“I have a special affection for Kajar… It is a wonderful and mysterious place.”
~S. Ann Dunham, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia
On our way from Yogyakarta, my friend Satriyo braced himself at the handlebars like a speed demon, overtaking slowpokes and narrowly sideswiping oncoming trucks in the maelstrom of traffic. As usual on Indonesia’s roads, I hung on and prayed we wouldn’t die, and at the same time never felt so alive in all my life. We flew past a crumbling old Dutch building—a colonial relic—reclaimed by vines; in the distance clouds brooded around the funnel of Mount Merapi, an active volcano. We climbed the winding slopes of Gunung Kidul, pausing to eat fried rice at a local restaurant clinging to the side of the cliffs. The plains of central Java spread out below, a patchwork of rice, corn, and cassava fields stretching towards Yogya to the west. About a quarter of Indonesia’s fast-growing population of more than 260 million still depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. But in post-colonial Indonesia, the pressure is on to bring it into the fold of industrialized nations.
As an anthropologist, S. Ann Dunham (the “S” stands for Stanley, the name her father gave her when she was born because he’d wanted a boy) documented these pressures and the ways Indonesian villagers struggled to keep their cultural traditions alive. Her book, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, was in an e-reader tucked in my backpack. While famous as the mother of Barack Obama, forty-fourth president of the United States, Ann was an accomplished academic in her own right. From 1977 to 1991 she visited Kajar, her primary source of research, compiling notes that her colleagues at the University of Hawaii eventually turned into a book after she died of ovarian cancer in 1995. It was Ann’s work in Kajar, a village in the mountains of Java known for its blacksmiths, that had prompted me to follow in her footsteps.
On the Kidul plateau, we flew past traditional Javanese houses, their red-tiled joglo roofs flashing through the trees. Along the side of the road, tourist touts held up hand-painted signs enticing motorists to stop and explore the area’s sacred underground caves. The mountain is riddled with them; if you descended into the heart of such a cave, you’d see sunlight streaming in from above through holes like Swiss cheese. The Javanese army took refuge here from the occupying Dutch forces, finding refreshment from the network of subterranean springs while planning their counter attacks. According to the ancient Javanese religion Kejawen, mystics came to fast, pray, and find spiritual enlightenment. The subterranean river network sometimes emits hollow booming sounds, or, as the villagers describe them, “magic voices” as they erupt into springs to relieve droughts.
We turned off the main road onto a lane fringed with rustling teak forests and sugar cane fields you could get lost in. White Brahmin cattle with dewy eyes and hunched backs grazed in the surrounding hills. The countryside was working its spell; I felt a sense of calm and contentment move through me like a warm breeze. There’s a saying in Javanese: sinukmaya winahya ing asepi: “Abiding in the realm of calmness.” This was a world that seemed unchanged by industrialization and technology, where time slowed and magic remained.
We arrived in Kajar and paused at a corner shop stacked high with bottled water and blue canisters of cooking gas, confused about where to begin. An old man was squatting in front of the shop smoking a kretek, or clove cigarette. Satriyo sauntered over, produced his own pack from his pocket and fired up.
“Mau ke mana?” the old man asked.
When I explained I wanted to learn more about Ibu Ann (ibu means “mother,” a term of respect for all married women), he immediately got on his cellphone. Within minutes, a young woman appeared on her motorbike to greet us, and soon we were sipping tea and nibbling coconut biscuits in her family house, which was attached to a sky-blue mosque with a pagoda roof. There was a small commotion outside, and neighbors appeared in the doorway to get a look at the strangers who’d just blown into town. While I sat with my sugary tea on the sofa, a girl of about three toddled up and stared at me suspiciously. I braced for her reaction—my slanted blue eyes (a combination of my Scottish and Native American heritage) have a way of making Indonesian children stare, then burst into tears.
“Don’t be scared,” I soothed her in Indonesian. “I’m not a ghost!”
