Lauf Neno, a woman living by herself

I am writing a paper in which I attempt to make sense of some of the (colonial) anthropology that has come before me. Schulte Nordholt is a fascinating figure because among other things he was an administrator in West Timor before and after World War Two. His interest in history, but inability to grapple with “Timorese” perspectives on history, is particularly compelling and troubling at the same time.

I came across this quote, from a rather dry (literally) section of “The Political System of the Atoni” on agriculture, which I found so incredibly haunting and sad.

During the famine of 1930 the people of Amfoan sought help from Lauf Neno (Van Alphen, 1933), a woman living by herself in a shack in a river valley. Her only clothing consisted of a loin-cloth, and she had no other belongings than a cooking-pot and a sirih purse. She had been discovered in 1927, when there was also a food shortage, and was reputed to have descended from heaven on to the Mutis, so that she was a neno aman, or celestial child. Others said she came from Kauniki where Sonba’i, the great son of heaven, once lived. She was said to have attended school and speak many languages. People brought her quantities of sacrificial gifts, such as hens, pigs, cloths, beads and sirih pinang, in order to bring on rain. Her fingers were deformed, except for the index fingers and thumbs. She had the appearance of an old woman, although she was probably not much older than 30. It was believed that if she opened her right hand the drought would continue for a very long time to come, and if she opened her left hand many people would die. The fetor (district head) decided to send her to Kupang, but when she became aware of his intentions she was literally struck dumb and wept so much, for days on end, that the fetor, prompted by apprehension, released her. But a few months later she was conveyed to Kupang after all, on the orders of the Netherlands East Indies Government. Here people continued to bring her sirih pinang to her in jail. She was charged with fraud and died a month later. She had opened the fingers of her left hand before her death, and was buried with her hand in that position. And many people died, for the drought continued. (75-76)

Part of what I find disturbing about this tale is the voice of the narrator(s). Strange, to start, that he does not seem extremely up front about the source(s) of all of the information. Schulte Nordholt has a borderline empathetic voice, and yet by telling the story the way he did, he seems to somehow endorse the colonial version. She was “discovered”? By colonial authority I am assuming.

He concludes “popular imagination places a lonely and disfigured person in the sphere of the hidden world […] The woman herself probably had no part in this at all.” (Highly speculative, isn’t it?)

Anthropology still often seems to operate on this level – make sense of, even empathize with but, when push comes to shove, the analysing seems to somehow explain away very personal struggles and hidden histories. As an object of study she has meaning. As a woman who died in prison she is either absurd or tragic.