Bambang M., Contributor, Yogyakarta
When Saur Marlina Manurung, better known as Butet Manurung, appeared on a TV commercial for Kompas, the largest newspaper in Indonesia, many people responded with sympathy.
A native of metropolitan capital of Jakarta, Butet Manurung graduated with a degree in anthropology and Indonesian literature from Padjajaran University, Bandung. Leaving the hustle and bustle of modern life behind, she went deep into the jungles of Jambi with a mission to teach two remote tribes — the Anak Dalam of Bukit Duabelas and the Orang Rimba of Bukit Tigapuluh National Park.
She teaches them the fundamental skills of all education — how to read, write and count.
With her degree, she could have had a well-paid, prestigious job in Jakarta instead, but this is simply not an option for her.
After the Kompas commercial was aired by several major television stations, many people have come up to her just to express their sympathy for her work. In Yogyakarta recently, students surrounded her and even asked for her autograph.
“”Well, they treated me like I was a superstar,”” said the 2001 recipient of the Man and Biosphere Award from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Certainly, her job is noble and demanding. She lives alone in the jungle and walks long distances every day to teach the various sub-groups of the isolated tribes. It is not easy to travel on foot in a 60,500 hectare tropical forest.
When she finally finds one group, she is not sure that she will be accepted. If a group rejects her, she goes and finds another group, which may mean another long journey. If a group welcomes her, she encounters another set of difficulties: how to persuade them to learn to read, write and count? And what is the most suitable teaching method?
“”These people regard reading and writing as something akin to black magic, and to master black magic, they must make an offering,”” she said.
Of course, deep in the jungle, she must also face other challenges, such as illegal loggers, malaria and basic survival.
However, she was an active member of an nature lovers’ organization and learned well enough how to survive alone in a jungle.
Butet is probably one of the few people who have been fortunate in that she has achieved her childhood dream — when she was young, she wanted to be Indiana Jones.
“”I like my job — it’s both my vocation and my hobby.””
Butet was born on Feb. 21, 1972, the eldest of four siblings and the daughter of the late Victor Manurung and Anar Tiur Samosir.
She began teaching the Anak Dalam in 1999, when she joined WARSI, a non-governmental organization dedicated to developing the life of the Anak Dalam people. She was given a job in the organization’s educational program.
Before Butet, three others had tried to teach the Anak Dalam. Two managed for about a year, but were hampered in their task by the many obstacles and challenges they had to face. The third was successful in approaching and being accepted by the Anak Dalam, but sadly, he contracted malaria and died.
When Butet first began this Herculean job, it took her about seven months before she could approach the Anak Dalam people.
One day, Anak Dalam children happened to hear Butet recite some of their verses from memory and were surprised that an outsider could quickly learn their traditional verses by heart.
“”I recorded the verses and then transcribed them,”” she told the curious children, who were now starting to show an interest in reading and writing.
The children told her that their tribe had thousands of ancestral verses, but after several generations, many of these verses had been lost as they had not been written down.
This small interlude opened up a way for her to approach the Anak Dalam people, and Butet made use of the oral tradition prevailing among the tribe to persuade them to learn how to read and write.
In addition, Butet used the Anak Dalam’s “”one good turn for another”” creed to foster a spirit of exchange — she told them that she came to learn how to live in a forest.
“”In return for what I learn from you, I will teach you how to read and write,”” she said.
On Oct. 1, 2003, Butet resigned from WARSI. “”WARSI is concerned about the environment, while I’m only concerned about education. My activities will also help WARSI’s programs later on.””
She believes that the Anak Dalam could learn better with teachers from their own tribe. Today, 12 Anak Dalam people have been trained as teachers and about 120 people — children and men — are literate.
Butet says the Anak Dalam people urgently need to learn how to read, write and count, as their contact with the outside world is unavoidable.
Anak Dalam people have often been cheated when dealing with outsiders, she said. Apparently, one such outsider once came to them with a piece of paper, claiming it was a letter of appreciation from the local subdistrict head, and asked them to sign it. They did, and were promptly evicted from their land. The “”letter”” was actually a land deed, and they had unwittingly “”sold”” their land.
Now that they know how to read, write and count, they cannot be cheated so easily any more.
There are many other remote tribes like the Anak Dalam across Indonesia, and Butet says she wants to teach them all how to read, write and count.
“”They can never fight for their well-being unless they have some education,”” she said.