Monday, June 21, 2010

"When I am gone..."

Ompu Borsak’s son lived in a large, quiet house (if quiet exists at all in Pangururan). We were given a seat in the entrance of the house, especially designated for receiving guests, and I told him my story about Legacy, but especially about his mother, how she had taught me that Batak women tied their hair in a knot on the side of the head and not at the back, and about the kinds of earrings women used to wear. She lived facing the remarkable sopo or rice barn that somehow had escaped the raging fires that the Dutch kindled during Van Daalen's expeditions in 1906. She told me about the raja class and I recognized the truth in her words from my readings about Batak culture. “Your mother is very halus(a refined lady) I told her son and this touched him. He beamed. He was pleased to receive the book in the name of his mother and his sister and would take it to them. I explained that the book was intended to give the Batak an insight into their weaving tradition and that I hoped that they would show it to as many people as possible. I gave the book in the name of the Soroptimists in Arnhem.

The next stop was Simbolon in the Kacamatan Palipi on Samosir Island. I had been told that weaving there had ceased but I wanted to check whether there were still some weavers working with indigo dye.  We pulled up beside the white scar on the side of the road, where hot water bubbles out of the depths of the island and the smell of sulphur fills the air. One of the renters of the baths turned out to be a woman of highly advanced years. When I asked her if there were any weavers around, she answered in the affirmative and asked me what I wanted. She was prepared to make anything I wanted but she warned me that it would be expensive. She said that she had stopped cultivating salaon, the plant that yields the indigo dye, and that she hadn’t used her weaving equipment for a long time. This was the region that had specialized in making the three blue textiles central to Batak ritual and daily life: the sibolang, surisuri and bolean.

I suddenly remembered Boru Hite -- in Mogang, I believe, a place a little further down the road -- from whom in 1986, I had purchased a beautiful sibolang of the same quality as those made a century earlier. She sat beside a bag of indigo-dyed yarn. “This is the last of my yarn,” she had said. “When this is used up, I will stop weaving.” Now I was meeting another who had stopped weaving. The reason was the same: it didn’t make economic sense. She now invested her efforts in selling oil, gardening and renting the hot water baths. I write on a patio in a Muara Hotel, looking out over Lake Toba. I love the tranquillity, watching the paddlers guide their dug-out canoes across the surface of the water. It is idyllic and beautiful and why can’t it continue for ever, but the reality is that even the paddlers have to eat.

Several kilometers further, in Simbolon, Kec. Palipi, I stopped again to ask if there were weavers and was pointed in the direction of a village on the lake, and later to a house where another woman of highly advanced years was living: Ompu Nerda br. Marbun. In response to my question, she pulled out her loom, a bundle of sticks bound together and laced with dust and spider's webs. “This is my loom,” she said, “I don’t use it anymore.” Her textiles included an indigo-dyed bolean with brightly-coloured and gold supplementary-weft patterning. “This is for my family when I am gone,” she said.

I chose to present her with a copy of Legacy to honour her work. She was the first to see the irony in the gift. “I am 90 years old,” she said. And then to her daughter-in-law, “This will soon be yours.” There was nobody in her village who could weave and nobody who was carrying on the tradition. Her daughter-in-law pointed out that weaving was far too difficult and didn’t pay anyway. 

I gave the book away in the name of Ria Tobing in The Netherlands, someone who has supported the publication and marketing of Legacy in many ways and did translations for me for the Back to the Villages project.

See Back to the Villages - the map!

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