“There are no stupid people; only those who don’t listen to their hearts.”
Anthropologist, Author & Founder | Sokola Institute
On learning acceptance, following a higher calling and how the indigenous teach critical thinking.
In 2003, a lone anthropologist trudged bravely through the dense rainforests of Jambi in Sumatra. Seven weary hours had passed since the start of the trek under harsh sunlight that pierced through the canopies, when suddenly, amidst the dizzying crescendo of flies and cricket chirps, a spirited cry echoed from ahead – “Teacher!”
From a simple wooden shelter, children dressed only in simple garments around their waists, leapt and ran towards her in unison. She had finally reached her destination, one of the few isolated indigenous communities native to the Bukit Duabelas National Park; she had reached the “Orang Rimba”.
In the ensuing days, a rugged blackboard was pulled out. She began to write letters of the alphabet and pronounce each one for the children to respond to. Mathematics would soon follow. She had been here before – in fact, she had been making this journey for years.
Any curious observer would see, with clarity, the purpose of her visits; education, and perhaps more specifically, Indonesian literacy. But why would such a rich culture, adept in their own language and ways of life, seek such help?
The Orang Rimba, are one of many tribes who have seen their homes devastated by the injustice brought by companies, and their illegal logging exploits. Without even a basic understanding of the Indonesian language, their rights as citizens of the country have little ground to be defended under law. As the lone anthropologist saw it, the Orang Rimba cannot depend solely on the help of others – they would need to learn to stand on their own.
And so, the SOKOLA Institute was born – a non-profit organization providing educational opportunities for marginalized people in remote areas of Indonesia. Since it’s inception, it has seen 15 schools open up around Indonesia with an estimated 10,000 people involved.
Her story was penned into a book, and further commemorated into the successful film, Sokola Rimba, raising her fame even more and earning her multiple awards as an anthropologist and educator, including a prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award.
It is the story of Butet Manurung, one that has captured and enriched the imagination thousands of people around the world – story that has endearingly touched their hearts. In a time where we yearn for meaning and remembrance, Butet stands as a beacon of hope – a bridge between the old and the new, reminding us of who we once were and where we came from.
Manusia had the privilege of interviewing Butet at this year’s Ubud Readers and Writers Festival. Passionate, and tactful as she is known to be, she reveals how the indigenous can teach us critical thinking, how she has changed since starting SOKOLA, whilst giving poignant advice for the youth of Indonesia.
Butet, we know the story of Sokola Rimba, but there was also trust to be gained by other Indigenous communities that you sought to help afterward such as Sokola Pesisir, Sokola Kajang, and others. How much easier was it to gain that initial trust? And how do you know when to even help a community?
From our experience in Rimba, and the mistakes we’ve made, we’ve learnt a lot in how to approach a new Indigenous community and respect their ways, despite how we can often, without knowing, violate certain rules of their culture.
But rooted in that knowledge and experience, we’ve made our initial approach process easier and we haven’t encountered any strong aggression towards what we have to offer.
However, there have been times where we are told up front by these communities that they don’t need outside education, or we discover ourselves that it is not a priority for them.
I’ll give you an example – we were looking to establish a Sokola in Timor and encountered the Boti tribe. After living with them for some time, we realized that they were completely fine on their own and didn’t need the education we offered.
“There have been times where we are told up front by these communities that they don’t need outside education”
We have to weigh out which tribes need our education, and we have a criterion for that; one important factor is a strong tradition that still dictates their everyday way of life, the second, is evidence of injustice or harm towards a tribe when interacting with the outside world, or even a complete unfamiliarity with their rights as Indonesian citizens.
These two factors within a tribe make our approach easier and more welcomed.
If a tribe has no strong tradition, they are usually looking towards formal Indonesian education, and if their interaction with the outside world doesn’t harm them in any way, then our presence isn’t really needed, and is, naturally, not attractive to them. In such cases, our programs won’t work – they might even damage their way of life.
Personally, have you always trusted yourself in doing the right thing?
That depends! As an educator and anthropologist, I’m very confident in what I do and I’ve always trusted that. But when I’m confronted with politics or business, then that’s another story! From fundraising and merchandising, we at Sokola are still learning how to be financially sustainable as an organization.
Was there a moment where you found out your cause was bigger than you thought?
Indeed! it was a year into my life in the jungle; I was really isolated and had no contact with the outside world, and I had found myself fighting with illegal loggers. I took photos of them; the movie (Sokola Rimba) showed me running and escaping within 5 seconds, but in reality, it was an 11-hour chase.
