Karimunjawa reflections

Back from a few days in Karimunjawa. A rest from the city and the noise and laptop screens. This is the third time I’ve been to Karimun, a tiny outcrop of islands in the middle of the sea between Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi. Its central position is highlighted by the different communities who call the island home. To the south of the island lies the small town of Karimunjawa populated by those whose roots lie primarily in Java, and Kampung Bajau, the village for the Bajau ethnic group who are famous for their nomadic lives on the sea. 45 minutes along the coastal road you find yourself in Bugis territory, more houses are built on land on stilts than found in the other areas. You can notice slight differences in use of space, less bird cages, more grass in front. The island is also home to a small Ahmadiyya community, a group who have for years experienced persecution for their faith, as well as the Mandar who originate from Sulawesi and a small number of Madurese. For generations, different peoples from larger islands have sailed and discovered this land, some moving on when necessary, some becoming permanent residents. It has been a home for fishermen and small scale farmers. Everyone lives alongside the fish, birds, crabs, bats, snakes, butterflies and monkeys who claim their space on the hills and beaches.

The main island of Karimunjawa and the little islets that surround it are breathtaking. The water shimmers against white sand, hills cloaked in green stand tall against the sun, the palm trees bend towards the sea like they do in Windows screensavers. Along the one main road around the island, families sit chatting on their verandas with doors perpetually open because it’s just so safe to do so. Children play in paddling pools, cats stretch lazily on the grass. When the evening comes and the waves lap gently on the shore under the glow of the milky way. As a tourist to this place I have felt every time I have been there like there could be nowhere more beautiful, although this time pressures on Karimun were a little more visible than before.

As with islands all over the world, there are challenges. Rising sea level has caused abrasion across the beaches. In 1990, the creation of the Karimunjawa National Park was meant to stop over fishing in certain zones, but also allow the potential for tourism. In recent years that has meant a boom in both local and domestic tourists like myself, a wealth of new resorts and hotels and a depleted coral due to up to 200 people snorkelling in one spot at any one time during peak season. The opening up of the land to commercial interest has also meant that fish farms have been carved into the landscape, sand is dredged for building and land reclamation elsewhere. Plastic waste from the island and nearby Java, as well as used oil tossed into the sea by near by tankers, floats to the beaches and creates a new manmade shoreline – although most beaches remain remarkably spotless as beach caretakers meticulously pick up floating debris. It’s really sad, my friend Morgan who works as a guide told me, and people are giving up too much for too little. But people need money and jobs. What if a family member gets sick and has to go to the hospital? He asked, I couldn’t do anything but agree. I was there, after all, as a tourist, fuelling and propelling some of the very issues that were painful to see.

A huge beach club being built on the shoreline among mangroves stood out like a metal, gentrified sore thumb. I remembered the first time I came to Karimun a few years before, all toilets and showers had little stickers telling users to be mindful of water consumption due to the limits of the island’s capacity. That mentality didn’t seem to apply to places like this. The manager of the small homestay next door, overshadowed by the large new concrete construction, grumbled – but what could he do? He shrugged. These people had money and could do what they liked.

The continuing pandemic has been a struggle for communities on Karimun, large building sites and cleared plots sit empty, tour guides and hotel workers struggle to find employment, most men have turned back to fishing and the sea becomes alight at night with boats looking for a catch. Islanders were expectant for after Lebaran, hopeful that despite the continuing pandemic the beginning of the holiday would bring back tourism to some levels of normality.

I think islands are important to look at because due to the sheer limit of ‘resources’ on these masses, the small amount of land, of creatures, of space for people, of water — the impact of climate change and -dare we mention it- globalisation is so much more exaggerated and visible than on large patches of land. Both on the environment and the people who call it home. I read online that the Karimunjawa National Park is a collaboration between local government, local citizens and NGOs, a transformative connection of interests to manage the different challenges and needs of human and non human subjects, but this doesn’t seem to be enough. How can you effectively manage and balance not only what is happening on the islands – the economic and short term and long term issues that will always exist – but also the larger ecological crises that are being caused elsewhere?

Yet despite its issues, life on Karimun remains warm, welcoming, safe. Everyone knows everyone. In the evenings young people gather at the only angkringan to eat nasi bakar and maybe sing karaoke. As it was during Ramadan, at dusk the roads were closed for neighbours coming to sit together and break the fast. Children ran to buy fireworks and firecrackers. The is stress and there is happiness and sometimes you have to focus on the latter to try and get through the former.

The Mango Tree

I’ve been looking at trees a lot lately. In particular, the mango tree that grows in my garden. The last mango season came and went and no fruit hung from the branches, but instead, a multitude of different forms of life took its place. When the sun sets around 6pm and the call to prayer warbles longingly across the fields and cities, a sharp continuous thud can be heard at the very top of the tree.

Silhouetted against the pink sky, a thousand beetles about the size of a thumb ricochet off each other and the branches, crashing into leaves and making whole boughs sway. The sound is loud enough to make me think perhaps a cat has jumped into the tree and has found itself stuck. A third sound enters, after the prayer call and the beetles, the scurrying of a gecko against the wall and another thud as it lands in the tree. A second gecko comes – the flurry of life above meaning dinner for these normally shy creatures.Further down the tree, silently working from the ground up, march ants. Three different sizes, carrying leaves, bits of mud, crumbs from the kitchen. They work their way up the trunk, tiptoeing across the washing line and forming a huddle against the back of an ageing leaf. A nest is formed around them, and they are protected in the gentle sway of the leaf against the ruckus above.

Stretching out between the leaves is a spider. Steady, silent, waiting. A network of webs connects the community, some yellow, some black, one spider with a large swollen backside. They await the caterpillars, moths and butterflies that also call these trees home.

A few streets away, another sound is heard, the incessant whining of an electric saw. A sound common across the city where slowly slowly, one-by-one the trees are felled. Felled for land, felled to make way for roads, felled for wood. With each tree felled, one micro-world, all the beetles, the spiders, the ants, the butterflies, caterpillars and geckos lose a home. We speak a lot of protecting the forests, but we should also celebrate and protect the city trees too, the forgotten trees which obstruct telephone lines and whose roots uproot pavements. They remember to sustain life where in day to day life, on the road, at work, on campus we sometimes forget.

