Juni 06, 2014

Jambi’s Orang Rimba: School Can be Daunting for Nomadic Children and Their Teachers

"Jambi’s Orang Rimba: School Can be Daunting for Nomadic Children and Their Teachers", Jakarta Globe, 23 December 2009.

ADE IRMA Suryani has been teaching at the Pematang Kabau state elementary school in Jambi province for a long time, but she’ll never forget an encounter one day about 10 years ago.

“An Orang Rimba man, dressed in a loincloth and carrying a spear, came here to ask what happened to his son,” she said. She was petrified.

The teacher told the visitor that his son, one of her students, was slightly injured after falling down in the street. However, the boy had told his father that one of his friends, the son of Javanese transmigrants, pushed him while they were playing in the schoolyard. What started as a little rough-housing soon became a sensitive issue.

“Apparently, the parents wanted to question the transmigrant kid and ask him why he did it,” Suryani said.

The parents were eventually mollified, but for Suryani and her fellow teachers, the incident was further proof that teaching children from the Orang Rimba, semi-nomadic forest dwellers in the forests of Jambi, is a huge challenge. “It consumes a lot of my patience,” she said.

“Many Orang Rimba school-age children have come to this school, but after we give them school uniforms, they never come back,” she said. Wearing the school uniform is mandatory, but the Orang Rimba, trying to retain their cultural identify, still dress their boys in loincloths and girls in traditional skirts.

The tribe, which dates back centuries, currently numbers around 3,000 people spread among groups in Bukit Duabelas and Bukit Tigapuluh national parks in Jambi, which are in central Sumatra. A smaller group of tribespeople, whose forest home was cleared out to build the Trans-Sumatran Highway, eke out a living selling snacks and cigarettes from roadside kiosks.

This may be their native land going back as long as anyone knows, but the Orang Rimba children are a minority at school. Most students are from the transmigrant families that began arriving in the 1970s.

“Because of their semi-nomadic life, students are often forced to abandon their education,” Suryani said. “Or if their parents need them to help hunt animals or pick fruit [in the forest], they don’t attend school.”

One Orang Rimba student currently enrolled in the school is Metai, a 9-year-old second grader. Although initially shy when he first arrived, Metai can now spell out and write his name. According to Suryani, this is Metai’s third time back at the school.

“I often miss school because I have to help my dad look for jernang,” he said, referring to a fruit only found in Jambi’s forests. Jernang is traded by the tribe for cloth, matches, rice and other things they can’t produce or scavenge themselves.

Many tribal children such as Metai ultimately drop out of school because the state educational system clashes with their traditional way of life. The children come and go, depending on whether their families are settled nearby. During times when they practice the age-old nomadic custom of “melangun” — packing up and leaving for a new area of the forest after the death of a family member — the children leave school.

“It’s the government’s responsibility to educate the tribe, but to be able to reach them, the government needs a breakthrough,” said Robert Aritonang, program manager for conservation and empowerment of Warung Komunikasi (Warsi), a local nongovernmental organization that’s been working with the Orang Rimba since 1995.

He said the central government has always used a homogeneous approach to education: schools are built within fixed communities, students wears standard uniforms, they salute the national flag and take religion as a class subject.

“We have talked to some people from the Ministry of Education [but] it seems that they find it difficult to break out of this bureaucracy,” Aritonang said. “They have asked us to do this job, and promised to help us financially, but that’s not what we are aiming for.”

Muhajir, a spokesman from the education ministry in Jakarta, said they were working to find a solution that accommodated the tribe’s traditional ways, but admitted the process would take time.

Many adult tribe members lack basic educational skills such as reading, writing and counting. Most still practice the old ways of bartering, rather than using money, and are frequently taken advantage of by outsiders who prey on their limited knowledge.

There have been cases where the tribe has lost land because of illiteracy.

“Many people cheat them,” Aritonang said. “Some have been asked to sign letters stating they have agreed to give away their land.”
Warsi built its first education area in 1998 in Jambi’s Makekal Hulu area. At the time, it was a huge challenge just to convince the tribe they meant no harm and that they weren’t attempting to convert the Rimba to another religion.

“Our first education center only had five children,” Aritonang said. Today there are 30 such centers throughout the forests, educating more than 300 children.

The centers’ teachers are a special breed. They have to hike for as long as eight hours to reach the tribe and they run the risk of contracting deadly tropical diseases. Warsi’s first teacher, Yusak, died from malaria in 1999.

One of the new generation was 25-year-old Priyo Uji Sukmawan, a graduate of Yogyakarta’s State University. He spent 18 months hiking in and out of the forest to teach the tribe’s children. During his stays, about three weeks each month, Priyo said he realized that it took more than just physical strength to carry on.

“It’s difficult to gain their trust, but in the end it’s very encouraging to see them master the basics,” he told the Jakarta Globe during an interview in Jambi last month.

Sadly, Priyo died on Dec. 14 in Jambi from complications of malaria, typhoid and pneumonia.[Dewi Kurniawati]


Source: Jakarta Globe.

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