Indonesian Rantau

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  • Chapter 11: Tahuna- "Of Volunteer Teaching in Nusa Utara's Christian Kingdom"


    By John Michael Gorrindo

    Indonesian Rantau

    Chapter 11: Tahuna- “Of Volunteer Teaching in Nusa Utara’s Christian Kingdom”

    Group of Boy Performers at Tulude in Tahuna, 2006 I remember vividly watching a series of PBS television programs several years ago created and presented by a remarkably passionate man named John Bradshaw on the subject of “freeing the inner child from shame.”  Bradshaw held a doctorate in theology, had been pastor, and had also been an alcoholic.  He was at once brilliant, emotionally charged, and compelled to be a savior-  a wounded healer who banked on the notion that “the problem with you is the problem with me.”  He believed that his own twelve-step deliverance from alcoholic addiction could be a model of deliverance for the rest of America and its own pandemic crisis with any number of addictions.  At the root of our collective pain, Bradshaw declared, is shame

    And what a salesman Bradshaw was! His wild-eyed showmanship and gift of speaking before large audiences allowed him to animate his points, humor his way through tearfully difficult subject matter, and provide cathartic entertainment while always taking care to communicate every detail of a structured polemic on shame, its ill effects on American culture and individual souls, and how to best it.

    In a Christian world, shame and fear often come hand in hand.  Detractors of Christianity often cite fear and shame as the primary deterrents leaders of the church use to “coerce” their following into behaving according to a proper code of conduct.  The fear of going to hell was the ultimate Sword of Damocles held over every Christian’s head. Certainly a solid education in the nature of hell was important to generate enough fear to help build the faith of a Christian. Consequently, to be a Christian was to be schooled in the marriage of heaven and hell, as one domain presupposes the existence of its polar opposite.

    But I never heard any reference to neraka, (hell) or Setan, (Satan) in any of the many religious services I attended in the Christian kingdom of Tahuna.  N’er a threat of fiery damnation was found passing the lips of the pendeta (clergyman) as they delivered a Sunday sermons from their church altars, or preached before the student body and staff at a school assembly.  Rather, the word drawn most frequently from scripture was that of syukur, which means “thanks be to god,” or “thanksgiving.”  Thanksgiving was the hallowed precept the Christian establishment of Tahuna kept most holy and worked to keep forefront in everyone’s mind and heart.  If words were of any indication, religion came across as relatively shame-free on this tropical island.

    It was November 30th, 2005, and I had now moved my volunteer teaching duties north to the small city of Tahuna on Sangihe Island.  I had briefly visited the island two weeks earlier in order to pick up a sponsorship letter from the school superintendent.  Otherwise, almost five months had elapsed since my first tour of the island in July.

    Tahuna was the most devout Christian community I had ever experienced.  It was also the regency capital of the Sangihe island group, which consisted of one hundred eight islands, only thirty-seven of which were inhabited.  Every government office imaginable had offices in this small city of between thirty-five and fifty thousand.  Every important public service Jakarta had to offer to the regency was available in Tahuna. 

    Public services formed the economic base of Tahuna, and its pervasive civil servant culture was a major force in shaping community standards.  Jakarta’s long standing policy of unificasi included enumerated codes of conduct as required of all civil servants.  Jakarta used their institutions of centralized government as a primary tool for molding a nationwide ethos and uniformity of thought and behavior across the archipelago.

    In his thirty-two year dictatorial reign, President Suharto had carefully entrenched an institutionalized system of national indoctrination that had done its best to suppress regional cultures and their histories by substituting one, new order way of thinking, acting, and believing.  In many ways, he had been successful.  For example, upon walking into the main entrance and foyer of my new school, Sekolah SMK I Tahuna, a quick read through the posted signs that dominated the walls both detailed and confirmed that legacy. 

    One sign was a carefully constructed flowchart detailing the school’s structural organization; a blunt instrument of reminder that hierarchy was at the heart of not only this school’s culture, but of Indonesian life generally.  All Indonesian public schools let alone any government office were required to post such an organizational chart. 

    A smaller, but no less powerful sign was posted to the side.  Entitled the 12 Budaya Malu, or “12 Cultural Points of Shame,” it was an enumerated list of commandments directed to all school staff and students.  Malu is an ubiquitous word and multi-faceted concept used throughout Indonesia.  In my initial studies of Bahasa Indonesia, malu was the first truly “loaded” term I had run across.  One dictionary defines malu as follows: 1) shy, bashful, embarrassed;  2) respectful;  3) humble;  4) shame

    A foreigner’s first introduction to the word was usually in the context of young Indonesian children who would take refuge behind their mother’s dress or sarong upon first meeting a strange looking, non-Indonesian.  “Malu-malu!” their mothers would say with a smile- obviously meaning, “My child is shy with strangers.”

    But moving on through the order of the last three entries for “malu”- respect, humility, and shame- all fuse to form a higher meaning that in my experience represents a chamber in the heart of the Indonesian psyche.  Each of the twelve points begin with the word “malu,“ and I choose to translate “12 Budaya Malu” as “12 Cultural Points of Restraint or Shame” as opposed to “12 Points of Respect” due to negativity suggested by the syntax:

    1.  Shame for being late to class or to the office.
    2.  Shame for not attending morning or afternoon roll call.
    3.  Shame for leaving school early without a legitimate excuse.
    4.  Shame for not working on given assignments.
    5.  Shame for requesting permission too often.
    6.  Shame for spending school time working on projects not  related to the curriculum.
    7.  Shame for leaving work incomplete.
    8.  Shame for working without taking full responsibility.
    9.  Shame for not showing courtesy, good manners, and good behavior.
    10.  Shame for not dressing in a neat and respectful manner.
    11.  Shame for accepting a salary without working hard.
    12.  Shame for keeping a messy, slovenly, or unkempt work space.

    Yes, enough with shame!  I could retranslate these twelve “don’ts” as “do’s” by rephrasing number one, for example, as “Show respect by showing up to class or work by being on time.”  Somehow, shame seemed more appropriate than respect.

    However heavy-handed my translation or the manner in which these cultural points were expressed may appear to be, they are essentially rules universal to public schools found everywhere in the world.  But the term “malu” was a code word that- like a cultural coin of the Indonesian realm- had real currency.  One the one side was respect, and the other, shame.  Respect and shame were indivisible concepts in Indonesian cultural life- inside of school and out.

    Tahuna’s culture was in part shaped by its civil servant ethos, and I began to understand that it was simply the price the regency capital had to pay to be considered a patriotic part of the Indonesian republic.  The lip service paid to institutional protocol was all skin deep as best I could figure.  Tahuna’s more authentic heart was buried deeper in its breast, and what really most motivated these islanders was a celebratory love for their island, and its uniquely peaceful and soul-loving way of life.

    The many civil servants I met in Tahuna seemed to effortlessly incorporate their island’s own idiosyncratic love for life into the work place which tempered its emphasis on bureaucracy and hierarchy.  In my three and one half months of association with Sekolah SMK I, I always came away from any school function or celebration feeling the staff and students thought of themselves primarily as orang Sangihe (people of Sangihe), not Indonesians.  They paid their respects to the Indonesian government, especially in light of the huge funding base of services centralized in Tahuna that truly benefited most every family’s life and provided a large number of jobs, but the real heartbeat of the Tahunan community resounded in their spontaneous laughter, unprompted friendliness, and an uncomplicated, no-strings-attached love for life that never failed to move me.

    Most Tahunans I knew rendered unto God and Caesar their due, but relished in taking whatever was left over and with it create miracles of simple happiness.  It would be tempting as a critical outsider to echo a neo-colonial political incorrectness, denigrating their happiness as that belonging to a childlike race of tropical islanders whose relatively carefree lives had been over-entrusted to the Christian church and complex of government institutions while living life according to a formula characterized by low productivity and low expectations.  Such cultural hegemony expressed itself in the corner of my minds most polluted habitat, as well as piped out of the mouths of  tourists I had talked to. 

    As John Lennon trenchantly penned in his song Working Class Hero- “you think you’re so clever and classless and free, but you’re all fucking peasants as far as I can see.”  Europe, America, and most of the western world had thrown out the Age of Faith for the Age of Enlightenment two hundred and fifty years ago, and a bifurcated soul grew up as a result.  As for the western mind and heart, the mind routinely doubted its heart, and the heart disregarded its mind.  Tahunans were clever and class conscious, but they were certainly free of this schizophrenic affliction that bedeviled the western mentality.  This bifurcation that had created havoc and confusion concerning issues of religion and politics, the individual versus society, and finding balance between work and family life didn’t seem to exist on this small, overlooked island.  The rampant cases of mental illness, abuse of drugs, high rates of divorce and suicide, and a reliance on anti-depressives appear to be testament to the failures of western civilization.  It seemed the complex nature of modern day western societies were quickly reaching the limits of tensile strength.  Tahuna was relatively free of these maladies, and the reasons had to do both with faith and reason.

    If there is a God looking down upon us all from heaven, he has made no effort to conceal the soft spot in his heart for the people of Sangihe.  Their relatively trouble-free past history and present-day life is so unvexed that the rest of the world in its mad scrambling towards building fortunes and making war has never taken the time to stop and examine the lives of these islanders who struck me to be God’s real chosen people.