But for now, right now, I sit and appreciate this mango tree in my garden, and from her I get both rapturous noise and peace.

First features in The Garden Zine. You can read it here: https://thegardenzine.co.uk/

Love in the Time of Corona

They were both sitting on the sofa. In the background, the clock ticked, a gentle reminder that time was actually moving, and a few cicadas called out as if to prove life still went on without them.

It was day twelve—perhaps already thirteen—of self-isolation, and the initial novelty of cooking and cleaning and pretending to be a veritable housewife had worn off.

Outside, the virus continued to grow into an all-consuming wolf that killed the old and ravaged those with preexisting conditions. Those who could work from home scrolled on, while Gojek drivers outside continued to trace the map like green blood in the veins.

Outside, a food cart went by, the tock-tocking of its owner hopelessly searching for a hungry mouth with a wallet.

Inside, out of sheer unquantifiable apathy, she stuck her finger in his belly button. Soft folds of skin gave way to a crusty outcrop, some forgotten thing like they were. She dug a little harder, relieved for a moment’s activity, and then he exploded. Out of that tiny hole came guts and intestines, Indomie noodles and neatly sliced red pepper. They poured out in a chain, covering the sofa, splattering the ceiling. The floor became a sea, his face a picture of surprise. She could not move for the sight.

As quickly as it began, it was over. A deflated balloon of a body lay next to her. She wanted to run from the house, kidneys precariously dangling from her right ear, but she could not. She had already completed her one trip to the shop and it was another week until she allowed herself out again.

The sky turned from dusky blue to orange, the call-to-prayer cried out to empty streets. Only one more month until the peak, she thought. The sky grew darker, only one more month.

And then, sifting through the gore that was her living room, she found the remote and began scrolling through the channels.

First Published on Flash Fiction Magazine’s blog: https://flashfictionmagazine.com/blog/2020/05/19/love-in-the-time-of-corona/#comments

Tales of the Pandemic: The quiet before Ramadan in Yogyakarta

I live on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia. To the north, travelling through small settlements, food outlets and rice fields, one reaches the now (alarmingly) puffing Mount Merapi.

To the south lies the centre of the city: the tourist attractions of the Tugu statue, Malioboro Street, the palace where the Sultan lives – Indonesia’s last active king. Throughout the city you can find university campuses of various sizes.

As it’s coming up to Ramadan, now is a time to reflect on crowds and quiet, and the ebbs and flows of mobility in the city.

At this time normally there is mudik, where millions of workers from around Indonesia travel home for the long holidays, to celebrate and to fast with loved ones, and all the students who normally fill the cafes and food stalls return to their kampungs around the country.

These two forms of migration, combined with Yogyakarta’s status as Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination, means the population dynamics change a lot during this time, and even within the space of a day the force and nature of crowds shift.

In the days of fasting the early mornings are a hive of women measuring and selecting in markets and stocking up for the coming evening. During the heat of the day streets are still for people staying indoors, preserving energy and holding off thirst, restaurants are closed save a few with a sheet across the window and tourist destinations lay empty.

Come 6pm, the call-to-prayer and competing sirens to break the fast ricochet around buildings and the streets are full of people buying sweet, multicoloured snacks and rushing home for iftar (the meal to break fast).

Yet now, in this time just before the holiday but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the streets are perpetually quiet. It feels the government aren’t sure how to act about mudik.

The president, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, refuses to ban the mass homecomingreasoning that the economic impact would be too damaging if it were to stop altogether – yet appeals to those in Jakarta to stay put.

Meanwhile, in the cities and villages already watching the first waves of returnees, like Yogyakarta and its countryside region of Gunung Kidul, the mutterings and rumours of how many infected and how many having been lost to the virus since workers returned are shared in doorways and across front yards.

It is thought that 600,000 workers from Jakarta have already returned home, with potentially over a million more to make the journey. In my kampung, the village heads have taken to carefully monitoring who is coming in and for how long to try and maintain some control of the situation.

Last week it was my turn to emphatically state that I hadn’t been to the UK for a while due to the high number of cases there.

I’ve been staying in the house now for five weeks. My Masters at Universitas Gadjah Mada moved online long before the government started taking the issue seriously and people on the streets started worrying about what will happen.

A bamboo roadblock outside a mosque in Yogyakarta. Photo: Harriet Crisp

In this time I’ve been oblivious to the sensations and sentiments outside, fortunate to only need to venture out to the supermarket once a week.

Two weeks ago, the feeling on the street started to change – people joked a little nervously about the pandemic, mask and disinfectant sales increased. But it wasn’t until one evening we ventured out to restock on greens and rice that the real shift was visible.

Men from the kampung were outside working together making large banners with light-hearted signs reading ‘Uncles, aunts, sorry! We have to do this to fight Corona’ and ‘The villagers here want to be able to celebrate Ramadan!!”.

Bamboo poles were being lined against the gates to stop outsiders entering. “Where are you going?” one man asked my husband and I, only nodding at our answer. Out on the main road this scene was repeated across the area, each village having its own message and a collective of concerned looking spectators.

There is an increased presence of police cars on the road now, and many of the often-packed food stalls are shut. The streets, normally thick with the exhaust fumes of continuous mopeds for a while resembled the quiet usually seen at 4am. It is a surreal experience to have a forty five-minute drive take twenty.

Instagram accounts with large followings are posting traditional street venders who are suffering the loss of customers on the street, with followers tracking them down and buying their produce even if reluctant to let it in the house

Where everyday activity should be happening – a few ibu queuing for snacks from a popular street vendor, an elderly man waiting for the red light to sell newspapers – there are instead the food delivery Gojek drives, sat in the doorway of a closed shop waiting for an order. Their green jackets are now the most prominent feature of the city, as many people turn to online orders to limit the risk of going out.

In the absence of clear government instruction, and with growing numbers of people in need, kampungs and local organisations are taking lockdown and food distribution upon themselves.

University groups and local communities are organising public kitchens for food sellers and small business owners who are struggling to get by.

