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Project Profile: Zapal, an oral literature genre of the Bunaq Lamaknen

Today on the ELAR blog, Antoinette Schapper discusses her project ‘Documenting Zapal among the Bunaq people of Lamaknen in West Timor, Indonesia‘. Antoinette received an ELDP small grant at the University of Cologne.


Bunaq is a Papuan language spoken in central Timor, straddling the border between independent Timor-Leste and Indonesian West Timor. The Bunaq people are isolated in Timor by two factors: their language and their social structure. Firstly, they are surrounded on all sides by Austronesian languages: Kemak to the north, Mambai to the east and Tetun to the south and west. Its closest relatives in the Timor-Alor-Pantar family, the other Papuan languages of Timor –Fataluku, Makasai and Makalero– are located in a contiguous coastal area on the island’s eastern tip.

Distribution of Bunaq books to teachers. Photo taken by Anis Attis

The Bunaq language is widely recognised by the Bunaq and their Austronesian neighbours as ‘different’, and, whilst Bunaq is rarely learnt by non-Bunaq, almost all Bunaq are fluent in at least one Austronesian language. Secondly, the sense of Bunaq’s otherness has been fostered by their having a socially distinct character. In contrast to the other groups in Timor which are either matrilineal (e.g., Wehali Tetun), or more commonly patrilineal (e.g., Kemak), the Bunaq allow both forms of descent and marriage. On birth, children normally enter the mother’s house. But in a special form of marriage called paen, the mother may be adopted into the house of her husband, their children subsequently also belong to the house of the husband. Factors of linguistic non-conformity and social isolation such as these have set the Bunaq apart to some degree. At the same time, they have also led to a very inclusive cultural attitude on the part of the Bunaq, involving widespread borrowing and adaptation from Austronesian language and society.

Bunaq aitos ‘ancestor statue’. Photo taken by Antoinette Schapper

There are roughly 85,000 native speakers of the Bunaq language. Of these, approximately 20,000 are located in Belu province of West Timor. The greatest concentration of speakers, around 16,000 people, is in Lamaknen and the neighbouring Bunaq-speaking villages of southern Raihat. The remaining 4,000 are found in scattered villages in southern.  In West Timor, the Bunaq language is vulnerable; significant shift is apparent in the current parent and child generation. Whilst still learnt by many children in the villages in Lamaknen and Raihat, Bunaq is rapidly losing ground to Indonesian, the national language, and local varieties of Malay. Fifteen years ago, when I started my fieldwork on Bunaq, children were raised bilingual in Bunaq and Malay, switching freely between the two in social interaction with one another. Today those children are having children of their own, many of whom have only passive competence in Indonesian/Malay. In Raihat, Bunaq speakers are also competent in the variety of Tetun Terik spoken in the neighbouring villages, while in Lamaknen most older people have some competence in Tetun. In southern Belu, shift from Bunaq is more advanced than in Lamaknen. In the eastern villages, such as Haroe and Welaus, many children still acquire the Bunaq language. In the remaining villages to the east, Bunaq is weak, having lost significant ground to Tetun Terik, the majority language in the region, and Indonesian, the national language.

In East Timor, Bunaq remains vital in the villages of Bobonaro and Covalima districts. Bilingualism with Tetun Dili, the lingua franca of East Timor, has increased since its pronouncement as an official language along with Portuguese in 2002. But whilst great emphasis is placed upon the acquisition of Tetun Dili as the languages of advantage and employment, the vitality of Bunaq does not appear to have been greatly affected. In Ainaro and Manufahi, Bunaq people speak Mambae in addition to Tetun Dili, and their variety of Bunaq shows signs of being significantly influenced by Mambae. Bunaq is strong in Ainaro where there are sizeable groups of Bunaq people, but in Manufahi the switch to Mambae appears to be almost complete with no children below the age of 15 speaking the language in my observation.

This project

Despite the Bunaq speech community in Lamaknen still being strong in overall numbers, Bunaq oral traditions are highly endangered. Knowledge of them is declining particularly amongst the youngest generation of Bunaq speakers. This project aimed to document the Bunaq oral literature genre known as zapal (also pronounced sapal or zupal depending on the individual) amongst the people of Lamaknen. I chose zapal as the target genre for my work, because, for the most part, they are told in everyday Bunaq. This contrasts with genres such as bei gua ‘ancestor histories’ that are told in ritual parallelism, a language form that requires significant training and study to both interpret and compose.

Zapal are stories that contain instructive lessons for children. Common didactic themes issuing from zapal include the need to obey one’s parents and follow the ways of the ancestors, that kindness begets prosperity whereas cruelty only leads to ruin, and the necessity of courage, resilience and patience in life. At the same time, zapal encapsulate and elucidate aspects of the Bunaq world view and their environment, for instance, explaining how fire was discovered or how the cockatoo got its white feathers. Like fables in the western world, zapal frequently feature anthropomorphized animals, trees, or forces of nature, such as rain.

