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:

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


Summer is something I had not experienced for a while, a forgotten part of myself.

The growing, sonorous, clamouring call of all that is warm and blooming.

These are feelings that cannot be felt at any other time of the year, a low ache that feeds itself on long evenings and lonely bird calls. It pulls you out of bed in the morning to the streets where everyone is grateful for the blue and the gold and the green that engulf the eyes.

Or perhaps not engulf, but catch you in the corner of your vision, in a cityscape where rolled sleeves and skirts move along the pavement and the concrete, the green of the park luring all with tin foil barbeques and clashing speakers and pulled out deck chairs scattered across parched grass.

A population intoxicated, with complete abandon, a dependency on sunshine.

The rejoice when high pressure raises high spirits

And then those evenings, where the richest, most somnambulant golds turn to the softest, most yearning purples

And all of your life, all summer evenings, all adolescent longing bind together in the space of two hours.

Home Space – Letting People In

One of the first things that struck me when walking around the residential areas of Yogyakarta was how many front doors were open. Sleepy streets with potted plants dotted around outside and food carts tock-tocking along and all the doors open wide for all to see inside.

This struck me for two reasons – the first being how trusting everyone must be to leave your house in such a vulnerable state; the second, how open the community is to be happy to show so much of the inside of their homes. I’d never seen so many living rooms before. This lead to a nice simultaneous picking apart of my own concept of home from the UK and this new, multi-coloured open-doored home of Jogja.

In many places in Jogja the boundary between home and street is blurred. In the winding kampungs next to the river, sofas and toys sit in the streets where families sit chatting, preparing food and occasionally washing clothes. Again, the front door is open so you can look right in at the wedding photos, certificates, plastic boxes of snacks and ornamental tissue boxes that are invariably found in the front room. This openness to me highlighted the power of community – for good and bad – in the roles of the individual families and inhabitants of an area.

In the UK, space is utilised differently. Gardens are placed at the back of the house so if you want to be outside, you can do so in privacy, and the popularity of blinds which allow a certain amount of light in but ‘blind’ the outside to the inside. Neighbourhoods and communities in the UK are optional. You can decide whether you want to be involved in the local soup kitchen, attend the village hall elections, or contribute to the local clean-up days. Or you can decide not to be involved at all. For most communities in Jogja, there is no choice. Cities are comprised of ‘kampungs’, a village within the city, in which you have responsibilities and requirements. When you first sign up for a house, you must visit the Head of the village for their permission. If you’re a lone woman or man living in the city, the neighbours can get involved if you are visited in the night by the opposite sex. At night, a group of local men will patrol the streets to make sure everyone is safe and nothing untoward is happening. Privacy and the concepts of public and private are quite different and it’s so eloquently displayed in how each country sets up the home.

Flash forward to a year later and Obi is having his first exhibition and the theme is home street home. The concept is bringing his very public graffiti into the private space of the home by applying his style ceramic work and furnishings – and then making it public again by placing the fully formed room in the space of the gallery. One day, when thinking about his description of his exhibition, he asked me what the ‘ruang tamu’ was in English. Directly translated, ruang tamu means ‘guest room’, however this is a very different definition to that of the UK which means a spare bedroom for when guests come to stay. In my eyes, his exhibition which featured a sofa, TV, artwork and shelving looked like a living room to me, but in the context of Java, the guest room is the first room coming into the house in which guests visit. The rest of the house may be glimpsed through an open door or the nudge of a curtain, but that space is one not technically open to those visiting.

That glimpse into houses I’d seen, all the photos, sofas and coffee tables then, became part of the house allocated to me as a guest. The guest room is liminal, it is in the home but it is also in the community. It is a place of connection but also a soft boundary. Within the house lies the ruang keluarga or ruang tengah – the family room or central room. In this room there can be mess, space to rest, places for women to remove their hijab without the outer community seeing if they wish to. The front of the house is a place reserved for community, a sort of performative space blending public and private.

In the UK doors are closed, but if welcomed inside, the spaces you can occupy are more flexible, guests can be invited into the living room or the kitchen for a drink. They may move to the dining room to eat or perhaps they eat in the kitchen. In the past, there would have been the ‘drawing room’ in which guests would retire after eating to talk and smoke however this has long been seen as old fashioned and has all but removed itself from modern vocabulary.