Instagram accounts with large followings are posting traditional street venders who are suffering the loss of customers on the street, with followers tracking them down and buying their produce even if reluctant to let it in the house. Even the local graffiti community has put together a series of prints with profits going to making protective suits for hospital workers.

Right now, the atmosphere of the city seems hopeful, but cautious. People are working together and spreading what means they can. Numbers in the hospitals at present are 67 patients positive and over 600 patients under observation, but I feel many who may be ill are not being tested for different reasons.

One of my lecturers having returned from America for a conference has been announced positive, along with one of my classmates who is still in the process of recovering after three weeks of being sick.

We don’t know what will happen, and in our online classes we pray, regardless of religion or belief. There is a sense that all we can do is help who we can and stay at home as much as we can.

Outside the rice paddy has reached its peak, and like always the old ladies continue to meet, picking, backs bowed and working in tandem. The children outside continue to play, although less often now, and each day the number lessens.

There is no way to predict when this will be over, or what will happen when Ramadan officially begins, but I’m hoping this communal practice will continue.

It is through the collective that the most vulnerable will stay afloat, and the fallout from the virus will stop from evolving into a disaster.

First published on the South East Asia Globe here: https://southeastasiaglobe.com/ramadan-celebrations-indonesia-coronavirus/


My mother, her mother and I were sat in a cafe. Three generations cradling rooibos tea as the rain and the wind ripped through the streets of Brighton outside. We were discussing language, and in particular the language of mothers.

I was explaining how it works in Indonesia with parents of loved ones. The first of the linguistic jumps one has to make when speaking to a parent – or parent of your partner -in Java is speaking using the passive, third person. So, as an example, rather than saying directly to your mum, “would you like a drink?”, or “would you like a drink, mum?”, you would ask, “would mum like a drink?”, “is mum cold?” “what time will mum get here?”. At the beginning of mine and Obi’s relationship, this way of speaking felt particularly unnatural, as if you were speaking to your mother, but focusing on the space next to her. The bodily reaction to not using the direct ‘you’ for me was strangely intense, I felt myself shrinking when using this passive voice.

For Obi the situation was equally awkward as he was thrown into the world of first name terms. My mother was – and continues to be – Deborah, something particularly rude in his mother tongue. “Would you like a drink, Deborah?” wouldn’t quite cut it in Yogyakarta, and, at the beginning, we shared many a whispered conversation about if each of us were doing it right.

Before marriage, you refer to your partner’s parents as om and tante, or uncle and aunt. Once married, the titles change, and they effectively become your second parents – your partner’s mother becomes ibu and their father becomes bapak, literally mother and father. Their family too, becomes your family, with aunts and uncles also being referred to as om and tante.

My mother, grandmother and I discussed the significance of calling another’s mother your own. In Indonesia, marriage is only partially about two people uniting, and much more about two families. The families are involved throughout the whole process: there is the symbolism of the engagement, in which both families meet to discuss the arrangements, and agree or disagree on the union. Education is discussed, whether the partner’s family is suitable enough is discussed, where they will live is a topic of conversation, how big the wedding will be is a family matter. Families will generally only meet the boyfriend/girlfriend if there is the intention that they will marry. Careers are important, and if parents decide ‘no’, then that is usually final. In this sense, you are receiving two new parents.

From a UK perspective, this could seem a little suffocating, depending on your community. While the tradition still somewhat exists for the father of the bride to be asked whether the groom can marry the daughter, this is dying out, and the decision is very much the couple’s own choosing. If parents were to disapprove, I imagine in many cases the marriage would go along anyway. That’s assuming couples choose to marry, as every year the institution of marriage looks a little less necessary for young people. Two years ago it was made legal for heterosexual couples to hold civil partnerships once reserved only for LGBTQ communities. This year saw the first of the hetero civil partnerships – the argument? For most couples going down this route, they want all of the legal and social recognition of their relationship, but none of the outdated and negative associations that come with the institution of marriage. When marriage – or civil partnerships – occur, parents are often involved as a blanket of support, yet they are not fundamental, and that’s the difference. A marriage for many couples in the UK is primarily about two people, not two families.

In our discussion, my grandma, mum and I discussed the feelings of betrayal, perhaps, that comes with calling your partner’s parents your own. As I live on the other side of the world, did that feel like I was moving away from my parents? Was there a fear it’d look like I was replacing my own mum? Did it feel like doing something that takes me away from my own upbringing? Maybe, maybe not. Obi’s family, his mum and dad and aunts and uncles have always supported me, smiling encouragingly every time I’ve slipped up with my Indonesian, gently squeezing my hand to help me feel welcome. We didn’t have any sort of official engagement meeting with parents, and they willingly helped organise our wedding in the way that we wanted it. While linguistically it was difficult to call his parents my parents, has there been an emotional struggle? Perhaps I do feel a tug for my own mum when I call Obi’s mum ‘mum’, but at the heart of this new naming comes emotional expanding rather than switching.

At the same time, we considered ibu and bapak as phrases. The other confusion for me when thinking about what to call Obi’s parents was that all older people in Java are called ibu and bapak. Neighbours, people sitting next to you on the bus, your lecturer at university, your doctor. While it is significant to call your partner’s parents ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, really, this is what you call everyone anyway. So it was weird changing from the specific tante and om when referring to Obi’s parents, which seemed closer almost, and moving to what to me felt a more general ‘bu’ and ‘pak’. Strangers around the same age are called ‘kakak’, ‘mas’, and ‘mbak’ or ‘brother/sister’. In general, society is then reflected as one big family. There are rules within this, and subtleties which I have not yet learned, but the sense of a communal connection is much greater than that I’ve experienced at home.

My grandma, having lived a lot longer than I, and a little longer than my mum, reminded us that this used to be how it was in the UK. You would call your spouse’s parents your own, and everyone would be an aunt or an uncle. My mum considered when she was growing up, and couldn’t pinpoint when the change happened, where this familial language was lost. She would never have called my dad’s mother ‘mum’, but after I was born called her ‘nanny’ for my sake. She remembered the widespread use of ‘auntie’ though. And I did too, growing up all of my mum’s friends were ‘auntie’ to me, although we couldn’t say if this was still common with children today.