Traditionally, elders told zapal to children in the evening before going to sleep. There is a traditional prohibition on telling zapal during the day. Elders would tell children that if they were told zapal during today, their bodies would become riddled with worms. This was said to be a strategy by elders to stop children requesting stories during the day when there was work to be done. With the arrival of electricity, television and mobile phones in Bunaq villages, the traditional night-time forum for telling zapal has been lost to a certain extent. As a result, Bunaq children now have a greatly reduced knowledge of the tales from the vast canon of zapal that the Bunaq once had.

Community outcomes

In focussing on zapal, I aimed to stimulate and foster knowledge of oral literature amongst the youngest members of the Bunaq speech community, the least knowledgeable about Bunaq oral traditions and most vulnerable to language shift. The community outcomes of this project were therefore aimed at school children and developed together with local Bunaq teachers in Lamaknen for use in teaching muatan lokal ‘local content curriculum’. At the time the project was granted, Bunaq teachers had no resources or guidelines to help them with the local content portion of the Indonesian curriculum, and it was often left out altogether.

The project produced two volumes of zapal for school children. Each volume presents zapal texts in both the original (lightly edited) Bunaq and in a standard Indonesian translation. A detailed introduction in Indonesian discusses the cultural purpose of zapal, presents the Bunaq orthography used in the volumes including the salient differences between it and Indonesian orthography, and suggests how teachers might use the books in class. With the assistance of the ministry of education in Belu 1,400 books (700 of each volume) were distributed to the schools throughout Lamaknen. Each school received a bundle of 40 books (20 of each volume). Digital versions of the volumes can be downloaded from the Bunaq collection at ELAR.

Cover photos are of traditional Bunaq weaving; photos taken by Emilie Wellfelt

Legacy materials

In addition to archiving the audio recordings of zapal made in the course of this project, an additional result was the discovery and archiving of written collections of zapal.

The first legacy collection is that made in 1966 by Louis Berthe, an anthropologist that worked with the Bunaq in Lamaknen in the 1950s and 1960s. The zapal collection of Berthe represents an important contribution to the documentation of this genre of oral literature, since many of the zapal he recorded appear no longer to be told amongst the Bunaq today. After Berthe’s death in 1968, Dr. Claudine Friedberg deposited the original reel-to-reel recordings with the Collège de France. Tragically, however, most of these reels were lost. A small number survived, but they contain mostly music and only a few of the zapal he collected: see the Sound archives of the CNRS – Musée de l’Homme. The loss of part of this collection underscores the urgent need for analogue recordings to be digitally archived. With the permission of Claudine Friedberg, I was able to take scans of transcriptions of Berthe’s zapal collection and at least these have been archived with ELAR. In total, the Berthe zapal collection deposited to ELAR comes to 61 stories. After Berthe’s death in 1968, Claudine Friedberg took it upon herself to publish a selection of ten zapal (or sapal as Berthe and Friedberg refer to them) collected by Berthe in a volume entitled Comment fut tranchée la liane céleste: et autres textes de littérature orale bunaq (Timor, Indonésie). A pdf of this long out-of-print book is also made available in the collection.

Also archived is a type-written manuscript of various zapal written down in the 1970s by A.A. Beretallo, the first governor of Belu (where Bunaq is spoken) and the previous loro (‘ritual leader’) of the Bunaq area of Lamaknen. The manuscript contains 21 zapal. These are presented in two columns with Bunaq on the right and an Indonesian translation on the left. Bere Tallo also provides an introduction and copious notes to the texts. The manuscript was held by Dr. Anton Bele and a pdf of a photocopy is archived with ELAR with his permission. I have encountered many such, either hand-written or type-written, manuscripts in eastern Indonesia. They represent important records of ethno-linguistic knowledge made by community elders, who increasingly are realizing the loss of their traditions. I urge researchers working in documentation to include these materials in their archives even though they are not in the preferred audio-visual format.

What still needs to be done?

In the discussions I had with community leaders and teachers in the course of this project, it was clear that awareness about the loss of Bunaq traditional arts was heightened. Bunaq people spoke to me about the need to continue the documentation as there are still many undocumented forms of literature. Anton Bele pointed out the need for documentation of an unnamed genre of stories which explain the origins of place names (one such story was recorded in the course of this project under the name Masaq Tomol, accessible here). The current loro Lamaknen, Ignatius Kali, noted that Bunaq tei goq ‘pantun’ and bai kiqin ‘riddles’ were yet to have any documentation. The tei goq genre is particularly interesting because it constitutes a traditional form of socialisation amongst the Bunaq in which individuals “throw” verses back and forth between them, variously complementing, insulting and upbraiding one another. Traditional handicraft making was another area where elders expressed dismay at the loss of knowledge. For example, while many women in villages still learn how to weave, knowledge of traditional practices of cotton spinning and dyeing is only held by the oldest weavers. Similarly, traditional basketry and clay pot-making techniques have seen a significant decline with store-bought items used more and more. Documentation of these verbal arts and handicrafts should be a priority for future work.

Rainbow. Photo taken by Antoinette Schapper

Thanks Antoinette!