The neighbors laughed and edged in closer, but the little girl didn’t seem convinced. Evi, who looked not a day over sixteen, explained that she was a married mother of two whose husband was away working on a cruise ship. The suspicious child was hers, she said. We chatted while Satriyo helped smooth our communication with his fluent Javanese; while Indonesian is the national language, the country has more than 500 among its diverse cultures, and people often still use their mother tongue at home. Evi jiggled her other child, a baby girl, gently in a batik sling tied over her shoulder. When we finished the tea and biscuits, she gave the children to their grandmother and motioned us to follow her through the throng of curious neighbors.
* * *
In the dim light of the perapen, or blackmith’s shop, the man in the floppy hat puffed on a kretek, the sweetness of burning cloves mingling with the scent of ashes, hot metal. He squinted at me through the smoke and with a glint in his eye replied, “Obama suka bakso.”
I was beginning to understand why Ann describes the empu’s role as that of ‘the magician ritual specialist, puppet master, poet, priest, and even musician.’The three other men around the anvil burst into grins so wide that the wrinkles around their mouths met the crinkles of their eyes, contoured by the glow of the smithy fire. I couldn’t help but smile too, amused by his expert deflection of my question (“Do you remember Ann or her children?”) with the former president’s fondness for Indonesian meatball soup. Who wouldn’t be—it’s delicious. In Indonesia, food is by far everyone’s favourite subject.
“When Maya was a child, she often played with the children of the village,” said one.
“She liked to eat nuts and boiled corn,” said another.
They crushed their cigarettes underfoot and got back to work. The man with the floppy hat—the empu, or head smith—grabbed a white-hot chunk of metal from the forge with a pair of long-handled pliers and laid it on the anvil. The panjak raised their hammers and swung as the empu held it steady. The metal sang; sparks swirled like fireflies with each well-aimed blow. The empu turned the metal, now cooling to red, to draw out the shape. The panjak gained momentum, striking with musical regularity like the three-four time of a waltz; they had to work fast before the metal cooled.
I blinked a few times and drew a hand across my forehead to wipe off the sweat. The heat from the forge, the glow of metal, and the rhythm of the blows had me a little mesmerized. I was beginning to understand why Ann describes the empu’s role as that of “the magician ritual specialist, puppet master, poet, priest, and even musician.” In the preface her book, Ann’s daughter Maya remembers, “I had a marvelous time as a child, surrounded by pictures of anvils and forges and stories about the magic of fire.” Blacksmithing is known as a trade with magical powers, the anvil a sacred place of sacrifice where fire can transform metal.
Ann may have told her daughter the legend of the blacksmith Mpu Gandring from the ancient Javanese Book of Kings. The story goes that Ken Arok, son of the Hindu god Brahma and the human wife of a priest, was seized with lust for a married woman, Ken Dedes, when he caught a glimpse of her legs. Determined to have her, he ordered Mpu Gandring to forge a keris, or dagger, to kill her unfortunate husband. A keris takes at least a year in the making, over which many prayers must be said to prevent it from being used for evil purposes. But Ken Arok was impatient—he grabbed the keris and stabbed Mpu Gandring with it. Before he took his last breath, the blacksmith cast a curse on the keris, which eventually killed Ken Arok and seven generations of his descendants. (The takeaways: Don’t let lust get the better of you. And never mess with a blacksmith.)
While glimmers of magic shine through Ann’s work, she takes a largely pragmatic approach, describing the blacksmith’s art with the precision of a scientist, and the scene I was witnessing matched her account exactly: “Most Kajar perapen make large agricultural tools requiring three panjak, so that the dominant sound is the heavy ‘one-two-three’ of metal hitting metal.” Though the style and tone are academic, I can feel Ann’s deep respect for Indonesian people in each word. Because it was always more than just a study. Ann also wanted to positively impact the lives of traditional Indonesian craftspeople as they adapted to, and in some cases embraced, modernization. “I was fortunate to have had a fourteen-year relationship with the people of this village,” she writes, “to have visited it many times during that period, and to have witnessed both the changes that it underwent and the remarkable strength and tenacity of its traditions.”
