Thursday, January 22, 2015

Visiting Lasma on 21 January 2015

I loved visiting Lasma today. I caught a collective taxi in Medan to go to Pangururan and thought, en route, that if I got out in Siantar and went to her village it would be possible to squeeze in a small visit. I could then catch the ferry to Samosir in Tiga Ras rather than Parapat. I called and she seemed to like the idea, so I had my driver drop me off at the corner where the Bus Cepat (Fast Bus – name only, didn’t mean much) picked up passengers for the more northerly regions of Simalungun and off I went.

Besides taking me to Lasma, the Fast Bus quickly brought me down memory lane. In my mind I was back thirty years to my first visits when I didn’t have enough money for more than public transportation. I loved the smell of the sirih being chewed by the old woman next to me and the fresh faces of the school girls that clambered on and off at the different stops. I loved listening to the Batak language and the rough and ready style of the “bus boys” and driver. As always, the bus was a total mess and hung together more or less with wire and tape. When we got to Tiga Runggu, I saw Lasma waiting for me. (She had ordered a becak.) They pulled my heavy red suitcase from the top of the bus (I hoped it was water tight because it had rained heavily on the way) and Las and I hauled it over to the becak-for-three. Las sat in front facing me, and I sat beside a woman who was returning from the market. Lasma showed me her old high school as we rode by and later her grade school as we approached her house. She used to take a becak to and from school, she said. The air was fresh and cool. I loved travelling down the road with my daughter, the wind in our hair.

As we approached her house, Lasma told me that the narrow, tarmac’d road used to only be a buffalo path. When it rained, she would whip off her shoes and walk to school in her bare feet and then wash them off when she got to school and pull on her shoes again. Otherwise the shoes would be ruined. We laughed.

At her home everybody was waiting for us. Some people were lolling outside. Her father’s eyes were bright and happy. 

Lasma's handsome dad

Her grandmother was there (mother’s mother) 

Lasma's grandmother.

and her mom, 

Lasma's Mom.

uncle, grandmother’s youngest daughter, Lasma’s younger siblings, the neighbour, 

A neighbour sat beside the door.

her older sister’s child --- to whom Lasma had given the name Van Zuylen after our trip to Java when she learned the story about Eliza van Zuylen! Lasma’s smile was huge.

Lasma's smile was huge. Here she is sitting with her family in
the front room of heir house.

Somebody unfurled a mat for us to sit on and there we sat beside Lasma’s loom! I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was so real! 

Here is the rest of the family. A part of Lasma's loom is just barely visible
to the right behind her grandmother.

I went over to look at the textile and once again I was impressed by the quality of Lasma’s work, so regular, the edges so straight. Tidy and disciplined. She had been working for two days and the textile was half done. It had pretty stripes. Lasma promised me a photograph of it (I had already packed up my camera as my visit had to be very short if I was to catch the ferry). In the becak on the way to her home Lasma had also told me that her grandmother had a lot of unused yarn. It was literally rotting away in a box. Lasma salvaged what she could of it, and washed and dried the portions that were worth keeping. She will starch it and try to use it in more of her first weaving attempts. I hope that the yarn is good enough and will not be a waste of her time and effort when she weaves.

A glass of water emerged from the kitchen for me, and then a plate of eggs. Then a bag of oranges. They knew that my diet was restricted because I am vegetarian. And Lasma remembered that I always tell her to eat oranges so that she gets enough vitamins. They told me to take the oranges because they would give me vitamins! They also made me take the whole plate of eggs so that I could share them with the team in Pangururan. Fortunately I had purchased several bags of kripik (for the team) at a taxi stop earlier in the day and was able to give them to Lasma’s Mom.

Her family invited me to come and eat with them and to sleep at their home whenever I wished. I was touched and delighted, felt like staying. But I had promised to meet the team in Pangururan and Ombang Siboro’s staff were waiting for me so I knew I must not even risk missing the boat literally and figuratively. Lasma had operated with foresight (she would be an excellent manager) and ordered a new becak. This one was the biggest I had ever seen with three rows of seating. The red motorcycle attached to it was gleaming and new. Lasma’s younger sister, Cina, came with us (so Lasma would have company on the way home) and sat in the front with my red suitcase. Las and I sat in the back seats and talked about our future together. We are constructing some good plans and both of us are excited.

Despite the ruts and lumps in the road and the fuel stop that we had to make, we got to the harbour before the boat left. It felt like home, so similar to our Pulang Kampung III craft. Las and I waved goodbye to each other endlessly and then I sat down, ate another egg and made the crossing with a smile.

