. A lalep is typically the residence of a legitimate married couple, and is sometimes part of an Uma, while a Rusuk is constructed for young children, widows, and those who have been displaced from their homes.
 
Despite its distinct and simple beauty, the existence of the Uma is slowly becoming obsolete. As the Mentawai tribes become more modern,houses are now often built of concrete. Furthermore, the rituals and ceremonies that accompany the building of an Uma are becoming more expensive, discouraging many from embarking on the task. Government policies have also made moves to relocate the Mentawai tribes – another cause for the reduced number of Uma in this day and age.
 
Uma’s are now only found on the island of Siberut, in the villages of Madobak, Ugai, and Matotonan. These villages are home to approximately 178 families from 18 Mentawai tribes occupying about 160 uma. The village of Ugai is about 4-5 hours by boat from the village of Muara Siberut, or about 12 hours by boat from the city of Padang, West Sumatera.

 

Photo Courtesy by Bayu Marthen

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Uma: The heart of Mentawai Culture

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