Village Childhood

Semasa Kecil di Kampung Translated by: Susan Rogers. Original language: Bahasa Indonesia
West Sumatra, Indonesia

Muhammad Radjab

Sumatra, Indonesia

FROM: Chapter 1: A Lake Singkarak Child

Why I was born into this world, I do not know.  Why I was born in Minangkabau puzzles me even more.  These two things have surprised me very much and have bothered me since I was little.  But I will not bother with things I do not know here; I will simply relate some of my experiences that are surprising and just itching to come out.

They say I was born in mid-1913, when the cholera epidemic began to spread through Minangkabau and other areas, taking dozens of people a day to death’s door.  At a time when other people were dying and being buried in the ground, I was alive, given birth to by my mother.  Doubtless, to fill an empty place in the world, so that the earth would continue to be filled.

My datuk [lineage elder, ceremonial leader in adat][1] was a farmer and a mosque official.  He was the most highly regarded person in our village, both because of his religious devotion and because of his knowledge of silat, the traditional Minangkabau art of self-defense.[2]  My datuk was also known to possess magical powers; he had formulas that could cure a sick person, make one person love or hate another, and even put a curse on someone.  Village people considered him to be, as they put it, “potent,” even though he was quiet, never bothered anyone, and did not boast about his powers.  I do not know what my datuk looked like, since he died before I was born.

My father was stout, healthy, and muscular; he was brave and had strong desires, but he also had a quick temper.  When he was angry at someone, anyone else who got in his way came under attack as well.  He looked for some reason, some fault, to be upset about.  My father was no longer young when I was born, so we were not really very close.  He was a devoted religious teacher who was feared and respected, both because he was so knowledgeable and because he was adept at sword fighting.  His outlook on life stood in contrast to that of my mother.

My mother was a good woman, with a slender body, skin the color of langsat,[3] and a tender heart; she was also patient and devout.  When she was not cooking in the kitchen, she was crocheting or sewing.  She did not much like to chat, much less gossip about others.

I was barely a week old when a friend of my father’s asked him what he had named his child.

“Because he’s my first boy, and the word for ‘boy’ in Arabic is ridjal, he will be named Ridjal.”  So even though I am an Indonesian, my name is Arabic, to give it a faintly Islamic ring.

I was born in Sumpur, a village at the northern end of Lake Singkarak.  It was an excellent location, in a peaceful green valley between two mountain ranges running north to south.  The valley was filled with irrigated rich fields, and down the middle ran the Sumpur River.  Hidden in the shade of coconut palms and fruit trees, the houses of my village were scattered along the northern edge of the rice fields on either side of the river.  They were fine houses, almost all of them of the traditional type, long and with steep, six-pointed roofs.[4]

What I have just described was only the village of Lower Sumpur, which was cut in two by the river.  The part on the eastern bank of the Sumpur River was called the Baruh, and that on the western bank was known as Seberang Air [Over-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-Water].  That was the location of my mother’s house, the place where I was born.


My mother’s house was of the traditional type, but because we were not well-to-do the floor and walls were only made of bamboo.  The steps, though, were made of ironwood, strong enough to last a hundred years.  The house was sixteen meters long and eight meters wide, and the floor was two and one-half meters off the ground.  There were two parts of the house.  In the front was a large space where guests could sit when there was a gathering and where children played and slept; the back was divided into seven rooms, each occupied by one of my mother’s female relations.  The house was built by the husband of my mother’s grandmother, who had had to move from another house because it was full.  She had two girls, who in turn had families, one of seven children (five girls) and the other of five children (three girls).  In order for everyone to have a place in the house the back was divided into seven rooms for the women of the house.  The men slept in the front until they were married, when they slept at their wives’ homes.  A woman had to have her own room because that is where she would receive her husband.  She would not be taken in by her husband.  That was the custom in Minangkabau.  Everyone who was living under the same roof was considered part of the same family, that is, they were all grandchildren of the same woman.

My mother occupied one of the cramped rooms, and there I was born.  I would say it was like being born in a barracks, since there were more than forty people living in that house at the time.  The seven girls all had children, half of them themselves had children, and every night seven unfamiliar men came to the house, that is, the husbands of the seven women.  One can imagine how noisy the place was, what with all these individual needs, dispositions, and behaviours colliding.  Morning, noon, and night it was one big hullabaloo.  I was born at five in the morning, when the house was quiet and everyone else was sound asleep, except for two or three of my aunts and a midwife.

That house and its surroundings always made me feel extremely nostalgic every time I visited it after I was five years old.  I do not know why, and have never been able to explain it.  The sense of yearning was vague, but it penetrated to my very soul.  There were various flowers of different colors and some croton plants around the house, and in the back yard some aloe plants.  The crotons were large, and wide varicoloured leaves of red, yellow, green, and white.  They always caught my attention and heightened my sensation of longing for some unknown thing.  Maybe I felt this way because I planted two crotons on my mother’s grave; every time I see that plant the feeling envelopes me.

