Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

When the bond of love and the thread of debt flow like water

Published: May 27, 2022
For transnational families like those in Manggarai in East Nusa Tenggara, financial stability comes at great emotional cost
Versi Bh. Indonesia

Sari D. Ratri

Ende Marina was heading back to her tiny house in a village called Tengku Lese in Manggarai regency, East Nusa Tenggara, when I met her in late July 2019. Ende is a common term in Manggarai, sometimes used to mean mother, other times used to address grandmothers or elderly women. On that day, Ende Marina had just come back after picking up her grandson, Stefanus, from school. Stefanus was staying with her in Tengku Lese and attending elementary school in the village. Stefanus’ mother, Rita, would soon be going back to Timika in Papua from where many people in Tengku Lese had migrated in search of better jobs. As a result, many children were born in the neighbouring islands such as Kalimantan, Java, Sulawesi and Papua. Stefanus and his younger sister were born in Timika while their parents worked in the mines.

For transnational families around the world, financial stability comes at great emotional cost. There was sadness and discontent among the children left behind. Many felt abandoned and lonely, at times acting out. Ende Marina said even though she loves Stefanus dearly, she was aware that he was prone to naughty behaviour, especially with his mother gone.

Listening to Ende Marina talk about her family, I learned how happiness, pride, regret, and hope characterised her account of her daughter’s struggles and sacrifice for the family. She recalled that Rita could not continue her education after finishing elementary school. She wanted to work and provide additional income for the family. ‘Rita started working at such a young age so that her younger brothers and sisters could access higher education.’ Although Ende Marina smiled, tears were welling in her eyes. She was aware of the irony of the story. For the sake of her siblings’ education, Rita had abandoned her own.

A guest gives his blessings to the young man who will soon depart for college / Hestu Prahara

To be in constant limbo over having access to education is an everyday reality for poor families in rural Manggarai. In the meantime, family plays an important role for many people in this regency, so much so that kinship relations frame social and economic lives. To minimise the impacts of poverty, each family must manage uncertainty and for many of them, leaving their loved ones to get paying jobs in other provinces is the only realistic solution to their financial problems.

Grandparents’ roles

Ende Marina is not alone, as family separation is rampant and has been part of growing up for many children in Manggarai. Based on Indonesia’s 2021 census, of all 23 regencies and cities in East Nusa Tenggara, Manggarai is the fourth highest ranking regency from where people search for jobs outside of the province. Therefore, Ende Marina’s story may shed light on the increasing rates of family separation due to migration. Although it is the case that each family member experiences and deals with the separation differently, Ende Marina’s story is emblematic of a particular pattern. Family separation happened only under the most difficult set of circumstances. People travelled outside their villages to find solutions for their problems through a costly journey to places where they hoped that their labour would be better rewarded.

Separation for many families in Manggarai is an expression of love. But what does family separation mean for those left behind, particularly the grandparents? Being available as a caregiver is one way that grandparents contribute to their family’s economic improvement. They acknowledge what they do as merely supporting their children, given they themselves often don’t have paid jobs. Some own land and are able to grow cash crops such as coffee and cloves, but selling agricultural goods reaps uncertain rewards. Some also grow plants like cassava and sweet potato to feed their families. Those without land manage to survive by toiling in any jobs available in the village; from being domestic workers or day labourers on their neighbour’s lands. But the meagre income from this work is barely enough for food, let alone school or healthcare. Whatever the case, grandparents considered caregiving as their primary role and subordinate compared to any paying jobs.

Communal fundraising

Parental delegation to family members’ including siblings, older children and grandparents, was not the only example of how families attempt to manage poverty and education. One strategy, adopted by some families in Manggarai, was to host pesta sekolah (college party) to prepare for their children to go to college. This long-maintained strategy involves inviting guests to a party where they exchange money in return for a meal and a glass of palm wine.