We questioned what this decline in familial language meant for the UK, and what the effect is of using familial language. Our combined first reaction was sadness, it is sad that there is growing individualism (is this the right word?) that draws people away from these familial terms for strangers, an awkwardness, a wariness. But then again, with movements like #metoo, fear of stranger danger, everyday sexism, is it something necessary? Are communities actually tighter in Indonesia for this use of language? I think so, but then again there are issues surrounding domestic violence, and difficult family relations with families not liking partners, issues where different religious followers aren’t allowed to be together. There’s also racism towards Papuans, Indonesian Chinese – despite this closer language, it doesn’t always make it so in action.

Yet I can’t help that thinking in a lot of ways, the Indonesian community systems in place have got it right. ‘Social capital’, the way of assessing the ‘wealth’ of the community is high. If someone dies, the whole community will come together – whatever the hour – to comfort the family, and they will continue to be there for the first week, the first month, the first 1000 days after. Recently, after a large storm my favourite soto restaurant’s roof blew off and everyone from the local kampung came together to fix a new one. Next to my house, the ibus of the kampung work in rows planting rice together in a patch of field, sharing irrigation and resources. A small table set to the side with water and biscuits to be consumed in the midday heat. While this does happen in the UK in many cases, one example being the shelter created by students at my university, it is not something that would happen often without thinking, or hesitation. Particularly not in cities like London. The saudara, or siblings, don’t come together in quite the same way.

Whilst we didn’t come to a fixed conclusion, my mother, my grandmother and I, in that moment, in that context we felt the importance of family – those genetic, those prescribed and those chosen, and the importance of connection between mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters, best friends and neighbours. At that time, a few weeks before the Brexit deadline, the UK felt more removed from familial language than ever, rather than aunts and uncles there were brexiters and remainers, traitors and bemoaners, cosmopolitan elites and millenials, foreigners and immigrants. Perhaps its time we all reflect on what we call each other and the language we use for our both local and wider community, remembering that whether we call someone aunt or immigrant, they are human, we have some things in common and some things we don’t. We all have to work harder to build up that social capital, those bonds wherever we find them.


Reflecting on 2019: Indigenous languages and religions

2019 marked the United Nations’ Year of Indigenous Languages, a year designed to “recognize and acknowledge the range, diversity and global value of languages as well as the critical and endangered status of many individual languages around the world, the vast majority of them being indigenous languages”. Language is not solely about vocabulary and grammar structures to convey meaning, but holistically links to world view, identity, memory and understanding.

Unrelated to the UN’s Year for Indigenous Languages but in many ways running parallel in its aims of raising awareness of the threats to indigenous practices and way of life, in the same year CRCS UGM hosted The First International Conference on Indigenous Religions, published a report advocating social inclusion for indigenous religions, as well as releasing Atas Nama Percaya or In the Name of Belief, the first film of the Indonesian Pluralities documentary series in collaboration with Watchdoc and Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Reflecting back on the year, we look at how language and belief are connected, and how these affect – and are affected by – the environment in which they were borne.

In the stretching arc of Indonesia’s islands, around 706 languages are spoken by communities living across the ranging topographies of forests, mountains and cities. For each community, language has passed down through generations, and vocabulary is shaped by familial relations and connection to specific landscapes. As is becoming increasingly clearer, biodiversity, cultural diversity and linguistic diversity are all intrinsically linked, with higher biodiversity associated with higher rates of languages. Luisa Maffi (2018) calls this interconnectedness ‘biocultural diversity’, and highlights how growing urbanisation, migration, deforestation and enforced loss of indigenous culture around the world has culminated in a loss of all three.


Describing biocultural diversity as a ‘socio-ecological adaptive system’, Maffi along with a body of researchers have attempted to raise awareness of this interconnectedness. We often consider how humans are shaped by the world around them, but increasingly researchers are beginning to understand that the nature, often considered ‘pristine’ and untouched by humans is equally transformed and reliant on the humans living within them. Those living in rainforest ecosystems for example, can increase biodiversity by spreading seeds in different times of the year, or cutting down plants which drain the soil. Controlled burning practices by aborigine communities in Australia can help prevent damaging bushfires and help revitalise nutrient levels.

This humans’ dependency on the land, and the land’s dependency on human interaction, can be classed as ‘traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)’—relational and agricultural accumulative knowledge passed down through indigenous communities. The Ammatoa of South Sulawesi, as one example of a community using TEK, structure their forest use in circles, leaving a central ring untouched to respect the personhood of the forest and to allow undisturbed growth. An outer ring exists in which they can take what they need. This allows the forest to continue growing without depletion and with diversity of plants in the outer ring, while those of the community can still use as much as the community needs to live. These practices reflect the Ammatoa’s belief in the personhood of the forest and ancestor worship, meaning a strong belief in reciprocity and respect. Language develops out of the need to communicate this worldview, and document and categories various species which are important to the clan. As Nations explains, “Native languages crystallize the lessons of centuries of daily trial and error”.

Towards more recognition

With the development of communities into industrialised agricultural societies and cities, the everyday connection with the natural world and the people around becomes weaker, and the relational aspects are lost. State policies championing one dominant group or religion throughout history have also meant that those communities holding onto their local belief system, language or area have been threatened.

These strains to indigenous ways of being, including language, have been felt across the archipelago. For the Bajau community in Sulawesi as one example, the ocean-dependent community has long existed through nomadism and connection with ancestors and spirits.

Although primarily Muslim, traditional Bajau beliefs continue to be central to the community, yet lifestyle changes driven by declining fish populations and state regulations has led to young Bajau people travelling to the main islands for education—primarily based on recognised religion and modern practices—as well as employment. With growing awareness of lifestyle and religion outside the seafaring community, there has been a growing contestation of identity. Young people learn differently to how their parents did, with many learning that their Bajau worldview is not compatible with that of the recognised religions, and their lifestyle and practices outdated, studying more in the national Bahasa Indonesia rather than the Bajau language. The various forces of local culture, nationalism and globalisation all manifest in this struggle of identity.