    Everything about life on Sangihe was sized to fit the limits of manageability and levels of tolerance best befitting the human body and psyche. True, a fortunate mix of variables had evolved on the island.  A balance existed between the natural insularity a remote island offers versus both the stimulation and potential disruptions external influences can bring.  The outside world showed its face and force on the island, but only to the degree island life could absorb.  The islanders were not troubled with cultural and religious clashes.  Consumer culture had arrived at the island, but not in the large doses that transforms entire populations from decent human beings into consumptive rats engaged in an endless race for prosperity that divides society into winners and losers. 

    Nature again was a magnificent provider that smiled on everyone equally.  Volcanic soil, abundant food and water blessed the people of Sangihe, and provided everyone with the basics of life.  Life could be enjoyed without having to strive mightily in order to survive.  And then there was this remarkable culture of respect and love that had grown and thrived in the hearts of many of the island’s people.  This phenomena was inextricably tied to their deep religiosity and cultural history, but its original source was difficult to identify.  Something in the heart of these islanders shown so brightly and warmly.  Happiness was valued.  Thanksgiving was all around- syukur was the operative principle of life and coexistence.

    Most of the people I met in Sangihe were attuned to the idea of peace of mind.  They strove for inner balance, and rarely sacrificed the importance of self-knowledge and self-discipline at the altar of the superficial allure presented by external options that western-style freedom and materialism offered.  This didn’t mean the capitalist ethic was absent.  But those inhabited with the capitalist spirit weren’t seeking to monopolize island economics.  The rich and the poor existed, but the rich were never too rich, nor the poor, too poor.  Sangihe gave capitalism a good name.  The island’s economic system worked within reasonable bounds and hadn’t metastasized into a run-away cancer. Living and loving were the ultimate values, and happiness the natural consequence.

    Living in Tahuna afforded me the dumb luck of sorting out personal confusions I had about certain questions that had dogged me throughout life.  Take that most of American phrases- “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  As an existentialist born of good fortune, I could rationalize that what one makes of life is up to the individual, and that liberty had both internal and external definitions.  But happiness seemed to me a most elusive and beguiling concept or state of being.  Neither life nor liberty insured happiness. 

    I had always seen happiness as a triumph of individual will or genetic predisposition, but in Sangihe I had witnessed a greater island community where happiness seemed to be a culturally transmitted phenomena and not necessarily the product of individual choice. The islanders encouraged in each other a happy state of mind in the most beneficent and non-coercive of manners. 

    Then there was this sense of low expectation that fascinated me.  The islanders shared a common desire to expect little of each other which naturally brought the better angels out of most everyone.  It was a revelation that so starkly contrasted with life in America, where the individual was always under the gun; every day having to prove their worth; judged and valued most for what they could accomplish and contribute to “society.”

    The crux of island happiness was in part linked to this culture of low expectation.  Certainly, the tropical environment and abundance of food engendered such a cultural state.  It was a fool’s game to push oneself and others around you to desire more than what was necessary.  Such social pressure created stress and resentment, and mother nature was there to provide, anyway.  To push mother nature to yield more than was sustainable in the name of prosperity was also a fool’s game.  Consequently, not everyone could engage in the cash economy to the degree they desired, and many complained laughingly about not having much money, but nearly everyone lived comfortably enough in supportive family settings where primary earners pooled their resources in order to support all family members.  Everyone had a clean and dry place to live and wore presentable, clean clothes.  Most enjoyed good health, and bolstered each other with a good sense of humor. 

    Moreover, the people of Sangihe knew how well they had it in comparison to most of Indonesia.  They were free of the social, economic, and political ills that wracked so much of the republic.  No one worried about safety or political repression, and they were thankful for it.  And the public services were better than many I had seen in the United States.  A night in Tahuna’s hospital, for instance, cost a mere five dollars per night.  In America, try adding three decimal places to that sum.

    Like many of my countryman, I had always expected a lot of myself and of other people.  We all sat in unmerciful judgment of each other and our selves. I knew from experience this was a lethal left hook, right jab combination.  In rebellion, I had grown so disappointed as to expect nothing from anyone, including myself, while still being held captive to the ghost imagery of the original high expectancy. 

    Being a teacher, of course, fed this terrible mill I had created for myself, as an educator’s charge is to constantly evaluate others.  In turn, teachers were evaluated much more harshly by everyone else in turn.  One turn deserves another.  In Tahuna, no one seemed to expect much of anybody else, and the work got done nonetheless.  The by-product of this was a warm, fuzzy reality called “a happy little island”- a saying Iver was fond of intoning when referring to Sangihe.  Maybe amongst the islanders there was too much talk and too little attention to work, but I honestly didn’t see much of a downside to this cultural ethos.

    As Tahunans lived and let live, they also died and let die.  There was a quality regional hospital, many local doctors, and a nursing college in the little city as well.  My good friend and fellow teacher at the vocational high school, Eflin, was a red cross volunteer who trained high school students in emergency first aid.  There was a solid medical infrastructure, and acutely ill patients could be transported by ship to Manado for more extensive treatment. But I never got the sense that anyone was anxious about extending longevity or feared death.  The islander’s religious convictions held that the Lord would take care of them for eternity when their life’s toil had run its course, and the exorbitant costs of transporting a patient to Indonesia’s very best hospitals located in Jakarta was not economically feasible.  If a patient couldn’t be treated locally, then all bets were off.

    No, when it was time to die, it was time to die; and to bankrupt one’s family in order to squeeze out a few more years of life for one its members was usually not an option.  Families took good care of each other while living in extended, multi-generational households.  The elderly were not consigned to rotting away alone in a convalescent hospital, their death hastened by loneliness and a broken heart.  If a life-long system of family love, respect, and available medical care wasn’t good enough to sustain human life any longer, then it was simply a matter of being one’s time as willed by God.

    My quasi-puritanical upbringing bequeathed me by my mother had successfully brainwashed me into believing that human thoughts and actions were either pure or they were not, and could never be both simultaneously.  Living in Indonesia- not just Sangihe- had taught me this was a misguided notion, however nobly dressed.  It was fully expected that if someone did something for you, you were to concretely return the favor at some future time.  There was no such thing as “no strings attached” in Indonesia, and was the one aspect of social life where an ethos of high expectancy was at work. 

    It all made quite good sense, too, as Indonesians survived through a friendly social exchange of interdependence where social, economic, and religious capital were convertible currencies.  Personal independence as practiced in individualistic societies as exemplified by America was almost non-existent in Indonesia, and certainly foreign enough as not to be understood.  The idea of children at the age of eighteen leaving their families to strike out on their own was a source of great quandary for almost all Tahunans I spoke to, who saw it as a suicidal act of abandonment, and feasibly impossible to be imagined within their own family context.

    Independence was not a motivational factor, nor valued intrinsically.  Most Indonesians couldn’t bear being alone, and life’s orderly progress was measured by a healthy, sustained flow of friendly give and take.  There really was no difference between social and economic exchange, and this often extended to religious avenues as well.  In America, there was always the underlying fear that mixing money in with love or friendship could ruin an otherwise good relationship. In Indonesia, weaving together these strands was how one created a strong woof and warp out of life.  The alternative was an empty stomach.

    A good example of this was found in Tahuna’s cultural practice surrounding a child’s birthday, or ulang tahun.  Pak Moleh, a very warm man who was an administrator at my vocational high school invited Iver and me to his house for what I thought would be dinner on a Friday night.  As the sun set, Iver and I rode across Tahuna on his motorbike as it started to rain, and passed through the busy business district, motoring on to Tahuna’s northern outskirts.  We turned of the coastal route onto a side road that took us up into a Moslem neighborhood where Pak Moleh’s family rented a house.  The Moleh’s were a Christian family, one of very few that lived in the area. 

    We were greeted warmly by Pak Moleh’s wife who asked us to sit in a plastic chair set out in the living room of the brightly lit home.  Pak Moleh had not yet arrived from work, and several adult family friends began arriving, all of them carrying their own personal bibles, taking seats next to Iver and me.  At this point, I knew the evening held out a religious observance whose nature I had yet been able to divine.

    Pak Moleh finally drove up to the house on his motorbike.  His tardiness was due to his attending an after school celebration.  Earlier that day, a school assembly had honored the retirement of Pak Porkorus Menggasa, a teacher who after sixteen years of teaching service was transferring to a school on Karakelang Island in the nearby Talaud island group.  The entire school had set aside the day to formally say good-bye to Pak Menggasa, and after the farewell observance, Pak Moleh, Kepala Sekolah Hulman Pasaribu, Pak Menggasa, and two other men had together polished off several bottles of cap tikus, yet Pak Moleh looked and smelled as fresh as a tropical flower.  “The Mark of the Mouse” hadn’t taken the bloom off his rose!

    Twelve of us sat around the living room in a circle, including Pak Moleh’s tiny daughter, who, as it turned out, had just turned twelve.  The small group of visitors and family included only two other children, one of whom was the birthday girl’s sister.  A woman stood up with her open bible in hand, stuffed with a few single leaf sheets filled with hand written notes, and began to preside over a Tata Ibadah Syukur Ulang Tahun (Religious Program of Birthday Thanksgiving). 

    Forget the candle lit birthday cake, a gaggle of peers, party favors and birthday presents- giving thanks to God surrounded by a group of adults was how a Christian child was to celebrate their birthday in Tahuna!