Ann’s strength and tenacity were equally remarkable as she adapted to the traditions of being a woman and mother. Born in 1942, she grew up in the Midwest at a time when women were expected to stay at home at care for the children. Yet a mortgage, a Maytag dishwasher, and a white picket fence were not for her. Instead she travelled to a far-flung corner of the earth that many wouldn’t be able to find on a map—including myself before I came here in 2007 (Indonesia stretches in a wide arc across the equator between Australia to the south and Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines to the north). When Ann met her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, an engineering student at the University of Hawaii, she married him and moved to his native country—a gutsy move in a politically chaotic time. It was 1965, the same year Suharto overthrew Indonesia’s democratically elected government in a military coup and began his thirty-year dictatorship. It must have been safe enough, though, because in 1967 Ann brought young Obama to live with them in Jakarta. She began her fieldwork with calm determination, living and working amongst the people with ease. For a time, she taught English, and was also a consultant with the United States Agency for International Development, establishing a microcredit financing system still in use today to help alleviate poverty among Indonesia’s craftspeople. After her daughter Maya was born in 1970 she brought both children into the field with her.
Ann and her family are a source of great pride in Indonesia, where I’ve lived for more than ten years. Their former house in Menteng, Jakarta’s embassy district, where LoLo once urged his stepson to try tiger meat, has become a tourist attraction, and stories still appear in the news with locals remembering amusing anecdotes, like how Obama was called bebek or “duck” because of his youthful plumpness. Gentle ribbing is part of the culture—my Indonesian mother-in-law often prods my waistline saying, “Wendy lebih gemuk ya!” Which means I’m getting pleasantly chubby. It used to drive me crazy, but I realize now that it’s a compliment because it means you have enough food to eat—hence the Indonesian preoccupation with food in this country, where millions still live on less than two dollars a day.
When Obama went on the presidential campaign trail, everyone I knew, including my husband’s family and my students at the Australian Consulate in Medan, North Sumatra, followed the election, caught up with excitement that a positive change was afoot, not just for Americans but for everyone around the world, since American elections deeply impact all of us. One of my students became famous among his classmates for his resemblance to Obama. Whenever it was his turn to speak, the class urged, “Obama! Speak English please.” In response, Akbar always beamed proudly, if a little bashfully, as we all giggled.
A few years ago, Ann’s daughter Maya returned to Indonesia for a visit. I saw her on the news, arriving to much fanfare in her modest attire with a scarf wrapped around her shoulders in respect for local customs. It was around that time that I finally read Ann’s book and learned more about her history. I admired her sense of adventure, the rigor of her work, the calmness and ease with which she navigated worlds so different from her own. And as a woman I could relate so much to her. I, too, had given birth to a child at eighteen and struggled for years to balance both motherhood and my academic studies in English literature. In 2007, when my daughter had grown and flown the nest, I also felt called to do something meaningful in the world, so I joined a volunteer research project to help conserve endangered orangutans in Sumatra. Like Ann, I taught English. And I fell in love with an Indonesian man, his country and his people, finding them easygoing, quick to laugh, and quick to welcome strangers as friends into their home.
* * *
The empu tossed the freshly completed axe head on a pile in the corner where it landed with a clank. With unflagging vigor, he grabbed another lump of white-hot metal from the fire and the men began anew. Each axe head took about ten minutes, he explained; they made about eighty a day. In the corner, an electric fan blew next to a dented tea kettle, some tin cups with lids on to keep out flies, jars of cassava root chips, and battered ashtrays overflowing with butts. Ash was everywhere—spilling out of the ashtrays, collecting in drifts around the anvil. A cool breeze sifted through the basket-weave walls, cutting through the heat and blowing more ash around. “Like sand on the beach,” one of the panjak joked. They paused as the empu inserted a small oval mould made of wood into the glowing metal and began to swing again, muscles slick with sweat, to create a hole for the handle. Their movements were robust, full of a kind of joy and pride in their work that I’d never known when toiling away in office cubicles.
