Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Getting to know Butet Manurung

Published: May 11, 2016

Butet Manurung talks about her life's work with the Jungle School

Yulia Indri Sari

Terjemahan oleh Samantha Howard

This is Saur Marline Manurung, more commonly known as Butet Manurung. Butet is a graduate of anthropology and is known for her commitment in becoming a voice for tribal children in inland Jambi. In 2014 Butet received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for her dedication as a pioneer and activist for alternative education for the inland community in Indonesia. Many have written about Butet, and her experiences of fighting for the rights of tribal children were featured in Inside Indonesia in 2008. In 2007, Butet wrote about her experiences in the book Sokola Rimba (The Jungle School: Experiences Teaching with Rimba Children). In 2013, the Jungle School featured in a film directed by Riri Riza from Miles Productions. 

Here Butet updates Yulia Indri Sari on the changes that have happened at the Jungle School since 2008 and provides some insight into her views of Indonesia as well as her own life.

Butet and The Jungle School

Have there been any changes at the Jungle School since 2008, and why have those changes occurred? 

There have been many changes at the Jungle School. Before 2008, the slogan of the school was ‘Education for Community Customs’. Now the slogan is ‘School Literacy and Advocacy for Community Customs in Indonesia’. The Jungle School previously focused on teaching skills to overcome issues affecting local communities who could not obtain those skills themselves. For example, there were issues with illegal logging and blast fishing, and the ways in which communities worked against these issues. The Jungle School had originally attempted to solve all of these problems. But then we realised that the school did not have the resources to solve them all. We realised that it was of most importance to help indigenous peoples manage their own issues, and to support them in organising their own communities to fight for their rights. We now support communities to self-identify problems, and we work to establish a network so that they can overcome the issues as a community. We understand of course that the indigenous communities cannot do all of this themselves, but with the new programs at the Jungle School, they now know where they may find assistance. The Jungle School is now focused on literacy and advocacy education. 

In order to increase the impact of the school we are now developing more type of training so that our literacy and education programs can be utilised by a wider range of indigenous community groups.

Can you tell us about the training that has been developed by the Jungle School? What kinds of programs are there?

Our training programs focus on gaining an understanding of indigenous communities so that institutions such as universities, non-governmental organisations and companies concerning those involved can work in favour of local communities.

We have a set curriculum for this training. The most important training is what we call ‘Understanding the Community’. It’s all about understanding one another’s perspective, which is often a major mistake made when interacting with indigenous people. We also don’t agree that the training is associated with a specific agenda. Whether the indigenous people want to live in the forest or the city does not concern the Jungle School. It is important that their opinions are impartial to the school. We also educate locals on understanding the view of the ‘outsiders’, so that they can understand those perspectives also. In the past, indigenous communities were often ridiculed by outsiders to the point of shame and tears. Now they no longer cry because they are taught to understand the outsiders’ perspectives. Now, when people of the jungle are asked, “why aren’t you wearing any clothes?” they will answer, “because this is what we have been wearing from the beginning of time. We wear this when we climb the trees”. If they are being laughed at because they are atheist, they will respond by saying, “what is religion? We also believe there are other energies apart from humans. Just because there is no name for that religion, does not mean is does not exist because it is not a government recognised religion”.

What encouraged the Jungle School to change their approach towards the indigenous people? 

Originally it was due to fatigue and we realised that we were not ‘Superman’. We had become quite exhausted. During that time, we were assisting people in Flores with the issues of blast fishing. People were starving and at the school we felt that this was an issue that needed to be resolved. The most difficult time was on the island of Halmahera, helping the Togutil tribe. The problems facing the tribe were very complex. There were problems with gold mines, missionary groups and migration onto the island. All groups involved had their own agenda in taking advantage of the indigenous people. The villagers consider the Togutil tribe to have unusual traditions, customs of war and familial behaviours. The Jungle School’s specialty of teaching reading and writing was not enough to solve all of the complex problems. Fortunately in Halmahera there was a local NGO, named Pilas. The school worked with Pilas to befriend the indigenous communities so they could learn to overcome the issues without as much input from the Jungle School. The School does not have the ability to stay in just one place for a long time. So we taught Pilas the anthropological approach to assessing the problem. We wanted the work of NGOs to be aligned with the local communities and the needs of the indigenous people. Following this project we realised that the Jungle School does not have the capacity to solve every problem and we became more aware of the importance of networking local NGOs and indigenous people together. 