    The observance was conducted much like a church service, with rounds of sermons, prayers, group recitations, and hymns sung in ensemble filling out a religious program that lasted well over an hour.  The woman next to me held up her bible and hymn sheets for me to recite or sing from when needed.  The hymn sheet’s music notation was a numerical system of solfeggio- numbers 1 through 7- which included a special dot and dash code denoting rhythmic durations.  This was the notational system used throughout the islands.  At the end of the service a purple velvet bag whose mouth was sewn onto a metal ring was passed around the room, and each of us stuffed into it a donation.

    The piously friendly group then stood up and politely bid their farewells.  The only time the birthday girl had been formally addressed had been during one sermon portion when the presiding preacher had advised her to always listen to and carefully follow the instructions of her parents and teachers who, of course, knew what was best for her.  The slight slip of a girl never looked up from her pink padded bible which she used more as a shield, holding it open and close to her face the entire duration of the service.

    After everyone left, the birthday girl took the donation bag and emptying its contents onto the tiled cement floor of the living room in front of the television, carefully unwadded the paper currency and smoothing out each bill carefully, created a stack.  I imagined this was her birthday gift.  I later learned some families handed these donations over to their church, leaving the child with nothing!

    This was the first of three religious birthday observances I would eventually attend in Tahuna, and though the economic exchange was of lesser importance, certainly the triangulation of family, church, and friends was mutually reinforced and brought together under the auspices of what could only ostensibly be thought of as a birthday celebration.  Birthdays were not a cause for celebration focused on the child whose birthday it actually was.  A birthday in the family was much more an occasion which allowed the entire family to secure the blessings of local society and their church while giving thanks to God for the good life he had bestowed on everyone in the family fold.

    I could not help but make a comparison with the birthday culture of America, where such anticipatory excitement and high expectancy was emotionally invested in a party atmosphere with the birthday boy or girl firmly placed in a center of attention. 

    In such an atmosphere, birthday observances were often high stake affairs, and if things went awry, the effects could be devastating, especially if a child was involved.  American parents often found themselves having to compete against party standards set by the families of friends. Certainly appropriate energy, money, organization, and imagination were needed to take great care in selecting appropriate gifts, and to spend too little or too much money on a birthday present was of notable concern.  In short, there was pressure on everyone to play out their roles to a “T,” and it didn’t take much to upset the apple cart.  Americans placed great importance on the birthday party, as it was a ritual where lavish attention could be given someone in order to make then feel especially loved or appreciated.

    As a volunteer teacher and dinner guest in several Tahunan family homes, I saw that children were always attended to with quiet love and gentle respect, but never fawned over.  It struck me that the inherent family structures were strongly integrated, and each family member gave and took in appropriate measure with no one being singled out, even during a birthday celebration.  Special celebrations were almost always directed in thanksgiving to God.

    I also began to gather over time that children more quickly matured in such an environment, and didn’t grow to possess formations of self-identity whose security depended upon whether they were treated and loved in special ways. 

    For example, the tourist department of my vocational high school arranged for two-to-four month internship programs for the junior and senior classes, which required these students to travel en masse by ship to live in Manado boarding houses and work in tourist-related businesses in order to fulfill field work requirements in pursuit of their vocational degrees in tourism.  They would be accompanied by teachers on the way over to the “big city,” Manado, but once they were situated in both living and work situations, the teachers would return to Tahuna, a ten hour ship ride away, leaving the sixteen and seventeen year olds to fend for themselves.  Boarding rooms had communal kitchens, and the students had to plan, shop, pay for, and cook their own meals as a group.  Few students stressed over the logistics or separation from family.  The kids were left on their own,
    unsupervised.  It was reasonably expected life in Manado would present any real problems.

    Needless to say, such an arrangement in America would be out of the question.  The liability involved is so great in U.S. schools that a teacher is never to leave a class of students unattended let alone unsupervised in a city hours away from home!  The overriding fear of something horrible happening that could lead to law suits and possible school closure was enough to produce ulcers in school administrators. 

    Liability is a foreign concept in Indonesia.  It didn’t matter who you were, where you were, what you were doing, and why you were doing it- if you were hurt in a school, restaurant, private home, hotel, government building, department store, or boarding house, civil suit was not a legal recourse.  In litigant-giddy America where filing suits is a national pastime, insurance companies and lawyers have been elevated to amongst the most wealthy and powerful national interests due to everyone’s right to file suit for reasons of liability.


    Indonesia has never legally recognized such rights.  Lawyers are civil servants who work for the central government’s Department of Justice and Human Rights, and not paid much more than teachers.  An Indonesian could buy insurance of various kinds, but businesses were not required to carry liability insurance.  As an Indonesian, you simply had to take life as it came, and consequently, people tended to take care walking up and down stairs or along the sidewalks of city streets which were often booby trapped with gaping holes through which you could fall and rip open or break a leg. 

    The amazing fact was I never once in ten months of travel in Indonesia ever saw one individual walking about the streets in a cast limb, or knee or wrist brace.  Indonesians rarely suffered personal accidents due to their own clumsiness, though highway mishaps were certainly an exception due to the nation’s love affair with dangerous driving. Negotiating life day-to-day on the streets, Indonesians walked slowly, and possessed extraordinary light builds and nimble reflexes.  I never once saw anyone ever slip or fall on a street or rainforest trail, aside from myself!

    No, liability was not a problem for Indonesian public schools, in part because they were central government institutions and the government certainly had legally exempted itself from law suit!  But this extended to businesses as well, and parents of vocational high school students had to sign contracts of understanding for their children’s two-to-four month trips away from home, making sure everyone understood a young high schooler living and working as an intern far away from home was completely on their own reconnaissance.

    Part of the security Tahunan parents could fall back on was they could trust their children’s maturity.  By the age of sixteen most Tahunan children were certainly well-behaved, could be trusted not to drink alcohol or engage in casual sex, and knew how to wash clothes, maintain clean, well-kempt living quarters, shop for food and cook their own meals. 

    None of these skills are ubiquitous amongst modern day American youth of comparable age, who face a table-turning away from low-expectancy for personal maintenance and care towards the life-changing 180 degree shift at age eighteen when the law suddenly recognizes a youth to now be an adult.  Suddenly, the culture deems the eighteen year old- often fully unprepared- as being ready to strike out into the world and take care of themselves. 

    The privileged few who can attend universities with full boarding are amongst the very few who continue to live fully-supported living situations. No matter the case, most American youth inevitably experience a wrenching matriculation from childhood into adulthood, rather than a slow, incremental process that starts at a young age. 

    In Tahuna, there is a decided lack of drama and suddenness to growing up.  The rites of passage in life proceeds much more casually, smoothly, and almost imperceptible to the eye of an outsider.

    It was refreshing to be immersed in an island culture where teenagers showed respect for themselves and others and didn’t fall victim to Oscar Wilde’s wonderful line of “knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” 

    In America, far too many children are treated in the extreme, either abused or neglected by disintegrating families or coddled and placed upon pedestals by over-adoring parents whose hidden agendas of  high expectancy or neurotic need to live vicariously through their children’s lives due to their own self-dissatisfaction set-up their children psychologically for a lifetime of the kind of hurt that  comes from a growing sense of self-inadequacy.

    To be an American too often means living in a country who indoctrinates you as a youth into believing you were part of the “greatest and freest race on earth,” only to later mobilize you into becoming just another consumer who fed an economic mill rather than educating you into becoming a “free, participating citizen.”

    No wonder the carrot of high expectancy held out before American children soon turns into a stiffly withered, decomposing sham that was used as a stick to beat one down into a market-based formulation of life required to negotiate a Byzantine labyrinth of social and economic gamesmanship which produced only a few “winners,” while everyone else was labeled “loser.”  The ultimate school yard taunt is now that of “You loser!”  As a teacher, I can attest to this.

    This isn’t to say that young Tahunans didn’t experience their own “fair share” of teenage angst.  One day I sat in the office of my teacher-friend, Eflin, who had piled high on her desk a stack of student journals which her English students had been assigned as part of course requirements.  I read through maybe thirty journals, all of which contained not more than a half-dozen entries.  As any teacher can tell you, students of any age will express thoughts and feeling in writing they would usually hesitate to confide publicly or in speech. To read through a student journal was to journey into a child’s inner sanctum of joy and sorrow, and dreams made true or left unfulfilled.

    For some reason, all the journals had been written by female students, a detail I never came to grips with as my high school’s classes were all co-ed.  So reading through the journal entries hand written in the hard bound composition books was an opportunity to peer through a private lens into a exclusively all female world of fourteen and fifteen year old high school girls.

    A common theme threaded its way through a great many of the journals making them particular to this high school and to growing up in the greater Sangihe regency.  Many of the students who attended the high school had not grown up in Tahuna, nor on Sangihe island itself.  This vocational high school served the greater geographical regency which included the thirty-seven inhabited islands.  Some students were now living in Tahuna, and were far away from home, coming from tiny tropical island communities such as Enggohe and Limbalo, the two villages I had visited in Bukide. 

    As previously mentioned, the regency’s smaller islands served school aged children only through the American equivalent of ninth grade, at which point continued education could only be pursued in Tahuna.  Outside of a few larger towns on Sangihe island proper such as Tamako who had high schools of their own, most families living within the boundaries of Sangihe’s regency were challenged with having to earn and pay for their children’s living arrangements in Tahuna for the three year tenure of high school.