Behind the house were the high, jungle-crowned mountains.  That deep green jungle also posed an enigma for me when I was between eight and ten years old: it seemed to say, “I have an enormous secret; try to find out what it is!”  And now far behind the house, within earshot but unseen, flowed the Sumpur River, whose rumbling current had for centuries played its lively, tumultuous song, carrying it far away to other continents, calling me and causing my thoughts to drift  away.

The house and the village were full of emotion for me, especially the crotons, which when I was young and naive moved me very deeply. Sometimes I prayed to God that the agonized longing in my heart would cease.

But let us return to the story I started to tell.




When I was forty days old I was “bathed,” which meant that I was taken into the yard and bathed in the river.  They just call it bathing; actually, I was carried down in my cloth sling, resting on my mother’s hip, to be introduced to the river.  My mother sat n one of the large rocks at the river’s edge, and I was allowed for the first time to breathe in the pleasant, pure air.  After a quarter of an hour I was taken home and given a bath in warm water.

That day my mother killed a chicken and invited a few devout Moslems to a little selamatan, a ceremonial meal to ensure a long and healthy existence for me.  From that day onward I was taken to the river every day and bathed in its cool, clear water.  Even now I can recall once being carried on someone’s shoulder to the river, though I cannot remember who carried me.  Perhaps my mother.  I can catch a glimpse of her face in my memory, but the recollection is only of those few minutes; after that everything is murky.

Every woman who met Mother as she was carrying me around in the sling pinched my cheeks and said, “What an awful child you have!”  This was because people in our village did not want to say that someone’s child was wonderful; it was bad luck.  According to superstition, if a child was spoken of admiringly it woud catchsmallpox when it was older.  The women in my village were also very pleased if their child had an Arabic name, which according to their aesthetic sense[5] sounded the most beautiful.  And they very much liked pointed, well-formed noses.

But I was not long happy in my sling, cuddled and loved by my dear mother.  One night when I was only nine months old, she caught cholera, and the next morning, just as dawn was breaking and after she had told my aunt to take care of me, she died.  I no longer had a mother.  I really do not remember what she looked like.  There is no picture of her, since in those days photographs were forbidden by the religious teachers.

After my mother was buried and the crotons were planted on her grave, my father carried me, crying all the way, to his mosque at Upper Sumpur.  From then on that is where I lived.  Father was very sad because in two weeks he was to leave for Mecca on the haj.[6] I would have been taken along, but I was still too young.  So two weeks after my mother died, my father departed for Saudi Arabia with my Aunt Salamah.



I was very fortunate that my father was open to sending me to school.  In that era many fathers did not want to send their children to school, and certainly not their girls.  The reason for this was not that they were unwilling to spend the money, which was only 15 or 25 cents per bill,[7] but that they were prevented from doing it by old superstitions that had settled in their brains.  According to the superstitions handed down from their ancestors, whoever knew how to write would have his fingers sliced off in hell.  That was the oldest superstition.  Those who did not believe this superstition but still were averse to sending their children to school did so because they did not see the use of learning how to read and write if the child was not to be a secretary or a foreman of some kind.

Wealthy people and businessmen were reluctant to give their children schooling because, in their view, school was only necessary for learning how to earn money when you grew up; they already had a lot of money – far more than what a clerk made, for example – and on that account merchants’ children learned how to make money from the time they were very little.

Serious Moslems were reluctant because they thought it sufficient if their children knew how to read and write the Arabic letters.  Religion was more important than anything else, they said, because it was religion that determined one’s fate in the hereafter.

Girls were not permitted to go to school because it was thought that they would just use their knowledge of writing to send love letters to boys.  The girls were not supposed to be looking for their own marriage partners from among the young men they liked; marriage partners were supposed to be chosen by the parents.

So thousands of children like me in Minangkabau in those days were kept in the dark and had their futures ruined by ignorant parents, parents who provided the wrong sort of preparation for their children’s future.  The older generation, and the ancestors they were so proud of and tried so hard to emulate, regressed further and further because they did not know how to read and write and did not want to learn.  And they prohibited the younger generation from studying precisely at a time when the school doors were wide open.

They had fallen behind the times, and they were forcing their children to fall behind too.  They were not aware that they were regressing, and this was a fundamental ill that was difficult to treat.  They were unable to compare their intelligence with that of other peoples; they did not want progress: this much was clear from the way they spoke back then.  I heard them every day.  They were satisfied if they had enough to eat and slept well at night.  Every afternoon the teachers had to go to the villages and try to persuade parents to send their children [to] school.