When the dull red glow faded, I saw that the metal had been transformed into an axe head. The empu tapped it sharply and tossed it onto the heap. Then he picked up an already cooled axe head and smoothed the ash off lovingly with blackened fingers to reveal the stamp of an anvil at its base. “See,” he said. “This shows we made it here in Kajar. Now it will be exported to somewhere in Indonesia, maybe the world. And it is our product.”
* * *
Later that afternoon, waiting with Evi and Satriyo in the driveway of Pak Sostro’s long, butter-cream house, I spied a television set through the open door, surprised it wasn’t a fifty-inch flat screen. Ann says that Pak Sostro was Kajar’s most important empu pedagang, a head of the blacksmith’s collective. “Though the richest man with the biggest house, Pak Sostro was known for his modesty, except when it came to technology,” she writes. “He was the first in Kajar to own a diesel-powered electric generator, an electrically powered edge-grinding machine, and electrically powered bellows (blower), a four-wheeled vehicle, a television set, electric lights, and a camera. Partly this was because he had the money with which to purchase these items, and partly it was because of his enthusiasm for new technologies and anything which he perceives as modern.”
I’d seen this among my students. In the rush to catch up with the rest of the world, young people no longer wanted to follow in their family traditions, seeing a city job as the way to a better future.Pak Sostro’s daughter, Bu Mintasirih, greeted us, and I was disappointed to learn that both her father and mother had died. A striking woman of forty-five with luminous eyes, she was one of several children the Sostros adopted from other family members because they were unable to have their own. She sat with us on the tiled veranda, set with long wooden tables and chairs to accommodate large groups of blacksmiths on their breaks. As I politely sipped another cup of sugary tea, she waved a hand at the road. “People from all over the world come here now. I see them wandering around looking for our house.” It seemed Kajar was undergoing something of a mini tourism boom as people came to see the village that Barack Obama’s mother had written about. “Maya and I were both kids. We often played here on the terrace. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
Bu Mintarsih showed us the blacksmith shop behind the house—much larger than the first one we’d seen. “We have about fifty workers, and when they’re busy, wow. Klentang, klentung, klentang, klentung, all day long. So loud!” The shop—an open yard with work stations around the perimeter under corrugated tin eaves—was now silent and empty, hammers lying on the ground as if they’d been hastily abandoned. “Their day off,” she explained. Hundreds of metalwork chairs painted turquoise were stacked neatly in a corner. I recognized the same chair in my hotel room back in Yogya: sturdy and attractive, with a rounded backrest and two brackets up the centre. Bu Mintarsih explained that she had a son in university, and she’d already spent a good portion of income on his masters in management. Did he want to take over the family business? “Maybe. He’s not sure.” She rolled her eyes. “These days kids want to live in the city. They want to be so modern.”
I’d seen this among my students. In the rush to catch up with the rest of the world, young people no longer wanted to follow in their family traditions, seeing a city job as the way to a better future. It seemed odd to me, though, since another reason I’d come to Indonesia was to escape that very fate—my third time watching Office Space had sealed the deal. Once again, as in Ann’s time, this tiny village seemed poised for change, awaiting what other challenges the modern world would bring. Even the old blacksmith workers’ collective building Ann had written about, across from the Sostro family compound, was permanently closed.
* * *
The elders are among the last keepers of cultural tradition at a time when the world seems thirsty for it. In Pak Subari’s workshop, hundreds of copper gongs were stacked neatly for export. A gongsmith, Pak Subari estimated that he made at least one complete gamelan orchestra set per month for buyers in Bali and abroad. That’s no small task—a gamelan orchestra has sixteen pieces, including a xylophone and sets of hanging gongs of various sizes. Gamelan music is integral to Indonesian identity. Its music haunts, sends both men and women dancing with their hips, eyes, and fingers as they perform the ancient Hindu stories of the Ramayana.
Pak Subari’s wife, Mbak Nur, brought a large clear jug of tea with bits of leaf swirling around inside. At this point I felt like I was about to pop like a water balloon but it would be rude to refuse, so I forced down a little sip and smiled. Mbak Nur lay down a big bowl of shelled peanuts on the rough-hewn table and swatted away the flies.