Of course, the choice of where you put your guests, in what room and in what place, also has a lot to do with wealth and the size of your house. If you live in a small kampung in Jogja, limited space may mean that your ruang tamu and ruang keluarga may only be separated by the position of a sofa or separator rather than being in a separate room – or just happen out on the street. If you have a large porch or pendopo like in traditional wealthy Javanese houses, your ruang tamu might be at the front where the evenings can be spent relaxing in the open air on a rattan chair, never venturing inside the house. Here local community events and talks can take place, much like an unofficial village hall. Communities can practise the gamelan, hold local elections or, as in the past, watch TV together. A community may have a shared village space, similar to the village/town hall in the UK, but more often than not village meetings will take place in someone’s ruang tamu.

In England, a larger household may indeed have their own separate room dedicated to guests. Parties may be held at the house or in the garden, but often more community-based events such as polls or fetes will take place away from the home and in the designated area of the village/town hall.

All of this has been an interesting exploration in the role of the home and the ways in which just the shape and structure can highlight how a community operates. For me being here, experiencing how communities come together has been both a lure and at times a discomfort. Walking around the streets in the evening and seeing neighbours sitting together, doing handiwork together, or planning for an event makes my heart swell. Saying hello when walking past or having someone stop to give detailed directions and concern to make sure you get there okay is warming. It is an immensely comforting sight and one that I think growing up and growing old with is wholesome – but equally I notice in myself how I’m glad my place is a little off the road hidden from view and we aren’t asked to get involved in the night patrols. At the same time, the force of the community can have negative impacts for groups such as the LGBT community, or minorities who can feel vulnerable in the face of such shared information and extended family where communities can kick you out of your home if rumours spread.

As society shifts, both in terms of rural to urban, rising development, and cultural values, this communal living is shifting. In the large housing complexes that are becoming more common across Jogja, this communal notion of sitting outside and sharing experiences with neighbours is loosening. Rather than night patrols, a guard sits at the front monitoring who enters and who leaves. As air conditioning becomes more common, homes are sealed and doors are closed to keep the cool air in. A recent trend has been exclusive religious housing complexes which remove the plurality so often found in villages. As for young people, many of my friends talk about how they’d like to have a space of their own without the prying of the kampung, to be able to leave late at night without someone asking where they’re going, but these same friends equally lament the loss of traditional ‘Jogja friendliness’.

In the UK, many of our cities see a loss of community and togetherness which has led to people feeling isolated, particularly to the older generation. Some studies have suggested that up to 1 in 4 adults suffer from loneliness and for children between 10-15 living in cities, 20% have said they ‘often’ feel lonely. Uber is launching an option on the app to let your driver know you don’t want to talk during the journey, reflecting a growing everyday need to have the option of no communication. The closed door follows you out the house and into the taxi.

I think the structure of the home in the UK and the ways in which guests can be placed into any room offers a different sense of openness than that in Java – once you’re in you’re really in. Once you are welcomed and trusted, all is laid bare. The outside space can be made communal, but with hesitancy, whether that be because of overwork, exhaustion, or a fear of others. I think the country is looking for a return to a sense of community and to be connected with those who are close. You can see that with the rise of communal gardens, public run homeless shelters and food banks – but there’s still a long way to go to beat the rise of loneliness.

I don’t think either community is perfect and obviously everything written has been my own personal narrow experience of community both here and at home, but I’d like to think we can strike some balance of supportive, open community without the distrust of outsiders or the pressure to conform to a certain ideal. Home tells us so much about different people and their relationship with the world and it’s perhaps now more than ever we should reflect on community when there is such as divisive narrative around the world and across the rapidly developing online society.


Remembering Rando

Before Instagram really took off and anonymous social sharing was the thing, there was an app called Rando. This app allowed you to take a circular picture and would anonymously send it to someone around the world, and in return you would receive an anonymous image back. It was purposefully restrictive. You couldn’t zoom and you couldn’t choose an old photo from an album – only what was directly in front of you. The only information you would receive about the incoming image was a vague sense of location on a map.

The pictures were innocent and rarely featured people. You might catch the corner of a building or a sunset. A memorable one for me was wind through long grass and golden light somewhere in China. Rando took the small bits of life, often banal images you’d delete off your phone, or accidental pocket shots, and illuminated them with anonymity and distance. Whole stories would reel from this one disc of colour and information and in turn, you would question the beauty and stories behind your own offering.

The app, becoming more popular, took on a more vulgar nature commonly associated with anonymous networking and lost its wonder. The developers, unable to keep up with the popularity and lack of revenue, closed it down. But for those brief few months it was magic; a decidedly human, decidedly unpolished keyhole into others’ worlds.

Positive News out of Indonesia

Last year was officially the deadliest year in over a decade in Indonesia and the country has had a lot to mull over coming into 2019. Normally keeping itself out of the headlines, this year has seen the archipelago unable to keep out of the news for a whole number of tragedies. Tsunamis, earthquakes, and more human-created tragedies like the church bombing, plane crash, and young girl sentenced for aborting her foetus after being sexually assaulted by her brother, there hasn’t seemingly been much to celebrate this year.