    The journals of such displaced students duly reflected the difficulties they faced, as these were newly arrived tenth graders, or members of Kelas I, who were trying to adjust to living in Tahuna with distant, little-known relatives, or in a lonely rented kost (boarding room).  Complaints about terrible food and the fear of being sick while distant from the care of their parents were common.  Striking was the frequency in which the girls lamented at the loss of their purses which they so often found themselves leaving behind or losing while shopping in downtown Tahuna.  They were simply unaccustomed to the need of having to carry around cash, and many had come from tiny island villages where they had little experience handling paper currency.  The sadness, shame, and shock these young girls expressed at having their purses misplace and/or stolen while shopping in Tahuna’s business district was heart-wrenching to read.

    There were other themes-in-common, universal to the adolescent world.  Most charted the emotional highs and lows related to family and peer relationships.  Themes of loneliness, infatuation with a handsome boy, unrequited puppy love, love for one’s mother, and conflict with one’s parents and siblings filled the pages I read.

    Apart from the tellingly touching contents, the creative syntax and idiosyncratic word usage that characterized the English used by these young Indonesian islanders made for a riveting read.  So wholly tortured was their abuse of conventional English that the effect upon a native English speaker was to provide transport into a realm of fresh sensibility that transcended anything an English writer this side of a Dadaist poet could hope to expressively create.  An impassioned struggle to communicate deep emotion, thought, and experience in a little-understood foreign language opened up a world of expressive affects only achievable by lack of language skills specific to English.  I liken the experience to listening to a person speak who suffers from autism or cerebral palsy.  The language is mangled, but the emotions are raw, direct, and powerful.

    My first day as an official volunteer teacher at SMK I commenced on December 1st, which, as mentioned in Part VIII, was a very busy time for the school.  Teachers and students were wrapping up the semester’s work which had started back in July, and excitement filled the air as everyone was filled with the Christmas spirit, busily preparing for special Christmas celebrations.

    To compound this, Indonesia’s Education Minister, or “Mentri Pengajaran Nasional,” was due to visit the school on December 7th.  The cabinet minister had chosen SMK I as the site from where he would deliver a live, nationally televised speech formally announcing his ministry’s unveiling of its much touted “Interactive Educational Technology Program.”  The program’s goal was to offer all Indonesians equal access to information and education through the establishment of interactive, telecommunication links throughout the archipelago. Tahuna was representative of a remote, outer island where the educational system functioned to relatively high standards.  It was a flag ship regency capital that could hopefully demonstrate to Indonesians how the government was supporting the development of  education in the remotest of regions.

    The minister’s arrival to the high school was one of pomp and circumstance. Under the direction of a few teachers, students had prepared traditional songs and dance of Sangihe to welcome him.  The welcoming took place on the street in front of the school. Female dancers wore gold chiffon, and males, purple.  The males formed a perimeter around the females, and performed a warrior’s dance, holding wooden sabers and sporting head scarves.  The females performed a processional dance inside that perimeter, slow and solemn, escorting the minister down the street, the lead dancer holding a parasol above his head and giving him a lei of flowers to wear around his neck.  Pak Pasaribu, the kepala sekolah, met the minister at the school entrance and handshakes followed.

    Metro TV 5 from Jakarta was present and broadcast the event. After the minister’s lengthy speech outlining the importance and details concerning  interactive education, a young, good looking news anchorman from Jakarta coordinated the Q and A between celebrating government officials linked by satellite in Tahuna, Yogjakarta, and Jakarta.  Three large television monitors set in front of the school auditorium allowed the audience of local dignitaries, and the school’s teachers and students to witness this historic event.

    Pak Hulman Pasaribu, a self-proclaimed workaholic and the school’s biggest booster played no small part in landing the big fish in his own backyard.  He had worked tirelessly in securing funding from Jakarta for his school.  Often, he hand carried these proposals to Jakarta’s education ministry, where he used his personal charm and persuasive powers to help procure facilities for his school that were almost unheard of in any Indonesian outback community.  Just days before the minister’s arrival, SMK I had opened its own internet facility with fifteen work stations linked to Jakarta by satellite and parabolic dish.

    Pasaribu’s high-powered, proactive style had drawn him a lot of attention, and won his school high acclaim as well.  He made sure the internet facility was installed and open by the time the minister arrived, as its operational readiness underscored the minister’s own emphasis on using educational technologies.

    Pasaribu had carefully cultivated both the fortunes of his school’s future and his own personal career ambitions in close alignment.  His success in having SMK I chosen as the site for the unveiling of a major new national educational program was a complete coup.  Pasaribu had succeeded in placing a permanent foot in the door of the minister, whose ministry some weeks later paid for the school’s hugely expensive internet monthly service fee for satellite link to Jakarta. In a cash-strapped public school system where most schools had little in the way of books and other basic instructional resources, Pasaribu and his crafty boss, the school superintendent, had pursued and obtained funding for high-technology tools of education that ranked close to what school’s offered in Europe or America.

    Pasaribu’s facile manipulation of public relations and intimate knowledge of the educational bureaucracy in Jakarta was poles away from the sub-par efforts I had witnessed in Ahkmad Syam’s superintendent offices in Tanah Beru.  The discrepancy was startling.

    It was very difficult to believe I was still in the same country.  How was it that Tahuna’s educational offices had such deep pockets and influence in Jakarta?  For starters, Tahuna was a regency capital, and regency capitals tended to better fund their own schools than those of the regency districts outlying. For example, the small schools of paradise isle Bukide certainly didn’t have resources on par with their counterparts in Tahuna. 

    In regards to funding guidelines, high schools received proportionally more funding, and SMK I was funded more heavily than other high schools because it was vocational.  Vocational high schools made arrangements with Indonesia’s service and manufacturing sectors which promised employment for most vocational students upon their completing internships and subsequent graduation. The emphasis on vocational schooling in Indonesia is striking in contrast to America, where liberal arts high schools are most favored. 

    Corruption was at work in Tahuna’s educational system as well, but seemed to be used in rather clever ways that sometimes served an ethos of meritocracy as opposed to simply lining the pockets of gate keepers who just so happened to hold the proper bureaucratic rank.  Near the end of my tenure in Tahuna, I had an interesting conversation with a local teacher who had just won an Australian Development Scholarship and taught another Vocational high school in Tahuna.  He confided in me how corruption worked in the superintendent’s Tahuna offices.

    “You see, John, local school budgets include allocations that must be applied for.  For instance, in one particular case, my school was earmarked to receive an allotment of ten million rupiah for a certain educational program, and in applying for the money, received only six or seven million.  The district offices kept the rest.”

    What a system!  District offices secured funding for budget line items from Jakarta, whose ministry approved them, and then allocated them to the school districts under their auspices.  Then the district required the individual district schools to apply for funding already granted, and retained thirty or forty percent portion as a kind of application fee!

    This system created a huge discretionary “slush fund” which was firmly placed at the disposal of the “Kepala Dinas Dignas Pendidikan,” or district superintendent.  He could direct these monies as he wished, giving him great power to finance projects that hadn’t been officially recognized and funded by the central powers in Jakarta.  In this way he could establish some local control on budgetary resources, wresting power away from Jakarta’s heavy-handed system of centralized control.  In doing so, he withheld funds away from his own schools.

    Such a system of “creative reallocations” could never go undetected for long in the oft-audited American system of state and local controlled public schools, but it certainly seemed to fly in Tahuna!  I was beginning to understand the source of funding for such things as Hulman Pasaribu’s paid round trip flight for both he and his family to visit his ailing father in far away Sumatra during the Christmas break- passenger tickets for high season flights that cost five million rupiah each.  Pasaribu’s salary was only twenty-four million rupiah per year, and he personally told me that the district offices had offered to pay for his family’s flight expenses.  It may seem incongruous that Pasaribu would confide such things to me, a foreigner, but such information was often passed around like candy!  Obviously, such a system was open to scrutiny, but no one really cared.  This was business as usual in Indonesia. 

    Pasaribu had related this to me as a point of both pride and emotion.  He was both touched by the help he had received and also knew that he had been so favored because he was a valued district employee who had merited the contribution.  “Creative reallocations” had been directed his way, but not in the form of pedestrian cash outlays that so often characterized distribution of corruption monies within Indonesia’s government hierarchies.  Pasaribu had earned his special stipend, and as a result was beholding to his boss.  The district superintendent support had also secured Pasaribu’s future loyalty, and helped to insure his retainer within the district’s ranks of school headmasters.

    Given run-of-the-mill standards of government corruption, Tahuna’s district superintendent’s use of creative reallocation had to be considered visionary.  It was an inventive form of korupsi with a small k, and used Indonesia’s love affair with corruption to, at least on occasion, to do what was best for someone who deserved some help and couldn’t possibly have managed any other way.

    Everyone on the school staff knew that Human Pasaribu had been treated as a favorite, but most were openly happy for him, as he was well-liked and respected.  Moreover, Indonesian civil servants were a docile bunch who very rarely rocked the boat.  “Whistle blowers” didn’t exist in this context, and certainly deference to authority seemed to come naturally to both the civil servant class and general public as well. 

    In America where for every citizen who would tell you that shaking hands with the President of the United States would be the highlight of their life, there was another who just as soon spit in the President’s hand. Such a notion of irreverence and disregard for “legitimately recognized authority” was beyond the unthinkable in most of Indonesia.

    The voluminous records of the Dutch colonial period held in Holland document the Dutch as perceiving Indonesians to be amongst the world’s most docile and easily led peoples.  Though there were some popular uprisings against the Dutch over the three hundred fifty years they dominated the politics and exploited the economics of such a vast archipelago of far flung, heavily forested and mountainous islands, their remarkable success could not have come without a great deal of peasant cooperation. 

