In Timor’s Mollo highlands, life-giving waters, rocks and trees — and their devoted guardian clans — flourish. Lakoat.Kujawas rekindles intimate knowledge of this land through creative arts and food.
MEET DICKY AND LAKOAT.KUJAWAS
“We, Orang Mollo, are a people of gatherings,” says Christianto “Dicky” Senda. “We called our gatherings elaf. It’s a moment where people meet and hear the spoken word, tales, and genealogies.”
Elaf came to life before my eyes, writ large in the form of a celebration marking Indonesia’s Independence Day, where, with the state’s blessing, North Mollo residents dressed up and performed traditional songs and dances at a talent show in Kapan Square, the district’s centre.
But nearby, another celebration was taking place: an exhibition of photography by 11- to 15-year-olds; and the launch of a book of poems by To The Lighthouse, a writing club at Kapan’s St Yoseph Freinademetz Catholic Middle School. Under a flowering tree by the bonfire, a youth choir harmonised.
“These teenagers are making contributions to this village,” observes Father Jeremias “Romo Jimmy” Kewohon, principal of St Yoseph, with pride. He credits this creative revival among his students to Lakoat.Kujawas, a Timorese literacy centre and social enterprise founded by Dicky.
Now, Lakoat.Kujawas also welcomes travellers to explore this corner of South Central Timor, in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) province.
A former student guidance counsellor in Yogyakarta and Kupang, Dicky started writing stories inspired by Timorese fairy tales from his childhood. The need to conduct research for his books, and care for his ailing father compelled Dicky to move home to North Mollo’s Taiftob village in 2016.
Upon his return, Dicky saw that Mollo hadn’t changed much since his childhood. Children still had little access to educational playtime. Meanwhile, knowledge of Timorese oral tradition, indigenous spirituality, guardianship of natural resources, Timorese cuisine, and tenun (handwoven textiles) was dwindling.
“Lately, festivities, rituals, and harvest thanksgivings are not happening anymore,” says Dicky. “Without elaf, we’re deprived of spaces for telling our stories.”
So Dicky opened a library — a little elaf space for North Mollo children. It has since hosted English classes, a writing club, dance workshops, photography projects, music rehearsals, and a residency for visiting creative professionals.
Eventually, adults who miss their elaf joined in too. Working with local schools and creative youth communities, Lakoat.Kujawas now brings back the arts into everyday life for Orang Mollo (Bahasa Indonesia for the Mollo people), while recording them for future generations.
“We are our world. Soil cover our land like our skin. Water flows through the land like our blood The stones holding the land together are our bones The forest moving with the wind is our hair. We are our world.”
A Mollo philosophy
Dubbed “the heart of Timor,” North Mollo’s Mount Mutis is the source of four major Timorese rivers, with diverse ecosystems like bonsai forests, eucalyptus woodlands and horse-grazed meadows.
Travel experiences to Mollo were not on Dicky’s mind when he started Lakoat.Kujawas. The venture into tourism — focusing on heritage trails, culinary products, and tenun textiles — happened in response to outsiders’ appreciation for his community’s creative revival.
Hence, once a month, from January to August, Lakoat.Kujawas runs the M’nahat Fe’u Heritage Trail, which are guided trips introducing travellers to North Mollo’s natural landscapes, culture, and food.
M’nahat fe’u, which means “new food” in Dawan language, is a harvest elaf, and each trip varies according to the harvest of the season.
I was lucky enough to join the last trip of the year, which kicked off with a satisfying breakfast prepared by Lakoat.Kujawas members: black beans, steamed yams and coconut sweetened with palm sugar syrup, and pumpkin cake with marmalade. This was served with coffee (including a robusta blended with pumpkinseed), sweet fruity cascara tea made from coffee cherries husks, and loquat leaf tea.
Guiding this tour is Willy Oematan, who takes us to the Oematan wellsprings, introducing native plants and related rituals along the way. The Oematans are a revered Mollo clan traditionally designated as guardians of water sources, with their rituals being passed down through strict protocols.
From there, we hiked up Napjam Rock, where Lakoat.Kujawas members were cooking jagung bose maize porridge and broadbean stew over bonfires. Banana leaves became a picnic blanket set with palm leaf trays and claypots of Timorese dishes: smoked beef (seʼi), sweet-spicy chili-tomato relish (sambal lu’at), baked purple yams, cassava leaves in roasted pumpkinseed sauce, and a vegetable flower stir-fry.
Members of music collective Forum Soe Peduli lead a communal singalong as a prelude to lunch, and Dicky served consenting guests sopi lakoat: loquat-infused Timorese palm wine garnished with dried fruit.
