It has been over two weeks since the great West Sumatran earthquake.  Bricks, stones and mortars are piling up the ghosts of roads and streets; official death toll is closing in a thousand.   As aids are rushing into the region and rescue workers are still working around the clock, whispers, text messages and sermons are spreading that somehow we—and “we” can mean all Indonesians, West Sumatrans, Padangese, or even just the president, depending on which version you subscribe to—are to blame for the natural disaster.

An understandably grief-stricken and confused chicken-feed factory worker in Padang believed that the quake occurred because many Padangese youths had been engaging in sinful activities by the beach during Ramadan.  A less grief-stricken yet apparently equally confused senior member of a prominent political party blamed the president for being born on his ominous birth date, which “invited” natural disasters.  Chain text messages imply that the disaster was a demonstration of the wrath of a vengeful God.  Chairman of the North Sumatran Indonesian Council of Ulemmas (MUI) declared that the earthquake was a divine warning for the government to eradicate immorality.

It wouldn’t take long for a relatively reasonable person to point out that Indonesia has arguably become more religiously conservative than in the past, or that in the last few years some of the deadliest earthquakes occurred in religiously pious areas, like the 2003 earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam and the 2004 big one off the coast of Aceh, while “places of sin and immorality” like Las Vegas, the island of Ibiza, and even Jakarta, have been spared from any major natural catastrophe.  So either we’ve been misrepresenting God’s warnings, or—here’s a crazy idea—we’re not the reason the earth’s crust trembles.

However, we’re really looking at this the wrong way.  We may not be the reason the earth shook in West Sumatra, but we did cause the disaster.  Bear with me; it’s really not that confusing.

The very term “natural disaster” is truly anthropocentric—it is an entirely human-centered notion.  For hundreds of millions of years this planet has gone through literally countless earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, meteor impacts, lightning storms, and massive volcanic eruptions.  For hundreds of millions of years, nobody ever called them “natural disaster;” they were simply “natural events.”  It was always business as usual for Mother Nature.

Then enter modern humans.  Upon seeing how natural events might occasionally destroy our homes and take away our lives, we began to see said events as disastrous.  As time passed by, self-centered creatures as humans are, we started to believe that a powerful entity—either nature or an even more powerful being—was deliberately causing disasters because of us.  As such, throughout history we’ve been trying hard to decipher the divine warning and appease whoever causes the disaster appropriately: slaughter a pig, sacrifice a virgin, stop playing at the beach, or elect a president with a better birth date.

Yet the cold hard truth is that were there no humans, there would be no disaster.  The flipside of this truth is that while we may not be able to stop an earthquake, we can take measures to prevent a disaster.  In December 2003, both California and southern Iran were hit by 6.5 Richter-scale earthquakes, separated by only a week.  The death toll in California was 3; in Iran, it was 30,000.  Some might thus conclude that Californians were more pious and God-fearing than the Iranians.  A likelier explanation is the worlds of difference in building codes and constructions in the two areas.

What we do to our environment also matters significantly.  The roots of large trees can strengthen the ground’s structure, decreasing its likelihood to slide even during earthquake.  Take those trees away, and nothing holds back the earth from crumbling down the slope.

Earthquakes are not the only natural event we should be concerned about.  Climate change has led to higher concentrated rainfall in a shorter period of time in Indonesia.  Yet we’re still clogging our rivers with garbage and destroy large patches of our forest.  60 percent of the forest area in Mt. Muria, Central Java, is destroyed.  That’s a disaster waiting to happen; just don’t blame God or Mother Nature when it does.  While we’re at it, let’s keep an eye on those volcanic mountains in our backyard.

So at the end of the day, our actions do matter, but not the way some people like the North Sumatran MUI’s chairman would like to believe.  It has got more to do with our vigilance, preparedness and planning, rather than a certain set of moral virtues.  It’s more pressing for district administrations to impose better building codes than to close down pubs and lounges.  Lawmakers need to extend the role, build the capacity, and provide more funding for the national disaster response agency, instead of wasting public funds on legislating morality.  And it’s more important for parents to teach their children to protect the environment than to forbid them from having fun at the beach.

This is Indonesia.  The meeting point of the mighty tectonic plates.  A proud member of the ring of fire.  Depository of the monsoon rain.  Our earth, mountains and seas can be as deadly as they are life-giving.  We’ve known this for millennia; yet we, as had our ancestors, have chosen to live here and call this place home.  Unfortunately, we often forget that as we reap the bounty of this land, we must also be weary of its occasional fury.  Our land demands—and deserves—our respect.  We can’t control nature, but we can choose, through the actions we take and the decisions we make, how nature impacts us.  But to say that we cause the earth to move is not only delusional, it is utter and complete arrogance.

And edited version of this article is featured in Jakarta Globe, 20 October 2009


This post is written by a guest writer, Sherria Ayuandini.  It’s an unabridged account of her experience participating in the International Summer School on Pluralism and Development in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, followed directly by her involvement in a field research where she experienced living for a couple of days with a poor family in a small rural area near Jakarta.

What would be THE litmus test that you just experienced something quite remarkable? Easy. You simply can’t stop blabbering about the incident to the other people around you. Family and friends, colleagues and acquaintances, even strangers and bystanders don’t get to be spared of the story. You can be even more sure of it as you didn’t yet stop yourself even when you received that special look from your friends. A look that if put into verbal expression would fall somewhere along the line of “Puh-leez, enough already!” or “Kill me! Kill me now!”