    The Dutch consistently exploited the reverence common Indonesians held for their imams, sultans, or village chiefs, knowing that they could control the masses once a contractual alliance had been worked out with any regional Indonesian ruler who held complete reign over their subjects.

    Indonesians’ historical predilection for obsequiousness seemed to me still a matter of fact in modern times.  Rank was everything in Indonesian government and society, and one simply didn’t question authority.  Amongst the country’s 240,000,000 people, greater instances of civil disobedience were usually confined to small, organized groups in cities such as Jakarta, Surabaya, and Makassar where open demonstrations against government officials on their policies spilled out onto the streets- many times violently.  And often these were student- led protests representing the views of a tiny minority of very educated young peoples with a high awareness of and value for human rights.

    Outside the narrow confines of definition describing the “master-to-servant” relationship, it must hastily be added that peer-to-peer relationships I experienced in Tahuna were mutually deferential, and I rarely experienced any social situation where charismatic, egotistical, or domineering personalities tried to dominate the dynamics of any given social situation.  Certainly this was true in my experiences at Sekolah SMK I where both students and staff  all treated each other with great respect.  Social cliques amongst either students or staff were largely toothless affairs, and I never once saw anyone give somebody else a dirty or even quizzical look, let alone raise their voice in anger.  It was a group at home with itself. 

    I couldn’t imagine experiencing a like-American institutional setting, especially in a place as complex as a public high school, where such high levels of trust, comfort, and safety existed.  It all seemed so natural to the environment as well, extending to the very buildings and classrooms themselves, which appeared to rise up off their foundations, hovering gently on a cushion of warm, tropical air.

    One thing I found interesting was the difference between community spirit as found in America versus Tahuna.  Whereas America was no longer the “country of joiners” it once had been, most Tahunans were eager participators and quick to volunteer to serve on the ubiquitous panitias, or committees which quickly formed around any organized event, none seemingly too small.  Even private parties of celebration would be organized by a long list of committees, each with a ketuaan, or chairperson, and invitations sent out in the form of elaborate cards which credited committee members with their chairperson’s hand signature and official purple stamp affixed on the invitation!

    There was nothing more reality-confirming in all of Indonesian life than the personal signature, or tanda tangan, in tandem with a circular purple stamp.  Even major student reports submitted for project approval contained a frontispiece reserved for official sanction, where no less than seven staff and administration signatures would be grouped, each with their own purple stamp!

    But the greatest blessings sought after were those of the Christian God, and his only begotten son, Jesus.  No matter how fervently government authority attempted to align itself with the divine, a correlation found historically throughout the archipelago, Christian Tahunans made no equivocations about who was truly Lord and Master. 

    Whether it was a school Christmas program, special student assembly, back-to-school New Year’s observance, children’s birthday, or private family celebration of Sangihe Island’s birthday, it was always a strictly structured religious event presided over by a clergyman, or pendeta.  It could be the pendeta was from anyone of a number of local Protestant churches- Bethlehem, Pentekosta, Baptist, or Kharismatik.  It didn’t much matter as long as it was Protestant, but the pendeta’s presence was an absolute must. 

    Most often Tata Ibadats, or religious programs, were handed you at the door. They served to confer structure, identity, and religious sanction to each gathering.  Borrowing a phrase from American born-agains, “for every fellowship there was an event, and every event, a fellowship.”  Many events lasted well over two hours, and were most usually close to follow a Tahunan Sunday church service with its rondo-form of prayers, hymns, bible recitations, and sermons, framed with opening invocation and closing benediction.

    But unsurprisingly, there also existed in Tahuna an underlying adat, or spirit of ancestral worship that was rooted in Sangihe’s island history.  This came to full expression once every year during the last week of January which culminated in a huge celebration on January 31st which was set aside as Sangihe island’s official birthday.

    The Talude which is the local language name of the birthday celebration, was in some ways a combination of two full months of observances commencing with the official opening of the Christmas season (marked by a huge, city parade held on December 1st), moving on through Christmas (Hari Natal), then into celebrations of the New Year (Tahun Baru), and finally elaborate preparations ending in Tulude on January 31st.

    Tahuna was representative of the greater archipelago culture as regards the importance it placed on the annual celebration of locally relevant traditions.  As an outsider, it was fascinating to watch a two-month progression of community-wide observances evolve, first manifest in expressions of modern day faith (Christmas), followed by demonstrations of ancestral reverence (Tulude).  This gestalt was a prime example of Indonesian adat at work, as ancestral tributes were made with no less reverence than that given the islander’s Christian faith.  “Autochonous religion,” or ancestral worship, was a traditional form of devotion found all over Indonesia, and though not “legally recognized,” its practice had always been retained in some form by indigenous peoples. 

    But for me, a question arose from all of this celebration, as no one seemed to know the history designating January 31st, 2006 as the 581st birthday of Sangihe Island.  Local legends and myths might be known to some, but the historical dimension was absent from anyone’s understanding, even for those locals I knew who where highly educated.  Once again, I found Indonesians knew little of their local history.

    A large exhibition, or Pameran, was erected in the spacious grounds situated in front of the Bupati’s residence in Tahuna, which was equivalent in grandeur to a governor’s mansion, complete with massive pendopo-style pavilion annex.  For the week leading up to the grand birthday celebration to be held on January 31st, the thirty-five plus temporary exhibition booths were staffed by a myriad of government agencies who showcased and otherwise promoted their official work and worth vis-à-vis exhibits tacked on to the walls of the small spaces provided and assigned them. 

    Every major Indonesian branch of a Jakarta-based government agency located on Sangihe Island had made the scene.  The exhibition provided for a quick lesson in Indonesia’s centralized style of bureaucratic governance, as official representatives in their civil servant uniforms welcomed you to come sign their guest registries and then would happily discuss the work of their office.  The offices on hand ranged from utilities (water, electricity, energy), community services (hospital, health, education, aid to families, library and police), to business and community development (banks, business development, communications, community cooperation and development, mining, and fisheries).  Indonesian political parties had booths as well, and RRI (Radio Republik Indonesia), the Jakarta-controlled radio broadcasting system whose local station I had passed by several times in my walks around Tahuna, broadcast live from their exhibition booth for the entire week of the Pameran.  In fact, Iver produced a weekly radio show from their studios.

    Dinas Dignas Pendidikan, or the Department of Education, had been given a more spacious booth, and my vocational school had charge over it for three days.  Iver took me next door to the exhibition’s largest and best exhibit, that of BAPPEDA.  It was there I met a young staffer named Walter, who one month later would be awarded an ADS (Australian Development Scholarship), enabling him to pursue a doctorate in marine chemistry for three years in Queensland, Australia. 

    It was no surprise to see a man, one of only three hundred ADS recipients chosen from a national application pool of five thousand, jump to attention as I entered the booth, quick to show off his more-than competent English.  As a BAPPEDA employee, Walter proudly explained the complex of functions under his agency’s auspice.  With a staff of only thirty-one, BAPPEDA possessed a staggering portfolio of responsibilities.  They provided oversight as to all the regency’s community and business development programs, serving as a think tank who proposed new ideas, helped implement them through the cooperative executive actions of appropriate government agencies, and then evaluated their effectiveness.

    Dressed in his crisply pressed, immaculate tan civil servant’s uniform, Walter spent a good half hour spinning complex threads of facts and information around my brain, using the posted exhibits as his visual aids.  The exhibits were of such visual and informational quality that I photographed them!  Detailed charts and graphs with accompanying photographs detailed statistics concerning Sangihe’s fisheries, agriculture, health, and education.  I had no idea how effective their work really was, but they knew how to put on one damn fine show.

    Knowing I had stumbled upon a highly educated local, it was not lost on me to pointedly ask Walter about the significance of the number 581, and unsurprisingly, he didn’t know.  But he had access to a book titled Nusa Utara, Dari Lintasan Niaga ke Daerah Perbatasan (Islands of the North, from Trade Route Crossing to Border Region) written by Alex J. Ulaen, an anthropology professor who taught in Manado’s Universitas Sam Raulangi.  Walter graciously arranged for me to borrow the book, which detailed a great amount of information about the Sangihe-Talaud islands, including a substantial amount of history.

    Determined to learn more about Sangihe’s history as well as prepare research for this book, I spent long hours translating parts of Ulaen’s book from Bahasa Indonesia into English.  It was a laborious task, but wholly enlightening.  After completing the translation, I found it amazing to imagine that now I might possibly occupy an elite position on Sangihe Island as bearer of local historical knowledge after only three months of residency!

    Most important in understanding the history of Nusa Utara, or the regencies of Sangihe and Talaud island groups, is that they lie in direct geographical line between the Philippines to the north, and North Sulawesi and the Northern Malukus to the south.  In a present day context, the two Indonesian regencies technically constitute a border region as they lie at the border crossing between Indonesia and the Philippines.  Given their location, Sangihe and Talaud occupy the northernmost part of the Indonesian republic, lending them a remote geographic status in reference to the capital of Jakarta,  far to the southwest.

