The Jungle School by Butet Manurung


She was bitten by stinging bees and scorpions, hit by falling tree branches, fell off a bridge and a motorcycle, suffered bouts of malaria, threatened by loggers, cobras, prowling bears and the jealous wife of a tribesman who pointed a spear at her throat.


The Jungle School chronicles the life and adventures of a brave young Indonesian woman in the rainforests of southern Sumatra teaching the children of the indigenous Orang Rimba tribe. These “people of the forest,” who number only a few thousand, wear loincloths, live in thatched huts, forage for roots, hunt snakes, deer and wild pigs and worship a multitude of eerie forest spirits.


Butet Manurung was born in Jakarta in 1972. She discovered her love of the outdoors while earning degrees in anthropology and Indonesian Literature at Padjadjaran University in Bandung. Butet also earned a Masters degree in applied anthropology from Australia National University. In the course of her work, she has visited indigenous peoples all over Indonesia.


In 1999, Butet joined the conservation group WARSI to set up an educational program for the Orang Rimba in the Bukit Due Belas rainforest of eastern Jambi district in central Sumatra. In 2003, with other like-minded volunteers, she founded SOKOLA, a non-profit volunteer service organization that provides educational opportunities for indigenous peoples in remote areas of the archipelago. Today SOKOLA runs programs in a dozen communities, bringing literacy to more than 10,000 children and adults.


Originally published in Indonesian as Sokola Rimba in 2007, the book tells the story of Butet’s journey from anthropologist to educator to activist. She explains how and why she founded SOKOLA whose work and gutsy volunteers are an instructive example of how a small number of dedicated individuals can effect   change. Butet describes the  exploitation and deception at the hands of loggers and managers of developing oil palm plantations that the aboriginal group faced, problems that continue to this day.


This absorbing account begins with the author, a diminutive but strong woman with a lively sense of humor, enduring a 20-plus hour journey by bus and foot from Jakarta to the rainforest’s edge, an ordeal that leaves her sick to her    stomach, disoriented and in an amusing turn of events, missing a shoe. Early on in the book, I yearned for a map to help me find the different locations described in the story. Photos of Butet’s Jungle School and the activities of its students add to the intimacy of the story.


Initially, the tribe does not welcome her. When Butet sees villagers go into town and get ripped off at the pasar due to a lack of numerical ability, she is motivated to act. But as an outsider and a woman working alone, it took months for her to develop personal relationships with the suspicious Orang Rimba. Most touchingly, she describes how her relationship with the tribespeople develops as she transforms herself from a stranger to a trusted teacher in their community.


Butet’s self-realizations, vulnerability and empathy make the writing immediately accessible and immensely readable. The reader is captivated as self-doubt often plagues her as she questions what she has started, “Is this good enough to be called a “school”?” she asks. “How stupid I am,” realizing her own deficiencies. Her humble admissions are all the more remarkable because they come from a credentialed woman with dual degrees in anthropology and literature.


Although most teachers don’t have students who wear loincloths and leave class to check up on their animal traps, Butet’s trials and errors are familiar to anyone who has ever taught children. She expresses sentiments that any teacher can relate to. When students fail, teachers often feel that they are the ones who failed them. When her students ask her questions, she turns her answers into learning opportunities, i.e. her digital watch becomes a stimulus to learn to recognize numbers.


The children influence Butet and teach her invaluable pedagogic skills. She starts where they are. She and keeps it simple and fun. Far from a rigidly prescribed curriculum, she adopts an organic non-judgmental approach, inventing her own teaching techniques in the field. Realizing that kids learn the sounds of letters first and then their shapes, she develops a practical reading-writing-counting syllabic method. Butet eventually lets her students teach one  another. Surprising results follow. After three months, she takes her best students to other locations to become  teachers. When asked what they want to be, many children reply, “a teacher trainee.”


But delving deeper than just education, Butet tackles larger system-wide issues. The conservationist in her comes to realize that the next phase is to empower the villagers to defend their culture and their territory. Realizing the limits  of a teacher, she comes to the conclusion that reading and writing alone is not adequate preparation for the Orang Rimba to chart their future. Knowledge brings pain and hopelessness, “Once they are able to read, they become aware of the issues. Then they become depressed when they realize they are unable to defend their own rights.”


The book contains many fresh non-intuitive insights into the nomadic ways of an indigenous people. Butet becomes sensitive to cultural differences, noting that the Orang Rimba would feel humiliated and hurt receiving what would be termed by the outside world as “donations” or “aid.”


She learns to be wary of a helping hand when, for instance, a government forestry officer wants to boost bee farming and rattan production “for the benefit of the Orang Rimba,” not realizing that the tribes people neither need nor want the intervention.


Orang Rimba, for the most part, still live in small groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers who gather food from their natural surroundings in much the same manner as their ancestors have for hundreds of years. Over the past two decades, the outside world has arrived at their doorstep. Illegal loggers, government-sponsored transmigrants and palm oil planation workers in ever-increasing numbers are encroaching upon their habitat.


As a result, these indigenous people have self-imposed their own isolation in order to avoid conflict with businesses chain sawing the rainforest they call home. Surrounded on all sides, they move deeper into the forest. While they have more than enough skills needed to preserve their environment, these forest people are ill prepared to deal with land contracts or the sale of rainforest products.


Butet Manurung’s vivid personal experiences – her fears, her thrills, her successes, her failures – read like veritable field notes written down as they occur. But besides her amazing journey, this inspiring book asks bigger questions. What are the most effective alternative educational tools to use for members of marginalized aboriginal communities? How does a culture accommodate change and still be able to preserve traditions? How do a people in crisis prepare to deal with the challenges of the modern world?


The Jungle School by Butet Manurung, Xlibris Corporation 2012, ISBN 978-146-916-6346, paperback, 222 pages,  dimensions, 15 cm X 22 cm.


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