Goodbye Kamanggih! Selamat Tinggal!
(This post was written beginning in July and finished in August)
It’s been a few weeks since my last post, and that’s been intentional. Information here feels like a fresh and rising tide that crawls up my ankles, with an occasional rogue wave that slaps my face as it crashes down over me. I’ve been hit with too many face slappers that have made me embarrassed of what I have previously written publicly and privately to feel comfortable updating a public blog on a weekly basis. I thought it would be good to slow down, and stop bookending weeks with thoughts but rather allow thoughts to form their own chapters.
Or perhaps that’s just my overly-metaphorical excuse for getting lazy and slipping into the cozy mental space where I’ve lost track of the days of the week. (Damn you Macbook display for reminding me). But I’ll explain the whole face-slapping waves of information a little further below.
Let’s start with the easy stuff: After Connor departed, I continued survey collection for the few remaining households. Unable to speak the local Bahasa Sumba language, I am constantly at the will of Eti and Rambu Nitha for assistance in collecting surveys. Thankfully, it is a kind and helpful will. While Ridho has been invaluable in translating the survey, fine-tuning it, and helping with data entry, he could only take us as far as the national Bahasa Indonesia language.
Eti and Nitha are eager to help, although they are normally more eager to share their Kamanggih with me. This means the plans I have most days, whether for survey collection, working on analysis, or organizing the report, are normally side tracked as soon as Eti or Nitha show up at my house smiling and asking me if I want coffee. Somehow, they’ve managed to invert the hospitality norms - I’m not safe from their generosity even in my own room. I’ve tried to copy their tactics by showing up at their homes asking if they want coffee, but their swift self-defense normally disarms my first offer and I wind up with a cup in my own hand faster than I can ask “Are you free today?”
The answer is usually yes, but that doesn’t mean I’m any closer to accomplishing my work plans for the day. Often, there is something going on in Kamanggih, in their family, or on their agenda which they are excited to share with me. With their invitations, I’ve been fortunate to experience many wonderful things over the past couple weeks. I’ve also spent a lot of time “sitting around listening to other people speak Indonesian” as I like to call it. More often than not, this is an essential and enjoyable part of those wonderful moments, but sometimes the company isn’t exactly lively. Thus, when I grow weary from sitting around listening to other people speak Indonesian - as I did during the 5th hour of an elementary school graduation - I transition to my second favorite: sitting around watching thick cigarrete smoke drip out of the old men’s mouths.
Here are some of my favorite experiences over the past couple weeks in Kamanggih & Sumba thanks to the invitations of Nitha, Eti, or the Kamanggih Community
- The entire election process for the new village chief. Nothing quite like seeing a man I had surveyed, bought cell-phone minutes and gasoline from, and shared meals with in his home become chief. Congrats to Umbu Windi D.Ngadung.
- A Kamanggih funeral and burial. I’d heard a lot about both funerals and marriages from the people here, so it was great to catch one of the two before I left. Unfortunately, it was the former.
- The process of making a traditional Sumbanese floor mat (tikar). The 30+ hour job requires cutting long leaves, shaving their half-inch thorns from the edges, sunning the leaves, softening them, trimming, and weaving. When Nitha’s mom heard I was interested in making one, she generously took charge and the time-commitment that comes with making a tikar. While my assistance only delayed the project and heightened my guilt for ever bringing up the subject of making a tikar, Nitha’s mom happily guided me through the process. Our work sessions almost always included a wonderful meal on her porch and freshly picked food to bring back from their diverse and organized farm.
I spent my first month or so actively aware of the caste structure in Kamanggih. Before heading to Sumba, the IBEKA staff had briefly mentioned what to expect, and upon arrival I tried to observe which caste my friends, hosts, and neighbors belonged to. I didn’t see much, but with the help of new friends I learned more and more each day about the differences between castes and who was placed in which group. I was in Kamanggih to help IBEKA measure their impact on community empowerment. Thus, I was constantly considering the impact of electrification on different castes and considering the impact of the caste system on the electrification project.
From my observations and what I had been told so far about the caste system, I believed it to be merely a system of social prejudice against the historically poor families. I was told families from the low caste were told by others that they should just work, and that their children shouldn’t bother pursuing an education since their kind was meant for lives of labor. It seemed similar to the type of racially constructed prejudice I am used to observing where people of color have to overcome significant harassment and discrimination to achieve or simply receive what others take for granted. I was comfortable thinking about it this way – a realization that makes me uncomfortable as I write this. I heard that my friend’s families were part of the elite caste, but that they had denounced the system and encouraged the families “beneath them” to ignore the pressure and harassment of others.
So, when Nitha told me, as we sat on the grand porch of the wealthiest family in a neighboring village we were visiting, that the woman who just served me my delicious cup of coffee was a slave, I was forcibly shaken.
“Yes. And her daughter over there too.”
“The one in the green or the orange?”
“Green. She’s the orange girl’s slave. Her dad is probably working in the field, and I think this is her mom right here. Her family is owned by our host, and their families will stay like this each generation.”
