Butet Manurung: The Advocate of Indigenous Indonesian

fellow-11717-3863_id_headshot.jpg“I like adventures. When I was little, I once imagined I was an ant, so I could go anywhere around the world. My desire for adventure and curiosity was very strong. I liked watching movies such as Indiana Jones, The Gods Must Be Crazy, and once I comprehended the concept of reincarnation, I felt that as if I used to be Tarzan or at least a tiger. I feel very happy when I am in the middle of the jungle – this has been going on since I was in the third grade.”


Her name is Saur Marlina Manurung, the “Indiana Jones” of Indonesia. Most people know her as Butet Manurung. You might recognize her name after the release of “Sokola Rimba” in 2013, a movie that tells Butet’s life story as a jungle teacher.

One afternoon in December 2016, Ashoka Indonesia contacted her to interview for Stories of Change, journals of Ashoka Fellows and Young Changemakers. Butet became an Ashoka Fellow in 2006. As it turns out, she was in Australia at the time she was approached and thus the interview was conducted via Skype. In the middle of her busy schedule, Butet answered each question with enthusiasm and a crisp and friendly tone of voice. Through the conversation, there are many stories of her youth could be shared especially to the younger generation of Indonesia.

“Be yourself! Find your passion, find your dream, find your strength, and find your self-value. There is not one profession nobler than the other. Everything is the same, as long as you like it. Be the best human you can be just how God intended you to be.”, said Butet to the youth generation.

photo: thejungleschool.wordpress.com


Butet was born into a wealthy Batak family that moved to Jakarta. Her father was an economist who was quite protective of her as a child. She did not get a lot of time to spend playing outside of the house, but because she was an avid reader, she fell in love with the world of adventure through books. Her fondness for reading also planted potential for her to become an initiator or pioneer.

“I remember when I was little; I loved to read story books. Then there were a lot of questions in my head: Do my friends out there like to read books too? If they have books, can I exchange books with them? It started from these innocent questions that I started a library at home. At that time I was, maybe, in the second grade. I invited my friends to read; I took only a few cents per person, but it was voluntary, some would pay and some would not. Some would borrow books but never returned them, and after a few years I ran out of books.”, recalled Butet when she first learned to organize other people to create something positive.

Blessed with a smart mind, achieving in many subjects from math to sports has inspired Butet to help her friends that are falling behind. It was here that her talent for teaching slowly developed. “My friends would ask me to be the teacher, maybe because they did not want the class to be boring. I asked them to play ‘Teachers and Classrooms’. They became my students and I was their teacher. I created a few play models such as playing quizzes or discussion groups. Usually I would tempt them with the prize of a cake or candy as an incentive. I did that from elementary through high school. Until I was a teacher for my students in Rimba, I realize that my childhood experience being a teacher was very valuable. I had a rich creativity to teach.”

As an educator, Butet holds a principle that a good teacher is someone who is able to learn from their students, and also from the weaknesses of teachers before them. She really applied this principle when she was a teacher of the Anak Dalam Tribe in the depths of Jambi. Butet taught reading and writing through an anthropological approach. Butet learnt from them the language and wisdom of the Rimba People.


Butet placed emphasis on issues of injustice from a young age. Her compassion helped shape her character as a helper or activist. With a prime physique as a recurring winner of several running events in Jakarta, Butet is used to fighting bullies at her school, and becoming a saviour for her bullied friends. She admits that she has a fragile heart, and eyes that are quick to tear especially when she sees injustice. These experiences planted a sense of empathy that is embedded in her soul. “I am a daddy’s girl, always protected, so I don’t have many experiences in conditions of strife or injustice. I am quick to feel sorry for people. Many street vendors or becak drivers that take me home, and even beggars I give food at my home. If I am in the car with my father, and I see a homeless person on the street, I would cry for a very long time.”, recalled Butet.