Sopi, he shares, has cultural importance as a gesture of peace and camaraderie, and economic importance as a commodity that affords some Timorese families an education.
Homegrown Mollo cuisine is a major component of the Lakoat.Kujawas brand. On the day before I joined the heritage trail, Marlinda Nau, a farmer and member of Lakoat.Kujawas, welcomes me with a bountiful display of fresh produce.
With a basket in hand, I follow the cooks to a pink flowering tree called gamal (Gliricidia sepium). At a distance, they could be mistaken for cherry blossoms.
Whack! Someone climbs the tree and chops off a branch. Petals fall like confetti. The flowers, I learn, were a seasonal Timorese vegetable before it fell out of favour to commercially-grown vegetables.
“Lakoat.Kujawas gives us the space to revive our traditional agricultural knowledge and innovate our homegrown food,” says Marlinda.
Her husband Willy adds that Taiftob produces more carrots than people can eat, so they sell some to middlemen at unfairly low prices. “Now, we make carrot noodles and carrot-based snacks. Our produce gets consumed, and we save money otherwise spent on children’s snacks,” says Willy.
“In Mollo, we joke that we sell our organic fruits and vegetables, and buy instant noodles and cookies instead. We used to think what we have at home isn’t important. But now we know better and we laugh because it’s ridiculous.”
Dicky Senda Co-founder, Lakoat.Kujawas
Tenun handwoven textiles is another aspect of Timorese culture Lakoat.Kujawas strives to preserve. This ancient craft involves the weaving of coloured threads into complex motifs, requiring imagination, meticulous hand-eye coordination, and patience.
In Nusa Tenggara society, tenun is a marker of a person’s social status, clan kinship and geographical origin. Today, tenun is also a profitable commodity marketed to travellers, fashionistas and collectors.
A prominent Lakoat.Kujawas weaver is Amelia Koi, who runs a family collective comprising her six daughters. “It’s hard to find young ones interested in tenun, so I teach mine,” says Amelia, who has them fully trained by age 11.
The girls stay in school until they graduate their final year of secondary school, around age 18 or 19. Although none attended university, her elder daughters are financially independent and experienced weavers.
Months earlier, I ordered a tenun backpack from a Yogyakarta-based brand that partners with Lakoat.Kujawas. The tenun is Amelia’s. “The work of my hand has returned ,” says Amelia, recognising the bag (pictured below). “My textiles travel further than I do. It feels that a piece of me travels along.”
My trip culminates in a march with thousands of North Mollo residents in Kapan’s Independence Eve Parade, many dressed in tenun as a statement of their local identity. But even as the most festive occasion of the year comes to an end, elaf is never over at Lakoat.Kujawas.
Says Dicky: “At Lakoat.Kujawas, we continue to grow and nurture… Our spirit is not project-based — it’s an elaf spirit that restores our cultural spaces with dignity.”
THE DIFFERENCE YOU MAKE
Lakoat.Kujawas runs seasonal single day tours, as well as creative residencies and Timorese food workshops. Bookings must be made in advance.
When you book a tour with Lakoat.Kujawas, or shop via their social media accounts, you help to fund local children’s educational programmes like the To The Lighthouse writing club, photography exhibitions, and performing arts productions — activities that are otherwise scarce in rural Timor.
Revenues from the Lakoat.Kujawas tours, artisan food production, and tenun partnerships fund the Lakoat.Kujawas cooperative, which is a source of income for adult members.
The cooperative is designing a collective savings programme, which they hope will someday help Lakoat.Kujawas families fund their children’s higher education, or support them through hard times.
At the time of publishing this story, COVID-19 cases globally continue to rise, and international travel — even domestic travel in some cases — has been restricted for public health reasons. During this time, consider exploring the world differently: discover new ways you can support communities in your favourite destinations, and bookmark them for future trips when borders reopen.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism was emerging as a boon to rural communities seeking to supplement their incomes while preserving their way of life. With little tourism to rely on as the coronavirus rages on, two rural communities in Indonesia are finding other ways to cope.
Virtual voyages: Lakoat.Kujawas
Can the magic of a revered water source in the Mollo highlands be felt across a virtual video tour?
Perhaps not as much as Dicky Senda would like. But with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting his hometown off from tourism revenue, such experiments provide a way to bring the sights and sounds of his hometown into people’s homes and a means to sustain his community’s way of life.
