On National Children’s Day on July 23, I found myself playing an unexpected role: member of the jury for the Tanoker Egrang Festival in Ledokombo in Jember regency, East Java.
The event is the first stilt festival in Indonesia. Only in its second year, it is already attracting attention here and overseas.
Two hundred elementary and junior high school students were divided into 48 teams, clad in wild costumes made from leaves, colored plastic bags, old newspapers, playing cards and even krupuk — and all were on stilts!
They were judged on performance and costuming by a four-member jury. The other jury members were from Yogyakarta, Malaysia and Australia, but we all agreed the kids put on a stunning show.
But spectacular though it was, the Egrang Festival is just one of many things that Tanoker does. Tanoker, which means cocoon in Madurese, is an after school youth center, the brainchild of husband and wife team Suporahardjo and Farha Ciciek.
In 2009 they moved from Jakarta to Ledokombo — Suporahardjo’s hilly hometown — to take care of his aging mother. Being activists, they were immediately struck by the challenges the town faced. Considered the poorest and most backward subdistrict in Jember, unemployment, school dropouts and drug abuse were just some of the many problems.
As a result of the lack of opportunities in the town, many Ledokombo parents seek employment as migrant workers, leaving behind a brood of “orphans” in the care of relatives, usually grandparents. In fact, 50 percent of Tanoker kids are children of migrant workers, and the rest are the offspring of farm workers, ojek drivers, security guards, petty traders and domestic servants.
It serves as a reminder that — like West Nusa Tenggara — East Java is now one of the main areas that sends migrant workers abroad to Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Middle East, as well as other parts of Indonesia (mainly Bali).
The other challenge Ledokombo faces is that most of its inhabitants are from Madura. Rightly or wrongly, the Madurese have a reputation for being rough, stubborn, temperamental, suspicious and vengeful. As a result, Ledokombo was dismissed by local authorities as beyond hope — a lost cause.
Despite this stereotype — or maybe because of it — Ciciek and Supo adopted the slogan “bersahabat, bergembira, belajar, berkarya” (friendship, happiness, learning, creativity) for Tanoker. When survival is at risk, as is so often the case in a poor, multicultural community like this one, negative stereotypes easily become a divisive reality. Instead of overcoming differences and cooperating to better their lives, people fight.
Supo and Ciciek dreamed of creating a space for all, where people of all races, religions, ethnicities, classes and backgrounds could come together “to achieve justice, prosperity and peace”, as they wrote in their brochure.
Pretty ambitious — especially as they want to do it through traditional games, music, dance, art, cooking and learning activities like reading, writing and math. They hope to channel and develop the talents
of local kids, sharpen their brains and foster cooperation and tolerance to boot.
In Jakarta, Supo and Ciciek had always had an open door policy for children. When they returned to Ledokombo, this was even more the case, and their home quickly turned into the Tanoker base camp.
They cleared the hectare of land around their house of choking, snake-infested undergrowth, and created a spacious and pleasant terraced playground complete with a fishpond.
Initially they just played ball games, marbles, gobak sodor (a traditional game with two teams competing), flew kites and practiced walking on stilts, which Supo remembered enjoying as a kid.
They made the stilts from bamboo, trained the children and before long, organized the first Egrang race in 2009. The first Egrang Festival followed in 2010.
Now, the local authorities, who had once given up hope on Ledokombo, are keen to make the Egrang Festival an annual regional, national and even international celebration. Then Jember can claim to have two international events: the Egrang Festival and the now-renowned Jember Fashion Carnival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary on July 24.
Somehow, Tanoker has the capacity to break down barriers, as well as making every inhabitant of Ledokombo proud, regardless of ethnicity or class. These innocent children’s activities have had far-reaching results, collapsing barriers in a way never seen before in this little community.
Supo and Ciciek’s dream of making Tanoker and Ledokombo a global and local area came true in a relatively short time, thanks to their sheer hard work.
Are Supo and Ciciek proud of their achievements? Of course, but they feel there is still a long way to go. And instead of claiming Tanoker as their own success story, they share it with the community because from the start it was meant to be of, for and by the community.
When Ciciek read a recent news report about the second Egrang Festival, she was pleased that the names of the subdistrict head, the madrasah group and the group of physical education teachers were mentioned instead of Ciciek and Supo’s. This amazing husband and wife team know success comes at the cost of others’ envy, so adopting a low profile is essential for their dream to be a success.
But they can’t rest quietly on their laurels just yet. The current migrant worker export freeze due to the beheading in Saudi Arabia earlier this year of Ruyati, an Indonesian domestic migrant worker, is creating new problems.
There are real concerns that the unemployed women of Ledokombo may turn to prostitution… or get caught up in trafficking. As usual, the government seems to be creating more problems than they are solving, and that means more work for Ciciek and Supo and their many supporters.
The people of Ledokombo are lucky to have Tanoker and they know it. Let’s hope that what has been achieved in Ledokombo can serve as reminder for other Indonesian villages of the true meaning of gotong royong (mutual self-help), which so many of us have forgotten.
Who would have thought that children could reboot a community? Social change from below through children — now that’s real grass roots at work!
(Julia Suryakusuma, Contributor, Jember, East Java | Fri, 08/12/2011 8:00 AM)