Invited guesta form a line to shake hands the host family/ Hestu Prahara

I attended several pesta sekolah. The host would slaughter pig(s), at a huge personal cost ($A15 per pig), and prepare a buffet. Pesta sekolah can help families raise a large amount of money in one go, which would be difficult to do through their regular work and savings. In order to maximise the amount of money received, the host needs as many guests as possible to attend and hand over cash in return for the food, wine and festivities.

Pesta sekolah usually begin at 11 am and can last until 2 am the next morning. All guests are invited to enjoy the buffet. After, they shake hands with the hosts and their children who are about to leave the village for college. Everyone who shakes hands with the host, including small children, give over some cash. Guests can also buy additional food such as pork belly satay. A cup of palm wine costs around A$.50. The more people buy additional food and drinks, the more money the host receives. People come for food but stay into the night, dancing to songs such as Putry Pasanea’s 2019 hit entitled ‘Kaka Enda.’

Villagers get excited about pesta sekolah, providing entertainment and a chance to cut loose. If a host collects a large amount of money, the party goes on to become discussion material for the villagers. I met a family who had successfully collected an incredible Rp.200,000,000 (almost A$19,000-) through their pesta sekolah. People still remember how amazing the party was not only for the host who received a large amount of money for their children, but also for the people in the village who appreciated the music and food. Likewise, if a host collected only a small amount of money, people would also talk about the event and how they were disappointed by the music and food.

Pesta sekolah operate in a reciprocal-rotary system, relying on social cohesion that compels people to hand over money. For example, if a family holds a pesta sekolah, previous hosts have an obligation to attend and repay their ‘debt’ to the families who attended their event. Because this mutual practice is based on kinship bonds between families from the same village, the obligation to return the favour goes beyond simply attending a reciprocal pesta sekolah. Once two families have been tied together through a pesta sekolah invitation, they have a continuing mutual obligation to attend every pesta sekolah held by the other.

Men gather around a table where palm wine and pork belly satay were served for additional money in Pesta Sekolah / Hestu Prahara

Between June and August, there may be several pesta sekolah in a village on any given day. As the new admission for universities in Indonesia happened during those months, many youths from Manggarai are preparing to move while their family arrange a pesta sekolah for them. Those months also fall during the dry season and many families struggle to amass enough cash to pay for their children’s education costs. But for many guests who are poor, without property, and working odd jobs, they face a dilemma in attending repeated pesta sekolah. To be able to fulfill their social obligation, many poor families have to borrow some money from relatives and neighbours just to pay for their attendance.

Thus, pesta sekolah also represent a burden for some villagers. ‘It is culture that makes us poor!’ said Salis, father of a five-year-old. He talked about how difficult it was to get the money he needed to attend an invitation he received from his relative. As a landless farmer, Salis found that pesta sekolah intensified his economic problems. But, he was also aware that he would one day expect people to attend his own daughter’s pesta sekolah. On the day that we met, Salis had just borrowed some money from Papa Fons and Mama Kris, my foster parents. Salis would pay them back after he was paid for his work on the coffee land owned by Papa Fons. That night, we met again at the very party he’d been frustrated about just hours earlier. However, Salis was no longer frustrated with the culture, he was dancing and indulging in palm wine. It seems that he was thoroughly enjoying himself, even if only for a couple of hours. 

Even though these stories suggest economic hardship, they also manifest love. Amid dire situations caused by inequality, kinship and community relations are the most valuable resources in supporting children’s education among families in Manggarai. The aspiration is simple: with more money, children would be able to complete more schooling and live comfortably. In attaining financial success and stability they can then support their family and community in return. Whatever the result of these survival strategies, they rest on familial love and social reciprocity, benefitting some while driving others deeper into debt.

Sari D. Ratri (sratri@u.northwestern.edu) is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Northwestern University, Illinois, U.S.A. She is an Arryman Scholar and co-founder of Ekuator Research.

Inside Indonesia 148: Apr-Jun 2022

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