In much of eastern Indonesia, customary practices associated with weddings and funerals entail excessive expenditures and resulting indebtedness that gravely impedes much-needed investments in education and other development needs. Through a process of community dialogue, initially among his own ethnic group, John Ndolu has succeeded both in replacing those traditional practices with modestly scaled ceremonies and vastly reduced dowries and in the establishment of a promising new vehicle for community investment in higher education. 

This profile below was prepared when John Ndolu was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.


In much of eastern Indonesia, customary practices associated with weddings and funerals entail excessive expenditures and resulting indebtedness that gravely impedes much-needed investments in education and other development needs. Through a process of community dialogue, initially among his own ethnic group, John Ndolu has succeeded both in replacing those traditional practices with modestly scaled ceremonies and vastly reduced dowries and in the establishment of a promising new vehicle for community investment in higher education. 


An elected Chief of the Kunak ethnic group on Rote Island in East Nusa Tenggara, John is keeping community values intact while simplifying centuries-old traditions that encouraged excessively lavish outlays for dowries and wedding festivities and for similarly costly funeral ceremonies. Having realized that the high costs associated with weddings and funeral ceremonies have long trapped the people of Rote and many other communities in eastern Indonesia in a vicious cycle of excessive outlays and consequent indebtedness, often resulting in the loss of land to money lenders and in failing to make much needed investments in the education of the affected communities’ youth. 

Gathering key leaders to discuss those concerns, John asked for help in crafting agreements to transform lavish wedding and funeral ceremonies into more modest ones and capping outlays for dowries at much lower levels than those that had long prevailed. In addition John crafted, and is gaining increasing support for, a new savings vehicle that has already facilitated outlays for higher education for more than forty particularly promising young women and men. Over the past eight years, John has replicated this work, which began in his own and neighboring communities, at the sub-district and district levels, and the reforms that he is advocating have now reached some 130,000 people. As a core component of his work, John has established a Local Customary Communication Forum to facilitate and monitor the new practices and to develop and impose sanctions for the noncompliant. And encouragingly, the spread of John’s idea is demonstrating to Indonesia’s burgeoning population, that even relatively isolated and conservative communities can indeed shed long-honored traditions that are demonstrably counterproductive. 


In several of the poorest provinces of Indonesia, customary law and longstanding traditions relating to weddings and funerals prescribe lavish expenditures that, more often than not, result in massive indebtedness that precludes investments in education and economic advancement and is often passed along to future generations. 

In the case of weddings, the bride’s uncle determines the amount required for the dowry or belis. (Though the rate varies widely, it can sometimes reach 100 million Indonesian rupiah—some US$11,700 at current exchange rates.) To meet those very demanding monetary demands, the groom’s family hosts a tu’u festival at which money and livestock for the belis are collected from invited relatives and neighbors. Because the tu’u festival involves several ceremonies that require the provision of lavish meals for the invited guests, hosting the event involves substantial monetary outlays and the consumption of family livestock. And since collections from the event are considered to be “reciprocal gifts,” hosts are also expected to match those donations when the donors organize their own tu’u ceremonies (or similar activities, stretching over a 100-day period, associated with funerals). 

Despite hosting a large tu’u, there is no guarantee the event will raise the expected amount, and it often falls considerably short, but paying the full belis is compulsory for families of all financial situations, and because there is no time limit on fulfillment of that obligation, debts can be inherited from parents, or even grandparents—a practice that places some children in financial bondage when they are born. Individuals unable to pay their debts face public embarrassment, as they are admonished by the traditional leaders and often isolated from social activities in their communities.

The belis also have ramifications, beyond the loss of wealth or inheritance of debt, that have negative impacts on the role of women in society. Because a bride is essentially “purchased,” often at an exorbitant rate, the belis creates a basis for male domination and provides a rationalization for the subjugation of women and for domestic violence against women, both of which are common practices. The second-class status of women diminishes the opportunities for girls to receive an education, as most poor families prioritize education for boys. 

Because the importance of the belis, the tu’u festival, and similar funeral ceremonies, is deeply embedded in the community, inclusive dialogue concerning the adverse effects of those practices is rare or nonexistent. And while those specific cultural practices are limited in geographic scope, analogous deeply ingrained practices are prevalent in other parts of southeastern Indonesia, in some in the country’s western provinces, and in parts of the Asia-Pacific region. 


In 2003, shortly after his election as Chief of Rote Island’s Kunak ethnic group, John began pursuing transformative cultural change in his immediate community. He spent his own money to gather people for discussions about the need for change in long-honored, but in his view, destructive rituals. John’s ideas on those matters were initially rejected, but John persisted, and in subsequent gatherings of a “forum” that included traditional, local, and women leaders, John opened a new dialogue. By pointing out the destructive nature of their funeral and wedding spending, and asking for help reshaping these practices into something positive, John empowered the people to craft solutions of their own design. 