Loss in this sense becomes compounded: with the loss of indigenous religions and language, there is loss of life. With loss of biological life comes loss of indigenous religions and languages. Perhaps more noticeably in Indonesia than in other parts of the world, indigenous communities, their languages, practices and belief systems are tied up in religion due to the importance of religion constitutionally. Prior to the 2017 Constitutional Court ruling on the inclusion of indigenous religions (kepercayaan) on identity cards (KTP & KK), followers of indigenous religions lacked legal rights surrounding recognition, education, marriage, health care and other civic issues due to the state’s favoritism of world religions, with many forced to convert to the recognised religions, losing their local identity through having to stop or desacralise their traditional practices and rituals. Often if rituals continue to be practiced, these traditions are turned into tourist attractions or ‘cultural events’ with varying degrees of sensitivity.

Since the Constitutional Court ruling, followers of kepercayaan have now been able to apply for the previously blank space on the card to be replaced with the category of Kepercayaan terhadap Tuhan Yang Maha Esa, allowing control of faith matters such as education, spaces of worship and marriage. In a step towards greater inclusivity in Indonesian citizenship, those following an indigenous religion, and not one of the six ‘world’ religions can begin to have a greater voice in the public sphere, allowing communities to shape their own curriculum for schools based on their cosmology, protection for their practices, and hopefully with a growing acceptance of kepercayaan in wider society, buffering the rate of loss which the country has been facing.


Yet that is only one part of the solution to the loss of biocultural diversity and the rights of kepercayaan communities. While the Constitutional Court’s ruling is a step in the right direction for recognition of indigenous believers, it has the potential to alienate those who see themselves as both a follower of a world religion, but also who holds indigenous beliefs (as many people are) and calls into question who can be categorised as officially part of kepercayaan.

At the same time, the law still fails to address the issue of loss of indigenous beliefs and languages through other factors such as general dismissal of indigenous communities, loss of land for mining or deforestation, or migration for employment, with recent statistics saying that by 2045, more than 70% of Indonesia’s population will be living in cities, meaning further homogenisation and separation from natural spaces. This loss of connection is what Maffi describes as a ‘deleterious feedback loop’ with the loss of one accelerating the loss of another in a continuous spiral.

A number of studies have suggested that over 100 of Indonesia’s languages are vulnerable or at risk of dying completely, and many others existing only in the home and not in a formal setting, meaning while language remains, the breadth and variety of language used is greatly reduced. At the same time, biodiversity continues to be lost at an accelerating rate, with the loss of forests at around 450,000 hectares a year and around 1600 species documented as threatened. Once species and environments are lost, the language and rituals associated cease to function in reality.

There needs to be a wider conversation on the importance of language, a discussion on what it means for different communities to speak one language over another, what is lost when language is lost, and whether a focus should be on revitalisation of language or merely recording and archiving, in the hope of preserving at least some of its meaning for future generations. At the same time, across the world there needs to be an examination and redefinition of the relationship between society and nature, shifting common language away from terms such as ‘resource’ and ‘stock’ into a more holistic narrative. This of course, relies on current rates of deforestation and environmental destruction to slow or cease. For certain industries such as agriculture and fishing, looking to indigenous belief systems and their languages can begin to offer alternative, more sympathetic and sustainable practices, allowing for community revitalisation, continued effective agricultural practices, and at the same time protecting the variety of ecosystems found across the archipelago.


Sentimental Moments, Shared Songs and Ngayogjazz

For me, one of the best ways to get to know a place is to know what songs everyone in a group can come together and sing. In the UK, it’s probably Mr Brightside by the Killers, a handful of Queen songs, Gloria Gaynor, or perhaps Don’t Look Back In Anger by Oasis. Whether we like it or not, the lyrics are somehow ingrained in our psyche – too many family parties growing up, watching our mums dance around the kitchen to the radio, or those giddy nights as a teenager singing with your friends in a car or on a park bench.

Across the other side of the world in Java, singing together (excluding the religious kind) is just as common as in the UK, if not more so. Not a group setting goes by without someone rooting out a guitar or finding a particular song on Youtube. Often these shared singing experiences include a number of the songs that are the same as the UK – I genuinely think I’ve heard Don’t Look Back in Anger more in the past two years than I have done throughout my whole life – but perhaps more soulfully, more like oxygen, are the songs of local legends Didi Kempot, Tombi, Nella Kharisma and the wholesome genres of campur sari and dangdut.

Last weekend as the final few acts were left to play on the main stage of Ngayogjazz festival in Yogyakarta, a few thousand people, primarily young but with a noticeable older presence too, crammed together to watch the above-mentioned legends take to the stage. Having sat relatively restrained throughout the performance of Arp Frique (who were excellent but very unknown to the crowd), it was like someone had switched a light on, or like loved family members coming home for the first time in years. Where everyone had previously been sitting, there was a wave as all took to their feet, phones were either hastily brought out to document the moment, but equally phones were hastily put away to focus on what was happening. With the opening song of Kartononyo Medo Janji and Soimah’ piercing, distinctive warble, followed by the anticipated kicking in of the percussion, standing from the back of the stage it was the perfect position to see a thousand souls souring as the audience bellowed the words back to the band.

The best, best thing about campur sari and its younger, cheeky brother dangdut are the call and response elements that everyone knows and waits for throughout each song. The lyrics are stories of heartbreak and waiting for your lover, different locations for meeting your love and the pains of finding out that your lover has gone off with someone else. Meanwhile, the distinct formula of the songs means that while singing along to the main lyrics, there’s anticipation for the right moment to shout out ‘oh-ah-oh-eh!’ in the bridge. As new versions of old classics become popular online,  the audience throws in additional lyrics: in the gap between Didi Kompet swooning ‘janjineeee’ (your promise) the audience in a wave shouted back ‘janjine, janjine, janjine pie?’ or ‘your promise, your promise, what happened?’ if translated loosely into English. The songs evolve on their own, developing a relationship between the younger audience and the classic singers, and it works. Everyone sings together like a big extended family.

