Lamafa - The world's last traditional whale hunters

Lamalera’s Lamafa – Papa Alo

Aloysius Gneser Tapoona (Papa Alo) – The uncrowned Lamafa champion

Papa Alo’s yard is largely decorated with trophies from the whales he once speared. He tinkered skulls, spines, ribs and other bones into sculptures, naming them with the exact date of execution. An artist some would say.

98 whales I’ve killed during the past 35 years of being a Lamafa. There might be some who have speared more whales than me, but they already past away. I was able to take over the place from Sebastianus Geroda Batafor, who lost his right arm on duty because he got tangled in the ropes when the wounded whale contrived to escape. Sebastianus came over to my house enquiring my intentions, of course, I agreed to take over his place and thus all the tools. I have speared my first sperm whale at the age of 26 with my „Teti Herri crew”. In the past, there was only one family clan to take care of one boat. Today, it can be mixed. Not too long ago we Lamafa would traditionally make our sons the next Lamafa. But both of my sons are studying, one in Jakarta and the other one in Melbourne. So I wasn’t able to pass on the tradition within my family, that’s quite unfortunate indeed and makes me feel sad at times. My place had been taken from Lamafa Goris and the Batafor Clan. With my 63 years, I’m too old to roam the sea with a harpoon. Although having retired, I’m still out during the “Ba leo” as a mentor, especially to take care of the young Lamafa. I teach them how to balance in the front of the Paledang during rough waters. It has to be said, that the most difficult part of being a Lamafa is the responsibility they shoulder for the entire village. If a Lamafa fails, the people (at least the crew) would be angry on him. So we only pick the most couraged and skilled ones.

Before the Catholic missionaries arrived in Lamalera, we believed in Lara Wulan „the god of the sky“, Tana Ekan „the god of the earth“ and „Ina Leva“ the mother of the sea. Additionally, we were worshipping our ancestors (which became saints with the rise of Christianity) who faithfully carry the wishes to Lara Wulan. The priests made us believe that water has been created by God. This has been was accepted, as it was quite easy to replace Ina Leva by holy Mother Mary. Ina Leva alias Mother Mary together with our ancestral saints will always prepare food for this village – which are the whales, sacred gifts from our ancestors and Ina Leva for our survival. We wouldn’t have accepted the new world religion if the missionaries had tried to abolish our culture. Our old belief has much in common with the Christian belief, so it was easy to blend ancestral worshipping and praising the new Lord. Still, everything in Lamalera has eyes, the stones, the yard, the house etc. Despite the rise of Christianity we keep on worshipping stones and other stuff. Many houses have a precious stone in front, which the people adore, just behind it might be a crucifix.

Other customs have changed over the years. Every morning before we leave for the hunt, we sprinkle some blessed water on ourselves and pray. Myself, every time I join for mentoring, I will rub some of this holy water symbolically on my mouth and say; „Please forgive me for what I’ve said before. I come with no sins, I’m pure enough to take my share and bring something back to this village.

There is a struggle for sure, but we all live a happy life. I’m very delighted that by being a Lamafa I was able to send my children to school and provide them an education. So that they are able to choose a different way of life if they would intend to. In return, they may support the family using their degrees during harsh times when there’s no whale for several months. Interestingly, some youngsters who studied or worked somewhere outside Lembata Island have already learned that they miss the Lamaleran lifestyle too much, so they’ve returned to join the fishing and whaling again. It is true, the future of our tradition is unclear. Many of our talented Lamafa are aging, meantime the outside world is calling for our children.

The village was connected by a bumpy road some 20 years ago, and with this road, the importance of money has arisen! 1999 was the main change when our microeconomics transformed partly into a money culture. This is obviously because of development and modernization. Along with the road connection to Lewoleba, many opportunities opened up. To be honest, if there would be a university who takes fish in exchange for education, that would be the best solution in my opinion.

1996 there were only 3 engine powered boats operating. Before were only sailing or rowing, and thanks to our ancestors, we always had forceful winds to blow us back in no time. Sometimes we couldn’t even finish our whale songs as we had already reached the shore. By now there are around 30 „Johnson“ (engine boats), but the number of whales we annually catch has not increased ever since. So why not going back to the old days? Those „Johnson“ are not beneficial at all, because in the end, we don’t catch more whales. The younger generation considers it more relaxing and „up to date“, thus less effort. We, the older generation, believe it’s just less economical because you need to buy fuel, which we can’t get in exchange for fish. And there are too many days we venture out and don’t catch anything. Furthermore, the money culture puts more pressure on our people. However, because we believe in God and the spirits of our ancestors, the sea (Ina Leva) will always prepare something for our families. Unless there is no greed, the community mindset will be alive. Give and take… For us, it is all about feeding the family, health but also the education of our children. We are still a sharing community! And the whaling is actually the key motivator for this community lifestyle because we rely on each other as we rely on the whales. The sea is a big mirror, what happens there will reflect the entire village.

Sailor’s yarn

6.6.2010 – only two boats go out, my clan with the „Teti Herri“ one the other clan. There were whales in abundance, so we eagerly waved a white shirt on a bamboo stick informing Lamalera to call out „Ba Leo“. But nobody came to support. So our two Paledang came back with two whales at 4:00 pm, dragging them all by ourselves to shore. First I didn’t dare to go out that day, because my first wife passed away at the 6.6. some years back. Hence, I strongly believe it was a blessing from the ancestors, that I was allowed taking back a whale that day. You know, every time I have taken to sea, I considered the harpoon’s hook to be my wife. So I adventured the waters together with „my wife“. There is a deep connection from the Lamafa to this hook – if not usable anymore, we will keep it back home as a sacred token.

Lamafa - The world\'s last traditional whale hunters