Singapore nonprofit Women on a Mission has raised over $1 million to support women’s rights and empowerment; their trek to Sumatra aims to create awareness of the Sakuddei Tribe and its vanishing way of life
Life in modern Singapore is easy, safe, clean and comfortable. Sometimes the comforts we enjoy there can make us forget many people in the world don’t share our luxury. Having recently moved to Bali, I am starting to appreciate this more and more. But of course, Bali is still a paradise, and also one of the most developed parts of the drawn out archipelago that is Indonesia.
This November, I will embark on a special mission: with a group of twelve women I’m going on a 10-day trek deep into the jungle to stay with a tribe that still aims to live in the traditional ways. The twelve women joining the trek, organised by Women on a Mission, are mostly Singaporean or (former) expats in Singapore. Twelve privileged women, used to comfortable hotels, clean sheets and air-conditioning – staying in the jungle, sleeping in makeshift shelters full of creepy crawlies, bathing in rivers, eating sago worms and trekking the dense forest. It will be an unforgettable experience!
We do this not only because it will be an amazing opportunity for us to experience how the tribe lives, and learn about the challenges they face as they struggle to remain in the quickly vanishing forests; but also to raise awareness and money for another group of women in need, women who need to rebuild their lives and raise their families in a country torn apart by war.
Women on a Mission (WOAM) is a non-profit organisation, headquartered in Singapore, which aims to raise awareness and funds for women’s rights and empowerment, partnering with existing non-profit institutions that serve the underprivileged, with a particular focus on women’s issues. Every year they organise challenging expeditions – self-funded by each participant – to raise money for their chosen charities (click here to read about some of their past expeditions!). This will be WOAM’s 10th expedition and they have raised over S$1 million to date for their charity partners.
The upcoming expedition’s objective is to raise $100,000 SGD for Women for Women International – UK, a charity that provides women survivors of war and conflict with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency.
So whilst the participants of the trek are roughing it in the jungle, with their blisters, belly bugs and jungle meals, they ask their friends to sponsor them. Not to cover their costs – they themselves are lucky to be able to afford going on this amazing adventure – but because there are many women in the world who have been through trauma and terrible conflicts who need our help.
Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Executive Director of Women for Women International – UK explains how important this is: “The women we work with live in some of the world’s most dangerous places – it can be hard for us to imagine their daily challenges. I find it so inspiring that WOAM push themselves far outside their comfort zone in order to raise money and awareness for women survivors of war. WOAM members truly go the extra mile to leverage their networks and raise incredible sums of money, which make a real difference to the women we serve.”
So where will our expedition take us? The original plan was to visit the Korowai tribe in West Papua – the most Eastern part of Indonesia that harbours the largest stretch of unspoilt rainforest in the region. Unfortunately, the political situation there has been unstable for some time. The Papuan people are fighting for independence from Indonesia, and violence has escalated recently after incidents on Java. We felt it would be irresponsible to travel to the region at this time. The Papuan struggle for peace is far from over – nor is my dream to visit them – and I hope both can be accomplished in the future.
Thankfully, Indonesia is huge, and WOAM managed to find another tribe that will welcome us in their midst. We will stay with the Sakuddei, one of twelve tribes that live on Siberut Island — the largest of the Mentawai, a group of islands west of Sumatra. Almost half of the island is a national park, covered in dense jungle. The tribes eat what the jungle gives them: sago, fish and shrimp from the rivers, wild boar, and the famous sago worms, which I am particularly looking forward to!
The Indonesian government ‘encourages’ indigenous tribes like these to assimilate, leave their homes in the jungle and re-settle in villages on the coast. Their habitat of primary forest is cut down for timber, or redeveloped for palm oil. I am keen to learn how they manage to preserve their tribal identity in the modern world, and see if there are ways we can support them in maintaining their culture and livelihood.
Whilst life in resettlement villages is often one of poverty, tribal forest lifestyles are infinitely rich; developed over centuries to be in tune with their surroundings. The Mentawai traditionally live in uma, communities where everything is focused on balance: with each other and nature. Central to their beliefs is that everything has a soul: plants, objects and animals as well as people – and these souls need to be in a good relationship with each other. Every community has a kerei – or shaman – who can communicate with souls and the spirits of ancestors. These shamans also have a wealth of knowledge of magical medical plants from the jungle.
On the island we will meet with Suku Mentawai, a local NGO whose mission is to improve the health, well-being and livelihood of the Mentawai community by supporting indigenous culture and teaching its wisdom to the younger generation.
Aside from the physical challenges and the pushing of mental and emotional boundaries, I hope that our group of women will return from this expedition enriched in many ways. There will be much to learn that we can hopefully use in our hectic modern lives, particularly about living together on this planet, in harmony with each other and nature.
To learn more about Women on a Mission, or help them raise funds for women rebuilding their lives in war-torn zones, please visit the team’s fundraising page here. All donations will go directly to Women for Women International, and your generosity can truly change women’s lives.