• Healing Traditions in Indigenous Societies: A Look at the Abui People

    By Shaun Lim

    Who are the Abui people?

    The word Abui, in the Abui language, means ‘mountain’ or ‘enclosed space’. In Bahasa Malay, Abui also refers to the Abui speakers, who define their language as Abui tangà, ‘mountain language’, and call themselves Abui lokù, ‘mountain people’. This ‘mountain language’, Abui, is a Papuan language spoken in Alor Island (Alor-Pantar Archipelago, South-East Indonesia, Timor area) by about 17,000 speakers.

  • Figure 1. A map of Alor Island, where Abui is spoken by about 17,000 speakers today

  • The name Abui comes from the collection of hills in the island, as well as the interior of Alor Island, which gave the name to the territory and the language. Their language belongs to the Timor-Alor-Pantar family (Holton et al., 2012) and its speakers are among some of the largest in the Alor-Pantar Archipelago.

  • Figure 2. Linguistic situation in the Alor-Pantar Archipelago

  • What is the relationship between the Abui speakers and plants?

    Abui speakers share an extremely close relationship with plants, be they agricultural or horticultural sources, or even plants with useful properties. This is evident in the place names of Alor Island, which are frequently named after plants – a topic that has been previously studied by scholars at NTU. Research has shown that among the top toponymic sources used to name places are mea ‘mango’, wata ‘coconut’, and kanaai ‘canarium’ (Lim and Perono Cacciafoco, 2020). Other scholars have found that place names are also named after “useful plants” (Kratochvíl, Delpada and Perono Cacciafoco, 2016). These are essentially trees and vines with uses in building, clothing, etc.


    The table below lists examples of some of these places:

    Table 1. Examples of some toponyms named after plants that were collected in previous research


    English gloss



    mango ravine


    Mea Takuukul

    literally (lit.) tangled mango


    Mea Kilikil

    idle mango


    Wata Meelang

    coconut village


    Wata Kiika

    red coconut

    Village and Field

    Wata Mea

    lit. coconut mango


    Kanaai Loohu

    long canarium


    Kanaai Sua

    triplet canarium


    Kanaai Pea

    nearby canarium


    Kafiel Meelang

    cactus.sp village


    Karetak Afeeng

    eucalyptus village


    Tifool ya

    bamboo water



    Place names, which are a “special part of our cultural heritage in that they tell us something about the place to which they refer and about the name givers” (Helleland, 2012, p. 101), tell us about the relationship that the Abui people share with plants. Plants have various uses to the Abui people, such as for food, for construction, and for clothing and because these plants are commonly grown in the landscape, are then used to name the surrounding places.

    What about medical healing traditions?

    Unsurprisingly, another function of plants is their use in healing sicknesses and/or injuries. Living far away from towns where advanced medical care is usually located at, Abui speakers turn to plants in their landscape as a means of curing ailments. As an indigenous and oral-word society, the uses for such plants, along with how to use them, are handed down from generation to generation via word-of-mouth. According to the Abui people, even simple plants that we consume on a daily basis have healing properties. In our fieldwork with Abui locals, we have documented a few recipes on these healing plants and how to use them:

  • Table 2. Examples of healing plants and their related recipes

    Used to heal chest pain, especially after an accident.


    A young banana plant is selected, crushed, and mixed with a chicken egg. The mixture is then eaten or drunk.

    Used as a medicine for cough, fever, and foot injuries.


    When a child has a fever, his/her parents may crush a candlenut, put it in some water, and smear the mixture on the child’s body.


    Similarly, for foot injuries, one can extract the candlenut’s juice and massage on the afflicted area.

    Used to treat diarrhoea.


    Brown rice is cooked as porridge and eaten.

    Used as a medicine for cough, fever, and foot injuries.


    When a child has a fever, his/her parents may crush a candlenut, put it in some water, and smear the mixture on the child’s body.


    Similarly, for foot injuries, one can extract the candlenut’s juice and massage on the afflicted area.

  • Beyond curing pains and the common flu, the Abui people also utilise plants as a means of enhancing one’s complexion and even improving hair growth. Plants in these instances act as beauty products for the locals, as we have also found:

  • Table 3. Examples of plants which can function as beauty products and their related recipes

    Used to treat pimples and improve the complexion of one’s skin.


    People can scratch a tuber of turmeric and smear his/her face to treat it.

    Used to help one’s hair to grow well.


    A young tip of the fig tree is taken, placed in hot water, and used to rinse one's hair.

  • Conclusion

    In sum, we have seen how plants (be they agricultural/horticultural crops and those with uses) are an integral feature of the Abui landscape. Plants are also used by Abui people to nurse the sick back to health, and in some cases, even function as beauty products. For a number of plants (for instance siyeng ‘rice’ and kariri ‘turmeric’), we can also observe similar functions in modern societies like Singapore. For instance, when we are sick with diarrhoea, one common advice would be to have porridge or “something light”. In this sense, we might be able to postulate that some of the healing properties of plants may be universal. Notwithstanding, in indigenous and oral-word societies, these recipes are also passed down orally and forms part of the repository of indigenous knowledge and way of life.

  • About the author

    Shaun LIM Tyan Gin is a recent graduate of Nanyang Technological University in Linguistics and Multilingual Studies with a Minor in History. In 2017/18, he worked with Dr. Francesco Perono Cacciafoco, one of the co-PIs of the Polyglot Medicine Project, researching on the relationship between plants and place names in the Abui context. Shaun's work has appeared in Annals of the University of Craiova: Series Philology, Linguistics, Education Sciences, Review of Historical Geography and Toponomastics, and Urban Science, among others.

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