“Ibu, give us a school…”
“Menjaga hutan memang sulit sekali,
Orang pemerintah saja tak bisa,
Apalagi saya yang baru bisa baca tulis and hitung…”
“Guarding our jungle is really hard,
The government can’t do it,
Let alone me who just learned how to read and write…”
Peniti Benang, a SOKOLA student
The above thought-provoking quote greets as we flip open the first few pages of “The Jungle School” book. For me, it has beautifully captured the soul of the journal, written by Butet Manurung during her stay at Bukit Dua Belas National Park in Jambi, Sumatra.
Peniti’s words seem to resemble many other voices that painfully echoed the struggles of Orang Rimba or ‘People of the Forest.’ Illegal loggers, government sponsored transmigrants, upstream pollution, forests degradation, unknown diseases, and other incomprehensible changes arrived, encroaching Orang Rimba’s habitat and natural surroundings.
Yet, in Peniti’s voice, one could see a glimmer of hope grounded in pragmatism and determination. For Orang Rimba, it was very much unexpected that such lifeline against the external forces came in the form of a very demure yet determined woman.
Butet is the name of that woman. Against all odds, and despite outright early rejection, she had stubbornly refused to quit on them. Regardless of the many times they had asked her to leave. She persisted in learning the language, understanding their logics, and introducing literacy and numeracy to the children and adults alike.
She braved death threats, prowling bears, stinging bees, biting ants, not to mention blood sucking leeches, sheer exhaustion and loneliness. She stayed on. All to fulfill a timid yet hopeful plea from a handful of children “Ibu, give us a school ..”.
“God, I love them…these unusual people” Butet exclaimed.
And indeed, she readily, unconditionally, and wholeheartedly paid the price for falling in love with children of the forests. SOKOLA was born right there and then. Like a sacred honey tree in the rainforest, her love grows and remains strong as the years pass by.
“I always look forward to spending [longer] time in the forests,” Butet confessed with longing in her eyes.
Yet, spending time in the forests is getting more difficult these days. Butet’s schedule is often packed with commitments away from the jungles, including her recent whirlwind three day visit to Singapore to promote the English version of her first book, The Jungle School.
The book was published after a strong urge from her close friends and team at SOKOLA. It hopes to share insights and facilitate better understanding on Orang Rimba, their long held tradition, and struggles against external influence. Undoubtedly, the book has shed lights on the urgency to step up efforts in closing the educational gap among remote communities. It also raised one important question — how best could we address the challenge in meeting every child’s right for education?
Butet is a natural story teller. Some of her trial and error experiences were outright funny and heartwarming. Others sounded downright dangerous, as it nearly cost Butet her life. As she recalled and skillfully told stories on her interactions with Orang Rimba, I learned much about our shared humanity.
“It is almost eleven. Some children have fallen asleep on books, possibly damaging them. Others fall asleep hugging their books. One child is awake, still turning the pages of a book, trying to fathom the incomprehensible letters, while snorting in the snot that formed a number eleven under his nose. Occasionally, he wipes it with his loincloth, other times with his hand, and then he returns to turning the pages again. Ah… this is quite endearing.
I never get tired of looking at these children.
I stare at the sky again.
It has now become pitch dark, the stars are disappearing.”
Excerpt from the Jungle School
Who would have thought that deep inside the thickness and wilderness of our rainforests live those gentle souls?
There are those youths and children so hungry to learn. Learning not for the sake of achieving highest grade, or becoming more popular than others, but for preserving their culture and tradition. Learning for the sake of protecting their forests and nature — homes, play grounds, livelihoods, and all the things that define their very own existence.
What they struggle to protect are indeed the very same forests on which our lives and future existence of our planet depend.
Post Note - Click to read more
As an educator and activist, Butet has received international recognition including – UNESCO’s ‘Man and Biosphere Award’ in 2001, TIME Magazine’s ‘Hero of Asia’ in 2004, Ashoka Fellowship in 2006, ‘Asia Young Leader’ in 2007, and World Economic Forum ‘Young Global Leader’ in 2009.
Established in 2003 by Butet Manurung and four fellow educators, SOKOLA provides educational opportunities for indigenous communities in remote areas of Indonesia. The mission of this not for profit organization is to prepare isolated communities to deal with challenges of the modern world.
To date, SOKOLA has reached many communities across Indonesia bringing literacy to more than 10,000 individuals, both children and adults.
SOKOLA’s Literacy School is established in the following areas: Jambi (since 2003), Makassar (since 2004), Kajang (since 2007), Halmahera (since 2007), and Flores (since 2006). SOKOLA also run post disaster program in Pariaman, Garut, Ciganjur, Bantul & Klaten, and Jogjakarta.
For more info: www.sokola.org or www.facebook.com/tokosokola