Pak Subari asked to see Ann’s book. I pulled out my e-reader and everyone gathered around to look as I clicked through the photos. With still-sharp eyes, Pak Subari, the father of four children and six grandchildren, spotted the name of his village written in Ann’s own handwriting on the screen. He placed a work-worn finger over her notes and repeated with wonder in his voice: “Kajar.” Then he gasped and stared a moment at Ann’s illustrations of farm tools forged by Kajar blacksmiths. “They’re still the same,” he said. One of the axe heads was indeed exactly like those we’d just seen in the perapen.
I clicked to the next picture.
“Ah.” He pointed to the roof of thatched palm. “We don’t have roofs like that anymore. More modern now, with tiles.”
I clicked again: a man with smooth pompadour hair, crouched next to a water trough.
“Pak Pangusi!” He nudged Mbak Nur, who’d fallen into animated conversation with Satriyo in musical Javanese.
“Mm hmm,” she confirmed. “He looks so young. He used to live just behind our house. But he is gone now.” We gazed at Pak Pangusi, still alive in the photo, a newly forged pickaxe in his hand.
Click. An old man sitting in the doorway, baskets of flowers at his feet: The only Islamic official in Kajar village, making offerings and burning incense at the Bersih Desa festival.
“Pak Wornosamin! He had a store in the traditional market. He’s gone now too.”
As they remembered their old friend who once presided over Kajar’s annual village purification festival, it struck me just how important Ann’s work is to the history of Kajar, especially as parts of it were already slipping away. I asked if they’d ever seen the book before.
“No, never. How much does it cost?”
They all shook their heads when I told them in the Indonesian currency. “Very expensive,” Evi said. “We don’t have money for books. Besides, we don’t know English.”
Suddenly I saw myself in a different light. Here I was, a comparatively wealthy foreigner who had brought an expensive device to show them images of their own village. It didn’t seem fair. Feeling a little guilty and not knowing what to do about it, I changed the subject. But when I asked if they knew about Sumbur Kajar, the sacred spring with the image of a keris in the stone that Ann had described, they looked even more perplexed. I attempted to translate:
I wandered along the bank where the stream flowed over a few bits of garbage stuck in the mud—discarded plastic water bottles and potato-chip bags. Above us, the banyan’s crown billowed and creaked.“At the base of the spring is a wide, flat stone, worn smooth from water action. When the water level is low, one can look down and make out the clear shape of a keris in the stone… Villagers consider this image of a keris as proof that the men of Kajar are fated to be smiths.”
“You mean Sumbur Air,” Evi said.
“Ah,” said Pak Subari. “That stone was taken long ago. Somebody stole it.”
* * *
We parked next to a well with a large copper cistern and a mosque that stood clean and white among the rusty teaks and umbrella-leafed cassavas. A cool wind blew and the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees. Nearby, a stream fed into a spring enclosed by a low wall with some stone steps leading into the water. An old banyan grew there, perhaps the one Ann mentions in her notes. In Javanese mysticism, banyans house the spirits of the ancestors and should be avoided at night. I asked Evi about this, but she just looked at me as if I were slightly delusional and turned her attention to texting on her phone. It was getting late; maybe she was checking on the kids. Satriyo leaned against his motorbike, occasionally flicking his hair as he stared into his own phone. I wondered if it was a hot date—he and my other friend Daniel had just broken up over Satriyo’s roving eye.
I wandered along the bank where the stream flowed over a few bits of garbage stuck in the mud—discarded plastic water bottles and potato-chip bags. Above us, the banyan’s crown billowed and creaked. Through the papery rustle of the teak forest, borne high on the wind, came the clear rhythmic ring of a blacksmith’s hammer: Ting ting ting.
I wondered if Ann also felt the presence of spirits here. Maybe she didn’t believe in that kind of thing. Or maybe she still visits once in a while.