Just a little more than a year ago, Dicky had debuted the M’nahat Fe’u Heritage Trail and was looking forward to welcoming guests regularly in 2020. Run as a monthly day trip in Taiftob, South Central Timor by local collective Lakoat.Kujawas, the guided tour introduces guests to Mollo ecosystems, cuisine and narratives. Like its namesake, the Mollo Timorese m’nahat fe’u ritual, it celebrates the harvest season by serving new food.
But the COVID-19 pandemic ground the heritage trail, as well as the many livelihoods it created, to a halt. While Lakoat.Kujawas cooperative members are mostly farmers who could continue with agriculture, they lost the valuable supplementary income they earned as guides and cooks for travellers. The revenue from these endeavours had also been intended to go into a collective savings programme to fund critical needs of members’ children.
Sales for their produce such as coffee, condiments and jagung bose (puffed maize for porridge) also declined, as these were sold mainly on the heritage trail. Without these sales, the farmers are vulnerable to middlemen who set prices so unfairly low that farmers often leave produce unsold — a system that creates the poverty and hunger common throughout Indonesian Timor.
“Economically we are impacted,” admits Dicky, co-founder of Lakoat.Kujawas, citing logistical problems such as closures of the postal services and sporadic operations of shuttles leaving Taiftob for the provincial capital Kupang. At one point, it took a fortnight for a package to reach Jakarta.
Nevertheless, with the help of friends, Dicky found opportunities to reinvent the heritage trail.
Enter Pasar M’nahat Fe’u (“new food market”), one of Lakoat.Kujawas’ digital initiatives. Via its social media channels, anyone in South Central Timor can now pre-order lunch boxes containing healthy, traditional Timorese dishes normally served on the heritage trail, prepared and delivered by collective members. “Our open orders promote no MSG, no palm oil, only local coconut oil, traditional dishes and recipes, and a plastic-free lunch packaged in banana leaves,” said Dicky.
Lakoat.Kujawas also debuted a digital version of the M’nahat Fe’u Heritage Trail as part of the Virtual Heritage series on the travel platform Traval.co. The free pilot was sponsored by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism; currently it is still available for free, but participants are encouraged to "pay-as-you-wish”.
Featuring singer and activist Rara Sekar as a special guest, the virtual tour, in Bahasa Indonesia only, recreates much of the M’nahat Fe’u experience in a part-live two-hour Zoom Meeting format. Explaining the need to pre-record some portions of the tour, Dicky elaborated, “Patchy internet is a challenge: nudge your phone and you lose the signal. It’s impossible to broadcast live from the wellspring, Napjam Rock, etc.”
In the virtual format, Lakoat.Kujawas has also introduced new seasonal elements, such as a tour inside an ume kbubu traditional house, a demonstration of how jagung bose is made, and a showcase of new preserved products such as sayur asin (pickled mustard greens), guava wine, ginger beer, and roselle jam. Husband-and-wife team Willybrodus Oematan (guide) and Marlinda Nau (head cook) also presented segments of the virtual tour.
Local demand for Lakoat.Kujawas’ digital initiatives remains modest in the South Central Timor region. “But at least there is demand and it helps,” added Dicky, mentioning plans to open a Lakoat.Kujawas shop in Kupang where hot lunches can be prepared on-site and gluten-free sourdough bread and preserved goods can be sold.
In the meantime, community empowerment remains Lakoat.Kujawas’ priority. In July 2020 it restarted its Skol Tamolok learning initiative for locals, after a forced hiatus due to the pandemic. It currently offers workshops on food fermentation and preservation, documenting the local dialect, video filming and editing, and traditional music and dance.
Post-pandemic preparation: Decotourism
Meanwhile in Flores, RMC Detusoko is planning for a post-pandemic comeback of Decotourism, with co-founder Nando Watu confident that tourism will recover.
RMC Detusoko is a farmers’ collective that creates opportunities for young farmers through ecotourism ventures like homestays and artisan food production, to help them diversify their livelihoods while staying grounded in their agricultural and spiritual traditions. COVID-19, however, has dampened those efforts.
“Tourism revenues are in trouble, but then tourism is a supplementary income rather than a main income for us,” says Nando, who has started serving as Head of Village Government in Detusoko Barat Village. “We are focusing on things we can do now: developing village products, creating jobs related to infrastructure, and distributing help for those who need it.”
In collaboration with the Department of Tourism and Universitas Flores, Nando is investing in capacity-building for homestay owners, guides, farmers, and other professionals so that Decotourism is ready when travellers return.
The government is also funding jobs in local infrastructure improvements such as for roads, irrigation, pools for hot springs, and villages displaying traditional homes, while providing social security to many of the villagers during the pandemic.
