02 Oktober 2009

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Earthquake and local wisdom

The earthquake in West Sumatra, especially in Padang, the capital city, and towns and villages along the west Sumatran coast and in the inhabited parallel mountainous parts of the region, is another unavoidable natural disaster in Indonesia, following the recent earthquake in West Java.
These are reminders as to how dangerous the regions in the Ring of Fire can be, and therefore how Indonesia has to learn lessons and become better prepared, and as soon as possible, to handle upcoming natural disasters.

West Sumatra, which the local population calls Minangkabaunese, is one of the critical points in the Ring of Fire in the Indian Ocean. The explosion of the Singgalang Mountain, at the end of 18th century, for example, caused the deaths of thousands of people, so that Padang Panjang, Bukittinggi, and the villages around the mountain became haunted by large numbers of vultures.
The residents of the province are accustomed to natural disasters, especially those who live on the slippery slopes of the very mountainous region, at the base of four or five active volcanoes, on the banks of rivers, lakes and the sea, or on the floor of the valleys.
Before this latest quake, the region had suffered from recent floods and landslides. The biggest recent disaster was of course when the coal mining tunnels exploded and were devastated in Sawahlunto, when 181 people lost their lives, in the middle of 2009.
Generally speaking, if you stay in the West Sumatra region for a year, you will experience earthquakes several times. People who live around Mt. Marapi one of active volcanoes there, in the towns and villages surrounding the mountain, regularly experience small explosions shaking the earth and producing massively volcanic plumes. The area can also be hit by tsunamis.
If you travel from Padang to Padang Panjang, it is common that you face long traffic jams. Some parts of the roads are easily subject to breaks and fractures because of landslides, *quakes or instability, especially in the highlands.
Padang itself, an old city built centuries ago, is situated along very narrow stretch of coast between the hills and the sea, so transportation access to other regions consists of winding and hilly roads. Because of the limited flat land, the main part of the city, which is close to the edge of the sea, is only around 0-2 meters above sea level with frequent flooding submerging the area. This happens almost every year.
What makes the people keep living there, if we talk more spiritually, is that they believe that wherever they live, it is still tanah tuan Allah, the earth of God.
They believe that even if they can escape from a galodo (landslide) by moving to a supposedly safer area, that death may still come to them all.
These dangerous natural conditions are taken by the people as unavoidable challenges. They say in one of their aphorisms that kalo takuik dilamun ombak, jan barumah di tapi pantai, (if you are scared of being submerged by huge waves, don't live on the coast).
But the people are certainly not so passive that they accept their destinies in such a fatalistic way. They have their own local wisdom to help avoid or at least to minimize the impacts of disasters.
Take a look at the construction designs of the traditional houses or buildings for example. Most of them are made of wood and are constructed as flexible buildings, so that if an earthquake or flood takes place, the damage will be minimal.
But now, of course, as modernization changes haluan kapal (the direction of the ship), as the Minangkabauneses say, disasters seem to take more victims than before. And now we have seen how the victims of the Sept. 30, earthquake were mostly trapped in allegedly modern but weaker buildings.
And there are many other kinds of local folklore, know-how or wisdom which have helped the people in the area to live more safely and peacefully for a long, long time.
Now, as the earthquake has partly destroyed the region, besides material help and donations, it is a must to help local people to keep their living local wisdom alive and to revive dead or dying traditions, because these have carried the values the people lean on in times of hardship and disaster, and have helped them to survive successfully despite past disasters.
These traditional wisdoms are important to know. Let's help to bring them back to help them to be able to tagak di ateh kaki surang (to rely on their own efforts to sustain their lives) and convince them that the philosophy alam takambang jadi guru (the universe teaches unlimited wisdom) should be maintained, so that the latest disaster becomes one more lesson in preparing for a better and more constructive future with new knowledge and consciousness.

Opinion The Jakarta Post 02 Oktober 2009

Khairil Azhar

The writer, is a Minangkabaunese living in Jakarta.