Lasma will join us in Pangururan as soon as she can. She has some tasks that she has to perform at the University first. Then, next week, she will be free to join us in Muara where I have planned a meeting with Restuala’s weavers. We need to learn about their needs. It will be good for Lasma to be present for the discussion. And it will be good for me to have her there.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Not to Decide is to Decide

Manguji Nababan
 Today we gave our seminar at Universitas Nommensen, PULANG KAMPUNG: "BERSAMA MELESTARIKAN BUDAYA/TEKSTIL BATAK".  Manguji Nababan, director of the Pusat Dokumentasi dan Pengkajian Kebudayaan Batak, had constructed a window of 3.5 hours on Saturday morning (17 January) in which to show Rangsa ni Tonun, and for Mas Nashir and I to present a talk.

We showed the film first and then Nashir shared his observations and thoughts about the past five years.
My turn

When it was my turn, I decided to ditch my power point presentation and my written text. There were between 35 and 60 people in the room (at various times) and it seemed important not to present a cut and dried talk, but to stimulate the group to think about what has become, for me, a central point. Since being asked to present a talk to the Samosir Regency about the future of Batak weaving, I have sifted down to this central point:

An archaeologist added important
information about design.
 Irwansyah Harahap 

Statistics and tides are against the Batak people. Languages are disappearing rapidly around the world. So are indigenous craft techniques and other facets of culture. Batak culture is slipping away increasingly rapidly, each decade more devastating than the last. The global economy does not support indigenous culture. The question then is: will the Batak people allow the slide to continue? Not to decide is to decide. Will they let Batak culture slip away like sand between their fingers and will they be satisfied with that? If not, will they take matters into their hands and carve out a space for their culture? If they choose to take matters into their own hand, they will have to create and protect a bubble within the global economy.

An old friend, Professor at Nommensen
 whose heart is invested
in Batak culture.
“Creating and protecting a bubble” is easier said than done. Such a central choice will translate into a myriad of smaller choices, each taken with deep consciousness of what is at stake. Moreover, if a conscious decision is made to support the culture, then the interventions must be immediate and precise.

Two members of Forum Si Singa
I do not know the extent to which the initial question hit the mark. There were young people present (Forum Si Singamangaraja) for whom the question was already answered because they are already dedicating themselves to continuing their culture. There were people of an older generation present who didn’t quite know what I was talking about and interpreted it in terms of stimulating markets for Batak weavings.
Poet, Ompu Lela Jingga
A poet hit the nail on the head: will we recognize that there are parts of our lives that have value beyond money? Mas Nashir intervened at one point with a question that brought the discussion back to the central point: are we talking about cloth

boru Hutabarat from a government office
(a commodity) or knowledge from the ancestors?
Two bright, articulate students
The mood and discussion were both lively.


After the seminar I suffered a dip. How much time and energy and thought will I invest in this quest? Does my investment have value? Will it be wasted? Am I throwing away my life? Only the future will tell. If the textiles become extinct, will my invested effort have had any value? I am Sisyphus pushing the rock uphill. Is this the human condition? Is it our fate to push on, like Don Quixote, no matter what, towards our goal even if the end point is not guaranteed? It reminds me of the first Pulang Kampung expedition. I justified it by knowing that even if only just a single book were to inspire a young person, the journey would have been worth it. Why do I doubt now? The book has inspired so many. The pebble in the pond creates many ripples. Proverbial butterfly wings can whip up storms. And yet the doubts crowd in. I am pushed on, at times, only by the spectre of the alternative: drinking tea while the building I am in burns down. We must fight for what is beautiful in this world. We have no other choice.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Preparing Workshop Bonang Batak / Batak yarn

A few days ago I was in Pangururan discussing ways of reviving Batak textiles with Regency officials. We talked in the restaurant. When we were finished negotiations, the woman who had accompanied the government team (Ibu Tetti Naibaho) shyly mentioned that she had met team Pulang Kampung at the Lake Toba Festival in 2013. She had been inspired by that meeting to plant some cottonseeds. The plants had grown and now she had some cotton that could be spun. There were weavers in her village, she said, and they were also willing to learn to spin.

Kapas Palembang in Ompu Erwin's village
At first I listened with half an ear, but suddenly the meaning of her words stopped me in my tracks. Spinning cotton? When we filmed Rangsa ni Tonun, cotton was so difficult to come by that we had to rely on the grace of Threads of Life in Bali to obtain some precious bolls from Flores or Timor. We only found one small bush of kapas Palembang in Sianjur Mulamula.

