Aceh Diary: a visit to Nias Island

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Boat I knew I wasn’t in Aceh anymore when I saw a man riding his motorcycle with a pig. I doubt that there are any pigs in Aceh, since it practices Shariah law and pigs are considered unclean. But Nias Island is mostly Christian. You can raise pigs and eat pork if you want. You can also drink a beer without breaking any laws.

I don’t miss pork but I have to admit that I enjoyed the beer. But in spite of this luxury, Nias is a challenging place to live and work. It lies off the west coast of Sumatra, a little bit south of Aceh province. Although it had some tsunami casualties, more damage was caused by a massive earthquake in 2005. It is particularly poor and its isolation is an ongoing problem: it takes a full eight hours by boat to reach mainland Sumatra, making markets hard to reach and imports costly.

A place like Nias is hard for IFC to reach. An investment is not likely anytime soon, and our core technical assistance programs are mostly designed for more developed markets. But we have been testing a few pilots here, such as business and management training programs and seaweed development. These modest beginnings will give us some direct experience with the local private sector and help us design better programs going forward.

The adventure tourist will find some things of interest here. In Gunung Sitoli, the capital, there is a fabulous museum of artifacts from ancient cultures of Nias. Some of it is rather shocking. For example, the dead were not buried but suspended in chairs hanging from trees. And there was a headhunting culture: a young man could only have as many wives as he could find heads. They’d raid neighboring villages and hack off the heads of anyone they could find, leaving one arm and shoulder attached to make it easier to carry. There are also examples of elaborate wooden houses, unique to Nias, which are built without nails.

Nias also has some of the best surfing in the world. It may be hard to get to, and accommodations may be primitive, but if you’re an avid surfer you shouldn’t miss it.

I ponder all this as I enjoy my beer and listen to live music at an outdoor café. I am happy that there are no longer headhunters in Nias and I wonder if I should take up surfing. But more importantly, I want to do more to engage the private sector here. It strikes me that one reason our technical assistance work is such a good complement to our investments is that it lets us reach places like this.

The most challenging part of the trip was leaving. The airplane from Medan never arrived, leaving a lot of people stranded at the airport. To solve the problem, the airline leased a couple military 10-seaters to shuttle us to Medan over the course of the day. Each passenger had to stand on a bathroom scale before boarding to make sure we kept within weight limits. By the time I got on, there were no seats left, so I sat on a life preserver with a few other seatless passengers, and off we went. I arrived in Medan with an aching behind, but also a determination to come back.





David Lawrence

International Development Consultant

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