It is easy to stay ignorant of your surroundings in a country as large as Indonesia, where the buzz of metropolitan Jakarta is enough to keep you excited and a trip to Bali is exotic enough to provide brief relief from the city smog.
It is easy to forget, in the midst of this air-conditioned concrete jungle, that we live in one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world.
“To find that foreigners know more about your country than you,” says an Indonesian friend of the Heritage Society, “can be slightly embarrassing. You tend to be ignorant about your own country, but this really opens your eyes.”
“This” is the Indonesian Heritage Society.
Established initially as the Ganesha Volunteers group, working primarily with the National Museum in 1970, the society was converted to the Indonesian Heritage Society in 1994. Its main stated aim: “to promote knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Indonesia’s culture and heritage”.
Now, with more than 800 “Friends”, the “Yayasan” has grown immensely. It consists of Explorers, who explore Jakarta, Heritage Tours, which take travelers to places as far-flung as Papua, nighttime lecture series, study groups, and Japanese, French, and Korean language sectors.
The Evening Lecture Series, which will commence on Oct. 6 at the Erasmus Huis, and the study groups, will cover all sorts of topics from magic and rituals to ceramics, from exploring the role of Islam in the country to tracing the origins of loanwords in the language.
In addition, the society works in close cooperation with the National Museum, organizing free tours
in several languages and working to identify and interpret various artifacts.
Community of learning: Visitors attend a recent event for the Indonesian Heritage Society. One Friend of the Society describes her first tour as “opening the door to a world I never knew existed”. Courtesy of Helmy de Korven
Currently, a special membership is on offer for people under the age of 28, who may not want to go to museums but may instead want to explore Jakarta’s younger scene, of, for example, night markets and photography.
For Susan Burge, co-chair of the Explorers, her first tour to Glodok with the society was “like opening a door into a world I never knew existed”. Faye Skilbeck too, relates with enthusiasm the many trips she has made with the heritage society.
“I first traveled in Indonesia with a photojournalist who wanted to show us the true Indonesia”, which, she says, lies beyond Jakarta’s smoky streets. “I never dreamt I would be sleeping in a hut in Papua’s Baliem valley.”
The library, located in Senayan, holds more than 6,000 books. Books and self-made posters with pictures of exotic trips to South Kalimantan and Siberut grace the walls. Imagine men in loincloths, thousands of glittering fish, Papuan men secretly carving Mbis statues up to 7 meters high, hiding them from the eyes of women and children because them seeing might diminish its power. Or Dayak people covered in tattoos intended not as modern body decorations or signs of rebellion, but to ward off bad spirits and to represent the torch that is to guide the dead who are on their way to the afterworld (the more tattoos, the brighter the torch).
The list is endless, but as the synopsis for one September lecture says: “with more than 17 000 islands, Indonesia could take a lifetime to visit and explore”.
As Gera Klijnsma says, “When I started studying peoples of the archipelago, I thought ‘How many can there be? Will this fill a year? But this will be my fourth year participating and I’m still not done learning about the more than 300 ethnic groups in Indonesia!”
That the Heritage Society is unique not only in Indonesia but the world is confirmed by Klijnsma, who claims that “this is our eighth foreign assignment and it will be the first time I will leave feeling that I have really got to know the country I lived in”.
This is perhaps due to the passion many of the society’s participants show for its cause. Japanese past chair Mizue Hara and past governor and member of the original Ganesha volunteers group Hilde Ardie agree that the ambition to “keep introducing people to the striking diversity of Indonesian culture” is what keeps the society alive.
“It is in my bones,” Hara says, a feeling backed up by the society’s work.
“The effect of the Heritage Society can only be measured in thousands,” proclaims one of its publications. “Thousands of people have gained a greater knowledge and appreciation of Indonesian culture, thousands of items of the Museum Nasional’s collection have been catalogued by our volunteers, thousands of visitors have benefited from the knowledge of our trained tour guides, thousands have attended evening lectures.”
The society’s success can also be measured in the publications it has released to date, with more in the making. The French-Speaking Section, for example, currently working on a cookbook, combining French recipes with Indonesian cuisine, as a result of their popular culinary study group meetings.
While success may thus be measured in growing numbers of people and things published, it is perhaps the quiet success of a fruitful learning experience that is even more valuable.
In a poem titled “The World’s First Face”, the late Indonesian poet and contributor to Indonesian literary heritage, W.S. Rendra, envisions “a bed lined with gleaming coral necklaces, and millions of stars in the sky”.
In the words of the poet: “this is their inheritance, stars and more stars, more than could ever blink and go out.” It is our duty to go to those places in Indonesia, where the smog does not hide the stars’ luster, where our “inheritance” shines.
“Oh, I want to breathe in mysteries! Oh, I want magic to shine in the sky!” Rendra exclaims in another poem.
And maybe the Indonesian Heritage Society, which Barbara Johnson refers to as “the perfect training ground for ambassadors to Indonesia”, is the place to start.
For more information, visit www.heritagejkt.org.
The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post.