Sunday, July 25, 2010


I remember the children of Harian Boho when I lived there in 1979-80. They ran around in packs, and had huge, limpid black eyes. They were beautiful. 

This time, when I was back to give a copy of Legacy to Ompu Sihol’s grandson, now a grown man, I was once again struck by the children of Harian Boho. Several crowded around in front of me. They were very young, perhaps 5 years old, and just like I remembered, fully innocent and unself-conscious. They stood in front of me, staring, unblinking, their eyes fathomless and black. They stared intently, uncompromisingly.  It wasn’t just their deep eyes, their full attention was focused on me. They were recording everything, every movement I made, every hair in my nose. I am certain that when I go back to Harian Boho in 10 years time, and I run into them, teenagers by then, they will still be able to recount every single detail of what transpired on that day in June 2010. 

I am sure of this because that was my experience this time around. When we arrived in Harian Boho and I got out of the vehicle to ask a group of young men how I could make my way to my weaving teacher, Ompu Sihol’s village (I no longer remembered the path), they asked me if I was Sandra. I had spent few months there in 1980, 30 years earlier, and since then had been back only once for an hour or two. I was taken aback that they should know who I was. Perhaps they had this knowledge from stories?  What other white woman would want to know where Ompu Sihol lived? But who were they? I had no notion of even how to reciprocate their attentiveness.

More than once, I was taken aback in the same way.
When I knocked on Nai Ati’s door in Silalahi and asked her if she still knew me, she responded with no hesitation after 24 years: “Si Sandy?”
In Berastagi, Nande Pulung, after 24 years, still knew everything that transpired during my last visit. She was surprised that I no longer knew the way to Nande Peringitten’s house because, as she pointed out, she had taken me there the last time! For my part? Quite honestly, I would no longer have recognized
Nande Peringitten’s house if my life had depended on it (although I recognized the interior because I had a photograph of it), and I had no recollection of ever going there on foot, let alone with Nande Pulung.
And then there was Boru Pandiangan Ny. Siregar in Muara for whom the picture of her in the front of Legacy was no surprise because she still had the snapshot that I had sent to her 24 years ago and fetched it easily.
Nai Ganda had an accurate recall of the textile types that we had talked about 24 years earlier, she knew which ones I had purchased and she critically inspected the pages of Legacy with an eye to which ones I had included and which ones had been left out;
Ompu Si Masta remembered that we didn't go through the bargaining ritual when I purchased textiles at her stall; she gave me a fair price and I trusted her. I no longer remembered this when we spoke this last time (but I pretended I did).

And everywhere I went, the children watched me with their deep, black eyes.

At first I made light of it: probably not too much out of the ordinary happens in these places, I told myself, so if something unusual does happen, it must be memorable for them.

But contemplation leads me to believe that there is so much more to it. 

Batak rituals or indigenous legal "courts", were public fora out in the open. The bystanders were witnesses.   To acknowledge their role, they were given a few token coins. The events were thus parked in memory. The witnesses served as the archive; there was no other kind, and cultures need their stores of information.

There were no schools and there were no books as recording devices. As I pondered it further, I developed the awareness that memory and accurate observation were everything, everything in the sense of history and the perpetuation of culture.

Memory is apprenticeship; memory is the ability to re-stage a ritual; memory is oral history; memory is mythology, legends, tales; memory is the kinship system that the Batak used to be able to trace 25 generations back; memory is the way to get to the market a week’s walk away along mountain paths; memory is the ability to recite prayers, to play that marvellously complex and subtle Batak music, to dance, to cook, to look after the garden, to conduct rites of divination. Memory is the knowledge that is available when books (and now the internet) are not. A thought world is pecisely that: the way of life that is hung on the framework of socially recognized ways of perceiving that are transferred from one generation to the next. The thought world is merged with life as it is lived.

I began to consider the mnemonic tools that I know that the Batak had. The pustaha, or bark books, were mnemonic tools par excellence.  They were used in combination with memory, to jog it. There were little ditties that Ompu Sihol sang so that she could keep track of the complex counts of yarn and cycles involved in producing a perfectly symmetrical textile. The conventions in weaving, too, were memory joggers: right and left, forward and back, up and down, so that you could resume where you left off. I have made the argument in my Back to the Villages project that the textiles themselves are mnemonic devices; they allow the reproduction of the designs they exhibit. Logically, therefore, weaving is the merging of memory with physical performance -- which is yet another form of memory.  This, surely, is the essence of ritual: incribing memory, including that known by the body, into the tactile, the visual, the perceptible world. Ritual is memory generating expression. In turn, the expression is committed to memory. A cycle of life.

It was as if those little children in Harian Boho became so absorbed in the task of observing me that they had become one with me, inhabiting my skin. It was only when my eyes shifted and intentionally caught theirs, when I said something gently and directly to them, thus introducing a boundary over which could be given and received, that they were suddenly overcome with the shyness that comes of self-consciousness and they shrank and looked away. 

Those eyes. Those terribly endearing, unfathomable, relentless eyes. Already to the roots of their very beings, they were children of another culture.

See Back to the Villages - the map!

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