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From asking to tasking via masking

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Malang  /  Tue, June 26, 2018  /  09:47 am
From asking to tasking via masking

New icon: A view of Kampung Topeng in Tlogowaru, Malang, East Java. (JP/Erlinawati Graham )

Two years ago Ali Sudarjo, 48, was squashed into Sukun, an old kampong in Malang. He rattled off the negatives.

“Life was hard. I didn’t like the way my children were growing up.  Pollution was bad. Not much work, so not much future. No space. Then we got the chance to move.”

Sudarjo and his wife Siti Mutmainah, 42, and their six kids were shifted 20 kilometers out of town to a Rp 2.5 billion (US$182,000) government social experiment called Kampung Topeng (mask village) underway in a forest. Despite ups and downs, so far it seems to be going well.

Sudarjo still fixes motorbikes as he did in Sukun, but there’s not much work in a community of only 250. The versatile mechanic has started other businesses – raising catfish and fighting cocks.

“Life is much better,” he said as his children sorted fingerlings into buckets. “Moving was the right thing to do.”

Kampung Topeng is being run by Malang City using funds from Jakarta to relocate gepeng. This truncated term is formed from gelandangan (homeless) and pengemis (beggars).

“We selected 40 families who we thought stood the best chance of adapting,” social worker Safria Effendi said.

“We’ve had a few who couldn’t cope and left so there are now three vacant houses.  But we’ve had others leave who’ve built new skills and enough confidence to move on – which is just what we want.”

Safria and his colleague Aisyah, 21, help run the little settlement by collecting Rp 5,000 (US 36 cents) entrance fees from curious visitors keen on taking selfies with the masks. The public servants live outside the village and spend their working hours on site or at their department’s office in Malang.

In a row: Kampung Topeng in Tlogowaru, Malang, East Java, proudly displays numerous dance masks.In a row: Kampung Topeng in Tlogowaru, Malang, East Java, proudly displays numerous dance masks. (JP/Erlinawati Graham )

The government built the village on a sloping one-hectare plot of virgin forest and lets the houses rent free, though residents pay for basic facilities. For an isolated hamlet the services are good, with mains power and piped water. There is a well-equipped playground, meeting hall and a small café. Tourists who find this too pedestrian can soar over the valley on a flying fox.

A communal kitchen is available for making krupuk (crackers) and other snacks for sale. There is no church, so a Christian family who lives there has to travel to a nearby area. For the others there is a new mosque.

Trainers have been employed to help the settlers find jobs. One household has a worm farm, another is making chocolates shaped and painted like masks. These should be a hit in up-scale stores and hotels if promoted well. 

“Developing markets is something we’re still working on,” said Safria. 

“We have many ideas but implementing these takes time.”

Many faces: Small masks are put on display in front of Panji Asmara Bangun and his wife Dewi Sekartaji in Kampung Topeng.Many faces: Small masks are put on display in front of Panji Asmara Bangun and his wife Dewi Sekartaji in Kampung Topeng. (JP/Erlinawati Graham )

Malang is famous for its dance masks, now also sought by home decorators wanting a dash of culture on their feature walls. There are 76 characters, but few in the village can identify the images painted on walls or mounted on frames, apart from the two 7.5 meter high topeng that dominate the settlement. These are Panji Asmara Bangun and his wife Dewi Sekartaji from the ancient Panji stories of East Java.

A shop offers fiberglass masks formed using molds for Rp 45,000 ($3.25), and hand-carved wooden topeng for four times the price. The artisan is Prasetiyo Hadi, 42, originally from the East Java tourist center Batu.

Quality control and pricing are an issue as cheaper well-made Javanese artifacts mainly from Yogyakarta can be found in Malang’s handicraft outlets.

For a project hoping to attract tourists there are several shortfalls. The brick-paved entrance road is only one car wide, creating hazards for drivers. The village is poorly signposted and has had little publicity; I was said to be the first foreigner to visit.

In the past, transmigration projects shifted whole communities from overcrowded Java to West Papua and Kalimantan. Outcomes weren’t always positive as some locals resented people with different faiths, languages and values, while the newcomers often found their farming techniques didn’t suit strange soil types and climates. Social engineering is thick with risks. One person’s paradise is another’s hell.

And so it has been with Kampung Topeng, a form of local transmigration with the government doing far more to help. It is also less prone to the ills of the inter-island moves as friends and relatives are still nearby and there are no culture or language differences.

A display of craftsmanship: Mask artisan Prasetiyo Hadi poses with two masks at his shop in Kampung Topeng.A display of craftsmanship: Mask artisan Prasetiyo Hadi poses with two masks at his shop in Kampung Topeng. (JP/Erlinawati Graham )

Heri Wiyono, head of rehabilitation at the Malang Department of Social Services, said he was aware of the flaws but stressed that the venture was still a work in progress.

“The idea came from the government in Jakarta as part of its Desaku Menanti (My Village is waiting for you) program,” he said. “This is a pilot project, one of four nationwide.

“There are many challenges. We have to be careful in picking people keen to turn around their lives.

“Before it began, we spoke to nearby residents about the enterprise and its purpose. We anticipated some would be jealous, so we appealed to their moral duty to help those less fortunate.”

Heri said a mosque had been built because nearby communities only had a musholla (prayer room).  A school was not necessary because the children had access to one in an adjacent village. However, classrooms may be established in the future.

“Our aim is to empower the poor,” he said. “We’ll evaluate this project before we go further – but we need to develop the criteria. How many are able to change from asking for help, to doing things to help themselves?  So far it’s working well.”