Butet admits that she inadvertently learned values of empathy and leadership from her father. As a smart economist, her late father liked to help people not by giving lectures on the spot, but by helping other people explore their own talents so that they are able to stand on their own feet. This same treatment was also given to Butet. Even though her social life was limited, Butet was still guided to develop herself according to her will and talent.

But she realizes that her character is not just the result of her parents’ upbringing. She believes that there is something unique within her, a passion that made her delve into things very different from what her parents taught her. “People say that your upbringing and environment will influence our profession. I would disagree, because my parents taught me otherwise. My father said, you can be anything you want once you finish high school. I was very much protected, not allowed to play outside of the house. Most of the time I would sneak out during nap time to play, and would be scolded by my parents once I was caught, then told to go back to sleep. I recouped my dreams, and I waited until I finished high school. I feel as if I am destined for adventure and to fight injustice. At seminars people would say to me, I like to venture into jungles but my parents won’t let me. People should listen to what their heart says, because I am proof that it is possible.”


Upon graduating high school, Butet went to Padjadjaran University in Bandung where she followed a double major program. She worked part time as a piano instructor and also as a math tutor. Gradually, she could save up from her jobs and achieved her childhood dream of climbing a mountain. She tackled many mountains and landscapes including Trikora Peak, Wikeda Cave in Wamena, Maros Cave, and even Annapurna Himalayan Range. “As soon as I finished high school I climbed a mountain. Everybody says, well you’ll only do it once. However after that, I became obsessed with adventure and I climbed mountains every month, forged through caves or wild water rafting. Once I even climbed a mountain while I was ill, and had to be dragged to the peak. That became an amazing turning point, the fact that I would rather die than not reach the peak. That hype lasted a while, for a few years I became insane only as a mere adventurer.”

At her third year of university, Butet climbed to the peak of Mount Jayawijaya. In her journey, she met an anthropologist by the name of Herry Yogaswara, her senior at Padjajaran University who worked as a researcher for The Science Institution of Indonesia (LIPI). Her encounter with Herry affirmed her life choice of becoming an anthropologist that fights to empower the community. “When I met Kang Herry, I got chance to ask if he ever climbed to the peak of Mount Trikora? I giggled because as it turns out, he has not reached there yet even though he has lived in Papua for a while. Until finally he brought me to a hill that became the source of dispute between two tribes; I walked with him, and saw him speak in two different local dialects about an agreement so that they will not go to war with each other again. I cried. I cried because I felt distraught, I have spent so much money just to fund my adventures. I wanted to become an adventurer with a purpose. I wanted to be like him, to be like Kang Herry; a true anthropologist – one who is beneficial to many other people. That was one of my most important experience that has helped me affirm my life choice.”

Coming back from Papua, Butet was still busy with adventure, albeit through a different perspective. She honed the grassroots knowledge, learning from the life of communities she encounters and would reflect on it once she got back to university so that she can channel her adventures to help other people. This experience made her complacent to a point where she almost forgot her activities at university. After attending university for 7 years, she was threatened to receive a drop out letter from the university. But in the end, she graduated with two degrees both in anthropology, and Indonesian literature. “I once worked at a research institution at my university, then one day I saw a job opening from the Conservation Community of Indonesia (KKI) Warsi, to become a lecturer for jungle people in Jambi. I felt moved, and at that moment I became sure that this was the job of my calling.” It was from here that Butet started a new phase in her life that would eventually change the whole path of her life.

photo: twitter.com/manurungbutet


From 1999 to 2003, Butet explored the depths of the jungle, becoming a teacher for the Anak Dalam Tribe in Bukit Duabelas National Park in Jambi. Butet and her students did not have a permanent class – they studied on top of fallen branches or by stacking rocks.