Together, in lengthy deliberations, the forum agreed on new, simplified customs, designed to eliminate the overconsumption and consequent extreme indebtedness associated with past practices. While the community decided to continue permitting belis collections for weddings, the amount that could be requested from the groom’s family was limited to 5 million rupiah (5 percent of the amount requested and provided under previously prevailing traditional practices). The group also decided to eliminate the slaughtering of livestock for the tu’u festival and agreed, instead, that tea and snacks would be served on those occasions. Finally, the group simplified funeral ceremonies, limiting the traditional seven-event process to one event, with only one animal slaughtered and consumed. Signed by the chiefs and local government officials, the agreement became binding. As outlined in the agreement, penalties payable to the chief in money or cattle would also be assessed for violations of the agreement. 

As a key component of the new practices prescribed by the agreement, giving to education funds was encouraged as a suitable replacement for a portion of the giving previously required for contributions to the belis and funeral ceremonies. Under this practice, when a student from one of the participating communities is accepted into a university and knows how much her/his attendance will cost, a fund is created to raise the amount needed. The student’s family organizes the collection of funds and hosts a modest gathering at which the funds are collected and tea and snacks are served. Those who choose to contribute do so as donors, not as lenders. To ensure the integrity of the fund, benefitting students can access money only after obtaining the signatures of their parents and the chief. The agreement also asks the community to prioritize the education of girls, to help them overcome their historical marginalization, associated in part, with previous belis practices. 

John began spreading awareness of these changes in his community to opinion leaders in other villages. Reaching out to mothers as the managers of family finances, John explains how the new customs could benefit the welfare of their children, and also leverages church networks to help spread the message and present at village events, providing examples of the benefits that can result from cultural change. Despite external criticism from other ethnic groups, his Kunak ethnic group continues applying their new customs with the hope that it will provide a successful replicable model. 

After three years of continuously testing his idea in his own community, John expanded his work to the sub-district level and gained funding from World Vision International to support transportation and food costs. Gathering five chiefs from other ethnic groups under his coordination, John put forward his proposal. The problem of existing debts associated with previous practices caused the chiefs to initially reject the proposal, but John worked with them closely to clear out debts and start anew. This enabled John and the five chiefs to establish a new Local Customary Communication Forum (paralleling that which he had convened in his community) that set forth and endorsed the proposed new practices and related sanctions for the noncompliant. Replicating this process in three additional sub-districts, John has now succeeded in expanding his work to all nineteen ex-kingdoms on Rote Island. Reflecting that fact, a new district-level Communication Forum, which will include government, tribal, and religious leaders, and female and youth leaders, will soon be established to monitor the implementation of the revised practices. In addition, John is developing a curriculum to teach children about local Rote traditions, and future plans include a museum to showcase those traditions. 

While John believes new and improved cultural practices must come from within the community, he is now drawing on the assistance of influential Rote dwellers to extend public discussion of issues relating to long-established cultural practices to other geographic areas. He provides relevant “how-to” information on his website, and is increasingly engaged in visits to communities in Sumba and Alor and other islands with similar cultural backgrounds. John’s work in Rote Island is also influencing the discussion of similar issues in other Asian countries. During a recent World Vision International conference with participation from thirty-one countries in the Asia-Pacific region, John presented his initiative. From these outreach efforts, he has received and responded to requests for advice about similar problems in several other countries. 


Born in 1965 on Rote Island, in East Nusa Tenggara province, as the youngest of four children, John was orphaned at the age of five, and his older sister died soon thereafter. Taken in by a family in their community, John and his two surviving siblings were forced to work long and hard hours in farm labor and domestic chores and, as a consequence, John’s older brother soon fled, and John and his remaining sister, at nine years old, set out to make their own home. Shortly thereafter, his sister dropped out of school and began working so that John could attend school while continuing to work both as a farm laborer and a snack vendor. A diligent and accomplished student, John graduated from high school in 1983. With a scholarship from his church, he began university studies in theology, but after six months, when his funding expired, he returned to Rote and began working as a farm laborer again. 

In 1986 John was hired by the Indonesia office of World Vision International to work on “family development” programs supporting education and health for needy children, and was charged with assessing community needs and seeking community counsel in those areas before designing and commencing specific program activities. In pursuit of that mandate, in a meeting with an Austrian priest who had lived in Rote for decades, the priest asked John a startling question: “John, there is a ‘devil’ running around this island that doesn’t want the people’s welfare to be improved, but do you know what that ‘devil’ is?” Puzzled by the question, John asked what the priest meant, and the he answered by saying that the “devil” is the excessive wedding dowries and the costs of wedding and funeral ceremonies that keep the people in constant debt. For John, the priest’s answer was an important revelation, and it planted the seed for the reform efforts in which he is now engaged.

In 1996, continuing his work with World Vision International, John initiated a program designed to improve early childhood education and nutrition by integrating that venture with related economic development activities for parents. In undertaking the program, however, John knew that without reform of long-established customary rituals associated with weddings and funerals, the economic situation of Rote’s population, and its youth in particular, would not truly improve. 

In 2002, after John’s election as Chief of the Kunak, one of several small aggregations of clans on Rote Island, John began actively advancing cultural reform and educational investment as a means to alleviate poverty. Now, as role models for the community, John and his wife rent their house and have launched small businesses to fund the educational expenses of their children. 

In early 2012 World Vision International closed its programs in Rote and neighboring islands, and John plans to devote his full energies to combating traditional cultural practices similar to those he has succeeded in combating in Rote and to developing new measures that promote much-needed investments in education and other development needs.