    During the four hundred and fifty year period of European colonialism, Sangihe-Talaud lie at the heart of a trade route linking Manila, the gubernatorial capital of the Spanish-held Philippines, south to the island of Ternate in the Halameras, this was the trading hub of the burgeoning spice trade.  Ternate was an Islamic sultanate, but for a time held close trade relations with Spain, so there existed a well-established trade route whereby shipping passed through the Sangihe-Talaud region, linking most directly the port of Ternate with those in southern Mindanao, the Philippine’s southernmost province.  Consequently, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Sangihe-Talaud lie in the center of regional commerce as opposed to being a remote outpost as it is today.

    Colonial rivalries between the Spanish and Dutch set the tone for the tidal shifts of political and economic change that effected the indigenous peoples of Sangihe-Talaud during those two centuries, commencing with the landing in Sangihe in 1521 by parties of Magellan’s landmark expedition which first circumnavigated the globe, and ending with the “landsteek van Manado” in 1677, when the datus (rajas) or tribal kings of Sangihe-Talaud signed an agreement with the Dutch VOC, consigning themselves over in
    vassalage to the Dutch who had permanently ousted the Spanish from this critical region whose economy was dominated by the spice trade.

    Spanish Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries had found conversion of the datus and their tribal clans to be a relatively painless job, especially in Siau, an important island of nutmeg production that lie due south of Sangihe.  Conditions for Spanish vassalage included the islanders’ mandatory conversion to Catholicism, and in return, island datus would in part receive protection from Islamic raiders from Ternate who were laying their own claims on Nusa Utara.  As was often the case in the many histories comprising the Indonesian archipelago, small island kingdoms, often constituting only a few hundred families under the rule of a village chief, datu, or raja, found themselves forced to sign pacts of alliance with much more powerful regional interests for reasons of self-protection. 

    The rise of Islamic sultanates more or less coincided with the invasion of the Portuguese and Spanish, closely followed by the eventual subjugation or exile of all these competing interests by the Dutch.  The indigenous peoples of Sangihe-Talaud, thought to have first inhabited the paradise spice islands some two-to-four thousand years before Christ, suddenly found their undisturbed world in the cross-fire between competing European colonialist powers and Islamic sultanates.

    Apparently the raids of the Ternate’s sultanate posed the bigger threat, as these raids were not only interested in laying claim to land, but also sought to capture local islanders and ship then off for the slave trade.  The slave trade was practiced by most power brokers throughout the archipelago, including in their turn the Dutch until the nineteenth century, but the Spanish were relatively benevolent to the peoples of Sangihe-Talaud, in that regard, helping to establish a close working alliance between the two parties.

    This was key in not only introducing Christianity into the region in the early sixteenth century, but also keeping it that way as the Spanish successfully kept Islam from taking hold.  As a result, the first several generation of island converts were Catholic, followed once more by another conversion round as Protestants in the 1670’s at the hands of the Dutch, who had just ousted the Spanish.  Conversion to Protestantism was again a mandatory condition put upon the datus of Nusa Utara as they entered into a new contract of vassalage with yet another European colonial power in the region.  Again, there was apparently little if no resistance to the new religious conversion on the part of Nusa Utara’s population.

    Under these conditions, both ancestral worship as referenced to a royal lineage found in each of several Nusa Utara kingdoms, and the practice of Protestantism coexisted peacefully.  It was only with the incorporation of Nusa Utara into the newly formed Indonesian republic that the kedatuans formally came to an end, and a new political system of organization and hierarchy introduced.

    But I am remiss in citing the answer to the mystery surrounding 581.  I’m still not quite sure from my research what actually happened five hundred eighty-one years ago in 1425, but I surmise it has to do with the rise of the first generation of royalty (kedatuan) in Sangihe-Talaud, having made its way down from southern Mindanao.

    Before the arrival of the Spanish and Dutch, the indigenous peoples of Nusa Utara were an oral culture. It was only through narrative legends and genealogy as passed down through generations that present day knowledge about the origins of the kedatuans- the organizing principle underlying social life in Nusa Utara- came about. 

    As the legend holds that the arrival of the first datu happens to have occurred on Sangihe Island, it not only seems fitting that Sangihe and especially Tahuna remain the most powerful centers of government and commerce in the region, but also points to Sangihe’s distant links to the peoples of the southern Philippines (Mindanao), from whence the kedatuans originated.

    Archaeological excavations have found links between artifacts found in Nusa Utara and Mindanao, and though still not founded conclusively, it is widely believed a wave of migration swept through the islands some six thousand years ago, moving south from Mindanao.  North Sulawesi’s other major ethnic group, the Minahasa, bare next to no physical resemblance  to the original population of Nusa Utara, though that is now beginning to change through intermarriage.

    Sangihe’s oral histories are structured along genealogical lines of royal chronology, but not systematically dated.  These histories include the legend of the coming of the first datu to Sangihe, which modern day historians deduce happened in the first half of the fifteenth century. 

    Specifically, legend has it that the founding father of the kedatuan system was Gumansalangi, prince and son to Laesangalo, who ruled over the kedatuan of Cotobato in Mindanao.  Gumansalangi somehow wronged his father and his father’s subjects, and he was forced into exile.  He possessed some fatal flaw of character which led to his demise.  Initially he lived in exile in the jungles of Mindanao, and was helped to survive by the aid of a puteri (princess) who lived in a hermitage.  She eventually became Gumansalangi’s wife, and they decided to sail south and leave Mindanao permanently, accompanied by the princess’ brother. 

    During their journey upon the Celebes Sea, they sailed upon a vessel that began to twist about like a snake having been imbued with supernatural powers.  After stopping over at several islands, they landed on Sangihe, and their arrival was accompanied by rounds of rumbling thunder and successive flashes of lightening.  The islanders who had met them interpreted these remarkable signs as testament to Gumansalangi’s supernatural powers and further portending him to be the “chosen one” who would become their leader.  He was so hailed and anointed as “Kulano,” an interchangeable term for datu.

    Gumansalangi became the first of a non-lineal genealogical  succession of datus, or kulano, as the line split more than once, creating kedatuan’s separate from Gumansalangi’s.  Over several generation’s time, kedatuans spread across Sangihe (most notably in Tahuna, Tabukan, and Kolangan), as well as in Siau.  When Antonio Pigafetta, a commander that was part of Magellan’s expedition, first landed in Sangihe on October 28, 1521 he recorded in his log that the island had four “kings,” and that they and their subjects were all kafirs (pagans).

    Early accounts of Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch explorers and missionaries tell of encounters with the tribal communities of Nusa Utara.  One particular account, as penned in 1656 by Francisco de Montemayor y Mansilla, a Philippine-based Jesuit missionary from Spain gives a flavor for life in Nusa Utara according to a missionary near the end of Spanish rule:

    “...the king of that place (Siau) has many subjects, and allies in the islands of Tabuco or Sanguil Bacar; the Talaos number about eleven thousand souls, and their chief is a Christian.  The country is poor, the people barbarous and naked, and the islands abound in cocoas and vegetables, some little rice (on which they live), and some roots (with which they pay their tribute).  They have their own petty chief, who was baptized in Manila; and there are now eight hundred families there.  So likewise those of Manganita, Moade, Tomaco, and Sabungan in Sanguil Bacar.  A Franciscan priest lives there at present, while the society, to whom that mission belongs, has no one sent there.” (1)

    (1) Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson (Eds.) “The Philippines Islands 1493-1898” Vol XXVII.  1637-1638  pp. 100-101.

    It was on January 31, 2006 that I was able to witness the living legacy of Sangihe’s kedatuan, and how it had been adapted to and vested in the regency’s present day power elite.  The afternoon of the 31st started off with a whimper. Arriving at the exhibition at 3:30 PM for what would be my fourth straight day of attendance at the Pameran, I expected crowds and a performance.  I had been wrongfully told that a 4:00 PM performance featuring one hundred native drummers would take place under the roof of the Bupati’s pendopo.  There was no such doing!  The evening program wouldn’t be starting until well after sundown.

    The man who gave me the wrong information had been of interest to meet.  I spotted him sitting down in front of the Dinas Dignas exhibition booth two nights previous along with a partner, both of whom were playing a tagongong, a drum native to Sangihe.  It was a large hour glass shaped drum which the player held at their side and played the larger of the two skins which covered both ends of the drum from in front with their hands, the drum skin facing away from the player.  As this one particular man played, he sang as well, and another man standing to the side began to dance, gesturing with a drooping scarf he held out at arm’s length in his hand.

    I moved up close and took some photographs.  The night following the impromptu performance, I was able to meet and speak to the singing drummer.  A man of around fifty, he came from a patriarchal line of drummers, and he could personally account for five generations of his family having lived on Sangihe Island.  He lived on the other side of Sangihe, and had traveled to Tahuna in order to play for the Bupati and his VIP guests the night of the 31st.  I was particularly interested in the songs he had sung, accompanied by his drumming.  Curiously, he said the song styling had no general name, but that the songs accompanied a dance called Gunde.

    He continued by telling me this vocal tradition consisted of five genres of songs, at least some of which could be accompanied by dance.  There were songs of love, struggle, of ancestral reverence, greeting, and songs to be sung at sea.  Having already become familiar with some of the other traditional forms of performing art on Sangihe, I had quickly identified these genres of song along with the drumming to be the oldest forms, and possibly the only true indigenous music to be popularly heard on the island.  Being a trained musician and having studied some ethnomusicology, I would be quick to direct a researching ethnomusicologist to these drum and song forms.  Their ancient feel and sound seemed to be the best living link to Sangihe’s pre-colonial past I had yet experienced, and I was left wondering if anybody had ever recorded the music or transcribed the lyrics.  How many singing drummers alive today still practicing the art and able to perform examples of the five song genre’s repertoire was anybody’s guess, but I imagined few survived.