Yet before spiralling into despondency and grief at the situation (both in Indonesia and generally around the world), now, more than ever, we need to hear about some of the good news and glimmers of hope and humanity that can be found. Here is a list of six positive stories that have come out of Indonesia to re-balance the news a little.

Indonesian people are the most generous in the world

According to the Charities Aid Foundation 2018 report, Indonesians are the most giving people in the world – up from number two last year. To calculate generosity, the report took into account the percentage of people who gave money to charity alongside time spent volunteering and helping strangers out.

It highlighted that on the whole, giving both time and money is actually on the rise across the globe with both developing and developed nations giving more than they have since 2016 which saw disappointingly low levels of generosity – a year which also saw Trump take office and the Brexit referendum taking place. The biggest jump in all three of the areas studied this year was in helping strangers, an act which requires spontaneity and a level of trust and compassion on both sides, something that is much needed in this current age of mistrust, alienation and fear in politics.

The Disaster Response by Communities around Indonesia

If there is one thing you can guarantee in the days after a natural disaster in Indonesia, it is the sight of people with buckets at the side of every traffic light collecting for victims of the event. Living in Yogyakarta, Java, you couldn’t feel the tremors of the earthquake or the fear in Palu, but you could feel the waves of generosity as friends collected old clothes and shoes to be delivered in trucks, people posted collection points and charity donation links on Instagram, and university students tirelessly stood at traffic lights and cross junctions with guitars and buckets performing to raise rupiah for the disasters.

Despite the seemingly constant events happening last year, the energy never dwindled. Unnoticed by UK media last January, tropical cyclone Cempaka tore through coastal towns and villages across central Java, ripping away bridges and homes in its path. Thus began this year’s charitable drive with every religious institution, village wives’ community, and motorbike taxi driver raising money to send to the affected communities. This was soon followed by the Lombok earthquake, the Palu earthquake, and so it continues. Over twelve months later, the students are still out there smiling with their guitars and buckets, the drivers are still handing notes through the windows.

Evoware – Creating biodegradable plastic out of seaweed 

As an island nation, Indonesia knows first-hand the threat plastic poses to life both on land and sea. Whilst plastic consumption infiltrates each area of life, with a culture of small sachets for products such as shampoo and washing liquid, as well as a penchant for individually bagging items in the supermarket, there is a growing movement to raise awareness and stop this epidemic. Leading the way in Indonesia is Evoware, a Jakartan based company which creates a biodegradable alternative to plastic packaging and bags from seaweed.

Their aims are twofold, to help Indonesia reduce its dependency on plastic, whilst at the same time helping smallscale seaweed farmers make a profit by removing the middleman and creating a larger market for seaweed, a product often in surplus. Evoware has been steadily growing since 2006 but it is this year that a real sense of plastic awareness has taken hold of Indonesia, with other grassroots movements like #imnotplastic and Bali-based brand Avani also making an impact across chains and coffee shops. It’s nice to see Indonesian industries taking the lead in plastic alternatives in a very Indonesian way.

It’s Wijilan – A community hip-hop project in Jogjakarta

At a time where communities all around the world are feeling the fractures of ‘fake news’ and growing polarity, it is heartwarming to see in the centre of Yogyakarta a community of hip-hop artists coming together with local children for lyric writing and mixing workshops.

Hell House, a production house and hip hop community found in the palace area of Yogyakarta began in 2017 and has developed into one of Indonesia’s best-known music communities. Often using elements of traditional Javanese music and topical, often political lyrics, they are a community who are very proud of their home.

Because of Java’s close-knit communities and the emphasis on working together, Hell House created the project It’s Wijilan, a workshop for local children to learn the basics of mixing and lyric writing, with a number of girls involved in the project. At the end of the program, a stage was put up in the street and locals came together to watch the hard work of the children. A film has been put together about the project, and you can watch the advert below with subtitles.

Minister of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Susi gives goggles to children by the sea

If you haven’t heard of Susi Pudjiastuti you should. She is Indonesia’s most memorable politician and her unique tactics have proven popular with voters and the fishing community she so strives to look after. A tattooed, smoking, high school drop-out, Susi is everything normal Indonesian politicians aren’t. Described as ‘crazy’ (in a good way) by president Joko Widodo, Susi has become something of a pop culture figure and in 2017 made the BBC’s Top 100 Women list.

