From asking to tasking via masking
Two years ago Ali Sudarjo, 48, (below) was squashed into Sukun, an old kampong in Malang.
He rattled off the negatives: “Life was hard. I didn’t like the way my children were growing up. Pollution was bad. Not much work, so not much future. No space. Then we got the chance to move.”
Sudarjo and his wife Siti Mutmainah, 42, and their six kids were shifted 20 kilometers out of town to a Rp 2.5 billion (US $182,000) government social experiment underway in a forest.
Despite ups and downs, so far it seems to be going well.
Sudarjo still fixes motorbikes as he did in Sukun, but there’s not much work in a community of only 250. So the versatile mechanic has started other businesses – raising catfish and fighting cocks.
“Life is much better,” he said as his children sorted fingerlings into buckets. “Moving was the right thing to do.”
Kampong Topeng (mask village) is being run by Malang City using funds from Jakarta to relocate gepeng. This truncated term is formed from gelandangan (homeless) and pengamis (beggars).
“We selected 40 families who we thought stood the best chance of adapting,” said social worker Safria Effendi, 27.
“We’ve had a few who couldn’t cope and left so there are now three vacant houses. But we’ve had others leave who’ve built new skills and enough confidence to move on – which is just what we want.”
Effendi and his colleague Aisyah, 21,( right) help run the little settlement collecting Rp 5,000 (US 36 cents) entrance fees from curious visitors keen on taking selfies with the masks. The public servants live outside the village and spend their working hours on site or their department’s office in Malang.
The government built the village on a sloping one-hectare plot of virgin forest and lets the houses rent free, though residents pay for basic facilities. For an isolated hamlet the services are good, with mains power and piped water.
There’s a well-equipped playground, meeting hall and a small café. Tourists who find this too pedestrian can soar over the valley on a flying fox.
A communal kitchen is available for making krupuk (crackers) and other snacks for sale. One family is Christian – they have to travel to find a church. For the others there’s a new mosque.
Trainers have been employed to help the settlers find jobs. One household has a worm farm, another is making chocolates shaped and painted like masks. These should be a hit in up-scale stores and hotels if promoted well.
“Developing markets is something we’re still working on,” said Safria. “We have many ideas but implementing these takes time.”
Malang is famous for its dance masks, now also sought by home decorators wanting a dash of culture on their feature walls. There are 76 characters, but few in the village can identify the images painted on walls or mounted on frames, apart from the two 7.5 meter high topeng that dominate the settlement.
These are Asmar Bangun and his wife Dewi Sekartaji from the ancient Panji stories of East Java.
A shop offers fiberglass masks formed using moulds for Rp 45,000 (US $3.25), and hand-carved wooden topeng for four times the price. The artisan is Prasetiyo Hadi, 42, originally from the East Java tourist center Batu.
Quality control and pricing are an issue as cheaper well-made Javanese artifacts mainly from Yogyakarta in Central Java can be found in Malang’s handicraft outlets.
For a project hoping to attract tourist there are several shortfalls. The brick-paved entrance road is only one car wide, creating hazards for drivers. The village is poorly signposted and has had little publicity; your correspondent was said to be the first foreigner to visit.
In the past transmigration projects shifted whole communities from overcrowded Java to West Papua and Kalimantan. Outcomes weren’t always positive as some locals resented people with different faiths, languages and values, while the newcomers often found their farming techniques didn’t suit strange soil types and climates.
Social engineering is thick with risks. People aren’t ciphers but individuals with quirks and passions, agreeing today and disagreeing tomorrow. One person’s paradise is another’s hell. And so it has been with Kampong Topeng, a form of local transmigration with the government doing far more to help.
It is also less prone to the ills of the inter-island moves as friends and relatives are still nearby and there are no culture or language differences.
Heri Wiyono,(left) head of rehabilitation at the Malang Department of Social Services, said he was aware of the flaws but stressed that the venture was still a work in progress.
“The idea came from the government in Jakarta as part of its Desaku Menanti (My Village is waiting for you) program,” he said. “This is a pilot project, one of four nationwide.
“There are many challenges. We have to be careful in picking people keen to turn around their lives.
“Before it began we spoke to nearby residents about the enterprise and its purpose. We anticipated some would be jealous, so we appealed to their moral duty to help those less fortunate.”
Wiyono said a mosque had been built because nearby communities only had musholla (prayer rooms.) A school was not necessary because the children had access to one in an adjacent village. However classrooms may be established in the future.
“Our aim is to empower the poor,” he said. “We’ll evaluate this project before we go further – but we need to develop the criteria. How many are able to change from asking for help, to doing things to help themselves? So far it’s working well.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 26 June 2018)