Mothers

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

 

Harriet Crisp – 11 January 2020

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.

Interconnectedness

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.

Challenges

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.

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