Cotton spinning and cotton cultivation both ceased in the Batak area almost a century ago.

1925. I grabbed this picture from Facebook where it had no reference.
However, it is clearly Toba Batak.
Where there is cotton, there is opportunity.  Since Nashir and I met Ompu Erwin in 2013 in the context of filming Rangsa ni Tonun, we have stressed again and again the need to run a workshop. We have lived in dread that we would lose Ompu Erwin before she had a chance to share what she knows and spinning in the Batak area would be extinct forever. Again and again we have advised interested people, including government people, that we need to make a workshop with Ompu Erwin so that she can pass on her unique skill. Until now, we have had neither the means nor the opportunity and support to make this workshop happen.

Ompu Erwin spinning
Just this past week, I have been writing a series of proposals for reviving the Batak weaving arts. A spinning workshop was one of the proposals. Would it be selected? Would it be of interest? Would the idea be supported? Two years have passed. How long will it take before we find support for this workshop? And now, suddenly, there is cotton.

The other thing that Ibu Tetti said that stopped me in my tracks was that there are weavers in her village who want to learn how to spin! I recognize that this news is as remarkable as her news about the cotton. I have always said that ‘semangat’, the energy that comes from enthusiasm, is our most important asset. Without it we can do nothing. With it, even when no other resources are available, we can move mountains and change the world. So far, during this journey, I have only met weavers who express fatigue. They haven’t wanted to do anything extra. Finishing their textile on time for the next market is all they can or want to manage. It has been depressing to be the recipient of this kind of news, over and over again. But suddenly, this week, I had Ibu Tetti in front of me with her irrepressible shy smile and bright eyes, softly sharing her two pieces of earthshaking news.

First we will have to make rolags, or luli pinale, as Ompu Erwin
is doing here
Until today I haven’t known how to put one and one together, but it happened by itself during a conversation at lunch. Nashir and I have been invited to make a presentation at Nommensen University on 17 January. After that, I have almost two weeks free before the next presentation. Why not JUST DO IT? Why wait for the government to provide the resources? Why not just run the show? Bring our spinning wheel, gin and bow from Medan. Invite Team Pulang Kampung. Adjust the wheel in Ompu Erwin’s village with her expert advice. If Jesral Tambunan can manage it, perhaps make new instruments so the weavers can continue to spin when we are gone. Then get the weavers and Ompu Erwin together in Sianjur Mulamula and watch what happens. 

Ibu Tetti was keen to go ahead with the plans. Nashir and Paul took a harrowing night ride on Paul’s motorcycle up to Sianjur Mulamula to see if Ompu Erwin was willing. They got a flat tire in an isolated stretch and had to spend the night in a village, but in the morning they were able to contact Ompu Erwin. She was also keen! In my concern about Nashir and Paul’s failure to return on that dark and rainy night, I had contacted Ombang Siboro, head of tourism in the Regency of Samosir. The silver lining in that cloud was that it gave me the opportunity to tell him of our plans. Hurrah, he has generously given us the guest house at the hotsprings for the duration of the workshop! And Tetti will see if the goverment can provide transportation for us.

And when it comes to financial support, another miracle occurred. Someone on Facebook whom I have never met suggested, in her enthusiasm, that I set up a weaving school. Feeling weighed down by the implications of such a suggestion, I decided to ask if she would help me bear the financial weight of this workshop. She was immediately willing and found two friends who were also immediately willing to chip in a little bit. So far we have the transportation of Team Pulang Kampung almost completely covered and also the fee that we would like to pay to Ompu Erwin to thank her for being our guru. Thank you, Tiarma Hutagalung! Lasma has agreed to be our accountant.

Excitement is building. Manguji Nababan, head of the Centre of Documentation and Research of Batak Culture at Nommensen University, may be able to attend, as may Nelson Lumbantoruan, head of Tourism in Dolok Sanggul. Ombang Siboro will try to attend. Ishak Aritonang and Arjuna Bakkara, two bright young Bataks interested in setting up a workshop for blue dyes in Muara in the future will try to attend. So will the Camat in Muara. Franmi Karto, son of the Karo goldsmith may be able to help Nashir with the video documentation using new equipment borrowed from Suarasama. It is turning into a Festival of Yarn, not just a workshop! Such a pleasure to work with this kind of enthusiasm. (What a difference compared to working with half-hearted students at university.)