What is your current role?

I am currently developing training beyond the indigenous communities. I do, however, prefer to be in the field and feel that I am of more use outside. The majority of our founders and mentors remain in the field for between 1-2 months every semester. 

The Jungle School is now more in demand and we have seen an increase in requests for teacher training, ‘Training for Trainers’. This training also raises funds for the school. In addition to my work as a mentor and conducting training and fundraising, I am working on various jobs in the office in Jakarta. 

What are the largest institutional challenges currently facing the Jungle School?

In addition to funding, our issues are mainly around recruitment of staff. Apart from the founders of the school, we require more staff with strong expertise and capabilities to manage programs and be placed within the community from the beginning of programs until the communities are self-sufficient. For example, we require someone to assist the indigenous communities in Papua who can teach reading and writing while seeking funding and training. The main challenge to the Jungle School is that we cannot give sufficient resources so community members and families are affected by the demands of the work. Usually after three years at the school, members have already sacrificed a lot, so they seek opportunities elsewhere. However all of our members are still very close and when they do come back, they miss the field. 

In terms of the difficulties facing NGO workers like yourself, between the role of being a mentor and the demands of the work, how do the team at the Jungle School overcome these issues?

We are happy with the work that has been done, and the training has allowed us to provide many solutions. In addition to funding from agencies, teachers are given honoraries. However, teachers have their own specific expertise, which can become a second priority for them, which must be done outside of the Jungle School. There are teachers who have become partners of research for indigenous people, and those who are good at painting. They have since been offered large salaries to work outside of the Jungle School, but have still remained as a part of the school’s network. Fortunately now the management of the school ensured that more free time can be arranged for staff’s extracurricular activities. Of the four founders, apart from myself, two of them are a married couple. The wife of the couple has the same vision and capacity as her husband. Your partner has a big impact and influence on your life, so it is important that the founders have a partner with the same vision. 

How did the founders come together?

We originally had five founders. One left the School to help with his wife’s farm, but he still helps the Jungle School’s work. The founders have always been good friends. For example, Dodi and I have been friends since 1991. Soon our friendship will reach its Silver Anniversary (laughs). We are both very optimistic and cheerful, and also very noisy, like a circus. We honestly both love a fight, and it’s fine because we are such close friends. Our friendship has been tested, often very critically. Once Dodi and I became stranded in the forest for four days because we couldn’t find the right path. On those four days we were hungry and sharing all the food we could find. If we were working in the city, we could rely on others but in the jungle we could only rely on each other. There were times where I was rafting in the jungle and found myself nearly drowning, or getting lost in the mountains and Dodi was always there for me. Sometimes if we noticed that we were getting cranky at one another, we would give each other the space that we needed. Only true friends can do this easily. And with Indit, she has been a friend of mine since 2003. We were roommates when we were working together at WARSI (Indonesian Conservation Community). 

When did you last meet your jungle students? What questions did they have for you that were the most memorable?

I last met with Pengendum and Mijak who attended seminars in December 2015. They have already established local institutions whose members are now teachers of the jungle. They are often invited to Jakarta, the DPR (House of Representatives of the Republic of Indonesia) and the National Commission of Women. They are doing great work and now often say to me, ‘Sorry Ma’am we are busy, we only had three hours today’. The students in the jungle are very funny. For example, I remember the first time they first saw me in Jakarta, they asked me how I do ‘melangun’. ‘Melangun’ is a tradition of indigenous communities where they will move their home and contents after a family member dies. They wondered why I moved to Canberra once I got married. In the indigenous communities of the jungle, men live with their wives and should take care of their mother in law until their last breath. They say, ‘Ma’am why are you so heartless? Why did you not ask your husband to stay here and take care of your mother?’

