Crossing for the first time from Muara Padang to Muara Siberut I am fortunate to run into the Camat of South Siberut and his wife who are heading back after some official business and some R & R. Marwan is in his late 30s, a youngish up-and-coming fellow, originally from the Pariaman district north of Padang, a university graduate majoring in Sociology, who had higher posts than Camat in his sights.
Concerned over the quality of my diet in the coming months on Siberut and in the spirit of getting to know a key player in the local political scene I ask him if there might be cassava grown on the island by any chance (looking back now there were probably a variety of higher quality questions to ask the guy), which seemed a fair bet to me since this product of the 15th century Columbian Exchange between the New World and the rest of the world was ubiquitous across the Indonesian archipelago. He looks at me quizzically obviously thinking that this is a strange sort of question to ask by any standards and that he still had much to learn about these orang barat, with whom he is yet to spend any quality time. His pensive reply of “Iya…iya…” is good news to me since cassava leaves, whilst a bit tart, even when enhanced with rich conconut-milk based sauces, are nonetheless quite nutritious.
After a day or so of bureaucratic formalities with the office of the Camat and the police, and having become reasonably chummy with the Camat and his staff, the cassava leaves having done a reasonable job of breaking the ice, he invites me on a tour that is to be made to the village of Sallapak a couple of hours to the northwest along the Silaoinan river, which runs parallel to the Rereiket river a little further to the west.
This is on behalf of a group who had arrived on the same boat as myself, a doctor, a Family Planning (Keluarga Berencana or KB for short) official, along with some nurses from the Muara Siberut Community Health Centre, an official from the Bupati’s office (then located in Pariaman since the Mentawai Islands were part of the Kabupaten of Padang-Pariaman up until October 1999) as his official representative, the People’s Representative Assembly candidate for the Mentawai Islands (at this time a locally born Minangkabau) and assorted others, notably Bungsu Raja Usman, a long-time civil servant on the verge of retirement.
The main object of the trip, it would seem, is to encourage Sallapak locals to take part in Family Planning, in which “two is quite enough” as the slogan goes. Just after dawn two boat loads of us zip upriver, a drizzly day not uncharacteristically threatening a deluge. The Camat, seated immediately behind me, lights up a cigarette, one of dozens for the day, and proceeds to educate his charge, a captive audience, on the general goal of government development programs and the nature of the local people.
“We seek to achieve two things. The first is to develop social life, yaaaaa health, education….ekonomi. That’s important…an awareness of the value of money. 100 rupiah is the same as 500 rupiah to them. It’s true, and this we must change. We also have to develop cultural life in order to enrich the overall culture of Indonesia.” The grand narrative of the developmental state. Tell me something I don’t know I say to myself. “We have to encourage dancing, carving, painting, art,” he continues. “This must be preserved. But the social aspects must be changed, developed, heightened, brought to a higher level, for the development of the Indonesian community as a whole.
Some are of the opinion (I get the feeling he is talking about me through guilt by association with the cliched, although not without a modicum of truth, anthropological position that indigenous people should be left to their own devices) that the lifestyle of these people must be preserved. This is wrong. We must raise the status of these people. But we cannot force this (of course). If we do they run away. So it is a slow process. We have to take it easy. The backwardness of their thinking is way different to yours and mine.” To a degree anyway.
The Camat is at pains to point out to me that anthropology is oriented to the past and the present, perhaps, whilst sociology is oriented towards the future. My head is beginning to pound and is not helped by the further comment that he also hopes/expects (no distinction between these in Indonesian) that I not “get up to no good” in my capacity as a researcher. That is I am to remember that I’m here as a researcher and not as a journalist. “Jangan macam-macam.” Iya Pak, tentu saja … aman itu. I guess journalists are defined as too subjective, with researchers being more objective. Perhaps the Camat was not paying attention during his sociological unit on research methodology.
It takes an hour to arrive at the Rereiket/Silaoinan confluence. The Rereiket river breaks west; the narrow winding Silaoinan continues to the north. The river is shallow, making passage arduous. Every half-hour over the next six hours it takes for us to arrive at Sallapak the shear-pin on the outboard breaks on the barely submerged forest detritus, requiring removal and replacement. Bungsu Raja Usman is having fun at the bow watching for these snags, with a good deal of success, becoming animated when one is spotted, and displaying a gap-toothed grin to the hapless outboard operator, who has to tug the outboard momentarily clear of the water as we glide over a log—when he misses one, there goes the pin again. On one such occasion we alight on a river-bend sandbank for lunch, or a pack of cigarettes for the smokers as the case may be, and associated activities.
My immediate companion is Utek, a lad in his late teens from Sallapak who has been “adopted” by a prominent family in Muara Siberut, a common practice the primary aim being to instill Islamic values into such adoptees creating cadres that can help spread the faith and counter the hegemonic influence of Christianity amongst the indigenous population. He is later to tell me that Bungsu Raja Usman was once quite a “wicked fellow”. In the past he led government forays into the interior that involved burning uma and shooting pigs, an early crude effort to modernize the locals. I begin to view the jovial Bungsu in a different light.
On our arrival in the late afternoon, Utek tells me the village is nominally Islamic, although another lad tells me that of the 75 families, 50 are Catholic. Within a half hour our group is located in the school building which also doubles as the Community Health Centre, for today anyway. On the short walk from the residential houses over to the meeting-place the Camat enlightens me further as to the reason for the visit, namely to foster awareness of the necessity for KB measures on the part of the village inhabitants due to a high birth rate and a high infant mortality not helped by the practice, according to the Camat of women giving birth with the assistance of only their husbands.