Fondly referred to as Susi, Indonesia’s Minister of Fishing first made the headlines when she began her policy of sinking illegal fishing ships in Indonesian waters. She would warn those on the boats of what she was about to do, allow them to escape the vessel on a rubber dingy, then use explosives to sink the ship, thus deterring anyone who may stray into their territories. Since then she has modified her tactics a little, forcing illegal fishers to leave the boat and then giving the ships to Indonesian fishing communities, but her latest strategies have also proved popular too.

Susi, often out at sea on her paddle-board, has been shocked by the degradation of the coastline and oceans through plastic pollution and damaging coastal practices like underwater bombing and the use of cyanide to catch fish. In tourist hotspots, damage to the coral is inevitable with a lack of education from both tourists and locals about how to treat the sensitive ecosystem.

As with most critical ecosystems, pressure is mounted on local communities to take responsibility for their habitat and, seeing the injustice of this, she wanted to make sure local communities could also benefit from the beauty of their landscapes.

“They don’t know how beautiful and good it is underwater. We always say to them, ‘Hey guys, you have to take care of the oceans, you have to take care of the reef, you have to take care of everything that is so beautiful under the water’. They just open their eyes without understanding why we talk like that. They swim every day, but they don’t see anything, because they don’t have the [equipment] to see it clearly and easily.”

Whilst some could argue this adds more needless plastic to the ecosystem, honouring local communities and their ability to enjoy their home in the way tourists normally do highlights exactly why Susi is popular. Her commitment to both Indonesia’s community and the environment is a breath of fresh air in the political landscape.

Lakoat Kujawas 

In the remote region of NTT (Nusa Tenggara Timor) lies the region of Mollo. An area often left behind in Indonesia’s path to development, the community has until recently relied on subsistence farming and transmigration for survival. In 2016 a group of young people from Mollo, headed by Dicky Senda, decided to reignite the cultural and artistic heart of Mollo by starting Lakoat Kujawas, a social enterprise focusing on literacy, art, and local produce to help inspire both the young and the old in the community. The name comes from two fruits found on the island, Lakoat, an indigenous fruit, and Kujawas, guava.

Senda, whose interest began with literature, started a small library for the local community, believing that writing comes for those who can first read. Since then, Lakoat Kujawas runs after-school clubs, organises local produce to be sold across Indonesia via their instagram, residencies for artists and teachers, and has published a book of fairy tales and fables from the island.

What makes Lakoat Kujawas special is its emphasis on local pride. Speaking at a seminar held by CRCS, UGM, Dicky explained how in recent years, local traditions such as weaving, finding particular herbs and spices, and the relationship with local languages and the landscape were either in decline, or just not considered noteworthy. With young people having to move to other islands to find work, or those living very simple lives in the region, Senda realised the importance of local pride and knowledge so far or near, Mollo people have a strong sense of belonging.

Since the program began, traditional weaving practises have started up again and local stories, recipes and philosophy has been documented, sandalwood trees have been planted where they were lost during the colonial period, and art and literature classes are becoming more and more popular with the village’s children. Lakoat Kujawas is now in conversation with villages around the region to start up their own community projects.

The world at the moment is bleak, but with darkness comes bursts of people driven change. People who take the Trumps, the disasters, the rising hate speech, and environmental challenges and try to actually make a difference. These voices need more airing so we can all take some inspiration and, if not start something ourselves, at least know where we can get involved.

Horror Films and Rumah Belanda, a Looming Presence.

It’s a Saturday night in Jogjakarta and the cinema is packed with young people and families coming to watch both local and international blockbusters. One film that has filled the theatre, Danur, tells the story of a family haunted by a Nanny from the colonial period coming to lure their child into the underworld.

The film is set in an old Dutch house from around the 1920s-40s, the same which litter many of Java’s cities. Interestingly, it is not the first film to come out this year set in such a location. Alongside Danur (both the first and the second the year after), Dutch houses also feature in the films Pengabdi Setan and coming later this year, a film actually called Rumah Belanda (Dutch House). In each of these films, the house is the family home, or the inherited home from past grandparents, and retain many of the original features such as wallpaper, furniture and lighting. In each case, the house acts as a passive character; the main draw of the horror, yet never the centre of the film. If the suspense in the film builds, there will be a shot of the building’s looming presence, a creaking floorboard, a particularly terrifying looking painting on the wall. Asking friends about why these Dutch buildings in particular are used in horror films, the initial answer is often “because they’re old”. An important point, and one that fits with the trope of the haunted house in horror films around the world. Yet, there are many old traditional buildings in Indonesia, and as they are often built from dark wood and have large dominant structures such as Central Java’s Joglos and Sumatra’s Rumah Padang you might assume would be just as fitting for a horror film setting.