I lost count of how many times my friends bestowed me of such look that early August, or they, in return, of how many times I went on and on and on about this awesome one month Yogyakartan experience. I grew to be very good at finding whatever obscure connections there was between everything my friends and I talked about with what I then succinctly referred to as “Summer School”. “I don’t feel like having pizza” could be easily followed by me saying “Speaking of pizza, at Summer School…” or “speaking of not feeling like having something, at Summer School…” or simply “yeah, okay, at Summer School…” Seriously, try me. I can connect ANYTHING to Summer School. Even the “don’t” part of the sentence. Well… scrap that; especially the “don’t” part of the sentence…

So to say that I was a bit hung up on the experience of Summer School would be an understatement. Hung over would be a better phrase, I suppose. And it didn’t help my case the fact that merely 3 days after setting foot back in Jakarta again, I had to go back to work immediately. It was this research project that I was on board on as one of the researchers. The project started with a 2 day worth of a workshop, spread over 3 days in total. The set-up of the workshop jogged a very recent, very fond memory of mine. Any takers on what memory? Yeap… if you happened to be part of my circle of friends, insert special look right aboooouuuut…. now.

I was sitting on the right hand side of a U-shape class set-up, half expecting that at any point then someone would walk into the room, sit next to me and asked whether or not I have read the readers intended for the day. But of course, there was no reader and there was no one to ask that question. Instead, there were unfamiliar faces, holding out hands to shake and cards to keep. Here we go again…

And instead of a screen and a projector, there were flipcharts and whiteboard. On the latter three very simple questions were posed: What are the differences between… (1) interview and conversation, (2) visiting and living with and (3) finding out and learning. I smiled as I noticed the questions. “This should be fun,” I thought.

Right then and there the lady that was the head of the research opened the workshop. She next continued on explaining what the intention of the research was all about. To boil it down to one simple sentence: we were to live with the poorest of the poor in a chosen village, learning how they live as some sort of a reality check process. The very first question popped into my mind: whose reality? which was followed closely by the next one: who is checking who? But I kept my mouth shut and paid attention to what the lady was saying next. “We’re using an Anthropological approach,” she said. My heart leaped. Home… finally… “So it is important that we all understand what an Anthropological approach is.” I nodded. Very important of course. So I guess that’s what the workshop is for. Let’s start the lecture! She then pointed to the three questions on the whiteboard. “Let’s divide everybody to three groups. And each can discuss the differences in practice of one of these pairs. We’ll reconvene again in 20 minutes.” I nodded again. Discuss practi… wait what? I did a double take. Did she just say practice?

My group mates were already assembling at that time. And the discussion followed suit. All along the process I couldn’t stop smiling. Such a stark difference! Just a short 3 days ago, in a class set-up uncannily similar, I would have entertained the approach of Anthropology, shall that issue ever come up, from a very different angle. There will be ideas to look at, concepts to delve into, theories to consider and thinkers to heed. But there that day, there were ‘only’ a bunch of practitioners, drawing from past experiences, and knowledge of course, to provide a practical outlook at the questions at hand. To have an opportunity to experience both explorations! I considered myself blessed. My group mates, on the other hand, considered me distracted. “You really like smiling, don’t you?” inquired one of them. I laughed. “Life has been good,” I retorted.

So that was how it went for the rest of the day: me going back and forth from practicality to a more fundamental concept in my head, sometimes, even out loud. At one time when we were discussing the differences between finding out and learning, I pointed out how we as researchers need to be careful. I mentioned that learning would entail us seeing ourselves as the point of reference hence putting the Other as a utility for our growth. As soon as that sentence was out of my mouth, silence enveloped the room. Blank faces greeted me. I thought, “Ah well… at least it’s better than the ‘puh-leez’ look.” So I inhaled and tried again, “we should remember that we are not there so that we can personally increase our knowledge or come in contact with something new, but we’re there simply to experience their life first hand. It is new to us, but for them, it’s just regular life. We should remember that.” Ahhs and ohhs filled the room. Then people started to talk about attitude and behavior in encountering something that is different than what we are used to. I reprimanded myself silently, “Language Sherria Ayuandini! Fit it with the context already!”

But isn’t that what pluralism is all about? It’s about language. It’s about engagement and reciprocity, hence the use of language to create such arbitration. And for me, that’s what Summer School has really taught me: to be aware of the language you use. You can understand pluralism from many angles, as a theoretical construct, as practical implication, as you sit in the classroom or a reality on the field. But unless we start to realize that the language that we use sometimes separate us from one another, pluralism would remain an ideal. Language is the bridge that we all have been looking for, the one that would connect two differences and create an engagement.

So, when I finally set my backpack down on the plywood floor of my host family’s house in the village by the end of that first week away from Summer School, I was ready to let go of my language and immerse myself in the ones the villagers are accustomed to. Language in all kind of sense, verbally as strings of words and sentences, as well as everything else: gesture, posture, expression or impression—the whole nine yards: the entire experience. A woman singing and dancing seductively while at the same time being handed out money bill by bill embodied respect and independence. Babysitting and cooking traditional cakes to be sold at the local market constituted holiday and spare time. And fitting in? Burnt fingers from packaging snacks and a sore arm from heaving a bucket full of water to use at the outside semi open latrine. Pluralism indeed…

Now, what to take from all of this? Well… it has always been the duality of theory and practice that was seen as the biggest challenge for Summer School. Then, why not allow the participants to experience both, to be conversant in both languages? Let the practitioners study a more conceptual idea of what pluralism is in the classroom and at the same time, let the academicians learn how the concept plays in reality by actually going to the field. Both would undoubtedly feel uncomfortable: the first restless from sitting too long, the second awkward from the close encounter. But the discomfort would allow them to experience the language of the other, with a lowercase ‘o’ this time. And as they start to speak each other’s language, that’s when the first stake of the bridge is planted. The rest… are just stones falling into places.

An edited version of this article will be featured in one of Hivos’ publications.  Hivos is the Dutch donor agency that sponsored Sherria’s participation in the summer school.