The officals seat themselves in a crescent at the front of the room, the locals filing in and seating themselves on long benches separated by an isle. Women and children sit on the left, men on the right. Arranged from the left in order of importance out the front is a village offical, the Village Head, the Police Sergeant and the Head of Police at Muara Siberut. Right in the middle is the Camat with the Bupati’s representative next to him and then the Head of the Pariaman KB program, with some of his assistants to his left. The Camat leads procedings with a general exhortation for the audience to be “responsible for their own circumstances and to each other” and not indulge in any buck-passing behaviour: “none of this ‘that’s not my business’ attitude. That’s not what development is all about. You must plan you children to be well spaced apart, at the closest two years…and this is in the Koran. The best ages for birth are between 20 and 30. After 30 the risk of problems increases.” Look after yourselves, look after your health is the message.
The Camat invites them to guess the age of the Bupati’s representative, since he is a good example of a healthy countenance produced by this particular outlook. “Thirty-five”, someone sagely suggests. He’s 50 if he’s a day. “A real estimate”, says the Camat, a tad impatiently. The point is that he…well not just him but all of “us” are “still strong”. We rest our case. Moving on to other things the Camat mentions that religious tolerance is a desirable goal, given that the fasting month is due to commence. Christians need to support the Muslims at this time and foster an atmosphere of mutual respect. With the National elections due to be held in June the Camat asks, “How many voted for Golkar (the government party) last time (5yrs ago)?” He answers his own question, “100 per cent! Let’s not get a result any less than that this time…OK?” “Golkar LIVES”, he calls out. “Iya”, the crowd responds, mainly the men, one or two very enthusiastically.
The Bupati’s representative now addresses the crowd, hoping for a rapport between the delegation and the “Bapak-Bapak” (the Ibu-Ibu are not mentioned). “Mentawai is no different from other areas in Indonesia, because we are, first and foremost, Indonesians, not Minangkabau, not Mentawai…True, under the law of Indonesia everyone is free to pursue their own religion. But don’t stray beyond the bounds of the constitution, ya.” Ahem. “In the coming elections we will choose our representatives together. It is hoped that the community will stick with Golkar. Don’t be drawn away by other factions (PPP or PDI).
Indonesia is a very stable country when compared with some others who get up to no good. Mentawai is being attended to by the government. It is the aim of the government to develop Mentawai society, and the government accords the same importance to Mentawai as any other area in Indonesia. There is no differentiation.
Although the Mentawai society does not generally get to go to University, this does not matter. You have work, and you work hard, whereas in many other areas of Indonesia there is rampant unemployment, even though many of them have University degrees. Therefore you are better off than these areas. Now, in relation to KB, husband and wife must cooperate, ya. It requires that both of them work together, otherwise it won’t work. One child needs at least two years of love and care. Anything less leads to a lack of prosperity and is not contributing to development.” In short, don’t go having a lot of kids.
Now, following a few words from the regional parliamentary candidate, along the lines of ‘vote for me’, the Head of the KB program speaks up: more of the same. “There are plans afoot to develop this area as with other areas of Indonesia. It is important for us to be healthy, so we can be prosperous. An unhealthy child will not be clever later. Two years between kids, ya?” Now he goes on to explain contraceptive techniques: injection¾health authorities’ answer to vitually every ailment, which of course is what unregulated birth control is for the state…the health of the body politic is threatened¾and IUD.
An accompanying official from a village near the coast repeats what has been said, half in Indonesian, half in the local language. The meeting closes…almost. A woman stands up and challenges the concept of KB. She says her children have died because of her acceptance of KB. After a back and forth exchange the Head of Police, a middle-aged Javanese, gets uptight commanding everyone to “disperse…disperse..enough!!” He dares anyone to turn up tomorrow and say to his face that KB causes illness and does not work. A number of the women smile and giggle amongst themselves. But make no mistake, he was serious, and very angry.
A “clinic” has been set up in an adjoining room. The women and children are invited to have a general health checkup and look further into the possibility of having a contraceptive device fitted. Everyone shows signs of some ill health, rashs, infections, soupy coughs. Many of the women decline, heading off to their residences. They say their husbands forbid them from taking contraceptive measures. Many have, according to those present, deliberately stayed away at their huts in the hills. There is much local suspicion of these sorts of activities since there is pressure on the government officials at this level to fulfill quotas, that is so many people on the KB program. This results in the registering of false names. It also results in the insertion of IUD devices into women who submit to a health “check” unbeknowns to them. Maybe that explains the sigificant incidence of young couples who after many years of marriage are still childless for which they have no explanation.
Going downstream is always much easier than going upstream. If you are a local going upstream in a local craft, you don’t have to worry about shear-pins breaking. On the other hand, it’s going to take you a lot longer, with a greater expenditure of energy. Yet that’ll keep you fit, and you don’t have fue and maintenance costs. Going downstread, going with the flow is easier nevertheless. Especially if there has been a bit of rain. And it’s a good bend-with-the-wind strategy that you need to practice if you want to get by in Suharto’s Indonesia. The locals know that this mob won’t be back until the next election, and then it will be different faces. Officials are relocated every couple of years or so. A year and a half later the Camat is suspended from duty pending an investigation into the whereabouts of large amounts of cash that should have paid for development projects upriver. It would not be news to anyone upriver. State officials come and go, like most outsiders. It all points, minimally, to the benefits of going with the flow, and occasionally diverting it for one’s or one’s community’s benefit where one can.