The Jungle School, Film and Book

The Jungle School Film came out in 2013, has there been any impact on the School since the screening?

If we look at the institution, then no. At first I had hopes that the film would encourage a shift in the discourse of contextual education nationally, but apparently not. We also hoped that it would help us find funding for the school, but also did not. Many believed that if there was a movie, there would already be funding. 

The film helped indirectly. If there are financial institutions that want to help, we no longer need to explain the situation because they can already understand the context from the movie. Unfortunately institutions that offered financial assistance as a result of the movie have been blacklisted.  Some mining and oil palm companies for example, have a bad ‘track record’ with the indigenous peoples, so even if they did offer assistance, we would have to reject the funds, otherwise it would be unethical. If you swallow the problem and don’t solve it, the problem will not disappear. It will remain a problem for a long time. 

That’s what I always emphasise to the team- do not accept funding from such institutions. It will mend our sleep but we will wake up poor. The other groups we cannot accept funds from are political and religiously motivated groups, but it depends on the type of group and community. There are some communities that were already interacting with certain religious groups long before the Jungle School came along. In contrast, there are some neutral institutions that are not interested in our work, because schools are hard to access due to their location.  

The film has been very helpful in changing the perspectives of ordinary people. People understand that indigenous communities need education. At least they can now understand that contextual education is necessary to help indigenous peoples according to their lives. After the screening I have been able to create dialogue with the audience. Now much less effort is needed to change the perspectives of teachers who have indigenous students in their school rooms. Even teachers in more formal schools claimed to have learnt a lot from the film. 

The most memorable times were when the film was screened in foreign countries. If the screening was in Indonesia, people asked more questions about my own history and myself. Outside of Indonesia, the audience is more interested in asking about the issues and how the approach of the Jungle School can be used in other places, what are the challenges, and how can we overcome those challenges. They also became more empathetic and respectful of the people living rurally. 

What impact did the film have on the sales of The Jungle School book?

The biggest impact of the film was on the book. When it was first being published I used a small publisher in Yogyakarta. After that movie, the book was published by Kompas Gramedia and reached a bigger audience. We sold approximately 13,000 copies of the book after the film screening. In Indonesia more people wanted to read the book after watching the film, not the other way around. The sales of the book were a great source of funding for the Jungle School. 

Butet and Indonesia

What is your view regarding Indonesia’s current conditions? What challenges face Indonesia today? 

Generally I see that Indonesia, and not only Indonesia, likes to measure success based on per capita income. I like to question why no one is opposed to this measurement. Why is there no measure of ‘loss’ per capita income? An awful lot of loss occurring in Indonesia is due to a loss of plant diversity, rare animals, the mother tongue of the local people, intellectual property, pollution, and farming in rural Indonesia. In my opinion, the measurement of education is too uniform across the globe. Apart from money, Indonesia is actually getting poorer. 

What about the conditions of education in Indonesia?

The challenge to Indonesian education is the uniformity of the education system. This undermines the diversity of local capacity, that’s for sure. If a fish is told throughout his lifetime that he is not a good swimmer, he is going to feel stupid, knowing that he will never be a good enough swimmer. ‘Unity in Diversity’ we say in Indonesia, but how can we measure educational outcomes uniformly? 

If you could provide any recommendations on the Indonesian education system, what would you recommend?

If I were given the opportunity to transform the education of Indonesia, I would broaden the context of the education system. I would get more local teachers involved. For example, if someone had local knowledge of medicinal plants, he should be taught how to teach this, and be a teacher of the environment.  Local people have the capacity to teach relevant training based on the needs of communities, just like reading, writing, arithmetic plus additional appropriate material. Foreign teachers want to teach science in a way that is not relevant or applicable enough for the local people. The community should learn about its own strengths from its own people. Outside teachers should be facilitators only. Then locals can become aware of what capabilities they are lacking, and seek teachers from outside to facilitate the learning. 

