Saturday, October 10, 2015

Harna's Heritage

The consequences of the first Pulang Kampung journey, of distributing copies of Legacy in Cloth among Batak weavers and their families, have evidently not yet achieved completion. The pebbles that I threw into the water then are still creating rings.

In 2010 I gave a copy of Legacy in cloth to Ompu Sihol’s only child (a son) and his youngest son (i.e. Ompu Sihol’s grandson), Juni. Ompu Sihol was my weaving teacher in 1980, the one who so thoroughly taught me the basics of weaving that this knowledge served as the foundation for all my subsequent understandings and documentation of Batak weaving techniques. I described my emotional Pulang Kampung moment, back in her village in Harian Boho, in one of my blogs. It was confrontational to be back in the village where I began my anthropological career as a 24-year old. The lessons with Ompu Sihol had been challenging. She was strict and I was unsure of myself, suffering greatly from culture shock. We managed to muddle our way through our respective cultural misunderstandings and I gradually discovered her good and kind heart and she forgave my confusions. On the last day when we ate our ritual lunch together, we had chicken and I was given the wings (I had given up my vegetarian lifestyle in the village). Ompu Sihol flapped her arms and said that the wings were to help me weave back in my village. I hope that I have done those wings proud even though I have never really become a weaver. I recorded her singing a weaving song on that day. Little did I know that thirty years later it would become the theme song of my film, Rangsa ni Tonun. Her daughter-in-law repeatedly urged me to “not forget the family” and I gave her my promise. “How would I be able to forget you?” I asked in return. When in 2010, thirty-five years later, I gave a copy of Legacy in cloth to Ompu Sihol’s son, his wife was already deceased, he was blind and could not witness the book, and his granddaughter (son Juni’s daughter) had never seen a Batak weaving loom. Times had changed drastically. Ompu Sihol's son was the only one living in the dying village. There were no more weavers in the valley. When I handed over my book, I offered it to three generations that descended from Ompu Sihol, three generations that represented the end of weaving in Harian Boho.  I could not help but wonder how the book would be received, not just then, but on into the future. What would it mean to them? At least they would have a record of an ancestor who was a master weaver and she could be a source of pride for them.

After a few years, a young woman named Alph Kianna Harna contacted me through Facebook saying that she was one of Ompu Sihol’s great grandchildren. She had seen the copy of Legacy in cloth that I had left behind in Ompu Sihol's village and she had googled my name. Her father was one of the little boys living in the village when I was there, one of the sons of that daughter-in-law and that now blind man. I met Alph Kianna Harna briefly when she came to Taman Mini at the launch of Pulang Kampung III and we hugged each other. She felt like family. I liked her equanimity and presence. She said that she worked for Singapore Airlines. We stayed in touch.

Harna had her first meal in The Netherlands with us.
Wonder of wonders, when I last returned from Indonesia (29 September 2015), Harna landed at Schiphol during her first visit overseas. Our planes landed at the same time and we fetched our luggage in the same hall. We met as we were both exiting that hall and I brought her home with me to give her a cozy bed where she could get over her jetlag. Our plan was that I would show her Ompu Sihol’s weaving equipment and textiles.

Harna looked at the pictures of her great
grandmother in my book.

I showed Harna her great grandmother's loom.

Harna said that she didn't know about
Batak weaving.
And we did that. We thumbed through the many pages in Legacy where her great grandmother is depicted. I shared my stories with her and she shared her reactions -- also to my collection of pictures taken during those fateful months. 
It turned out that the grandson who had been given the task of
looking after the chicken for our lunch grew up to be Harna's father.

It felt so odd to be in the position of sharing information about Batak weaving to a descendant of my erstwhile weaving teacher. It must have felt just as odd for Harna. I experienced the need to point out that I had purchased the weaving equipment, that I had exhibited it on several occasions, that I hoped that I had sufficiently honoured it through my work, that I hoped that one day it would all go back to the Batak area. I was gratified when Harna said that she was pleased that I had looked after it all so well. I had been a good custodian but I felt also strangely guilty. It is Harna’s heritage! Our bond is therefore very strong. I care about her as though she is my own family because she is inextricably bound up with the most important heritage of my career. How remarkable to share that heritage with her in The Netherlands! I remembered carrying out the wooden implements on my head as I walked from Ompu Sihol’s village to the edge of the lake, then packing it in crates to be shipped out to The Netherlands: my “anthropological study collection”.

My “stuff” is not unlike collections in anthropological museums: material that can rekindle culture in the places where it was acquired. But it needs to be shared with the descendants. What will Harna’s path look like? I hope I attain a great age so that I can keep track of her and her future children.

And I hope that Ompu Sihol and her daughter-in-law, Harna’s great grandmother and grandmother, were smiling down on us, nodding in approval. How many times Ompu Sihol had shaken her head while watching me fumble my way through a weaving technique and shared her amazement and dismay with her ever-curious neighbour. I gave Harna my blown-up picture of the two of them sitting together. 


  1. Wonderfully moving story about the meaning of life and sadly, of cultural destruction too. Thanks so much!