Last year, the same Sunday, on January 18, 2015, Darmanto (my husband)’s article was published in the biggest daily newspaper in Indonesia. He made a book review, and also, his own book was reviewed by the editorial team. The book that he reviewed was “Aku dan Orang Sakuddei” (Me and Sakuddei) by Reimar Schefold. It was a memoar of doing ethnographic fieldworks. You can see it on the picture above, it’s the book with two people on its cover. The cover of my husband’s book, “Berebut Hutan Siberut”, written with Abidah Setyowati, was the grey one with a picture of one person squatting while looking up. Another book (the red one) was “Bebetei Uma” by Bambang Rudito, also about the same topic with the other two.
Each book was about Mentawai, a tribe in remote islands west of West Sumatra. Reimar Schefold is one of the pioneer in Mentawai Studies, while my husband was one of the most deeply engaged Indonesian scholar in the field.
The first time he step foot in Siberut, the biggest island in Mentawai, he was a biology undergraduate student, doing research on swidden agriculture for his final thesis under his supervisor’s project umbrella. He came in and out of the forest and became a “siripok” (a friend that is considered as a brother or part of the extended family in Mentawai). He ended up getting a job at UNESCO and spent around 8 years in Siberut plus another two years moving back and forth from Padang (the capital of West Sumatra) to Siberut. It was the time of his life, his childhood dream of becoming an “Indiana Jones” came true and above it all, he found himself.
During his time there, his research won the “Man and Biosphere Award” from UNESCO. He used the prize money to set up an NGO called Pasih (Perkumpulan Siberut Hijau). The NGO was consisting of mostly native Mentawaian because my husband believe that to empower Mentawaian people, it has to be by the Mentawaian themselves. They had a great time and job when he led the organization, because he was a compassionate and committed leader who are excellent at handling interpersonal matters. Most importantly, he was open and honest to his members about everything related to the organization, including his own salary which was considerably little. This situation made everyone comfortable to work with each other and no one was having the feeling that someone else was taking advantage of their work.
You know, this was one of the reason why I love my husband so much. He is sincere, transparent and without internal contradiction. He is an incredibly generous person who does everything from his heart. I know a lot of people who try to do the same thing, such as advocating for local cause or joining local people’s struggle, but what they did – although it looked the same – was absolutely different because these people have hidden agenda. They will take the credit and feel good about themselves, telling the whole world about their “heroic” endeavours and expecting some sort of respect and admiration. They went on advancing their career or degree, but when the situation of the local people that they’re trying to “help” got rough and too hard to handle, they leave. They’re nowhere to give their all. Not to mention that they did not apply the same “heroic” principles for things they won’t get credit for.
My husband is different. He will never leave Mentawai for the rest of his life. At least he will come once in a while, and the people will always welcome him. He still keep in touch through direct calls and the “siripok” relations is for life. It doesn’t mean that things never get tough for him. Once in a time he experienced not having any job at all, nor salary, but he stayed. And guess what he did? He farm, just the way local Mentawaians do. It was really physical and difficult but he got some muscles from the hard work opening a farm and those “unintended consequences” are really nice to hug or wrap my body around.
After almost a decade in Mentawai, finally my husband applied for scholarships. His thick book (reviewed above – derived from decades of fieldnotes acquired from his long time living in Mentawai) made him an extremely interesting candidate. He was initially very “smitten” with Tania Li, an anthropologist at Toronto University, who always read and commented on his articles. Unfortunately there’s no funding available. Instead he went for a PhD under the supervision of Gerard Persoon, another expert of Mentawai at Leiden University who secured him the Louwes fund. He also got master scholarships from USAID and AUSAID. His supervisor thought it would be good for him to get more exposure to English language as well as getting a master in anthropology to make the “bridging” from his biology background more swift. Although he’s very keen to study in US, the USAID scholarship only allowed him to take master degree in Environmental Science or other technical studies. AUSAID is more flexible. The let him study Anthropology, and Gerard advised him to study under the supervision of his friend, Carol Warren at Murdoch University, Western Australia.
Long story short, he’s now revising his master thesis and will continue his PhD at Leiden when we go together to the Netherlands this year. I can’t believe that our departure is just around the corner!