Sunday, February 22, 2015

Paul Manahara Tambunan and Asaro Sianturi

One of the reasons why I was so anxious to do this journey early in 2015 was that Paul Manahara Tambunan would be in North Sumatra. He had a few months of free time between finishing his education in Yogyakarta and his graduation ceremony (March 2015) and planned to spend it at home in Tano Batak where his mother lives (his father is deceased), helping out in their small and busy cafĂ© on the side of the road. Paul is an original member of Proyek Pulang Kampung. It didn’t feel right if my trip were to be delayed until a time when Paul would no longer be in North Sumatra. My goal was to spend time with as many of the youthful members of Proyek Pulang Kampung as possible and also to create opportunities for them to get to know each other better. They are, after all, what our efforts are all about. They are the future and they need to feel supported, also by each other, in their ambition to contribute to their culture.

Paul is a loyal, caring person. He is quiet, never intrusive, but always ‘there’, always standing by to help out to the best of his abilities. It seems to be a family trait. His Mom receives us warmly and generously whenever we pass by, feeding us a delicious meal if she can. The entire family even dropped in at my hotel to say hello when they were returning home from a New Year’s visit. 

Paul is like still waters; it takes awhile to get to know him and that always happens best one-on-one during a quiet moment. We had a few of those during this past journey.

Preparations for the spinning workshop
The first was during the preparations for our spinning workshop. Paul told me about his entrepreneurial spirit. He had some financial support from his mom in order to be able to study, but he had to stretch this support using his own ingenuity. He noted that some land behind his student home was unused so he obtained permission from the owner to dig and install a fishpond. He raised and sold fish and completed his studies on the proceeds. “I learned how to manage my money, manage my time, care for my fish, and be independent,” he told me. “I enjoy management and entrepreneurship. I look forward to the chance to expand those skills.”

Preparing the bow (busur) for the spinning workshop
The second moment (although it was anything but quiet) was ten days later when we sat in the bus together heading south from Pangururan. Paul said “My mother just bought a small piece of land. In a joking way I suggested that it could be used to grow some natural dye plants and even hold dye workshops. Mother responded saying that she was open to the idea. I would like to develop a small natural dye business.” I sat there incredulous. It felt as though there had just been a small earthquake and the world had changed.  I suggested that he could plant mangkudu shrubs (Morinda citrifolia). The strength of Paul’s area on the southern shore of Batakland has always been red dye. Rosalina, Restuala’s sister, is also familiar with red natural dyes. Perhaps there will be the opportunity for Paul to learn more about ‘bangkudu’ (the Batak word for red dye) in Muara next week.

I have long entertained the idea of two centres of Batak natural dye, building on the strengths of the past: blue in Muara and red south of the Lake. Paul’s few quiet sentences suddenly brought the vision closer to the ground and made it much rosier. 

The above blog was written while I was still in North Sumatra, but my internet access was so abominable that I wasn't able to get it posted. I am now back in The Netherlands and I was reminded of the blog because of the short piece that Paul wrote for Facebook yesterday. He has been in Muara helping Ishak put up a textile exhibition and there he met with Restuala's family. He has given me permission to post his piece here in my blog, along with my translation. Besides being an entrepreneur, Paul loves to write. This time he was inspired by a precious little bundle that is also very meaningful to me.
The tiny Asaro

Asaro Rolf Johan; Blessed inheritor of tradition.

Humans come and go; thus the cycle of life on this earth throughout time. Such has been the experience of Rosalina Pakpahan (Nai Tania Sianturi), the sister of our deceased friend, Restuala Pakpahan. She has done much to revive “Natural Dyes” in Huta Nagodang, Muara. She continues to use the surrounding natural materials to colour yarns needed for weaving. Such is the biological wealth that is around us, even though we are often not aware of how to use it and then ignore it.

Together with [the weaver group] “Sopo Sorha Harunguan” which was conceptualized by Restuala a few years ago when he was still alive, they grew together, worked together, struggled for the health of the culture by empowering women weavers in Muara.

Now, Restuala is no longer, but the spirit of life is always there. Leaving only the task of determining the future steps for “Sopo Sorha Harungguan”, where the weavers will find their guiding light.

The day of mourning has passed and a day of joy has dawned. On February 17 a gift from the creator of the universe was bestowed upon this family in the form of the birth of Rosalina’s son.  “Asaro Rolf Johan Sianturi”; the child has been named thus.
The name was given by Sandra at the request of Rosalina’s family when we visited their home in Janji Raja on January 27.