If we collect enough financial support, we may be able to pay for yarn to be spun for us in the future. Perhaps, one day, we will be able to make an ulos with handspun yarn! Whoa! Whoa! No sense counting chickens just yet. It is special enough to re-kindle Batak spinning in Sianjur Mulamula, the place of origin of the Batak people, the place where the great and original Batak spinner, Si Boru Deak Parujar, came down to earth on her yarn and created the world. SiAnjur Mulamula, the place of origins. May it be the place of re-origins.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Batak Texts go Back to the Villages

I have said it before: my Pulang Kampung projects have been the most inspiring that I have ever undertaken and this is because of the reactions of the Batak people. There is nothing more exciting, more moving, than to restore elements of a people’s culture to them and to be privy to their reactions. All of these Pulang Kampung projects have been driven by a longing to return something of value to these people who have given me so much of value to me and other researchers through the years. As satisfying as each project has been, I have felt disappointment because I couldn’t do more. It has all just been a drop in the bucket compared to what is truly needed to reinvigorate this culture that has not been advantaged by recent history. Hence my bigger dream: to repatriate Batak texts.

The Batak texts were written by intellectuals: shamanic figures, medicine men, orators, astronomers and astrologers, poets, writers, philosophers, specialists in ritual, augury and the spiritual world. When especially this facet of Batak culture was condemned by the church (out of concern that this information came from the devil), the intellectual core of the Batak world was dealt a fatal blow. My film, Rangsa ni Tonun, was a creative project that demonstrates the power of one small text. It has inspired many, invigorated new conversations, generated new insights. It has been a cultural spark. How much more could be done if others had greater access to the Batak written heritage! It has become my dream that these texts be returned to the Batak people.

Reintroduction of the texts will not be easy. The number of people who are able to read these texts can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even in digital form, who will devote the effort needed to understand them, with their esoteric language and illustrations? And yet one must begin somewhere. Distributing my book, Legacy in Cloth, was like tossing seeds in the ground; if just one seed were to take root it would all be worth the time, effort and expense. One seed can grow and multiply. Afterall, Batak culture emerged, in all likelihood, from a small handful of people. But that one small initial seed is critical.

I have peddled my idea of the repatriation of the texts (nota bene in digital form) to those in charge in the library of Leiden University and the new National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden. Due to recent institutional mergers, these two institutions now hold the bulk of Batak textiles outside Indonesia. The idea has met with an enthusiastic response. What could be more gratifying than to restore to a people their intellectual corpus! My current journey to Indonesia meant that our inaugural project meeting date, very regrettably, had to be postponed, but I was given the green light to share our intentions.

It is as though the project is “in the air”. Angry Batak youth on Facebook have expressed their frustration that this body of intellectual work is not accessible to the Batak people. The textual privation is mentioned now and again in passing. Just two days ago an elected representative in the Samosir Regency noted the importance of reclaiming Batak texts. He said it during a formal meeting called to explore options for remembering the great Batak poet, Sitor Situmorang. It was a little off topic but somewhat apt as well. If Sitor had lived two hundred years ago, even just a century ago, I am sure he would have been one of those Batak gurus. If he was still alive, he would have supported this project whole-heartedly. I was grateful to have been given the license to talk about this new Pulang Kampung project openly. The writings will be coming back, I said, albeit in digital form. Let’s work together to make it happen in the best possible way. Those attending the meeting were pleased and surprised.

I personally don’t regret that they will be coming back in digital form. It is a more democratic form. Nobody will be able to horde the stash and restrict access (this is one of the most frustrating things about trying to do research in Indonesian museums, libraries, galleries and archives). The possession of knowledge in Batak culture has never been a democratic thing. Men new to the written arts had to pay dearly and long-term to those in the know to be able to gain access to the esoteric knowledge. The restriction of access meant that the cache of knowledge remained special, sacrosanct, a little frightening, commanding respect. I am convinced, however, that this knowledge must return precisely to the villages that are dying out, emptying out as they lose their resources and as the youth go to live in the cities. Let there be something in the villages on which the inhabitants can build an intellectual life! The villagers have been disadvantaged too long and too much by power being in the hands of those living outside their domain.

A few days ago I met with Jesral Tambunan in his home. (He is a young Batak wood carver, honourary member of the last Pulang Kampung project.) He showed us drawings that he had come across in the context of woodcarvings. What did they mean? Of course the written Batak intellectual tradition also has strong connections with the carved tradition. I longed to have a computer at hand and to be able to download some of the indigenous Batak texts that would give Jesral the answers that he is looking for and that would send him down new rich pathways of discovery. Instead, I could only promise that when I am back in Holland, I will (labouriously) look up some books, make scans, send them to him. And then we would both still have to count ourselves lucky! How much better it will be in the future when access is easier.