She had her ups and downs in introducing the alphabet and numbers to the jungle people of whom were not so welcoming of her good intentions at first. Butet even felt hopeless at times because of refusals from the indigenous people. They were afraid of being swindled and even thought that education violates their norms and culture. But Butet did not give up. People of the jungle must be reassured, not forced. She lived together with them, slept in the same place, and ate whatever they ate. She practiced a deep empathy, and experienced first-hand what it was like to be a part of the Rimba People. Butet followed them whenever they moved from one village to another, but was consistent in teaching one single thing; to be able to read and to write. It took four years of struggling with the Rimba People, but she was finally able to see the fruits of her labour. They could understand matters of law especially that of illegal logging so that they can no longer be swindled. They would know how to defend and protect the land that is theirs.


Her experience with the Rimba People has further affirmed her path to reach the next level for these indigenous people. In 2003, along with four other colleagues, Butet established an organisation called SOKOLA which aims to provide learning opportunities to the indigenous communities and marginalized groups in secluded places in Indonesia.

For 14 years, SOKOLA has delved into 15 regions from Sumatera, Sulawesi, East Nusa Tenggara to Papua. Some of them are even able to operate independently whereas some others were taken over by NGOs or local governments. There are still four SOKOLA’s that are still running today in Jambi, Jember, Kajang, and Papua. “We have a target to operate for four years in one region. There should be at least 4 or 5 SOKOLA’s in a year, in numerous indigenous communities in Indonesia. Together with these communities we set a common goal, understand what the problem is, and what the success indicators are. Our target is simple, if they can settle problems on their own, then they have succeeded. For example, in Flores, the enemy are fish bombs, they can create their own rules, elect a village leader, even the women now dare to voice their opinions in village forums. But in Jambi, problems are always changing, to a point where it has been 17 years and it is still not solved. In the past, they were faced with problems related to literacy, now it has turned to the issue of jungle management. They are trying to reach an agreement with the local government about how far they are able to have an influence on the proceedings of their own land.”, said Butet.

SOKOLA’s  volunteer  is teaching locals in Wailago village,  on the island of Flores,  NTT.   source: thejungleschool.wordpress.com

While struggling through SOKOLA, Butet still holds a steady vision, so that indigenous communities or indigenous people will have their own curriculum that is different from the conventional curriculum. According to Butet, indigenous people tend to be viewed from two opposing sides, as a paradox. Because they live in a fragile ecosystem, they are considered as a guardian of nature but also its worst enemy, as rightful inhabitants and dangerous encroachers, as barometers for ecological diversity and as mere footnotes to political or economic conflict. In Indonesia, this paradox spreads into the realm of morals. For some parties, including much of the citizen sector, indigenous peoples are symbols of pristine nature, cultural diversity, and simple living. While to others, including at times the state, indigenous people represents poverty, a symbol of backwardness, and an embarrassingly primitive obstacle to progress.

“Through literacy, it can guide them anywhere but must start from reading and writing, using local dialects, regulations, and customs. I am still striving to advocate the government to allow indigenous people to have their own curriculum. We must have a special curriculum for indigenous people – this has to be a collective movement. Because it can be dangerous if the national curriculum is enacted on indigenous people. It will dull out local treasure that could impact our national defence.”

Along with fighting for the rights of indigenous people, in the future Butet aspires that voluntarism will become a part of the culture of Indonesian people. Because a strong nation is born from citizens who care, one that selflessly helps each other, empathizes the poor and marginalized, and those who are not able to voice against injustice. “I see the voluntarism movement growing steadily in Indonesia. Everybody, especially young people, must have experience as a volunteer once in their lifetime. Moreover, this should be done before we go into the professional career of our choosing. This trains us to foster a higher self-worth more than pseudo-awards, trains us to be happy by voluntarily serving or giving. Because voluntarism is a talent that is found in every person. Everybody can be their own self, if they find happiness in giving benefits or making changes.”, concluded Butet as she ended her story for Ashoka Indonesia.

Interview & story by: WILIBRODUS MARIANUS (Youth Coordinator, Ashoka Indonesia)
contact: wmarianus@ashoka.org

Translated to English by: BARIZI FIRDAUSI (Youth Intern, Ashoka Indonesia)
contact: bfirdausi@ashoka.org


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