Community & Cultural Events
Betel Nut Cultural Festival and Celebration.
Abaktedi, Makadade Ataúro, Timor-Lesté
(Selebresaun Festa Kultural Koilleta Bua)
By Micky and Mardy Hinton
Cultural importance of the festival.
Every year in the month of July, around the time of the full moon, people from the 5 Villages/Sucos on the island of Atauro gather for a one-day and night, Betel nut harvest festival. At the heart of the event is a traditional ceremony to strengthen peaceful relations between the island’s people and communities.
What is Betel nut?
The Betel nut is the seed of the Areca palm. Areca palms grow in much of the tropical Pacific, Southeast and South Asia, and parts of east Africa. The Betel nut is also used in cultural events and festivals throughout these regions. It is commonly chewed in Timor-Leste, is used for ceremonies and is locally called ‘Bua’. In Papua New Guinea, Betel nut is also used similarly, and locally is called ‘Buai’. In many Indonesian provinces, it is also used in ceremonies and is called ‘Buah’. People that have chewed Betel nut describe the flavour as pungent, bitter, spicy, sweet and astringent.
Why People Chew Betel nut.
When chewed and then spat out, by the end of day the Betel nut creates a sense of euphoria and alertness. Many people chew Betel nut due to the energy boost it produces. It is documented that the Betel nut causes stimulant effects similar to caffeine and tobacco. Due to this, many people get addicted to Betel nut. However, with prolonged use it may cause more severe effects such as vomiting, diarrhea, mouth ulcers, gum disease and oral cancers.
Getting to the festival.
The trip to the Betel nut festival at Abaktedi, Makadade, usually takes 1½-2 hours by truck with a crowd of excited locals or by private rented car. The road to the festival is rough, steep and rocky and is impossible to travel by local Tuk-tuk. Most of the locals go by foot and are said to take around 4-5 hours depending on departure point. Adventurous tourists ask for a guide to trek with them to the festival grounds. The mountain scenery is stunning and changes from steep slopes, to plains of grassland and plateaus, and into valleys of rainforest areas. The festival is hosted in the Abektedi Areca palm plantation at an altitude of approximately 700 metres above sea level. The air is surprisingly cool and has you wishing you’d worn a long-sleeved shirt. The atmosphere is however warm and welcoming, and with the tunes of traditional music floating through the valley, any sense of cold quickly dissipates.
On site at the festival.
On arrival at the festival grounds you will encounter many people setting up small market stalls with traditional products for sale. These products include locally made machetes, knives, woven baskets, wooden bowls and cutlery, woven material and mats made from palm leaves.
Other market stalls include locally grown produce such as sweet potato, Betel nut, bananas, cassava leaves, papaya and pumpkins. Some cooked foods are sold including barbecued fish on a stick, popcorn, katupa (rice parcels), beans and casava chips. Tea, coffee, bottled water, softdrinks, beer and traditional Palm wine are also on sale.
The Betel nut festival officially begins at 11 O’clock when the dignitaries deliver their welcome speeches. Speeches are delivered by the Chief of Makadade village, the Atauro Administrator and a Timor-Leste government tourism minister or official. At 12 O’clock, once all the speeches are finished, the owners of each Betel nut Areca palm then start climbing up and harvesting the betel nut.
The Betel Nut Harvest and Sustainability.
The Betel nut harvest occurs only once a year on this day. The palm owners (or a family member) may proceed in climbing only their palms as all palms are individually owned. Once the festival has finished for the day, the Areca palm plantation becomes a protected area (Tara Bandu) until the next festival in the coming year. Anyone caught harvesting the Betel nut is fined according to the community’s agreed penalty.
Before someone goes up an Areca palm, they form a piece of cloth into a circle, tie the ends and place their ankles inside the loop in order to provide more grip and assist with the climb of the palm. Some of the elderly climbers also use some cloth tied in a circle and placed around their wrists so it assists their climb or in case there’s need to slide down the palm. The children climbers however take more risks and only use the ankle strap.
When the harvesters are up at the top of the Areca palm where the betel nut is, they slip a small locally forged knife out of their pocket to cut the stem of the bunches of betel nut from the tree. After the betel nuts are taken down they split the nuts in half, take out the seeds and then put them out to dry in the sun.
By the end of day the betel nut has been totally harvested, and the festival then retires from the Areca plantation in Abaktedi, and adjourns to the nearby Anartutu village for the night’s festivities. Here, beginning at dark under the full moon, there would usually be music, singing, dancing and palm wine drinking that would last until dawn.
Due to COVID-19 regulations this year (2021) the night festivities had to be cancelled.
Sensitivity to the Local Culture.
Culturally appropriate clothing is encouraged. ie shirts with sleeves and knee length pants or skirts. Sarongs, which can be purchased at some market stalls, are handy for covering up and keeping warm.
Guests to the Betel nut festival need to be aware that explicit displays of affection in public places are offensive and especially in this context of a conservative mountain village population.