With tobacco no longer a prized commodity to boost the economy in Jember, East Java, because of restrictive rules, the local population is now in search of a new identity through the engrang (stilt walking) game and batik making.

Mohammad Angga, 13, the son of a migrant worker from Ledokombo village in Jember regency, East Java, was standing upright and walking on bamboo stilts along with dozens of other workers’ children on the playground of the Tanoker Learning Community of Ledokombo to practice their skill.

“Playing engrang needs balance. Many of us have fallen and sustained injuries, but we’ve got to rise again and assume an upright posture so as to be firmly looking ahead,” said Angga to The Jakarta Post recently.

Engrang is the Lampung word for a pair of bamboo poles at least 2.5 meters long with foot supports used for walking. Already existing since pre-independence Indonesia, this game is called tengkak in West Sumatra, ingkang in Bengkulu and jangkungan in Central Java.

“Originally we only played the game for leisure while waiting for the news of our parents working in Malaysia and the Middle East,” related Angga, who has been familiar with stilt walking for more than five years.

Ledokombo, where Angga and 300 other Tanoker Learning Community members live, is a village of migrant workers. Poverty is one of the reasons for their overseas occupations.

Central Statistics Agency data put Jember on the list of 10 regencies with the highest poverty rates in 2013. Jember’s recipients of rice for the poor totaled 192,000 households and 930,000 people were beneficiaries of its healthcare security program.

Jember is among the big five contributors of migrant workers from East Java to Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Middle East. East Java and East Nusa Tenggara constitute the largest foreign exchange earners among Indonesian migrant workers.

Tanoker means cocoon in the Madura language, which is spoken by villagers in Ledokombo.

Farcha Ciciek, a founder of this community, said tanoker was born to provide an appropriate means of learning and playing for migrant workers’ children so they could grow into beautiful “butterflies” and bring fame to their village.

“Engrang is one of the media of learning and playing for children to build their common awareness of developing their village in order to be free from poverty,” Ciciek pointed out.

In the community, the 300 village children also get free instruction in mathematics, English and photography, besides being taught life values through the traditional stilt walking game.

“With engrang they can be attuned to national character and tradition, while also learning how to achieve equilibrium in life in the way they control their stilts, which requires balance,” added Ciciek.

Now with its popularity among children in Ledukombo, engrang festivals are annually held by the regency administration as an icon of tourism to attract visitors to Jember.

The event was once attended by international jurors, among others Dr. Greg Fealy, Dr. Sally White and David Joseph Longo from Australia, Dr. Edit Schlaffer and Prof. Ulrich Kropiunigg from Austria and Ewan Kindness from Britain.

Engrang demos have also often appeared during annual Jember Fashion Carnivals, which resemble Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro festivals.

Suporahardjo, Ciciek’s husband and cofounder of tanoker, said while receiving foreign visitors eager to learn stilt walking, his group had also been invited to other Asian countries.

According to Suporahardjo, bamboo as the material for stilts, which is also used for housing construction, household equipment and ornamentation, is one of the plants proven to be very good for environmental conservation.

“As evidence of its good conservation function, we’ll find that wherever clusters of bamboo are growing, there must be water springs around. We hope bamboo engrang can serve as the basis of nature conservation in Jember,’ he indicated.

The head of Jember Tourism Agency, Sandi Suwardi Hasan, mentioned Jember’s rich natural wealth and other resources, besides its religious tourism with 850 Islamic boarding schools frequently visited by Muslims from Asian countries.

“However, the regional administration continues to seek Jember’s identity so as to make it a tourist destination in the class of Bali. We’ve announced the target of Jember as a tourist center in 2017,” he said. Sandi expressed his administration’s commitment to make Jember a tourism treasure by conserving the ecosystem instead of by exploiting its resources.

“Jember relies on its natural conditions for its development, just like the three forerunners from Holland, George Birnie, Matthiasen and van Gennep, who succeeded in opening Jember in 1859 to build tobacco and cacao plantations as one of the best estates in the world,” he added.

Iriane Chairini Megahwati Rolla, a Jember community figure, said the quality of tobacco in Jember had been internationally recognized. Jember was a major tobacco producer after Madura Island, East Java.

“My grandfather was a tobacco farmer exporting the commodity to several European countries. Jember’s economy highly relied on tobacco harvests. But today tobacco is no longer a luring product because of the presence of some international regulations,” she noted.

Iriane’s statement agrees with the results of a survey by the Muhammadiyah Tobacco Control Center in three tobacco producing provinces, revealing that half of the local tobacco farmers describe the commodity as no longer profitable. Many tobacco and cigarette companies have closed down, rendering their workers jobless.

“We’re attempting a revival by producing batik clothes typical of Jember. I’ve invited housewives losing their jobs to make batik cloths,” she said, referring to tobacco motifs as one of the unique features of Jember batik.

Iriane hoped with the typical Jember batik cloths, the younger generation could be reminded that Jember was one of the world’s best tobacco producers. “The Jember batik art will keep thriving as there are many other potential resources to design,” added Iriane.

There are also Watu Ulo (Snake Rock) Beach and Tanjung Papuma Beach as Jember’s tourist spots. Apart from their pristine vegetation, the coral rocks found in a row there are, according to local folklore, parts of the cut-off body of a long snake.

In Mitos dalam Tradisi Lisan Indonesia (Myths in Indonesia’s Oral Tradition) by Sukatman, the long row of rocks constitutes a manifestation of a meditating dragon, which it is believed will eventually awaken and transform into a man.

– Photos by JP/Indra Harsaputra – http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/01/04/jember-a-new-identity-through-engrang-batik.html


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