Possessed in Indonesia

Brett Harris describes a close encounter with a ghost during a stay on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

By Brett Harris
Published April 3, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The witch doctor placed his hand on my trembling shoulder and assured me I would be safe. "Mister, don't be scared. Fatima only attacks women. She's not interested in you."

Meanwhile, my adopted sister was semiconscious on the living room couch, sweating profusely and speaking in tongues.

"Besides," he continued, "this sort of thing is common. It's nothing to get excited about."

Is it common for a woman to be possessed by a vindictive ghost?

Well, that depends on where you are. I was in Sulawesi, living with an affluent Indonesian family that consisted of my Ibu (mother), Bapak (father) and two bright and engaging teenage sisters -- Sari and Wati. Like most things in Indonesia, my introduction to the spirit world occurred over food.

It was a normal evening. I ate my dinner of sambal, rice and spicy fish, as the rest of the family watched television. After taking a few bites, though, I suddenly noticed a strange, eerie silence in the house. For the first time since my arrival three months earlier, the entire family was quiet. Titi, the normally chirping pet cockatoo, held his beak shut. The cats were completely still and my sisters were not engaging in their normal evening-time gossip. Even the volume of the constantly blaring television set seemed subdued.

Then, in the space of about two seconds, something extraordinary happened. The cats screeched at the top of their lungs, Titi began to squawk and Wati let out a quick, high-pitched, blood-curdling yelp before passing out on the couch.

I was stunned, but the rest of the family didn't even seem surprised. Bapak gently laid Wati down and put her head on a pillow while Ibu took out prayer beads and chanted some mysterious Arabic incantations, continuously stroking Wati's hair. Sari got some rubbing lotion. All of them appeared concerned, but not overly so. Rather than a pressing emergency, I felt they were going through a normal, though troubling, routine.

Suddenly, Wati opened her eyes. Except, she wasn't Wati. Her dilated pupils shone with a harsh glare, and my sister's normally pleasant face had dissolved into a hard mask of stern, unyielding features. She opened her mouth, groaned and then collapsed again into unconsciousness.

Bewildered, I finally regained my voice. "What's going on?"

The family, oblivious to me until now, turned around, startled. Sari spoke first. "Don't worry, Brett. This happens from time to time. It's, it's ..." She looked around nervously for help.

My mother laughed reassuringly, "It's a ghost, Brett. But don't be concerned, she only likes women. She won't attack you."

Rather than provide the relief that was intended, it heightened my worries. "A ghost? There's a ghost?" I could feel my face turning white.

Wati was lying down peacefully now and Ibu began to rub lotion on her temples, chanting prayers under her breath. Bapak picked up the telephone and walked into the kitchen. Sari answered my question.

"About two years ago, Wati went on a trip to Selayar, an island south of here. While she was there, she disrupted this evil spirit's grave. Ever since then, the ghost refuses to leave Wati alone. But don't worry, Brett. It's no big deal. Most people get possessed from time to time."

I remembered what I had learned in my orientation training back in the States. It had included such laughably profound gems as "Don't judge your host culture," and "Try to understand things from their point of view." Their point of view? It's normal to be possessed by a ghost? I tried to come up with a different theory. Maybe Wati was having a seizure or heart palpitations. Maybe it was a severe mental illness. She certainly wasn't faking.

All I could stammer was, "Does this happen often?"

My father entered the room to hang up the telephone. He exchanged glances with Ibu. They seemed more worried about me being upset than their daughter being unconscious. Bapak turned toward me. "This is the third time for Wati. But don't worry, Brett, I'm sure the ghost will go back to Selayar soon. I just spoke with the dukun. He'll help Wati get rid of this intruder." Meanwhile, my sister seemed to be resting comfortably, though her lips moved, shaping words with no sound.

Although I was worried about Wati, I was excited about meeting a witch doctor face-to-face. I hoped to see a real exorcism with holy water, chants, fire and other eye-popping special effects. I expected an iron-willed old man, his body etched with tattoos and perhaps a bone through his hair, ready to do bloody battle with the spirit world

Instead, about an hour later, a skinny young man wearing an "Alien Nation" T-shirt and Levi's jeans knocked on the front door. With his baby face, he seemed barely out of high school, though I later found out that he was 27 and considered a junior dukun. His boss was busy and would come that evening if there were any serious problems. I noticed his motorcycle had a "Nirvana" bumper sticker on its fender and almost asked him if Kurt Cobain was working on anything new. Maybe a duet with Jimi Hendrix?

As he walked in, the dukun noticed my worried expression, which contrasted so completely with the rest of the family. He tried to reassure me. "Don't worry, mister. Spirits usually stay away from white people."

While I was deciding whether to be relieved or insulted, the young dukun went up to Wati and began massaging oils into her skin. This semiwakened her and they began to speak softly. She spoke a strange language, full of grunts and hisses, which only the visitor seemed to understand. "She is speaking Bahasa Ambon, the language of ancient Moluccas," Sari whispered to me.

After a few moments, Wati collapsed again and the dukun turned to the family.

"It's Fatima again. She didn't go back to Selayar like I instructed her last time because she is still angry with Wati." He sighed. "This woman has had a very bad life -- and a very bad afterlife. When she was a child, the Portuguese captured her at home in the Moluccas. She was transported to Ternate, where she served as a slave for at least 15 years. Then, without warning, she was put onboard another ship, perhaps to work somewhere else. She doesn't know." He shrugged.

"Fatima's ship was wrecked off the coast of Selayar. Because she had no burial and no one to remember her, this poor woman has been wandering around that island for over 400 years. I think I can convince Fatima to leave, at least for a while, and then Wati will have to learn some spiritual exercises to strengthen her defenses."

I was spellbound, but my family just nodded like he had diagnosed the flu. "Like I told you last time," the dukun continued, "the most important news is that this is not a very dangerous ghost. She's just an ordinary spirit. Though she might be trying to have a little fun, Fatima will not kill Wati. She'll leave as soon as she gets bored."

After giving this reassurance, the dukun went back to work on my sister. He carefully positioned sweet-smelling incense and lumps of black dirt in strategic locations around the room. Then he leaned over the couch, rubbed Wati's head, and chanted some Arabic prayers. The entire ceremony was subdued and quiet. Slowly, my sister's eyes opened and she looked hazily out at the rest of us. Ibu went to get her some water while Bapak walked the dukun out. As he left, the dukun turned to me. "I know white people are usually very scared of ghosts, so maybe I shouldn't tell you this."

Curious, I moved in closer.

"I was surprised, since this sort of spirit usually only likes women. However, she was very interested in you. In fact, Fatima asked me about you several times. She said that you remind her of her Portuguese master. As you can imagine, she didn't like you very much." He started his motorcycle and laughed. "I wouldn't worry, though. She probably won't bother you at all."

Probably? For the next few weeks, I slept with the lights on. However, Fatima was never heard from again.

At least, not yet.

Brett Harris

Brett Harris is an economist who recently finished a two-year stint with the East-West Center in Honolulu.

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