Borongan: Wells, a Wharf, Chainsaws, a Mosque, Roads…and Money

Whilst not an obsessive preoccupation on Siberut, making money, or more accurately, getting access to the often vast amounts that have flowed through the Rereiket from time to time—such as in the case of the Asian Development Bank funded project to create a national park on the western third of the island—has nevertheless formed a consistent priority (given the often shifting nature of priorities) for many of the area’s inhabitants.

A lucrative source of cash is government “development” projects in which the ideal position is to be the contractor or “facilitator”, the one in the middle, or in other words the “borong”. It’s fairly simple: lots of money allocated from the central government, increasingly smaller amounts of which find their way through the system to land in the borong’s lap, who then carries out the project for the smallest outlay possible. The way he gets paid is to carry out the project using his own resources and then following confirmation of completion by government officials, the only time they actually enter the field, the money is released to him.

For example, the building of wells and a mosque, carried out by a very well-known Minang borong (who has since gone onto much bigger and better things which, in his view, includes no longer having to reside on Siberut). This was a remarkable comeback since one of the schools he had “built” in the past had shortly after fallen into a state of disrepair due to the high ratio of sand to cement that had been used in its construction—the thing was crumbling to pieces. But since he was cosy with the establishment (the Camat etc.) who was largely responsible for his success, anyway, more contracts were a certainty.

Twelve households out of the several dozen constituting the settlement were to be given access to clean groundwater via a well (I would love to have been privvy to the politics surrounding how they came to be the recipients!). The person to organise this, the local “borong”, was a (indigenous) person of some standing in the eyes of Kecamatan officials. The main borong, let’s call him “Big Borong”, agreed to pay this fellow Rp.45 000 per well. All he really had to do was find the people to dig the well, often the householders themselves, who were paid Rp.20 000, meaning that he kept Rp.25 000 for himself. And since one of the wells was his own he was already an extra Rp.20 000 ahead. Now when these were all finished Big Borong sold them to the government for Rp.200 000 each, earning a profit for himself of Rp.155 000 per well.

Then there was the mosque and the wharf. Big Borong is a committed Muslim who carries out the five requirements (“pillars of Islam”) that every good Muslim should, daily and throughout his or her lifetime. In BB‘s opinion a small mosque, a musholla in fact, was essential for the fledgling Islamic community (umat) of Madobag…and he would be most happy to build it. Since this part of the settlement was adjacent to the river and was the first part that one encountered when heading upstream, it was also decided that disembarking visitors should no longer have to negotiate the mud on the riverbank as they attempted to gain access to the village. To this end Big Borong was also happy to construct a wharf of sorts, both projects being carried through to fruition, although Big Borong only laid eyes on the fruit of his dextrous political maneuvering once or twice; one did not come upriver more often than was absolutely necessary for one to do so.

The new musholla was formally inaugurated at a Muslim-only gathering in which one elderly fellow embarked on a long-winded speech centering on the theme of correct conduct on the part of the religious teacher, a young Minangkabau fellow, Ar, sent to bring the word to the umat. Use the building as it was intended, conduct your religious affairs as you must, he exhorted. But just keep your hands off our girls!—the memory of the pregnant female left behind by the former Islamic teacher who had abondoned his post several years early still fresh in everyone’s minds. Ar hung his head in obsequious contrition, taking upon his shoulders the sins of his predecessor. It was a different story at night, of course, when he continued his advances to the locally born wife of one of the Minang traders, news of which raced through the settlement at the speed of light. (Want to know what happened next? I never found out since I departed the field that week).

Around the same time roads were being cleared to the northwest and the southeast. Well, they were wide paths with trenches dug either side to facilitate drainage and avoid the incessant problem where paths turned into torrents during heavy rain then bogs until the next downpour. They sure felt like roads. Now in something like this a chainsaw was pretty handy since you could cut back the bush on either side of the track in pretty quick time. In fact you could get a lucrative contract to do this, which is what Sijantung had in mind.

One of the Nias traders in Rogdog owned a large chainsaw which he used to cut planks out of felled logs for the housing project financed by the Social Department. Sijanting could picture himself as the proud owner of this machine which could return to him the riches which he believed he deserved. However the asking price of Rp. 900 000 was a bit beyond him. Nevertheless as one of a handful of indigenous tourist guides, he had access to a steady, and lucrative, flow of income; it was thus not beyond the realms of possibility.

Most other residents lacked the cultural capital that Sijantung had built up over a period of time, which included becoming fairly proficient in English. Not happy to be denied access to the windfall brought in by these state development programs, some enthusiastically accepted the offer of wages in exchange for stitching together the sago-leaf panels constituting the roofs of the huts being built for every family, including their own.

Others took to the arduous task of creating the drainage channels on either side of the “road” soon to link each settlement in the administrative district (Desa). For these a certain convenience was enjoyed by way of a deal that had been done between the Social Department and the local Nias storeowner, who would advance goods against a “tab” that had been established on each employee’s behalf. That is they could collect their wages (Rp.500 per meter of channel dug) in kind from the local store, not a particularly good way, however, to accumulate capital, something that canny operators such as Sijantung understood fairly well, and would have no part of (although his potential capital always seemed to be continually converted to the consumption of new machete blades and top-of-the-range kretek filter cigarettes).

No simple-minded “primitives” enjoying a communal existence in harmony with nature here…as if there ever were…anywhere!

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