Karo, Citizenship Education and the Spirit of Aron
Indonesia has changed. Sovereignty is now in the hands of the people. And yet many citizens still take the standpoint of choosing not to involve themselves in politics because it’s “dirty”. This mindset is also prevalent in the Batak Karo lands in North Sumatra.
A week ago, I went along with Institut Leimena (IL) to Berastagi to conduct a citizenship education program to members of the GBKP (Batak Karo Protestant Church). These civic education programs have been held in churches in various regions of Indonesia as a start but IL hopes to expand these programs to the public regardless of religion.
As we met with the organizers in Kabanjahe, they explained that many Karo are apathetic about politics and think that good people should not involve themselves in such “dirty” affairs. But as Rev. Erick Barus wisely points out,”If good people stay away from politics, then truly the ‘dirty’ people will come to fill its seats.”
Initially, many of the participants were skeptical about the benefits of citizenship discussion and how regular citizens can have the power to make a difference. The common myth was that one would have to have a high position in government in order to create change.
Through the two day workshop, participants learned about the history of Indonesia and how the power of an idea formed the country as it is today from a Dutch Colony. They also learned about the 1945 Constitution and its amendments, as well as how to read a draft law. During the workshop, participants broke down specific points in the Halal food law draft. They showcased their strong analytic skills and voiced their agreement or disagreement by comparing the draft laws against the 1945 Constitution to see if it was constitutional.
They also learned to put knowledge into action through citizenship discussion. Using discussion materials that can be downloaded off IL’s website, small groups can come together to discuss issues in their community and brainstorm action they can take to resolve them. (In my previous article, I briefly explain how various communities have managed to solve local problems through citizenship discussion.)
While we were there, some of the problems that were brought to attention was, for example, dying orange trees. We stared in shock at a yard full of blackened dying trees that once produced majestic bright oranges. Oranges are one of the livelihoods of Karo people. If you have ever tasted oranges from Medan, they are all actually grown in places such as Berastagi by the Karo people. The oranges has a light, pleasant sweet smell and are extremly juicy and sweet, but not overpoweringly so. These oranges however, are slowly disappearing as people switch to growing coffee instead. The major problem lies in fruit flies. Once a fruit fly settles on an orange tree, it’s sticky saliva quickly permeates the tree, turning the fruits and slowing killing the tree while spreading to surrounding trees. In a few months, all the trees in the field would die.
A farmer who had expected 40 tonnes of oranges and paid workers to pick the fruits realized to his dismay that his oranges were contaminated and that only 16 tonnes were good. As rotten fruits spread quickly, only 10 tonnes were good by the time they reached the buyers in Jakarta. In frustration, the farmer cut off all his orange trees.
Currently, the farmers build tall nets to protect the trees, but the situation is not improving. It is also not uncommon for fruit farmers to toss rotten trees in their neighbor’s yard, causing the problem to keep spreading amongst neighbors.
Some Karo lament the loss of their traditional culture of working together and helping one another, called “Aron” in Karo language. In the past, neighbors would help one another to work in the field for no pay except food and water. This spirit of working together is now lost as individuals look after only their own needs. Roads in certain villages for example, contain large potholes that are badly in need of fixing.
“They may have 3 cars and another home in Medan, but nobody cares to come together to fix the roads. They think, that’s the government’s problem, they’ll just wait for the government to fix it.”
Let’s hope that through citizenship education and discussion, the community can inspire those around them to take actions as citizens and perhaps build back the spirit of “Aron”.