The Village Head

The Village Head

Not far from one of the settlements a little way removed from Muara Siberut I happened to bump into the headman (Kepala Dusun), the person who had taken on the job of representing the local community to the state, which employed him and to whom, to a degree, he was answerable. One would bump into him, almost literally, quite often as he seemed to be always zipping upriver or downriver in the village motorized canoe, taking people somewhere or other, or transporting rattan that he had acquired from locals who dwelled a good distance upriver and who would spend several days at a time locating, cutting and transporting this reasonably lucrative commodity to middlemen such as the headman.

This constant movement to and fro summed up his position in the scheme of things rather well, linking, connecting, communicating, rather than “leading” as the designation Kepala (“Head”) would literally indicate.

He told me that he had just returned from Padang where he had taken a group of locals to the University of Bung Hatta, the purpose being to inform interested staff and students about the situation on Siberut. He was especially concerned to clear up what he perceived to be certain “misconceptions” relating to what was “culture” and what was not. In other words “culture” formed a ground upon which he perceived a discursive battle to be taking place, in which outside forces were exerting pressure to preserve what they defined as elements of culture, but which were, from his point of view merely “technical” aspects of practices from a time now passed, elements that required elimination, if progress was to be made.

“They consider everything on Siberut to be ‘kebudayaan’ [culture], but it is not”, he declared. “There is a difference between kebudayaan and ilmu [“knowledge”]. Kebudayaan refers to dancing, drums, flowers, leaves, headbands, necklaces and these sorts of things. Ilmu on the other hand is the equipment of the Sikerei [shaman], such as the tattoos and the kabit [“loin cloth”] they wear. This we don’t need. This we must get rid of, because it is getting in the way of development. (Similar sentiments in this article).

“For example, the Kepala Desa [head of a group of several settlements forming an administrative district] draws up a timetable in which on a certain day a bridge will be built, or a house, or a track cleared. But this gets left when there is a puliaijat [major ritual event]. They go on right through the night and then sleep the next day! Then they do it again!! It’s impossible to get things done. Then there is the cost. So many pigs, so much work and time and materials goes into these events.

What if the pigs were sold? Lots of money to be had there. They are cheating themselves. But this also at odds with the government and the new religion [Christianity]. The only useful thing about all the activities of the Sikerei is the medicinal side of what they do. This can be preserved, as long as we realize that it is not the spirits that heal people, but the medicinal elements. Wearing a kabit and tattoos does not heal people. Here [the area around Muara Siberut] we have Sikerei who just apply their medicines. And it works. There is none of the other stuff.

The kabit is just a symbol of poverty; the tattoo is a mark of enmity. In the past each area had its different tattoos, so when you came across those who wear different tattoos to yourself, then you know you are facing an enemy. We don’t need such things now. Such days have gone. Tourists come here to see the Sikerei; and they have increased in number because of this. But the tourists are coming to see “culture” [kebudayaan], not the “ilmu”. When we have a wedding, Christmas, New Year or such celebration, we wear flowers, headbands, and necklaces. We train our children to wear such things, and how to dance, so they can go to Padang or maybe Jakarta and perform.”

It is unwise to underestimate the power that the concept of “development” (pembangunan) wields throughout modern Indonesia. It is a power that would sweep all before it. Yet development is also a creative force, in which new, and often contradictory, cultural conjunctions and configurations come into being, simultaneously dissolving and reforming institutions and/or incorporating and/or rearranging lives and materials as it is continuously negotiated from day-to-day. And in this it is as much an object as a subject of its own transformational agenda.

Within the person of the village head can be seen one such contradictory conjunction, an indigenous force for change that seeks to aetheticize “culture”or make it purely cultural, contain it and confine it so that it does not interfere with the real world in which the only goals individuals and communities should strive for are those framed in the terms laid down within this particular manifestation of the discourse of development. And it often seems to be the case that those most committed to trajectories of change are located within, and thus act from within, a particular cultural milieu, in contrast to those from “outside”, in this case these Sumatra-based intellectuals who seek to forestall changes in opposition to those from within.

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