I realized that this encounter was only one tiny part of Indonesia, and that illegal logging was probably happening everywhere!
I really believe that education and awareness is the answer, so I made a map of the illegal loggers in the area. I recorded their GPS coordinates, and counted how many there were. There were around 10,000 of them, and this was just around one river. There were 3 in the whole park.
With the information, we went to court with the help of the governor, and we still lost. The big bosses of the logging industry have backup from Jakarta. How can you not be frustrated?
Education will empower the locals so that they can advocate for themselves. A prime example is the Rimba people; just last month, they successfully influenced the national forestry department to make new regulations that are based in their culture and way of life for the conservation park where they live in. This was a victory 12 years in the making.
“We went to court with the help of the governor, and we still lost.”
You’ve described how modern education given to indigenous peoples should not be a replacement of their knowledge, but an extension of it. With that in mind, what indigenous knowledge or ways of life can we incorporate into modern curriculum as an extension of what we know today?
Sure! The first thing we in the modern world can learn and implement is indigenous methodology itself. The notion of “School” in an indigenous sense is actually very research based, which is something that we are sorely lacking in Indonesia’s national curriculum.
From a young age, the Rimba people learn by going out and researching. They ask questions from their observations; “Why is the vegetation around an area like this?”, “Which direction does the wind blow?”, from that they can make traps and shelter. This is all done by research, analysis and critical thinking.
They are naturally very pragmatic and therefore often critique something. Whenever I began to teach them something new, they would ask how it would directly be useful for their own lives. Would learning multiplication help chase the illegal loggers away? If there was no direct connection, they wouldn’t want to learn.
“If there was no direct connection, they wouldn’t want to learn.”
We’re not used to incorporating critical thinking in our modern curriculum. Our kids only sit there to absorb and remember! In fact, there are no indigenous communities that aren’t critical in some way – if so, they must have already been influenced by some program that eventually turns them into consumers; one that trains them to just absorb and not think.
Another thing that indigenous can teach us all is ancestor knowledge. If we want to be true Indonesians, we have to be authentic in knowing where we came from and not simply adopt western ways of life. It’s a shame that we Indonesians have adopted curriculums from outside. I think every province should have their own educational curriculum according to their way of life.
“We’re not used to incorporating critical thinking in our modern curriculum. Our kids only sit there to absorb and remember!”
How have you evolved and changed as a person since starting the first Sokola? What has become more important for you now and what has become less important for you?
I lived for a long time in Rimba before I even began Sokola. There, I had my own transformational process – the process of turning from Butet who is from the city, to Butet who is a student of the Rimba people. I had to learn how to see and think like them.
I was alone too, which was an advantage. If you want to go learn about a people or a culture, go alone – otherwise you’re almost in another community within a community. Being alone allows you to blend easier.
But back to my process, here’s an example of it; we would go out setting traps for animals to eat, and one day we found a wounded bear cub inside one of them, with its mother crying outside. The kids that I was with proceeded to begin killing the cub, but its mother then began to chase us all!
The kids managed to climb up a tree and left me crying for my life as I couldn’t climb and they thought, “Our teacher is so stupid! She’s been here for three years but still can’t climb a tree!” Eventually they came down and helped me up; these were 8-year-olds!
“I had to learn how to see and think like them.”
They eventually chased away the mother, and I cried and begged them not to kill the cub as I felt sorry, but they told me to be quiet, because God will hear my words and not send anymore food to their traps. So, I learned from then that anything that came into the traps was to be food for that day, no matter what.
I had to learn to think from their culture. That applies to everything else I found shocking; I had to learn to be accepting of it.
That would be my biggest transformation – learning to see the perspective of others and be tolerant.
“That would be my biggest transformation – learning to see the perspective of others and be tolerant.”
Finally, if you can give one message to those who are looking to make a positive impact on the world, what would that message be?
There are no stupid people; only those who don’t listen to their hearts. I believe that we’ve all come into this world with our own passions and talents and those who don’t listen to the call of their hearts will only look back in regret.
Those who listen will truly be useful to others, because when you are happy and totally invested in what you do, you can fully maximize your potential, despite anything that might come up against you.
If you’re starting out in your passion, I strongly support volunteering in any field. The rest will follow if it is truly meant for you.
If you would like to get in touch with Butet, you can do so at:
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
HP : +628157118389
Instagram : @butet_manurung
If you would like to know more about the SOKOLA Institute, visit
Facebook : Sokola Indonesia