* * *
I fell into my own quiet thoughts on the back of Satriyo’s bike as we motored to our final destination through fields of cassava, corn, peanuts, and sugarcane tended with Kajar’s own hand-forged farm tools. Why should all this change? I wondered. Why do we believe without question that industrialization is so necessary for progress, that to live like this is somehow backwards? Surely true progress is our ability to hold onto the traditions that nourish our spirits and preserve the future for our earth and our loved ones. Then again, I’d never wish the hard grinding work of poverty on anyone. And the people of Kajar were facing difficult times.
Next to a stone well with Black Roses spray-painted on it was a small dammed-up lake papered over with fallen teak leaves. All around us, living leaves twisted and turned on their slender branches, gold, then rust. As we crossed the dam I spied a hill through the trees. It looked a little like a postcard of a Greek village but in miniature, with jumbles of whitewashed houses and tiled gazebos interspersed with gnarled frangipani trees. Some houses were topped with stone flames, some with white sheets, their corners pierced on the stone and fluttering in the wind. As we came closer I saw that they were graves.
Once, when Ann contracted an eye infection, the villagers suggested she rinse her eyes in the waters of Sumbur Kajar. When this didn’t work, they advised her to make a pilgrimage to the top of Gunung Panduran and make an offering to the graves of Gunokaryo and Kasan Ikhsan, Pak Sostro’s blacksmithing ancestors and the founders of Kajar. Their graves had become pepunden, sacred sites that even had their own cult. “Whenever villagers have a problem with illness or sterility they bring offerings of rice and flowers to these graves,” she writes. She does not mention, though, if she followed their advice, or if it worked.
As we picked our way up the hill, voices called out to us in greeting from among the graves. Three villagers were sitting on a grave with plates of food and a large tin teapot. One of the villagers, an old woman with her head wrapped in a batik cloth, looked at me in alarm as we passed by, as if she’d seen a wandering spirit. I smiled and called out good afternoon, just to show I was human. This only made her titter nervously and whisper to the others. Near the top of the hill, Evi pointed to a black marble grave. “That’s my father,” she said. Her voice sounded calm and happy, not a tinge of sadness in it. She was the youngest of ten children, she said. The final child in a long, productive life.
We paused to rest and look down over the sea of roofs and the rustling teak forest. Satriyo and Evi perched on a low stone wall. Heaven or Hell was spray-painted on it in Gothic letters. They soon tired of the view and began texting again. Ah, kids these days. I turned to amble among the gravestones, taking care not to step on them and cause offense. Suddenly I caught the sweet scent of frangipani blossoms and breathed in deeply. I love frangipani; I used to wear the oil as perfume until my husband joked that I smelled like a cemetery. No one ever wears frangipani perfume in Indonesia.
I looked up to find the source of the scent. A flowering pink frangipani crowned the top of the hill, guarding a set of curling black flames—four rows in all, about seven feet long, in sharp relief against the burning blue sky. They appeared to be grave-markers, yet none bore any inscription. Each had been set with a round earthenware jar and a plate, cracked and weatherworn. Did the original blacksmiths, the founders of Kajar, lie beneath these flames? I opened my e-reader to check.
“Near the top of a small hill which is used as a graveyard is a curious black stone, several feet in length. The upper surface of this stone is carved in curious convoluted shapes which are toothlike or hornlike. These shapes resemble those on the clay gable ornaments used in some parts of Java, and they also resemble the flamelike flanges on Balinese gates.”
My heart began to pound as if I’d made a momentous discovery. In the twenty years since Ann had written about Kajar, more flames had appeared, more sacred sites added to Kajar’s long and growing history. Yet all around us—through the trees and over the rooftops—the ting ting ting of the blacksmith’s hammer continued, rising in the air, above the black flames on the hill. I imagined Ann would be happy to know that, despite more modern developments like cellphones and e-readers, or maybe even because of them, Kajar’s blacksmithing tradition continues to survive against the odds. And Ann’s legacy remains, abiding in this realm of calmness and shaping its future in subtle, unseen ways.
I wished I’d brought something for the blacksmiths, some kind of offering. I rifled through my bag in search of the only thing I could give, a tool of my own trade. I laid down my last pen, an old Bic, and left the blacksmiths to their rest.