Written by: Ng Sebastian
When I was a tour guide, I used to joke with my clients that there are two things that make Indonesians different: sarung and kampung (or sarong and kampong). A sarung is a brightly coloured woven fabric worn by both men and women in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The word kampung is similar to ‘village’ in English. Most Indonesians have a kampung asal, or village of origin. Wherever they live and whatever they do, they can usually trace back to their village of origin. Basically, if you have a friend who claims to be Indonesian but has no sarung and kampung, then she or he isn’t a true Indonesian.
In 1995 I decided always to return to Oting/Bekek, my village, every year to celebrate Christmas or New Year. It wasn’t until 2003 though that, purely by happenstance, I learned the people in my village were having trouble finding money to buy rice from the government. During a family meeting to plan the wedding of one of my sister, one of my cousins suggested we buy RASKIN instead of market rice. When I asked what RASKIN was, I was told about the abbreviation beRAS misKIN (beras is rice and miskin is poor), a government program to provide cheap rice for families in financial difficulty.
At the time, the price of RASKIN was 1.500 rupiah per kilogram. In contrast to the standard market price of 3.500 to 4.500 rupiah per kilogram, it was very, very cheap indeed. I asked why we had to buy RASKIN for the wedding party, since I was sure it was a violation of the main mission of the government program. My cousin explained that the village had an allotment of several tons of RASKIN to be distributed to the poor families – 15 kilograms each per month. When I asked why we had to buy it, I discovered that many village families are unable to pay even for RASKIN. So, to subsidise giving to families who can’t pay, the village chief adopted a smart policy of selling to those who can. I asked again why the village administration could not instead lend cash to the poor families. The answer: there was no budget for it.
That’s when I realised just how scarce cash in the village was. For years I had heard stories about corn crop failures due to reduced rainfall. As a result, villagers have had to plant as many as five times a season but with only minimal success with harvests. Of course people have other sources of income – from coconuts, goats, chicken and pigs – but cash is still not available at all times. I knew that I somehow had to help them, but it took me two years to come up with the idea of connecting kampung to sarung – to encourage them to use natural dies with traditional sarongs again.
Finding a Solution
My village is part of the Riung Nature Conservation Park, which covers a large part of the Riung District and protects the coastal ecosystem, including the small offshore islands known as Taman Laut 17 Pulau. The park is now one of the must-see attractions in Flores, along with the Kelimutu Coloured Lakes and Komodo National Park.
So, as a tourism practitioner, I came to the conclusion that the village needed to do something to attract visitors. To do that, the village potential would have to be identified. What I found was the following:
- People are friendly and the social bond within village is strong.
- Despite the reduced income opportunity there are many women who weave traditional sarongs, although they use chemical dyes. (As part of Riung society, my village produces sarongs for the people in mountain villages. They used to use natural dies, such as indigo, but these were replaced by chemical substitutes in the 1970s after a government campaign to protect coral gardens. One dramatic effect was a drop in the market price of the sarong and elimination of a regular yearly cultural activity.)
- There are still many women who know how to produce natural dyes. (To produce natural dyes, people need indigo and the white powder [called lime] made by burning fresh coral harvested from the nearby sea. Coral harvesting was a traditional practice in my village handed down through generations. Villagers never ruined the coral, but only harvested as much as they needed. The harvest occurred once a year only until the government ban.)
- The village has a beach boundary with the Riung Natural Conservation Park and most of the offshore islands claimed by the government as part of the nature conservation park belong to the village.
- People accept the presence of Riung Nature Conservation Park.
- The village is located on the main road connecting Riung with the Kelimutu Coloured Lakes.
- People in the village are very cooperative and eager to find alternative sources of income.
With this information established, I invited the villagers – all of whom have some family connection to me – to an informal meeting at my parents’ home on Christmas Day 2005. I presented my concerns and the ways in which I thought I could help them.
The result was an agreement that the ladies in the village would form a group that would weave regularly, find and collect old weaving utensils abandoned since the introduction of chemical dyes, and reproduce natural dyes starting by planting indigo in their kebun or dry field. The group would be assisted by the village chief, the master of the vocational high school (who subsequently passed away), and me on behalf of my company, which provided start-up capital.
Tapping into Tourism
My wish is for Oring/Bekek village to tap into tourism, to earn a living from tourism, to be part of tourism industry development in the area. At our last village meeting I persuaded everyone to actively invite government officials to stay in the village. I also suggested they invite church organisations from the neighbouring parishes to stay in the village when they visit Riung Nature Conservation Park. I even discussed a plan to open one room in each house for visitors. Of course, not every family has sufficient resources to do so, but by emphasising the income potential, I spoke of how every effort matters.
There is a lot of work to be done. My capacity to support the village growth is still small. I hope my company will grow and I am working hard to make it happen. But inbound tourism is a fragile business faced with pandemics, international terrorist threats and now the global financial crisis. People in the village nevertheless remain optimistic. They say that there isn’t always a good harvest; you have to experience the bad seasons too.
So I continue to dream of volunteers who could come to the village to teach simple English for daily communication, to teach how to make pancakes and how to build overall capacity by urging villagers to develop their own economic potential.
And, of course, I talk about this with everyone whenever I visit my kampong. I’m not alone in wanting to talk. The villagers believe in Mata Bo Ngapongi, which while it literally means ‘Dead by talking’, is an idiomatic expression stating that sitting together, talking and discussing can solve problems and produce positive results.
.Ng Sebastian owns and operates Incito Tour, the local whl.travel partner for the Komodo and Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia.