On the Hunt With the Last Whalers


IN EARLY 2015, Ben spent the monsoon season—when the storms make it difficult to hunt and many men leave the tribe to earn money—transporting bricks in a pickup truck around Lewoleba, and living with his new wife’s family there. His father-in-law, wanting to keep Ben and his wife close once the weather changed, offered to get Ben a job as a clerk in the region’s forestry department. In poor Indonesian communities, snagging a government position is like winning the lottery, because of the relatively high salary, security, and benefits. Before he decided, Ben said he had to consult with his father, and he returned to Lamalera.

“If you become an office worker,” Ignatius asked, “who will take care of me?

“If my father wishes it, then I will follow his wishes,” Ben replied. “My feelings are the same as my father’s.”

As the decision sank in, Ben was surprised to discover that his words were actually true. Though he had spent a lifetime lusting after a beer-advertisement lifestyle outside of Lamalera, as he drove construction trucks around Lewoleba during the rainy season he began to see through the fantasies he had once harbored. As his high school friends who had pursued the path of hedonism aged, most of them ended up washed-out, impoverished, and isolated. Life in Lamalera might be materially poorer, but the people who mattered to him were there. And the Ways of the Ancestors had, after all, offered a fulfilling life to his father and other older relatives, no matter how little money they had. He decided he wanted to become a lamafa.

A few weeks into the hunting season in 2015, when Ben’s two older brothers were incapacitated by foot and eye injuries, Ignatius called on his youngest son to take up the harpoons of Kanibal. As the jonson motored out to sea, Ben stood on the prow of the boat, unconsciously copying his father’s signature stance—standing on the balls of his feet, hands clasped behind his back, like a gentleman strolling through his estate grounds. Ignatius knelt behind him, preparing the harpoons.

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