I realized I had never heard the word slave used literally outside an academic context before. It felt as if I had discovered slavery for the first time.
I watched the two girls, one slave one master, sit side by side laughing together as they drew in a notebook shared across their knees. I could tell Nitha’s immediate distinction was accurate. The girl in the green’s frizzy hair sponged over her slightly oversized green t-shirt. Its tears at the bottom gave way to jean shorts which carried several months more of dust, wear and sunshine than her drawing partner’s. From what I was seeing in the way they played and drew, these girls could have been best friends. One attends junior high in Kamanggih, the other stays behind and works for the master family. One has the possibility of going to college, the other does not. One will see, probably has seen, the Sumba coast, the main city Waingapu, and beyond. The other will stay trapped in the forty household community of Lai Nbonga, hidden by hills and roads more often traveled by bare soles than rubber tires.
Of course, I was not witnessing the same system of chattel slave torture and trade that the U.S. oversaw for roughly 250 years. The enslaved families are given abounding permissions compared to the African slaves of American history and the many slave structures that still exist across the world today. But they are just that - permissions. Freedom is withheld. Choice is removed and hope dies early.
A sharply raised voice traveled from the dark amphitheater of our porch to arrive at the two girls, immediately separating their overlapping wrists on the drawing pad. The girl in the green sprung to her bare feet to toss stones at the piglets encroaching on the tarp full of drying rice. She stood bored and confident, waiting for any advance from the piglets after her first salvo had momentarily pushed them back. The girl in the orange glanced towards the piglets, and then returned to the notebook that now covered both of her knees.
I was placing my empty coffee on the tray when our host informed us that they would prepare lunch for us – rather the slaves would cook us lunch. I sunk inwards. “Fuck their lunch,” I wanted to say. “I don’t want to eat food served by a slave.” I wanted to leave the revolting porch and race away, ignoring the bruises the cracked stone road would deliver to the tiny 110 cc rented motorcycle if driven madly. I was stuck. It would have been a disgrace for Nitha’s family if we abandoned our oh-so gracious host. Their families knew each other. In fact, the only reason the hosts indulged us on their porch was because Nitha’s family was also of the highest caste. If she had been anything but the royalty, we would have been ignored. To leave now would mean igniting a firestorm of gossip which would ignore the moist verdant hills of Sumba and spread to the nearby villages.
Over the next hour while we waited for lunch, Nitha fully explained and answered my many questions about how the caste system in Sumba really worked. “No, no one in Sumba was actively trying to eliminate the slave system. Yes, Kamanggih still has slaves too. Yes, you’ve met slaves in Kamanggih. No, no one is particularly upset about it. No, the police wouldn’t help if we brought the enslaved families to them. No, the enslaved families don’t run away because they are content. They have food and a house and are taken care of.” I felt cowardly as we talked in English about our hosts and their slaves as they sat only feet away. The more I said the word slave and heard it used it the present context, not that of American history or the sex slaves of those distant urban crevices, the more I grew upset and anxious.
Searching for anything to distract me momentarily from my despondence, I looked upwards. I wasn’t looking for God or anything like that, just a scene other than the slave girl on the plantation yard. I saw a pale light bulb. There were several on the porch and several more inside the home. IBEKA, the NGO I was working with, had installed these light fixtures. IBEKA had provided the micro-hydro plant which powered this home. IBEKA was fully aware of the slave system throughout Sumba and this village. I had taken Duke’s money and flown across the world to spend two months helping an NGO which helped slave owners. I was baffled. “How can an organization possibly address community empowerment when an entire social structure of exploitation and inequality is entirely ignored?” Now I was angry.
My thoughts raced around what to do about the meal that was going to be placed in front of me any minute. “Do I refuse it and stare menacingly at my slave-owning host? I don’t know the world slave or any of its associated words in Bahasa Indonesia so I can’t berate my host. Do I spit the meal out on the owners face, making sure to spew my chewed pork onto her gold necklace that reeked of abusive sloth?”
“Ok… I guess we’re eating here, but I’m not going to smile and say thank you like I normally do. Actually, eating is better than not eating – at least I’ll be taking something away from this family. I’ll eat every damn bite, no leftovers for them to enjoy.”
Then, my thoughts grew a half-inch of practicality. “I could pay for flights to Bali for this enslaved family with my remaining Duke Engage stipend. I could return in the middle of the night and bring the family to the airport before dawn… But that’s not sustainable, what about the other families across Sumba? I’ll start an NGO that works to eliminate slavery in rural Indonesia. Where do I start? The police aren’t even on my side. No one seems to care. There isn’t enough passion to split a village on this topic, let alone a whole country… 620,000 people died in the U.S. Civil War? I can’t find a single person who seems ready to die for this. I’m certainly not…”
I wound up saying thank you to the woman who served my decadent lunch with as full of a smile and honest eyes as I could physically form. That was all I had to offer. A thank you and a pity smile.