Asaro is an Italian name (Saro = good, constant). However, this name also comprises a few words with a distinct meaning in the Toba Batak language: asa (may it be, hopefully), ro (come), Asaro (may something good/constant come). An amazing name, unique, also a part of a prayer that is raised to the creator so that there will be good days ahead. Thus also the hopes of all of us, that one day Asaro will belong to the generation that perpetuates tradition, will do as his uncle (Restuala) did during his lifetime.

Welcome to this earth, Asaro! May you be creative while building your plans for the future.

Greetings…greetings, nature.

Asaro Rolf Johan; Anugerah pewaris tradisi.

Manusia datang dan pergi, demikianlah siklus kehidupan di bumi ini seiring perjalanan waktu. Sebagaimana yang telah dialami oleh kak Rosalina boru Pakpahan (Nai Tania Sianturi), ito dari sahabat kami, mendiang Restuala Pakpahan. Ito inilah yang selama ini banyak berkontribusi dalam membangkitkan "Pewarnaan Alam" di Huta Nagodang, Muara. Beliau juga konsisten dalam melanjutkan penggunaan bahan yang ada di alam sekitar untuk pewarnaan benang keperluan tenun. Demikianlah kekayaan hayati yang ada disekitar kita walau tanpa sadar seringkali kita tidak mengetahui manfaatnya, lalu mengabaikannya.

Bersama "Sopo Sorha Harungguan" yang dibentuk oleh Restuala semasa hidupnya beberapa tahun terakhir, mereka tumbuh bersama-sama, bergerak-berkarya bersama, lalu berbuat bagi kesehatan budaya melalui pemberdayaan inang-inang penenun di Muara.

Kini, Restuala telah tiada, namun semangat hidup tetap ada. Tinggal menentukan langkah seiring perjalanan "Sopo Sorha Harungguan", akan kemana para penenun harus menemukan suluhnya!.

Hari berkabung telah berlalu dan kini saatnya datang hari bahagia. Sebuah karunia dari sang khalik telah dianugerahkan kepada keluarga ini atas lahirnya seorang putra dari ito Rosalina pada Selasa, 17 Februari lalu. "Asaro Rolf Johan Sianturi", begitulah sianak lahir dinamakan.
Nama ini dibuatkan oleh Sandra atas permintaan dari keluarga ito Rosalina, sebagaimana dalam kunjungan kami ke kediamannya di Janji Raja pada 27 Januari lalu.

Asaro diambil dari bahasa italia (saro=baik, setia). Namun, nama ini juga merupakan bangunan beberapa kata yang mempuyai arti tersendiri dalam bahasa Batak Toba; asa (agar, semoga), ro (datang), Asaro (semoga datang yang baik/setia). Nama yang hebat, begitu unik, juga bagian dari doa yang disampaikan pada penciptanya agar kelak menjadi orang baik dimasa depannya. Begitu juga harapan dari kita semua, agar kelak Asaro menjadi generasi penerus tradisi, berbuat seperti yang telah diperbuat oleh pamannya (Restuala) semasa hidupnya.

Selamat datang di bumi ini, Asaro! Selamat berimajinasi dalam membangun rencanamu dimasa depan.
Salam..salam, alam.

Monday, February 02, 2015


I have a wonderful team here in Tano Batak – we’ve become known as Team Pulang Kampung. Nashir and I have collected the members serendipitously. They all have pure hearts, bright minds, individual talents and a sincere desire to do something for their culture. This blog is devoted to one of them: Jesral Tambun. If Tetti Naibaho’s three huge bags of soft, fluffy cotton provided the foundation for the workshop, it still could never have happened without the talents of each of the team members.  This blog bears witness to the power of one. Never doubt that the talents of a single person can change the course of history.

Jesral as he was when I first met him
Jesral was a young fellow that I met in Ompu Okta’s village on one of the last days of the Pulang Kampung III journey. He became an honourary member of the team even though circumstances had prevented him from participating in the voyage of the Boat Budaya. Almost two years have gone by since then and I, and especially Nashir, have kept in close touch with the remarkable Jesral.

Jesral was orphaned when he was a teenager and his house burned down. He has very limited financial resources. He mentioned that period of his life during this past trip. He can’t imagine a worse phase to have to undergo, but he made it through intact. This is what he emphasizes. He now feels fearless and strong, convinced of his inner resources. He has not yet run up against his personal boundaries.

