Jogja’s Community Theater for Radical Change for People with Disabilities

Theatre is the art of looking at ourselves – Augusto Boal, Founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed

Ekawati Liu invited me to come out to Sleman, where she was doing her research into the livelihood choices of Indonesian villagers with disabilities to document a theater workshop. The performance took place on a makeshift open-air stage using only the simplest of props, in the pendhopo attached to the sub-district office in Berbah, Sleman, on the outskirts of the city of Jogja. The performers were mostly amateurs with limited experience who had come together less than a week previously to develop the concept for the play, to create a scenario, and to practice the skills required to convey their story. The performance itself worked because of the sincerity of the performers. They weren’t really acting, they were playing their own stories. But to me, the most interesting thing was the process by which they put the performance together.

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Coffee Farmers: Appreciating the lemon and sugar-palm notes

A few years ago, I traveled to the districts of Tapanuli Utara, Tapanuli Selatan, and Mandhailing Natal on an assignment for Conservation International, to look at how the Sustainable Landscapes Project was teaching coffee, rubber and cacao farmers how to get more about of their land by producing organic compost, insecticides and fertilizers and by intercropping with other plants, like sugar palm, that prevent erosion. A lot of it is gorgeous wild forest, tiger and orangutan lands, particularly in the Gadis Batang National Park. It’s fairly sparsely populated, and the people are lively, boisterous Batak. I was particularly charmed by the Sipirok Coffee Shop, a simple shack where farmers gather to drink world-class, single origin coffees to better understand their own crop.

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Tribal Ink: Writing stories on human skin

The Owl wanted another tattoo. She already had a few, done using a modern gun. Iriene loves owls, night birds like herself. She’s an audiophile, living in a world of sound and radio waves and music, so she already had a tattoo of a grumpy, serious looking owl, wearing headphones, depicted on her right wrist. She’s also a Dayak, so her second and third tattoo were both traditional Dayak motifs, representing flowers, one on the back of each of her calves. For her fifth tattoo, she wanted another traditional Dayak motif, a geometrical, floral band around her upper right arm. But this time, she wanted it done the traditional way, using the hand-tapping technique, a time-consuming process in which a needle (or, in the distant past, a fish bone or long thorn) is placed at the end of a stick and tapped with another stick to puncture the skin and introduce the ink. She asked me along to take photos to document the process.

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Merdeka! Climbing the greasy pole in Sentiong

This is the second time I’ve shot the guys in my kampung celebrating Indonesia’s Independence day. In case it’s not obvious from the photos, this involves the erection of a wooden pole, fairly smooth, like a clean tree trunk, which is then smeared with discarded machine oil. At the top of the pole are some low value household items, brooms, water dispensers, plastic cups and plates, that kind of thing. And the guys slither up the pole to reach them. If they get to the top and pull them down, they keep them.

Honestly, the prizes aren’t worth much. The boys do it for the glory.

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The case of Gregorius Rato

In 2011, Gregorius Rato, a PNPM district-level technical facilitator with more than ten years’ experience, moved to South Amanuban in West Timor to take up a post there. Observing the project’s procurement processes, he soon came to suspect that the prices of many components for a village-level solar power generation project were being systematically marked up, with the connivance of a previous project facilitator, district officials and suppliers. He persisted in raising his concerns, despite threats and warnings of dire consequences. As a result of his persistence, the contract with the supplier was not extended. Soon after, Gregorius was himself charged with corruption, with the case against him based on his possible involvement in a very minor technical violation of standard operating procedures that clearly did not result in any financial losses to the community or to the program. Examining the flimsy nature of the charges, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they were brought against him as a result of pressure by members of a local elite that felt threatened by his actions.”

I wrote this article in 2014, in response to some requests from people involved with the PNPM program. There was a lot of guilt involved. For years, everyone had been encouraging people to report corruption, telling them that there were safeguards in place and that they would be protected if they came forth. And this guy came forward, and he got stomped. And there wasn’t much the system could do. Everyone felt bad, but that was about it. The article was originally published in Inside Indonesia, at

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The Nat Pwe: A Festival of the Deprecated Spirit Lords of Burma

The nat are a pantheon of spirits of powerful historical or semi-historical figures, usually royals, powerful rebels, or folk heroes, who experienced violent deaths that prevented their reincarnation and left their spirits to roam the earth and to continue to play a part in human affairs, often by causing natural disasters and other cataclysmic events. Negotiations with the nat takes place in a temporary shelter erected to accommodate a shrine, at which a band of musicians and the nat kadaw perform, with the nat kadaw often consuming large amounts of alcohol and tobacco as an aid to entering the trance state. As Tamara C. Ho says, the nat “…have notorious reputations as foulmouthed characters, lecherous seducers, shameless drunkards and inveterate gamblers,” with the festivals to propiate them “… inspiring public, carnivalesque debauchery.”

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Writing from 1993: The Storyteller

Going through my computer, I found an incomplete scrap of writing that I wrote in 1993, when I was just on the verge of moving from a village near Solo, Central Java, to Jakarta. I’ve forgotten almost everything about that time of my life. It was amazing to read through what I’d written. I drew on some experiences with a few different dhalang in the district. Continue reading

Sitor Situmorang: An Island on an Island

I wrote this article in 2005, for the Garuda Inflight magazine, when Pramoedya and Sitor were both still alive. The photograph of the two men together was taken by Poriaman Sitanggang one memorable day when he was taking Sitor up to visit Pramoedya, with me tagging along for the ride. It was the first time these two old men had met since Pak Pram had been released from prison, maybe the first time since 1965. When we arrived, Pram was hard at work in his yard, hacking away with a machete, clearing weeds and shifting rocks. Sitor took one look at him and laughed out loud:

“Didn’t you get enough of that on Palau Buru, Pram?!” he called out.

It’s different when it’s your own garden, Pramoedya said, stone-faced.

Sitor with Pramoedya, up at Pak Pram’s place in Bogor. Image by Poriaman Sitanggang. 

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The Phoenix: The blog rising from the ashes

I created this blog about seven or eight years ago, not long after Invisible People was published. At the time, it was intended to be mainly a blog about the process of writing that book. And then … well, after I’d written and published a few posts about it, it began to get stale. I deactivated most of the links to the excerpts from the book and let it become yet another ghost blog.

I kept the domain name and used my server space for storing archives, for my online mail, and so on.

And a week or two ago, I decided that I wanted to bring it back to life. At the very least, I wanted to re-learn the technical skills I need to manage a blog. Continue reading

AIDS: Whose virus is this, anyway?

It’s hard to really remember how frightened we all were of AIDS back in the 1980’s, when the existence of the disease was first widely acknowledged. You could compare it to the fear evoked by Swine Flu more recently, I suppose, except that unlike the much more democratic Swine Flu, AIDS was still the disease of junkies, poofs and hookers. It was their disease, the disease of deviants, freaks and shirt lifters, but instead of having the good grace to keep their disgusting ailments to themselves, they threatened to leak it out into the broader community. Their disgusting habits were going to kill us all. Continue reading