A lot of the information from outside the community is irrelevant and is not sourced from the problems that exist in the local community. For example, things like malaria or illegal logging affect every day community members, and instead children are learning about the planet Saturn. Why is there no curriculum related to local issues of the school? For example the Puskesmas (Community Health Centre) could come to teach about malaria or legal experts can teach how to tackle illegal logging. There are also no lessons for farmers on pest control, or that there are people selling fertilizer! (laughs) A lot of students who have graduated from high school look for office work. They don’t want to be a farmer or a gardener, yet it is important to maintain the strength and richness of the local community. 

Have you already been asked to assist the Ministry of Education and Culture?

The Ministry of Education and Culture frequently ask me to tell them stories about the Jungle School to motivate others. Actually, I really want to discuss the bigger ideas about perspectives, ideologies and the system of education and the impact that it has. When I was invited to a dinner, I told Mr. Anies Baswedan that I am ready to help if the Ministry of Education and Culture needs me, but they haven’t asked me yet. 

Things we don’t know about Butet

In regards to you dividing your time between Australia and Indonesia, how does this affect the Jungle School?

After I had my son, Marley, I usually spent six months in Canberra, and six months in Indonesia. Then it was three months in Canberra, nine months in Indonesia. The Jungle School was a bit shaken while I was commuting between Australia and Indonesia. Many agencies were asking specifically to see me, including donors. Donors and agencies that wanted to help financially wanted to see me. I was annoyed that they would only see me while there were other founders of the school who had the same capacity as me. I wanted that to change.

So it is well known that other people from the school often distract me. But I do know the value of having my voice heard, which allows the voice of the Jungle School to be heard. I hope that my voice is an inspiration for younger people. I want the voice to grow independently. I often say to the team at the Jungle School, if you want to sleep well at night, you must undertake a lot of volunteer work, so that you can feel good about yourself. For example, I am thrilled with the reaction of the students in the indigenous communities after the earthquake in Padang. They searched for donations directly, were working in the field and helping to make a soup kitchen. They trained to work in the soup kitchen and became faster at setting up the kitchen than the ABRI (Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia). From a very young age they are experts at searching for food and making a fire amongst other things. 

The management office has also been affected. Although I am juggling many things, I like to check-in with everyone and remind them of our tasks. They sometimes say that there is no Butet, so it can tend to be less organised. Nowadays when I am in Canberra, I am always trying to build that voluntary spirit of the indigenous people through my writing. Recently I wrote ‘What’s Wrong with Volunteers’ (3rd of November 2015, Kompas). Currently I am planning to write ‘Women and Adventure’, and ‘About the Indigenous Peoples’. I’ve also started taking a writing class for the indigenous community called ‘Indigenous Writing Studies’ at ANU (Australian National University). 

What do people often guess wrong about Butet?

People often think I'm grumpy because I am Batak and in my photos I look sulky. I’m actually very playful. Sometimes students at the university-organised events are surprised to see this because they expect me to be very stern. Batak people and jungle people can definitely be quite fierce. But I’m not fierce. And I am expected to have a big strong body as jungle people often carry heavy loads through the woods. But I am thin, small and skinny with a soft voice. 

What ways do you cope with stress?

When I am in the city, I love to watch TV and films. I like watching detective shows and movies like CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), or films about Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. I like detective stories and mystery. I recently watched a phenomenal film that has continued to open up horizons for me. It’s called ‘The Danish Girl’ which tells the story about Einar Wegener, who was one of the first men in Europe who underwent a sex change around 1920. I’m not sure if this was screened in Indonesia.

Are there other things about life that you think about?

I am interested in life after death. It is said that our energy can never be lost or destroyed, it just changes form. I always believed that if I died, I would still be able to feel and think with all of the memories that I had when I was alive. If this is so, I would be very happy because I love my life. I wonder if a dead man feels the same way, and where is his soul. 


Yulia Indri Sari is a student at ANU and friend of Butet Manurung.

Inside Indonesia 124: Apr-Jun 2016{jcomments on}

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