Nashir had met Jesral earlier, during the last film shoot of
Rangsa ni Tonun and had given him a copy of Berkelana
dengan sandra.
If Jes was just a quiet boy with a wound when I met him, he is definitely a man now, with a strong  presence. He has come into his own. Recently he wanted to show Nashir a waterfall in the forest. They set out and walked for an entire day traversing rivers up to their armpits using roots as ropes to keep them from being swept away by the current.

Luckily Nashir did not lose his hat. And Jesral kept his camera dry.

The journey was long and when darkness was about to fall, they had still not reached their destination. Nashir was prepared to spend the night in the rainy woods but Jesral decided he wanted to return to his lonely house in the woods. They made the return trek armed only with Jesral’s knife and Nashir’s Wakawaka light. Jesral said afterwards that it was his father’s voice that guided him. They made it back barefoot (they had burned their sandals to meet some need) but alive at 3 a.m. My Western and Canadian being condemns the folly of such an unprepared journey into the wilderness, but both men returned invigorated; I could see it in their faces. Nashir felt that he had discovered the capacities and character of Jesral.

This is Jesral a year ago.
Jesral feels that it is time he had company in his home -- at the very least so that he doesn’t have to do everything by himself. He is looking for a weaver so that he can return home in the evening to the sound of the sword beating in the weft. In the meantime he knows that it is the task of the boyfriend -- and later the husband -- to make the weaving equipment for his weaver. Jesral is a woodworker and he wants to fulfil this obligation well. An elderly woman in the village has given him her weaving equipment now that she no longer weaves. This  is allowing him to learn about the kinds of wood that comprise the loom.

And this is the Jesral who filled me with awe during
the Bonang Batak (spinning) workshop
When we decided to hold the spinning workshop this was predicated on Jesral’s willingness to help us with the equipment. We are so lucky to have a man who loves to work with wood on our team. We still had the spinning wheel that we ordered from Kalimantan for filming Rangsa ni Tonun but it didn’t work well enough for the workshop. We didn’t have a bow of the right size for fluffing the cotton and we didn’t have enough bamboo “cores” so that all of the participants could make cotton rolags. Nashir went early to Jesral’s home to oversee the collection and preparation of the wood that we would need for the workshop. Once in Pangururan, they and Paul worked non-stop for three days and eventually, after a lot of trial and error, got it all right. The spinning wheel was the hardest. I watched Jesral learn the physics of it and then work with the materials that he had available. We didn’t have an appropriate string to connect the big wheel to the spindle and Jesral eventually cut a strip of rubber from an old tire and that did the trick.

Jesral working on the spinning wheel with Nashir documenting the process
The workshop is now over. We gave a bow to each of the participants. They will have access to cotton from ibu Tetti and they will be able to clean the cotton by hand; the cotton gin is not an absolute necessity. They have bamboo ‘cores’ to make the rolags. The only thing they don’t have is a spinning wheel. Jesral has worked himself into the position of being the only man in Tano Batak who can supply a wheel. I will encourage Ibu Tetti to order wheels from him for the weavers in her village.

Strength, skill, precision
Words cannot describe my thankfulness to Jesral and my appreciation of his talents in making this workshop possible. Each of us had a role to play and all of us were indispensable, but Jesral’s role was singular. Who else could have worked with wood with such steadfast and stubborn determination? We had the workshop lined up before we had a working spinning wheel! Jesral rose to the challenge with grace and humour. Unpaid, just like the rest of us, his only compensation was the sense that he was contributing to his culture – and learning to meet the needs of his future weaver. Where once I felt concern for Jesral’s future, he now fills me with awe. The workshop was a historic moment in which threatened skills were passed down from an elderly Batak spinner to three younger women. Jesral has every right to feel proud about his contribution to this event.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Revitalized by the spinning wheel

The male members of the team worked very hard during the first half of the day preparing the spinning wheel for the upcoming workshop. After lunch it was time to bring it up to the village to try it out with Ompu Erwin. The village appeared empty but Ompu Erwin was there after all, sitting beside her house working on the harvest of some grass-like plant. She was not her usual jovial self and said she didn’t feel well. She did not seem happy to see us.

Then I saw Ompu Sabar, the amazing weaver, and I rushed over to say hello. She was also distant. Do you remember me, I asked? The answer was no and her eyes were blank. Another neighbour called out to say that Ompu Sabar was unwell. Did she mean that Ompu Sabar was becoming senile?

