When I was a first-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), one of the speeches at the WORDS Competition (a speech and talent competition planned and executed by ETAs every year) from one of the students from Gorontalo centered around the tradition of Tumbilotohe, a festival of lights that is khusus Gorontalo (special or unique to Gorontalo). Listening to her describe streets lined with oil lamps and fairy lights, it was clear to me that Tumbilotohe was a very special occasion for those from Gorontalo.
As a second-year ETA, I found myself placed in Gorontalo, and all year students, teachers, and friends from my community would tell me about Tumbilotohe, and insist that, if I could, I should stay past the end of my grant, so that I might experience it for myself. Unfortunately, because as the new ETA Coordinator I needed to attend the Pre Departure Orientation in D.C. around that same time, I was not able to do so.
They say that the third time is a charm, and the old adage rang true for Tumbliotohe. I extended my stay in Indonesia this year past the end date of my Coordinator responsibilities, and thus would remain in Southeast Asia for the entire month of Ramadan, and would be able to plan a trip to Gorontalo for Tumbilotohe.
Tumbilotohe, in Bahasa Gorotnalo (the language of Gorontalo), literally means something along the lines of “The Placing of Lights,” but as this does not really capture the essence of the festival, is often translated in English to “Nights without Darkness.” It takes place during the final three nights of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, throughout the province of Gorontalo, in northern Sulawesi. Traditionally, throughout Tumbilotohe Muslims, and sometimes even non-Muslims, line the streets outside their houses with oil lamps, sometimes placing them on the ground or on the fences around their houses, and sometimes tying them to bamboo archways. The belief is that these lights will attract the attention of angels to Gorontalo, and the timing of this festival is due to the larger Muslim belief that acts of ibadah (acts of devotion) have more value during the last days of Ramadan.
In more recent years, the traditional lamps have given way to strings of fairy lights in every color of the rainbow, arching over the streets of Gorontalo. The colors and designs are chosen by committees in each neighborhood, so no street is quite the same. In some places, the streets are closed to vehicles during a few hours each night, so that people can walk under the lights and take it all in at a much slower pace. Teenagers jovially compete to take the best selfie, and children dash through the crowds, waving sparklers as they go. It truly does feel like a festival, and I found myself quickly swept up in the joy of the evenings.
I missed the first day of Tumbilotohe because I was still visiting friends in Manado, but I arrived in time for the second night, which my friends assured me is always the peak night of the festival. One of my co-teachers and I went by bentor (becak motor, or a rickshaw operated by motorbike), and explored the displays near the neighborhood where I lived when I was an ETA in Gorontalo. Because I lived on the edge of the city, just a short ride from some of the closer villages, these displays were generally more traditional, and even if they were mostly composed of fairy lights, they did include the oil lamps in some way. My favorite displays were in the lapangan (fields), usually used by local teenage boys to play sepak bolah (football/soccer) in the evenings: hundreds of oil lamps were tied to stakes and organized throughout the lapangan, truly giving meaning to the English translation of the festival, “Nights without Darkness.”
The second night some of my previous students picked me up in a car and took me to some of the farther, more modern displays. While I must admit that I have a preference for the more traditional lights, the tunnels of twinkling lights captured my imagination, and getting to experience that with some of the students I know and love so well was an absolute joy. The highlight of the night was befriending a group of young girls, who insisted I take some of their sparklers; I taught them how to paint with light, and they were enthralled with the concept, and even as I was leaving they were teaching some of their friends this new magic trick they had learned.
The tradition of Tumbilotohe has been in existence for as long as anyone I know can remember, and is looked forward to with great anticipation each year. As one of my friends from Gorontalo, who has since moved to Jakarta and who unfortunately could not mudik (go home for Idul Fitri) this year, said to me, “It just doesn’t feel like Ramadan without Tumbilotohe.” After having had the privilege to experience Tumbilotohe myself, I can see why she feels that way, and I am certain that no Ramadan I celebrate will ever quite be the same.
It was really difficult to capture Tumbilotohe on camera, so I also took several videos, which I compiled into a larger clip which can be viewed here. The song I chose for the background is a song in Bahasa Gorontalo, celebrating the city.