    The night of January 30th I had heard several “Musik Bamboo” groups perform, similar to those I heard on Christmas day in Siau and at the mentri’s visit to Sekolah SMK I in early December.  But the origins of Musik Bamboo were not from Nusa Utara; it had in fact moved up into the islands as influenced by similar groups existing in North Sulawesi’s Minahasa region.  Musik Bamboo was derivative of both the Dutch military bands and Minahasa’s idiosyncratic use of that instrumentation. 

    Musik Bamboo was now evolving, though, and the rather staid, oom-pah sound characterizing its 19th century roots was quickly giving way to new, fresh arrangements of not so much original compositions, but of popular songs currently known to everyone.  Even New Years standards such as Auld Lang Syne were arranged for Musik Bamboo, and it seemed the repertoire was growing to embrace anything from teeny-bopper tunes produced in modern day Jakarta to American television themes like Dallas.

    The most highly entertaining Sangihe performing art genre I had yet to see performed was that of Masamper, a vocal ensemble form, sung in two-part harmony and set to movement.  Again on the night of the 30th, I sat and watched two hours of Masamper as performed by four competing groups of women, each a cappella group singing in turn a choreographed song, until all four groups had performed twelve to fifteen rounds.  The exhausting song fest competition lasted a good four to five hours.  A panel of three judges sat taking critical notes for the duration.  At the end, the winner was announced.

    As emphasized earlier, Sangihe is an island community of “joiners,” and Masamper was beautifully representative of the islanders’ natural love of identification through group activity.  Each vocal group wore matching dark slacks and blouses distinct from their competitors, and sat in separate sections of chairs set up on the pavilion of the pendopo. 

    The group leaders, most of whom wore a male suit style jacket were at once conductors and performers, cuing their group of fifteen to twenty women to rise from their chairs and assume floor position in the well-lit performance space under the pendopo’s large roof.  Intoning an introductory, lyrical phrase in order to establish pitch, the group leader would stand facing their group, waving their arms and hands as would a conductor, jumpstarting the group song into full swing. 

    Whichever unique group floor patterns were used to choreographic each song, the highly stylized movement was fashioned around a kind of halting step which paused with each forward moving musical pulse, each woman shifting weight with their hips from one side to the other, placing weight on their leading leg.  With arms bent at the elbows and held tight to the side, hands were held out as if fingers were to be snapped.  Shoulders gently dipped and swayed up and down and swiveled at the joint in tight circles as would a piston’s rocker arm where it meets the camshaft in an engine.  Hands and forearms rocked back and forth following their stepping leg.  As all the women rocked side to side and forward to back, standing tall and making small, measured steps, they all moved identically and in military-like precision.

    The songs were usually sung in two part harmony.  Sometimes a third part doubling one of the others at the octave above or below could be heard.  Sometimes the lyrics were sung in local Sangihe language, and at other times in Bahasa Indonesia.  The melodies were almost always diatonic, and the use of accidentals (pitches from outside the key) were rarely present.  Lyric lines were often quite long, and phrases tended to be shaped by initial, longer sustained notes culminating in a quick patter of shorter notes.  It was like listening to a speaker who thought as they spoke.  The thoughts and words came slowly at first, then suddenly picked up and finished in a flurry, serving to punctuate the phrase ending with a harmonic cadence. 

    The songs were often about love and relationships, sometimes a bit racy, and often extremely humorous.  The overflow audience was riveted to the lyrics, and often provoked to laughter at the humor and nervous cries if sexual innuendo was expressed.

    The best musical performances were marked by a unity of group intonation which resonated strongly in the pavilion.  One could close their eyes and hear only the two melodic parts as if only two strong vocalists were singing.  If the pitches were matched it felt as if the group sound fell back into the pure singularity of each of the two individual melodic parts.  From time-to-time, that acoustical purity was achieved.

    Performance style and choreographic precision were graded along with group sound, and the winning group had to be strong in all categories in order to rank high with the judges.  It was up to the group leaders to play to the audience, as they were the only group member with freedom of movement.  Their conducting served both to keep their ensemble true to the music and entertain the audience. They would often turn to engage the audience with broad smiles, and improvised gestures. 

    Some leaders worked to please the audience more than others, and one could sense a fine balance at work as distraction from a unified sense of ensemble had to be done artfully and with impeccable timing.

    Masamper was not a native Sangihe art form, as it was found all over the North Sulawesi province.  But Sangihe treated Masamper as if it were its very own, taking great joy and pride in its preparation and performance.  The islanders had always been great lovers of singing, and nearly everyone could sing and/or play the guitar.

    Song was at the heart of Sangihe’s expressive soul, and helped form the island’s self-identity.  The European colonialists noted this as well, and this love of music and song was found throughout Nusa Utara.  The surest way to experience this was to attend any local Sunday church service where singing was central to religious expression.  The collective voice of a parish was always unselfconsciously pure, warm, and sweet.

    January 31st’s birthday celebration was a gala event attended by perhaps two or three thousand people, many of whom had traveled into Tahuna from all parts of Sangihe.  The pomp and circumstance surrounding the event was the real focus, and it struck me that the event served most forcefully to reaffirm the power of the governmental elite, who sat as a small retinue in the semi-enclosed portico area at its physical center close to the grand entrance into the Bupati’s mansion. 

    The birthday, after all, marked the beginning of the rule of the datus, or island rajas, as well as their kedatuans, or small kingdoms.  In American terms, it would be roughly equivalent to celebrating the “rise of the presidency” in 1783, as opposed to Independence Day, which occurred on July 4, 1776.  Sangihe legend and narrative history was preoccupied with the genealogies of the datus, the stories concerning their personalities, and the nature of their reigns.

    The highest ranking regency officials were dressed in long, flowing golden gowns, and wore on their heads very tall, pointed hats of the same color.  As an American, I couldn’t help think the costume hauntingly resembled that of a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, save it was gold rather than white!  The highest official in attendance was North Sulawesi’s provincial governor whose offices were in Manado.  A handsome Minahasan, he stood out distinctly from the rest of the VIP’s who were all ethnic Nusa Utarans. 

    The celebration was officially opened by speeches of the Bupati who thanked each of the VIP’s for their attendance, mentioning each by name and government title.  Offerings of thanks were also given to God, carefully referred to as both Tuhan, and Allah-interchangeable terms used by Christians that also satisfied the Muslims in attendance.  Both God’s blessings and forgiveness were called upon by the Bupati, asking on behalf of Sangihe’s people the securing of peace, health, and prosperity for the coming New Year.

    The provincial governor spoke as well, and he hadn’t come to Sangihe empty-handed! The previous day he had been interviewed by Tahuna’s RRI affiliate, and announced the province would be allocating funds to improve and expand the island’s airport in Naha.

    After the introductory speeches, the evening’s performing arts program was kicked-off with a series of local dances, including an energetic Salo dance, which featured the mock sword battle between two men dressed in sixteenth and seventeenth century-style European armor complete with feathered plumage sprouting up off the tops of their conquistador-style helmets.  The last of the dances was Gunde style, where the highest of officials including the Bupati and Governor were invited to dance with a large group of beautiful young women following a slow, stately style of subdued movement that proceeded in a grand circle.

    The performance area was a gleaming, white-tiled square, 10 X 10 meters in size.  It occupied the landing in the central entrance to the mansion’s portico which was placed at the top of a staircase and set directly in front of the VIP seating.  As such, only the elite retinue of governmental officials had excellent viewing, as the stage area was elevated above the exhibition grounds and surrounded by so many large supporting roof columns that it obscured a clear view for the hundreds of islanders standing below on ground level.  I felt sorry for the crowd’s predicament, especially given the relative diminutive size of most Indonesians.  I towered a half a foot above everyone else, but still had great difficulty taking in the performance.

    I decided to muscle my way up onto the broad portico itself, whose two wings on either side of the seated officials were filled with honored guests, grouped according to the island organizations to which they belonged.  Each group dressed in specially designed festive costume.  Some groups chose to wear rather simple festival uniforms, and others were strikingly elaborate and beautiful, including embroidered gowns and intricately embellished headwear.  I took photographs of almost every group sitting in the wings under the temporary canopies used to protect them from the possibility of rain.

    Pressing closer to the stage itself, I was able to take several full-length videos of several performances, including those of Gunde dance, Musik Bamboo, Cakeleli Orkes- featuring guitars and violinist accompanying a male vocalist- and Masamper with two opposing groups, one male and one female, singing a round of courtship songs in call and response style.

    A break in the festivities half-way through the evening allowed everyone in attendance to enjoy a free meal provided by one of over a score of huge food tables lining either side of the larger ground’s entrance which stood a hundred meters out front of the Bupati’s mansion and stretched around to the sides of this, the town square.  Everyone who wanted to eat was more than welcome, and I was escorted by an English student of mine to one of the tables , whose spread had been prepared by locals who had originally come from the tin island of Marore, Sangihe regency’s northern most island which lies close to the Philippines, and where was located an official Indonesian border crossing station. 

    Each separate food table featured food in fact prepared by representative groups from both different villages in Sangihe and other regency islands.  Again, the tables were protected from the elements as they were set inside a long expanse of covered stands made of wood and bamboo.  The VIPS walked in procession down from the portico, across the exhibition grounds and out to the food tables, stopping by each one to sample a bit of food and exchange celebratory greetings with the people there.  A small security force accompanied them.

