Rhythm of life on Indonesia's islands

Raja Ampat Travel Story: Sawinggrai Village is Gam Island. Pic: MIchael Wilson, The West Australian.
Photo of Andrew Shipp

Amid the 1500 outcrops of Raja Ampat, life unfolds at a gentler pace.


Pulling into Yenbuba was a surreal experience.

The long jetty was deserted and once the engines were cut you could only hear the gentle lapping of the water against the jetty’s wooden pylons.

The clear water looked inviting but we set off to explore the village.

Stepping off the jetty we walked down the main dirt path of the village, houses deserted and only the occasional dog raising its head to see us pass.

But with each step the faint sound of singing grew until we came upon a whitewashed building filled with the voices of children. Inside the village Sunday school the kids were singing along with their teachers.

It was Sunday in Yenbuba, one of the 1500 islands in Raja Ampat in Indonesia’s far east and the day when everyone goes to church. Villagers from nearby islands make the watery pilgrimage to worship, coming in their finest clothes.

The girls in dresses and their hair done, the boys in their pressed shirts.

The singing rises and falls as we continue along the street, heading further into the village, past the simple island homes painted in varying pastel colours with tin roofs with varying degrees of rust.

At the end of the street we are greeted with more singing, as we come upon the main church in the area, Jemaat Bethania.

Built just over a year ago, the impressive house of worship is a monument to the islanders’ Christian roots. With no heavy machinery available it was truly a bespoke structure, with the locals all pitching in to lend a hand.

Religion plays a big part of life here. It’s as much social as spiritual, with the Sunday worship providing people a chance to mix and share. 

The islands of Raja Ampat are predominately Christian in a Muslim country and the islanders hold firm to their beliefs.

The murals of a benevolent Jesus welcome people and the children who finish Sunday school mill around the entrance, singing and playing and chatting and waiting for the service to be over.

It’s a social occasion and we leave them to their hymns and wander back to the jetty where the sound of their prayers are replaced by the quiet lapping of the water against the wooden pylons.


It just started to rain when we pulled into Sawinggrai.

A small group of children stood jumping impatiently on the floating dock, waiting for us to land, calling to the boat crew to throw the ropes to them.

A handful of boys and girls, no more than eight-years-old, stood around as the heavy drops hit the ground.

Under the roof of the main building a growing troupe were preparing for an impromptu greeting, the older ones marshalling the little ones, smiling and laughing, still trying to be serious but their giggles giving them away.

Sawinggrai is a village on one of the 1500 islands in Raja Ampat. The people here eke out a living from the land and the sea. They have a small church and a school but are isolated, like the other islanders in the archipelago. They trade among themselves and supply food to the dive lodges to make a living.

By the shore an old man bails out his fishing canoe, oblivious to the distractions caused by the visitors. His leathery skin hangs over a thin frame and a battered hat marginally keeps the rain off him. He goes on in fluid motions, emptying the plastic container and refilling it from the narrow wooden boat.

We are here to feed the fish and get a “special feeling” but the rain puts that on hold.

The clear water below is dimpled by the large tropical raindrops but you can see the fish under the jetty, waiting patiently.

To fill the time the children assemble in the main open-sided building.

Teenaged boys scurry along the jetty and take over instruments from younger ones and soon the wooden floors begin to bounce to the rhythmic dancing of the children and the melody of Asay Buri, a local song giving thanks for the marine life which is such a major part of the islanders. It’s the story of the ocean and the gifts which it gives to the people.

It’s a simple dance, as the children, older girls in front, lead the others in sideways hip thrusting and foot stamping.

The smiles on the faces as they sing and dance is infectious and soon we are all smiling and humming along, laughing at the antics of the smaller children who delight in playing to the crowd and forcing their older siblings to pull them into line.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the simple lines, the harmony and the rhythm.

The lines repeat over and over as the two lines of children move around and around, like currents of the waters on which they live, ebbing and flowing.

Eventually the performance comes to an end, engulfed in a sea of laughter and applause, the younger children squealing in delight as they line up to receive gifts of biscuits and sweet treats from the visitors.

Then it’s time to start jumping in the water and impressing us with backflips and pushing to the front to be the main attraction amid the laughter and applause.

The feeding of the fish gets lost as we watch the innocence of the islander children showing off and trying to outdo each other until this writer joins them in a bombie competition and literally blows them out of the water, much to their joy.

The islands of Raja Ampat in eastern Indonesia are home to traditional villages, a distinctive culture and a Pacific island feel. And, as Andrew Shipp and Michael Wilson find, they're full of surprises. Duration: 06m 11s The West Australian


Andrew Shipp and Michael Wilson were guests of the Indonesian Consulate.


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