This experience knocked something loose inside me. Things used to fit nicely. There was no need to question the reasons I was in Indonesia working with IBEKA; it was a logical stepping stone along the fluid path constructed by my interests, passions, and pragmatism. I knew I could help somehow, and I was going to do my best to help. Contradictions existed. I acknowledged them, but I never granted them any significance. I lost focus in this moment, and I lost some hope as well. What’s the point of giving people electricity when they’re still enslaving people? Shouldn’t there be some sort of order to all this?
I couldn’t reconcile living in the friendliest community I have ever experienced with living in the only community I’ve ever experienced with an active and unhidden slave system. History felt minuscule and the future seemed unimportant. As someone who already wrestles with existential questions in relation to my wishes to help others, this ordeal only added a whole other component. What’s the point… man?
Thankfully, I was able to have a very gratifying conversation about this experience with Eti and Nitha. They both grew up in families of the upper caste who had relinquished control over their subservient families, but during my time in Kamanggih I felt tiny leaks of righteous air in their attitudes towards this caste system. It seemed to me that they easily diminished the severity of the issue since they no longer considered themselves complicit in exploitation. One night during my last week in Kamanggih, the three of us lounged for six or seven hours on the vacant mattresses left by Connor and Ridho and talked and laughed like great friends do. The conversation eventually turned towards the caste system and my discomforting experience. With respect for their culture and empathy towards my friends, I explained my point of view. I explained my disappointment and the loneliness I felt when these two amazing friends I had made didn’t seem to care about the gross injustices I was seeing in their community. Nitha would be an English teacher in a few weeks at the senior high school. Her voice and her heart will shape a generation of Kamanggih’s young men and women. I had to try and make her understand the sadness I felt when we looked at the same thing. I called it an issue, they called it Sumba Culture.
As the night wore on, I believe they admitted something to themselves that had bothered them for awhile. Quizzical looks and defensive stances gave way to nods and smiles, and as we ignored the normal bedtime of 9 PM and drifted into 2, then 3 AM, I was met with a surprise. “You’re right,” Nitha said. “We need to open people’s minds.”
I am grateful for their unapologetic honesty and the comfort we had built over the month and half which allowed us to have such a conversation. While I felt great knowing that I had helped “open the minds” of two of my friends, I knew they were the easiest minds in the village to open. They knew that too. The moment was special, yet the same creeping dread of my powerlessness that followed me after lunch at the slave owner’s home quickly returned and is still hanging around. I had done so little to change anything or help anyone.
I was blown away by the inclusiveness of the Kamanggih community and the friends I was able to make. From the young men who would fight over me to be on their side of the volleyball net due to my height, to the family whose home I stayed in, to Eti always bringing me treats to eat that she had cooked all morning, I constantly felt welcomed and respected. Terima Kasih banyak Eti, Nitha, Rambu Yana, Ridho, Umbu Janji, Mas Petu, Pak Adi, dan Ibu Puni. Saya harap saya akan melihat anda semua nanti.
Kamanggih taught me many different things: accept cigarettes from strangers in a new place, it’s a great way to make friends you can’t yet speak with. White rice never gets old if it’s eaten in good company. Say good morning, afternoon, evening, and night to everyone you see. If a Justin Bieber song blasting from the house across the street is going to be your alarm clock every morning (who thought electricity access was a good idea??), stop hating on Justin Bieber and learn to sing along (I knew deep down I always held love for Justin). Ask questions, then ask more questions, and then ask some more questions - my assumptions make an ass out of me and not you. Offer cigarettes to friends you’ve made in a new place, it’s just polite.
Most of all, the people of Kamanggih taught me that intentions and interest can be just as important as actions. For the first month in Kamanggih, Connor and I were often asked why we were there. “Why did you come all the way to Indonesia? How did you find out about Kamanggih? Why do you care about us?”
We always had good answers about Duke Engage, our interests in energy, the environment, and helping those in need. What seemed so simple to us, our interest in service to others, often came as astonishment to the people of Kamanggih. Although the goal of our time in Kamanggih was to create an assessment for IBEKA to use to better craft future projects in future locations, we were constantly being thanked by the community. I never felt like I had done anything to help Kamanggih specifically. In fact, the help I provide to IBEKA will probably be just a drop in the bucket for any future project. The people of Kamanggih were aware of this, yet it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were there and were there because we cared.
I heard from several people that students in Kamanggih were more focused on school because of our arrival. I heard that parents began to place a greater priority on education after seeing Connor and I arrive. This still baffles me, but hey, I’ll take it.
Thank you so much to IBEKA for all that I learned from you. I’m happy with what I was able to do for you all, and I hope Connor and I were helpful. Keep up the good work.
Connor – It was a blast. Can’t wait to see the video.
For those interested in what we created for IBEKA, checkout our report here.
Truth be told, I’m pretty lost after this summer. Not sure what’s important any more. I guess that’s what Duke Engage is hoping for. A good shaking. Well, gee Duke Engage, thanks a lot.
I’ll figure it out.
Thank you Duke Bass Connections for helping me finding this wonderful opportunity and thank you Duke Engage for making it happen.