    I was impressed by the restraint shown by the hungry crowds surrounding the food tables, politely waiting their turn to fill their plates with rice, fish, chicken, pig, vegetables, ubi-ubi, and poured glasses of jeruk buah-buahan.  The courtesy they showed each other was again representative of the mutual self-deference I had so often experienced to be the behavior best describing the social comportment of the islanders.  I also couldn’t help but to think of how diametrically opposed this scene was to comparable ones I had been part of in Makassar, where everyone naturally crowded buffet-style serving arrangements, pushing and shoving their way so as to grab-up and scarf-down food set out on tables as if in a feeding frenzy.

    Famished, I ate two large plates of food.  The crowds then returned to the exhibition grounds for the official cutting of the “Tamong Banua cake,” which were actually just large cake sections set at the base of a four meter tall inverted cone which consisted of a wrapped tree with a huge egg placed on top.  It was garlanded beneath the translucent wrap, and closely resembled a Christmas tree, but the tree was plastic.  A young man dressed in purple costume (the other prominent color on display at this event which was worn by lesser-ranked officially) marked the cake cutting ceremony with a long “dramalog,” all of whose meaning eluded me.  The tree and egg were symbols of

    continued growth and life-renewal respectively.  The New year and its promises for new life and hope were especially symbolized by the special egg, which in myth had once hatched open, giving birth to a boy who would later become the husband of the girl who had found the magical egg at the foot of a Lampawanua tree.  My self-appointed student escort, still at my side, told me the egg was of special significance to the people of Sangihe, but again, didn’t know why.  It took research for me to discover the significance.

    After the man finished his dramatic monolog, holding a large knife the entire time, he proceeded to do the actual cake cutting and he heaped huge chunks of it on plates held out to him by several young women, again dressed in festive purple, who then distributed it to first the VIP’s, and then those seated guests in the portico wings.  The mass of spectators which stood around the tree as it was placed on a small plinth standing in front and clear of the portico were offered none.

    After the cake cutting ceremony, I ambled about taking several more photographs of individuals, mainly musicians and various beauty contestant, man-and-woman of the year winners, all of whom we dressed in festive elegance.  By 11:00 PM I was totally exhausted by four days of the Pameran and the pressure I had put on myself to document so much of the culture associated with the exhibition and the Tulude- Sangihe Island’s 581st birthday celebration.  I left for home with camera in hand and opened up my umbrella as it started the rain.  For the next twenty minutes I walked and reflected upon everything I had experienced throughout the week’s festivities.

    It was clear that Sangihe’s culture was a conservative one, both in the fact that it had properly conserved its native traditions, and also in the sense that the islanders tended to identify themselves less as individuals but more as a reflection of divine forces that worked through the lives of their leaders who had once been of a now defunct royal lineage whose function had been taken over by highly-placed elected government officials. 

    The next day I visited Walter once again at the BAPPEDA exhibit, and he, two section chiefs, and I talked at length about international relations, politics, and history for a couple of hours.  Initially I was asked about the previous night’s birthday celebration, and what I thought could be improved.  I quickly replied that the event had been staged for the pleasure of the ruling elite, especially given the staging of the performing arts, which disadvantaged everyone’s viewing except for the VIP’s.  They just as quickly agreed and took no offense to my opinion.  They told me that there had been talk about erecting a temporary stage out in the middle of the exhibition grounds for next year’s event.  I wondered if such a thing would actually come to pass.

    The two month blitz of island celebrations now officially ended, island life resumed its more characteristic languid pace.  I could now focus on teaching English rather than document cultural activities for the school’s photo archives or lead Christmas carol sing-alongs in class accompanied by my twelve-string guitar.

    I was scheduled to teach a series of after school TOEIC classes, similar to the more well-known TOFEL, the educational program for teaching English competency to non-native speakers.  Of TOEIC’s many study sections, I had been assigned the teaching of speaking and listening, and my students were from Kelas II, equivalent to juniors in an American high school.  The students were amongst the schools best students, knew English fairly well, were extraordinarily polite and attentive, and as such very pleasant and a breeze to teach.  I used TOEIC instructional materials I had bought in Manado which I would later
    donate to the school.

    I also helped Iver administer his tourism class curriculum for Kelas III, consisting of those seniors of the high school majoring in tourism.  They had already served two separate internships working for tour companies, travel agencies, airlines, and hotels in Manado, and were entering the last semester of their schooling after which most would directly be placed entry level into Manado’s large tourist industry. 

    With the aid of only my digital camera, we began production on a video project whose purpose was to promote Sangihe’s “objects of eco-tourism,” visiting a few beautiful island locations as an entire class.  A carefully planned trip to Enggohe on paradise isle Bukide scheduled for March 8th was cancelled due to rain. The rainy season was still upon us, and had been dumping torrents on Sangihe since early December.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t the time to stay to see the project through, as my time in Indonesia had run its course.

    My duties in Tahuna came to an end in the middle of March, just as the weather was shifting back to warm, sunny days.  The dry season had returned, and seasons were turning.

    When I departed Tahuna on the night of March 15th, no less than fifty students and staff came to see me off at the harbor.  It was the most overwhelming experience of my life, and the most difficult good-bye imaginable.

    I flew back to Bali on March 17th. After visiting my good friend Agus in Denpasar, I attended some classical dance performances and the remarkable Neka Art Gallery in Ubud.  My Indonesian rantau had finally come to an end.  With a heavy heart and brain flooded with memories,  I boarded a 737 at Ngurah Rai International airport on March 21st, and flew home to San Francisco.

    My immersion into Sangihe’s culture vis-à-vis my teaching responsibilities at Sekolah SMK I had been profound.  In Tahuna, I had been allowed deeper, more intimate access to both the personal lives of people I knew and the cultural institutions and community events than I had ever been allowed in Pantai Bira.  The two communities couldn’t have been more different, and it was clear that Indonesia was still a nation of cultural diversity.

    But the children of Pantai Bira and Tahuna showed me something more universal and unifying about humanity.  Children are forever children no matter where you find them, expressing their joy and sorrow; their appreciation and excitement; their dreams and their
    fears much the same way.  It is only upon growing out of childhood that cultural inflections supersede and on the face of things, begins to divide us into distinctive groups characterized by differences. 

    The children of both Pantai Bira and Tahuna had given back to me more than I could have ever given them.  That my reason for being there was to teach them English was wholly secondary.  It was my mere presence that was really most valued.  “Being there” took on a most poignant and pregnant meaning. Being there meant I cared, and the children never allowed me to forget it.  And it was enough for them that I was there with them.  They sought nothing from me but a smile and a warm presence.

    Through the smiles and laughter of Indonesia’s children, my soul had instinctively sensed the deeper meaning of an Indonesian rantau.  Rantau is a complexly beautiful term.  It has been historically used in the archipelago to describe the strong outward drive motivating a scholar to leave one’s home for study, trade, or pursuit of a new community.  Many learned Islamic scholars had taken rantaus in Indonesia, traveling far from their points of origin in far flung countries such as India and the Middle East. In more general terms, rantau refers to the reaches of a river, or to sail along those reaches; or to wander about a country as a foreigner; or to emigrate and build a new home abroad.

    I had sailed the river and seen its far reaches.  What was far away from home had become home.  I went in search of community and had found it.  And I knew I was destined to come back.  Fate intercedes when a man does not follow his destiny.  Before my rantau, I had strung myself between those two hard charging beasts tearing off in opposite directions of life and they had nearly torn me apart.  I was perilously lost and resigned to a self-condemned, vicious, life-ending quartering in the gladiatorial arena. The horror of  living a life in what felt to me like the belly of the beast had put me to the breaking point.

    My Indonesian rantau had resuscitated my spirits and saved my life.  It was nothing short of a spiritual transfusion. There is a universal magic to reaching across national boundaries and surrendering oneself to the hands of strangers in a foreign realm. In my case, it brought out the best in me, and allowed me through grace to renew myself and reestablish personal direction. 

    It feels infinitely more natural to feel a citizen of the globe than of only one nation.  As the world slowly begins to see past nationalism as a primary source of self-identification, and foreign exchange of people and their ideas increases with every passing day, maybe these small, incremental steps taken best by those individuals who walk away from everything they have known and strike out on their own rantau will be enough in the final analysis to counteract the insanity bred by governments and multi-national corporations who primarily work to pursue their own selfish interests.

    Chances are if you read this book, you have already experienced or have planned your own venture.  If you haven’t yet, then I wholeheartedly encourage you to do it, and after your own fashion.  Do yourself, your country, and the world a favor and become a “displaced foreigner.”  If your heart is true you will find you have lost nothing, gained everything, and given yourself up for world citizenship in the process.

    This is a highly idealized notion, but not romanticized.  Romantics and nationalists abound everywhere, but less so true idealists whose concrete realism is rooted in their wandering feet, but whose ideas might someday be cast in the firmament of a new global consciousness that just might give humanity a shot at survival.

    If all this sounds like so much breezy abstraction, then just go ahead and do it first for yourself.  I’m not a betting man, but I’d wage all I had that you’d come away from your own rantau a member of the world community, and not just someone who self-identified as a nationalist. 

    Every little bit goes a long way, and every step you take to reach your hands and heart across the artificial boundaries set up all around us will help dissolve them.. Once dissolved, freedom will emerge with a new creed, and it will first be found in your heart.