It’s that euphoria, that joint experience and knowing that every single person at that moment is sharing what you shared, grew up knowing what you knew, if it was that particular high school heartbreak, that particular glimpse into life at home listening to those songs, the way maybe one point in your life you actually probably dismissed that song as a bit old and lame, but are now coming to realise just how much it means. Watching Didi Kempot pour out the lyrics and the audience throw their hands up into the air was so personal, so local, but at the same time so universal. It reminded me of all the times I’ve sung songs that I’ve loved, or haven’t loved but could sing without thinking, the hollering until you’re a bit sore, the not caring how good you sound, or how ugly your face is as you strain to get the words out, but mainly that magnificent euphoria of togetherness, the slight tackiness and the unabashed, uncontrollable love of that moment, the musicians, your community, and every single person around you.

Forging Sacred Spaces through Sound: the Matua Community

Studying the ‘sound’ of religion has long been the domain of ethnomusicologists and anthropologists, but not so much the discipline of Religious Studies itself. Yet religion is never solely experienced visually; it involves ritual, singing, chanting, breathing, bell ringing, murmuring, and the vibrations and sensations that come with such sounds.

That was one of the main ideas Dr Carola Lorea, research fellow at the Religion and Globalisation Cluster, Asia Research Institute at the NUS, delivered in the first CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum of October by looking at the case of the Matua, a displaced ethnic community originating from East Bengal, now spread across modern day India, Bangladesh and the Andaman Islands. Borrowing R Murray Schaffer’s thought on ‘soundscape’, Lorea explained how for the Matua music is central in their religious practices. ‘Soundscape’ not only includes the ritualistic sounds, but also the background ‘noise’ and everyday peripheral sounds that make up one’s experience of the world. It gives context for the formation of Matuan religious identity to take place.

The displacement of the Matua

The Matua community formed in the 19th century following the teachings of the gurus Harichand Thakur (believed to be the reincarnation of Vishnu/Rama/Krishna/Caitanya) and his son Guruchand Thakur (worshipped as an incarnation of Shiva). The performance gatherings are devotional and bodily, including the recital of sacred texts and participants chanting the sacred word ‘Haribol’ as well as dancing, or matam, to reach the siddhi (perfection)The Matua begin their rituals by welcoming guests with garlands of coconut beads, sandalwood paste to the forehead and hugging before the performance starts. (To get a sense of how the Matuan rituals sound like, watch a documentary film on them.)

The formation of the Matua was also as a resistance to the caste system and oppression felt by the community as part of the Untouchable or dalit caste. Translated literally as ‘madness’ or ‘drunk’ in Bengali, ‘matua’ was initially a derogatory epithet directed at the South Asian community due to the loudness and the seemingly intoxicated nature of their music and dancing central to their religious life. The Matua took ownership of this term, turning it into a positive attribute to their customs and rituals, and continued to sing and dance. Although the caste system was made illegal after India’s independence, Untouchables like the Matua continued to be discriminated against through lack of rights and erasure from culture and history.

After India’s Independence and subsequent Partition in 1947 which led to East Bengal transitioning into Bangladesh, the Matuans who continued to live within their original homeland became a religious minority, despite being a community of around nine million at the time. Many Matuans crossed the border to India where some were given refugee status, but an unknown number became stateless. Those who were granted refugee status were relocated by the government according to the Caste system. As Untouchables, the Matua were sent to isolated, inaccessible areas around the country, and the government’s colonisation scheme transmigrated them to as far as the sparsely populated Andaman Islands lying in the ocean between India and Indonesia. Presently, it is thought there are around 15 million Matuans overall, but due to the high number of stateless Matuans and lack of collected data on the community, there remains no actual figures about the total population or how the community move and work within the various regions.

The Matua. Photo: Carola Lorea

The politics and poetics of religious sound

It is due to that erasure and fragmentation that Lorea feels it is crucial to study the aural make-up of displaced communities. To this day there remains little documentation or cultural acknowledgement of the Matua people, which means that despite their large numbers, they have had almost no political or cultural power within the general population. If we are to take Spivak’s question, ‘can the subaltern speak?’, perhaps for the Matua the question should be—if the subaltern can speak, or play in the case of the Matua—what are the politics behind the refusal to listen? While Dalit Literature has developed as a genre, this excludes the great body of cultural work created by the various Matuan community around South Asia. Where various other tribal communities around India and the region have developed an audience in the Jazz or ethnic music scene, the music of the Matua continues to be seen as “unnecessary noise”. As Lorea described it, this untouchable cultural heritage has never become intangible cultural heritage.

Taken from interviews with members of the Matua community during Lorea’s research, one Matuan likened their music performances to the adzan, a reminder for Muslims to pray. Yet in the primarily Muslim country of Bangladesh, when the actual adzan plays, the Matua have to stop the sādhanā, highlighting the sonic hierarchy that develops in a space that holds religious majorities and minorities. Lorea calls this ‘the politics and poetics of religious sound’. Here we can see the development of sonic territories, the license for one sound to preside over another.

This ‘place’ of sound created by the community not only enters through the ears of those in the surrounding area, but also affect the landscape in other ways, creating large, sonorous vibrations which have been known to interfere with mobile phone signals and cure the heart problems of patients in nearby hospitals. The border of this new space ends where the music can no longer be heard, or where the sacred sound can no longer be felt. The performers may be far from the original marshes of East Bengal, but in that moment, the space in which they inhabit is distinctly theirs, and those who are open to experiencing and learning about this world of the Matua, they can. This encompassing sound of drums, horns, singing of ‘Haribol’, crying and ululating is an egalitarian way of celebrating the teachings of Harichand Thakur. One music teacher within the Matua commented, “Harichand Thakur…  he did not prescribe any mantra or prayer: he said his message will spread as far as the sound of the danka will reach. …The message, it enters automatically inside of you.” In this sense, anyone who is willing to understand can. There is no requirement to be able to read or write, nor a background in theology. All one needs is the ability to feel.

 Photo: Carola Lorea

How to study the sound of religion?

As the presentation came to a close, the discussion moved in the direction of how to approach an academic study of religious sound: how does one actually study or theorize the sound of the sacred?

