One Indonesian tribesman named Muhammad Yusuf believes his conversion from animism to Islam in a government-supported program will eventually make his life easier.
“Thank God, the government now pays attention to us; before our conversion they didn’t care,” says Yusuf, the Islamic name he has adopted.
Yusuf is a member of the “Orang Rimba” tribe. His small community now gathers around a stilt-mounted wooden hut, while children inside wearing Islamic skullcaps and hijabs enthusiastically recite the Koran.
Not far away, other members of the tribe who remain faithful to the old ways stalk through palm oil trees in a desperate hunt for prey in an area that was once lush Sumatran rainforest.
Yusuf’s group converted to Islam, the predominant faith in Indonesia, and gave up their nomadic ways in January in a bid to improve livelihoods that have been devastated by the expansion of palm oil plantations and coal mines into their forest homelands.
Indonesia is home to an estimated 70 million tribespeople, more than a quarter of the total 255-million population, from the heavily tattooed Dayaks of Borneo island to the Mentawai who are famed for sharpening their teeth as they believe it makes them more beautiful.
But as a nomadic group, the Orang Rimba — whose name translates as “jungle people” — are a rarity.
The 200 who recently converted in the Batang Hari district of Jambi province — a handful of the approximately 3,500 Orang Rimba — decided to turn to the Muslim faith after being approached by an Islamic NGO, and the social welfare ministry has helped with the process.
Converting to Islam and settling in one location means they can get the cards. The decision has meant big changes. The converts now live in basic wooden huts on stilts and no longer move to a new location every few weeks.
They are fully-clothed in items donated by the government and NGOs, having abandoned the simple loincloths and sarongs they wore in the past.
Not all of the Orang Rimba are keen to convert however. Just a couple of hours drive away, a group of about 300 Orang Rimba live under blue, plastic tarpaulins propped up on sticks and subsist by hunting the few animals they can find amid the palm oil trees.
They move on average three times a month in the hunt for new prey, and every time a member of the group passes away, as required under tribal customs.