But, the problem was, few did.



When the rice in the paddies begins to turn yellow, villagers rejoice, for in a few days they will be harvesting the fruits of their labor.  They will be eating newly reaped rice and their granaries will be full.  So they make their preparations to feed the people who will be cutting and threshing their rice for them.  People from our village (as was the case all through Minangkabau) did not hire coolies to do this work.  Rather, they relied on mutual cooperation leagues.  They’d rely on these to cut down the rice with sickles (folks would take turns at that), and for threshing the rice and carrying off the rice of each person in the league.  For example, say that thirty people decide to get their paddy rice safely back into their houses; they agree to work until the job’s complete.  On this one day, for instance, they’d be in paddy A, threshing, while tomorrow they’d be in paddy B, cutting the rice down, and the next day in paddy C, threshing.  And that’s the way it would go on until all the rice of all those thirty people would be safely stored back in their houses.  Folks whose paddy rice was going to be cut or threshed needed only to prepare food and drink; each person in the mutual cooperation league would bring his or her own sickle and threshing cane.

When I sat on top of the steep riverbank, a spot called Tanah Runtuh, looking down at the paddy fields spread out in the Sumpur Valley all the way to the Lake Singkarak shore, I could sense the joy of the farmers during the cutting and threshing season.  Out in the once-green, now yellowing paddies, the grain swayed in waves and villagers zigzagged across the terrain, going out to their respective fields.  Women balanced big plaited baskets of rice and curry on their heads.

Out in the middle of this valley were my father’s paddies, three big wide plots.  In two days the rice would be cut down.  While waiting for this, I went over to the paddies of a friend who was threshing his rice.  We weren’t very skilled at threshing yet.  Because of this we kids only to carry the rice stalks back from the haystack[8] over to the thresher.  We didn’t particularly put ourselves out working hard at this job; for us, what was really important was eating our meals out there in the fields.  This was seven times more delicious than just eating meals back home.  Even if it was the very same food we put into our mouths in both places, its taste was different somehow.  Maybe because out there we were getting to eat in a big noisy group, and it was all going on out in an open field in the open air.  And maybe mostly because humankind simply loves change, as well as things that differ from our ordinary, everyday customs.

Finally our turn to get our field rice came.  I helped out with the cutting job, too, but only for a little while: I was afraid of being bitten by leeches, which hung about in great numbers in the damp paddies.  Without your knowing it these leeches would attach themselves to your feet and suck your blood.  Grown-ups weren’t afraid; they thought of it as being just like being bitten by mosquitoes.  But I found it horrible and hideous to see those ferocious black bodies.  The grown-ups gave me jobs involving walking about so that the leeches wouldn’t light on me – jobs like carrying the bundles of rice stalks that had been harvested off to the haystack.  Over there were people whose job it was to tie them up into neat, tight bundles.

We were always cheerful as we worked.  Cutting and threshing rice was an opportunity to celebrate, to play, to eat a whole lot, to consume stewed fruit and sticky rice, to hunt grasshoppers and roast and eat them, and then later on to go bathe in the river and chase each other around and finally to go on home, playing on flutes we made of rice stalks.



The extracts are taken from the translation of Muhammad Radjab’s Semasa Kecil di Kampung [Village Childhood] in Susan Rodgers’ Telling Lives, Telling History: Autobiography and the Historical Imagination in Modern Indonesia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 149-151, 152-3, 159-60, 200-2.  This text also offers a lengthy introduction that would be useful as contextual and further reading. Extracts are reproduced with the kind permission of the University of California Press.

[1] Oldest man in a clan or lineage, in some Malay-area societies; “nobleman” in another usage.  Radjab uses the Minangkabau term, apparently, to mean ceremonial leader in his lineage, a sometimes elected post.  Radjab uses the word here without further elaboration, although its meaning may well not be self-evident to Indonesians of other ethnic backgrounds.

[2] As readers discover later in the translation, the boy’s family is intimately connected to esoteric silat lore and self-defense practice.  Minangkabau men are famous throughout Sumatra for their skills at the martial arts.

[3] A fruit with a smooth, yellowish-tan skin.  The color is much admired in many Indonesian societies, especially for women.

[4] Minangkabau great houses once served as the residence for compound matrilineal households, consisting of an old woman, some of her sisters, and their daughters.  These women’s husbands would sleep int he house too, although their “own houses” were with their mothers and sisters.

[5] The author uses the term aesthetika here.

[6] That is, Ridjal’s father was set to make the pilgrimage to Mecca – a public demonstration of his great devoutness to Islam, and to his family’s considerable wealth and prestige.

[7] Radjab does not specify if this school fee is for a month or a week or what.

[8] Lungguk: a “haystack” of cut rice stalks.