Nando also still occasionally handles a trickle of guests for Mount Kelimutu National Park, which currently allows a quota of 200 visitors per day with strict COVID-19 protocols, and regularly schedules fortnight-long closings for clean-ups and disinfection of indoor spaces.
But hope in physical travel does not mean not using technology to innovate. Since the pandemic, RMC has been marketing local produce to customers in Ende and Maumere via WhatsApp.
The village administration also runs a Decotourism online shop where guests can book tours in Detusoko and Kelimutu, and buy coffee and condiments. Launched in late 2020, the online shop is primarily designed for Indonesian consumers, but an English site enabling payment via major credit cards and PayPal is in the works.
Not everything in the Decotourism store is suitable for shopping; perhaps a testament to the fact that some things can only be experienced in person. And both Decotourism and Lakoat.Kujuwas stand posted to receive guests, when borders open once more.
THE DIFFERENCE YOU MAKE
By signing up for a Lakoat.Kujawas virtual tour, you can support the sharing and archiving of Mollo Timorese knowledge in agriculture and food preservation, as well as the continuation of their practices. This will put Lakoat.Kujawas on steadier footing to bring back community-owned sustainable tourism when leisure travel resumes.
Shopping on Decotourism’s online store would support the economic empowerment of rural communities around Mount Kelimutu, and help RMC Detusoko further its mission to dispel the stereotype that there are no sustainable economic prospects in village life.
When you book a tour with Lakoat.Kujawas or shop via its social media accounts, you help to fund local children’s educational programmes like the To The Lighthouse writing club, photography exhibitions, and performing arts productions — activities that are otherwise scarce in rural Timor.
Revenues from the Lakoat.Kujawas tours, artisan food production, and tenun partnerships fund the Lakoat.Kujawas cooperative, which is a source of income for adult members.
The cooperative is designing a collective savings programme for Lakoat.Kujawas families.
Kapan has cold nights, especially between June to August, the Southern Hemisphere winter months. Bring a light jacket with plenty of light warm layers. You can also buy a local tenun scarf from Lakoat.Kujawas (for less than US$20), which also makes a good keepsake.
Although Heritage Trails are a day trip, do spend a few more days there and get to know the lovely community.
Lakoat.Kujawas plans to offer more homestay options in future. For off-site accommodation, inexpensive hotels are available a 30-minute drive away in Soe, the capital of South Central Timor regency.
Bring books to donate to the library. Good choices include Indonesian literature, illustrated encyclopaedias, illustrated school subject explainers, children story books, graphic memoirs of historical events, and books for learning simple English.
The current rates for Lakoat.Kujawas' homestay is well below the typical rate for full-board homestays in Indonesia (Rp75,000/US$5.30 per person as of August 2019). We recommend offering an extra fee to cover meals.
Visit the Pasar Kapan wet market (open on Mondays and Thursdays) to take in the local produce and be sure to shop at a betelnut vendor — such gifts are a welcome gesture for people who are sharing their culture with you.
If your visit does not coincide with a M’nahat Fe’u Heritage Trail day, you can request a Timorese food workshop or a guided hike to Mount Mutis from Fatumnasi village.
If you are a creative professional or researcher working in literature, journalism, photography, film, performing arts, visual arts, design, fashion, architecture, food activism, culinary arts, the zero-waste lifestyle, or disability issues, ask about a doing a residency with Lakoat.Kujawas and share your knowledge.
On certain occasions, Timorese tenun sarongs are required as part of the dress code. Shop for a local sarong in advance, or accept a loan when offered. In the case of the latter, it would be nice to return the sarong with a small gift from your hometown.
Running water does not happen every day in Mollo. Use the water provided for you sparingly.
About the host
For a small additional fee, Dicky’s parents provide two rooms in their family home as a homestay.
These rooms are shared with other guests; guests are far and few in between for now, but up to six may be staying with the Sendas at a given time.
Dicky’s father Ignasius Senda is a retired policeman of Flores origin, and mother Ferderika Kamlasi is a respected home cook and a master of old-school Timorese cuisine. They should be addressed as “Bapa (Senda)” and “Mama (Rika)” instead of by name.
Curious as to how to be a better traveller? Sign up for ideas for your next travel adventure!
We tell stories of everyday people doing good in Asia, to inspire action. Through The Better Traveller, you can dive into our travel stories and share ideas on how to make a difference on the go.
Copyright@2023 Our Better World, the digital storytelling initiative of the Singapore International Foundation , which brings world communities together to do good. Our Better World is not a travel agent, and we do not get commission from your enquiries or bookings.