A Jungle Education Book Review by Kendisan Kusumaatmadja

A Jungle Education

Book Review by Kendisan Kusumaatmadja


Photo by B. Kent Donley (Philadelphia, USA).

The Jungle School, Butet Manurung’s autobiographical book, may not be for the faint of heart or the opinionated. It contains gritty daily observations of the Orang Rimba (Jungle People) tribe of Jambi, Sumatra, with strokes of gore and many elements of suspense: a bear cub speared to death, a rat skinned alive, and a frantic escape from an angry swarm of bees, to name a few. If your idea of a jungle tribe is a utopic community of people who treat their wildlife with—your own criteria of—reverence, then be warned: It’s not always quite as simple as you may think, and Butet makes no effort in giving us an breezy, feel-good read. The book, told in Butet’s acutely perceptive voice, is unabashedly honest.

Butet fashioned The Jungle School from her journal entries, and the anthropologist-slash-educator says she tries her best to keep the tone simple by not altering her original writing too much. The journal narrates Butet’s adventures in the Bukit Dua Belas (Twelve Hills) Jungle, her efforts in teaching literacy to the Rimba tribes, and, eventually, the establishment of the Sokola Foundation, dedicated to promoting literacy to many jungle tribes across Indonesia.

Butet’s love affair with the Rimba People was not always smooth. Due to the language barrier that stood between Butet and these people, her journal—originally written on scraps of used paper—often became her only avenue for voicing her thoughts and reflections. The Rimba people had no qualms in showing their distrust of the Orang Terang (People of Light, outsiders), and this made Butet feel like an outcast and unwelcome. Misunderstandings were inevitable and often resulted in humorous situations: A jealous Rimba woman points a spear at Butet and threatens to kill her for trying to steal her husband. In the end, however, resentments were quelled, friendships were eventually forged, and Butet began to fall in love with the unique group of people, and could then begin to work. The question is, of course: if the Orang Rimba’s way of life is simply “different” and not to be held up to our standards, why teach them to read at all?

The Rimba People take just enough from the forest for sustenance and have “conservation written into their traditions through a series of taboos.” This makes them the ideal guardians of the forest. With the encroachment of urban cultures and deforestation gobbling up much of the 64,000 hectares of forest land, the Rimba’s long standing traditions and natural habitat are in constant danger. Their inability to read documents and papers has made them fall prey to loggers who cheat the Rimba people into giving up their land. It is this that makes literacy and conservation efforts inextricably linked; paradoxically, the Orang Rimba are taught to read so that they have a chance at keeping what little they have left (figures say only one quarter of the 64,000 hectares of forest land remains), thereby safeguarding their traditions. Although proximity and interaction—mainly through trade—with the insistent Orang Terang are no longer preventable and it seems imminent that the Orang Rimba’s culture will suffer from many rewrites, literacy is still, in itself, likely to bring about unforeseen consequences. There is no telling yet what the future has in store for the Orang Rimba, and in one harrowing instance, one wary Rimba mother lets Butet teach her child only if she would swear an oath not to “turn her child into one of those village people.”

Butet is aware of this dilemma and she never admits to having all the answers. In fact, she often arrives at her approach to teaching and conservation efforts among the Rimba People through a series of trials and errors. Butet warns in the introduction to The Jungle School that we readers will not find tales of heroism, yet we see heroes everywhere on its pages. They may not be the typical resolute heroes we anticipate; the heroes of the Orang Rimba are bumbling in their efforts and are often hopelessly self-doubting people; but they are persistent and bent on learning. The fate of the Orang Rimba and the forest that shelter them turns out to be a truly collaborative project, and in teaching literacy with the help of her most dedicated young Rimba pupils (Gentar and Linca), Butet realizes that she has actually been amongst heroes all along: The Gentars and Lincas of the Rimba, brave people who are willing to take matters into their own hands. This provides a striking contrast to the everyday predicaments in urban cultures, and the unwillingness of most people—not only to help, but also to take an active role in bettering their own lives. Unlike many marginalized groups, the Rimba People are not afraid to take responsibility. The Rimba children even came up with the idea of setting up the Bungayon Rayo Rainforest Battalion—basically a forest warden unit—and went as far as collecting money for uniforms. Although this initiative was later thwarted due to practical reasons, the idea is in itself daring and ingenious, and the children’s efforts are indeed moving.

Butet’s writing style, in keeping with her determination to remain faithful to her journal entries, is appealingly childlike in its candidness and simplicity. There are many lyrical and provocative passages describing the practices of the Orang Rimba, and everyday observations of the jungle often turn into hauntingly poetic moments. The tactile descriptions of the nook and crannies of the jungle and the transcription of Rimba songs—often in quatrain form—provides the reader with a truly entrancing sensory experience.

What The Jungle School doesn’t give us are definite answers and a conclusive finale. The fate of the Bukit Dua Belas Jungle and the livelihood of the Orang Rimba are still at stake, and Butet has proven that efforts on their behalf warrant a lifelong commitment. After all, changes—good or bad—are forever knocking at their door, and it is no longer enough to say that these people are entitled to happiness. The Rimba dwellers must also maintain their right to define it (Kendisan Kusumaatmadja – Tempo).