Lorea explained three main schools of studying sound. The first is looking at the content of the music, whether the lyrics or elements feature religious knowledge, about the life of the saints, the prophets, or religious knowledge. The second school can be termed a phenomenological approach, and this involves comparing religious or sacred music across cultures and regions and the universally shared patterns which can be found, whether that be a certain pitch, the pace, or the intensity of the religious music. Yet both of these school require certain conditions which some forms of religious sound won’t have. For example, to look at the content of the religious music assumes there will be words which represent the spiritual element, and if we are to look at sacred sound phenomenologically, there are a number of flaws with comparing different religions.

The third school, to which Lorea subscribes, focuses on context—the music is sacred when the community contextualises it and defines it as sacred. To develop a real understanding of the sacredness of the sound created, a researcher should develop an understanding of the local system, listen to the songs and learn the various parts, discuss the content and the story behind the songs. For Lorea, embodied learning is key to understanding religious sound.

The forum and subsequent discussion not only provided insight into the largely overlooked community within South Asia but also critiques against the existing tendency in Religious Studies which gives much emphasis on written sources. Citing Isaac Weiner (2013), this lack of sonic study is a ‘disciplinary deafness’, with departments instead focusing on the visual and the written, or a ‘scriptist bias’, as termed by Roy Harris (1986), using sacred texts as the dominant, reliable source. The Matua community exemplifies a religious community for whom ‘soundscape’ is vital in identity formation and therefore cannot be neglected.

Written for CRCS as part of my scholarship. Read this and more on the website: https://crcs.ugm.ac.id/the-matua-community/

The Journey of ‘Ketchup’

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘ketchup’?

If you’re in the UK or US, it’s most likely ketchup will make your mouth tingle a little with the impression of the sweet and tangy tomato sauce you eat with chips, probably from the iconic Heinz bottle. The red sauce is, according to one study, found in 97% of homes across America and is one of the most recognisable brands across the West. For many, tomato ketchup is synonymous with all that is familiar and comfortable. As a kid it may well be the gentle drug that gets you to eat broccoli and carrots, or the ideal sauce for your plain, plain pasta.

In Indonesia it’s the dark brown sticky sweet sauce that goes on every meal (maybe that’s just Jogja). Kecap, pronounced almost the same as ketchup, is equally as synonymous with Indonesia as the western counterpart is in the west. Nasi goreng? Uses kecap. Got a bowl of soto? Add some kecap. Want to eat some gorengan? There’s sambal kecap on the side. Here it is made from fermented soya beans and has retained that homegrown, local quality that comes with a product that lives in every house and restaurant. A strange mirror from one world to the next.

So how did ketchup come to be the cross-continent, multi-purpose condiment found today?

Related imageThe word ‘ketchup’ familiar as it is in English or Indonesian, actually has its origins in Hokkien, derived from the word ‘kê-tsiap’, meaning preserved fish sauce – a very straight forward description of the ingredients. The sauce is thought to originate between China and Vietnam (where it is called mắm nêm) before spreading out to other areas of southeast Asia through trade routes and migration between communities and islands. Here, ‘kê-tsiap’ became kecap and the sauce transformed from meaning preserved fish sauce to generally fermented sauce, with kecap manis as sweet soy sauce and kecap asin as salty soy sauce.

Through colonial routes in the Malay Archipelago in the late 17-early 1800s, the sauce – originally without any tomatoes – found its way to the UK as ‘catsup’ and was a favourite of wealthy communities who tried to replicate the taste using mushrooms, anchovies, walnuts and occasionally stale beer. catsup was thin and brown in appearance and definitely not one for dipping chips, this was for adding flavour to soups and pie sauces, and by the inclusion of stale beer was already far more British than the Chinese equivalent.

It wasn’t until a number of years later that the sauce found its way to America and tomatoes managed to creep their way into the recipe. With the addition of tomatoes however, nobody could make ketchup last for long periods of time. Henry J. Heinz, a German immigrant saw a gap in the market and an opportunity. After the fall of his original radish sauce, he decided to develop his own brand of ‘catsup’ as it was commonly called, and changed the name to ‘ketchup’. His all-American marketing meant that across the west the original sauce is forgotten to make way for the very Western concept of ‘ketchup’ In a full circle, American/British tomato ketchup has made its way back to Asia where it is used in Chinese-American versions of sweet and sour chicken and sometimes used instead of tamarind in pad-thai in Thailand, as well as being the stereotypical chip dipping sauce.

Yet I think what’s so interesting about ketchup is not how it has transformed from one country to another, but how each transformation is viewed as an original, homegrown staple in each location.

If you think about Vietnamese food for example, fish sauce is central to the depth and tanginess of the flavour. A Vietnamese restaurant will have some on the table, a kitchen cupboard would be empty without it. If you go into any warung in Indonesia, next to the wok is the signature large bottle of kecap manis, complete with a shadow puppet inspired logo. It’s unheard of to go to a restaurant or pub in the UK and there is no ketchup for your chips., and cheap talk involves whether you keep it in the cupboard or the fridge. In each of these places, I’m sure you could ask anyone on the street where ketchup/mắm nêm/ke-tsiap/kecap comes from and they would unhesitantly say their country. Each of variation brings so much comfort, regularity, a sense of knowing where you are – and yet, whilst they are local and developed and personal flavours, they also speak of global markets, history, colonialism, migration and the world’s range of different palettes.

First published on blog.iqbar.co.uk

Co-creatureliness as a narrative of ethics in the Anthropocene

13 September 2019

Creeping its way into everyday discourse is the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which humans have been the dominant influence on the Earth’s environment and climate, unfortunately with unsustainable activities and damaging effects. As these effects become increasingly visible in our modern world, the question remains how we as a worldwide community can stop, or perhaps even reverse, the effects of global warming.

Looking at the current crisis, the historical background of the Anthropocene, and religious examples of human/nature interactions, Michael Northcott, professor of religion and ecology at the Indonesian Consortium of Religious Studies, introduces the concept of ‘creaturely ethics’, an inclusive new framework for dealing with the current ecological crisis, at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum, 28th August 2019.