The neighbour was friendlier and invited us to have a cup of tea/coffee, reminding us that this is the norm when visiting a Batak village: first a cup of tea and then talk about business. Ompu Erwin joined the party but remained distant. She said she didn’t want to have the workshop on Sunday because there would be a visitor at church and she would be involved in that for the entire day. Perhaps she felt discomfort at having to renege on her commitment with us, or perhaps she was using church as an excuse. Tea went on endlessly without any kind of real answer. 

Tea dragged on and on without a lot of warmth

Finally Nashir cut the ice by ordering the spinning equipment to be taken out of the vehicle.

When the equipment appeared both women were immediately drawn to it

Suddenly the atmosphere changed. Ompu Sabar became animated. She couldn’t keep still. She came over to inspect everything. Jesral had prepared some pieces of bamboo to serve as the core of the rolags (luli pinale). (The women called them pamale.) The bent old Ompu Sabar bent still further to inspect them, picking them up one at a time from the ground. In her judgement, they weren’t bad, but a little too small in diameter. They had to be very smooth, the women pointed out. The closeness of the women to nature, to the plants in their environment, was striking. And their advice was precisely what we had come to receive. It was indispensable for ensuring a good workshop.

Ompu Sabar's bobbin case (turak) (a bit of it is visible in her right hand
in the photograph) had a very small diameter
At one point Ompu Sabar hobbled over to her house to fetch her turak (bamboo case for the weft bobbin). Jesral had explained that the bamboo that he had brought was to make turak and she claimed that its diameter was too large. Her own turned out to be the smallest that I have ever seen, probably a regional variation. However, I find it remarkable that the weaver of the largest ulos (sibolang) would have the smallest turak. Because the yarn for the textile is so fine? Because they wind so little on a bobbin? Because the weight of the warp is so great that the shed opening is small? I don’t know the answer.

I was sorry that I couldn’t understand everything she said. I could tell that she was talking about the sorha or spinning wheel. At one point, however, I caught the hint of a melody and realized that she was singing a song that included the names of the parts of the loom. She happily sang it for the camera a few times and then went on to sing some mourning songs (andung). She was in her element and clearly her long-term memory was still good. Since Ompu Sihol’s song related to winding yarn on the iraniran, this is the first time I have been able to record a Batak weaving song.

Ompu Erwin warmed up when she saw the eqipment
Seeing the equipment, Ompu Erwin warmed up. The smile that we knew as her trademark came back to her face and her joking manner also returned. She couldn’t resist inspecting the equipment and began to talk about how it should be used. Perhaps she had been concerned about ‘leading a workshop’ when she had no access to equipment. Seeing what we had seemed to open a window for her; it was as though she was relishing the thought of working with it. She also seemed to enjoy being the authority.

Ompu Sabar and Ompu Erwin gave their advice freely and naturally
to Jesral, Paul and Nashir who were perfecting the equipment.
By the time we left, Jesral had received some pointers on how to proceed and I had been able to procure a date from Ompu Erwin: she would be willing to move the workshop forward by a day and have it on Saturday rather than Sunday. This was vastly relieving. It would have been difficult to hold the workshop without a guru.

Ompu Erwin said that she was 74. Ompu Sabar was 87 (later she said 89). Born in 1928 (or 1926), this meant that she had consciously lived through the war years. I asked if she knew hori and she explained, immediately, that this was from a tree and entailed soaking the bark and then removing the outside layer – precisely what we had learned in the Karo area some years ago from Febrina’s uncle. She said that she had used hori as the string on the spinning wheel that connects the wheel to the spindle. She had also spun hori, if I understood her correctly (perhaps this meant giving it a twist on the spinning wheel). She went on to point out that during the war there was no cotton and no clothing. They had been forced to wear body coverings made of woven grass (pandan) from which they normally weave mats.

Ompu Erwin explained that she had learned to spin when she was about 15 years old. She had only done it for a few years and then purchased yarn that had become available on the market. Doing quick calculations, this would have been in the mid-1950s. How quickly things have changed for the Batak people.

The reaction to the spinning equipment is food for thought. When I am old and bordering on senility, what kind of object will enliven me? I doubt there will be one. This equipment has power over these former spinners, even after such a long time. Why? Making yarn for a textile would have occupied a great deal of their time. Not just the spinning. There would have been the growing and picking of the cotton. The drying and cleaning. The fluffing and then the spinning and reeling. The work has many facets and phases and would have occupied both the hands and the mind. More than anything else, it is a step in the long process of making of a textile, a work of artistic creativity, a challenge, an object with spiritual content, socially valued and, if well done, admired. These cloths would have occupied a central role in the lives of Batak women.