Ghosts for many in Indonesia are real and play an important role in day to day life. These spirits aren’t solely those whose souls haven’t passed into the afterlife taking on their former body, but come in different, specific forms. There is the pocong which appears in the Muslim burial shroud with a decaying face poking out, the kuntilanak, a woman who appears dressed in white with long flowing black hair, and the tuyul, small children who steal your money. There are many more and each of them are as real as the last. Some people believe you have to beep your horn before crossing a bridge to ask permission from the spirits living underneath, it is widely known that as the sun sets around 5pm you should not stand in doorways as the spirits are waking and passing through. In the context of Dutch buildings and areas once frequented by the Dutch, these become especially haunted. There have been countless times around Jogjakarta I have heard that the Dutch apartments now inhabited by professors from Universitas Gadjah Mada are haunted with many ghosts, Dutch and native, living inside. In the village of Kaliurang on the slopes of Merapi Volcano, Dutch and Japanese properties are often left abandoned and overgrown with many people scared to visit the area at night for fear of what they could see. Stories of small Dutch children, nannies and servants hired by the families told by parents to children help perpetuate this fear. In the centre of the city large Dutch properties loom over the smaller, single-story shops and houses. It is difficult to work out whether it is the ghosts that are haunting the people or the buildings themselves with the history and the sheer weight of them on the landscape that creates this sense. My partner, thinking a little more about Dutch buildings in Indonesian horror films, decided that the history of the building was part of it, Dutch buildings are synonymous with age just because some of them have been there for over one hundred years and many will have passed through them, but then this wouldn’t explain how there are more Dutch buildings in horror films than traditional Javanese or Indonesian buildings, and most of those in horror films look no older than 80 years old. He looked thoughtful a while longer then said, ‘I think its the history of the Dutch buildings, knowing that so many people suffered, maybe even in the buildings’.

In my time here, colonialism only occasionally comes up in conversation. If it has, it’ll sneak in with a passing comment about someone’s grandma being raped or how many people died making a canal as we drive by. Often I’ve heard about the great battle for independence and the strong national heroes who fought for the country. Today, the Netherlands is a place where many of my friends wish to study. If a Dutch person comes on holiday, they will experience the generosity and hospitality synonymous with Indonesia, and they may be praised for the windmills and tulips. Often the only time I ever see any sort of narrative on colonialism here is on Independence Day, where villages get together to decorate, play games and remember the words of the first president, Sukarno. The day is joyous above anything else and a celebration of what it is to be Indonesian rather than a sombre look at the colonial past. Yet these houses in the horror films, the ghosts of nonyas (Dutch women) who walk across corridors in old houses, the whispered rumours to stay away from the old Dutch properties at night, suggest that the ghost of the history is there. Lighter, something used to frighten children, or make an audience shriek in horror and delight, but still a pervasive impression that captures the imagination of many.


‘Here’ by Richard McGuire

At work today (I work in Waterstones) I asked my boss, a specialist in graphic novels, to recommend me a few interesting titles. After approximately four seconds of thought he walked over to the shelf, eyes scanning the content, and swiftly walked back before handing me this with an air of silent satisfaction. I looked at the cover, gently swallowing a build-up of anticipatory saliva, and fell instantly in love.

‘Here’ is a graphic novel that centres solely on one space across thousands of years, the centre point being a family lounge. Written by Richard McGuire whose work is often featured in the likes of The New York Times and Le Monde, the work took fifteen years in the making, and you can really feel that across the roaming, multilayered 309 pages.

The novel has no defined plot, the eye scans the page looking for a structure but none is offered. Instead dates and times merge together, one family’s choice of orange decor collides with a native American couple making love in the corner. In one of the earlier pages we are transported to 1959, yet in the bottom right corner the eye catches a cat prowling across in 1999. We are well and truly situated ‘here’, allowed to see the different layers of personal and historical meaning applied to a particular space, the amorphous nature of meaning.

The beauty of its simplicity is it gets us to think about our own ‘here’ – to think about what has happened in the very spot in which we find ourselves, how familiar it seems. And if it is familiar – what is it that makes it familiar? How do we interact with those who came here before? It reminds us of the ecology of a space, of the habitat it once was and the habitat it has become, the Native Americans and the colonists and the families posing for a picture in the 50s and the dominant four walls throughout help remind us that on top of the everydayness of a place there is always a political and historical rubbing shoulders with the known. It is personal and beautiful and for the reader, who sits and purveys all that is ‘here’. it is an engrossing, sometimes humorous and always thoughtful read.

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