The Anthropocene epoch, popularised by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, reflects the imbalance in the world caused by humanity’s movement of materials and changing of chemicals in the earth and atmosphere. There are two distinct moments in history which are thought to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene. For Crutzen, the beginning of the epoch can be traced to the latter half of the 18th century and James Watt’s invention of the steam engine. Northcott explained how it was during this period which saw the beginning of increased production of manmade greenhouse emissions, primarily C02, CH4 and N20. Northcott himself, however, points to much later during the 1950s. This was a period known as ‘the Great Acceleration’ due to the rapid increase in human population, energy and water use, technological advancement, consumerism, and tourism, among other things.

Using graphs displaying human activity over the past fifty years (see below in slides by IGBP and notice what the year 1950 marks), Northcott emphasised just how rapid technology and industry has developed, and how this development has directly correlated with rising global emissions, deforestation, extinction and other crises. In the past fifty years, 70% of all land areas are now managed by humans, 90% of all fish in the oceans have been harvested since 1950, and there is currently 50 kg of ‘waste’ per square metre of planet. Quoting Will Steffen, “In a single lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force” (in Anthropocene Review, 2015).

Humans’ embeddedness into Earth system

Northcott introduced James Hutton, the 18th century geologist who created the concept of the Earth System by studying patterns of geomorphic and sedimentary rock found in his native Scotland to try and understand the timescale and processes necessary to produce such features. Looking at the layers of up-thrusted rock formations and patterns in erosion, Hutton concluded that the Earth was potentially billions of years old, far older than the history of humanity. If we view the Earth’s history as a 24-hour clock for example, the whole of human history can be packed into less than a minute.

This narrative of insignificance is common within modern science, countering ideas of anthropocentrism from earlier theological beliefs. But, Northcott reasons, this idea should be reviewed. If Hutton’s Earth system was all about ‘the interrelation of geophysical, chemical and biological processes’ – a symbiotic relationship between the land, oceans, atmospheres and poles – now human activity is ‘embedded’ into this system. There are no elements left untouched by human hands. Our species now shapes the planet, and for Northcott, it is the religious thinkers who have been saying this all along.

The Genesis story is an obvious example of a religious narrative about the responsibility of humans on the planet. But Northcott points to modern history, as far back as the 1800s, where theologians grappled with the profound impact humans have on the climate. Antonio Stoppani in Corso Geologgia (1873) termed human’s impression on the Earth as the ‘Anthropozoic Era’, marvelling at the power wielded by mankind. John Ruskins, the artist and writer lamented the manmade fogs that hung over Manchester and called for humanity to act humbly and with restraint, to return to God.

Northcott also introduced Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who explored how the boundaries of the world and humankind are blurring more so than ever in a “gigantic planetary contraction” (in Heart of Matter, 1948). Northcott used an example of driving to Bali: You set the intention of driving from Yogyakarta to Bali, in acting on this intention, you use of fuel which in turn produces C02 emissions. The very intention of getting to Bali via the means of a fossil fuel-powered vehicle have added to the atmosphere and thus changed the planet. Each decision made in the brain is intrinsically linked to the Earth’s climate and processes.

Developing a co-creaturely ethics

So what is a possible solution? Crutzen suggests the potential of a world body, who manage the “wise use of Earth’s resources, control of human and domestic animal population, and overall careful manipulation and restoration of the natural environment” (in Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, 2006).

Yet for Northcott, the concept of a transnational controlling body is implausible, particularly when considering the rise of populist governments across the planet and the increasing power of multinational corporations like Google and Amazon. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si(2015)points to the maelstrom of economic growth without limits, the destruction of the environments and livelihoods of the poor, blind following of the ‘magic of markets’, and technological power as the “root causes of the ecological crisis”. He believes we must move away from the carbon economy and into a circular one in order to slow the process. But control and regulation is not enough. There needs to be a shift in the growth-above-all mindset and development of ethics in relation to the ecological crisis.

Northcott returns to the theologians and their emphasis on ‘community, compassion and care’. Taking the parable of the good Samaritan from the New Testament, Northcott explained how in the current crisis, we should act like the Samaritan, helping those who are foreign to us, and “who are affected by our actions at a distance” by engaging in the global community. Using a variety of examples from across religious traditions, creatures, Northcott explained, “are implicated in our salvation, and in our move from Earth to Heaven.” They “are also beings with purposes which ought to be respected.” It is this which Northcott terms as ‘the co-creatureliness’.

Co-creatureliness ethics has two main purposes. The first is the development of the idea that humans cannot save the environment single-handedly, but instead must provide the spaces for nature to return and replenish as it once was – a practice commonly referred to as ‘rewilding’. The second aim is to develop a new, religiously-minded narrative allowing communities to understand the issues of global warming, and the steps that need to be made, without being faced with cold facts and statistics.

The concept of rewilding and allowing nature to manage environments can link with previous ideas of stewardship and God’s vicegerency found within Abrahamic religions, as we can’t escape the sense of responsibility about what has happened to the planet, we can help provide spaces for other creatures to manage. Northcott pointed to the example of Knepp Castle Estate in the UK. The owner Charlie Burrell was failing to make a profit through modern agriculture, deciding to use the space instead to allow rewilding. By leaving the natural shrubs and thorn bushes to grow, new trees could seed in amongst the brambles, this was the first step. Next, he brought in one of the oldest forms of cattle, as well as other animals, who naturally managed the land. Bird and plant species in the area, as a result, have greatly increased.

Northcott also introduced a similar case in Papua, where an area with vast shark and fish depletion was restricted for human access. In doing so, the shark population jumped back with incredible speed and the coral and fish populations have also made a recovery, a representation of the interconnected nature of an ecosystem. Cases like this have proved far more effective than special scientific zones, or national parks, which are managed by humans.

The second aim of co-creaturely ethics is the more slippery task of developing an effective narrative. Co-creaturely ethics forms a symbiotic explanation of science, culture and religious tradition, allowing a new environmental form of religious ethics. It is down to those who can take the information presented by science, and develop it into a narrative that moves. As Michael Northcott finished his presentation, “Straight scientific facts do not change behaviour. You have to mediate the science through culture.”

First on the CRCS website https://crcs.ugm.ac.id/co-creatureliness-in-the-anthropocene/