Making Saksang

Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and the world’s 4th most populous nation with more than 250 million residents. In the lush area surrounding Sumatra’s Lake Toba in western Indonesia, live the ethnic groups of Batak people. Although the majority of Indonesians are Muslim, ethnic Bataks are mostly Christian. Their homeland around Lake Toba is dotted with towns and villages, rainforest and palm oil plantations, church steeples, rice fields, fruit and other crops of vegetables.

Saksang (pronounced SAHK-sahng) is an important dish in Batak cuisine. Eaten at weddings, funerals, church celebrations and more, it is used for many cultural traditions, especially for Toba Batak people. It is made from pork, and given Indonesia’s Muslim majority, this dish is therefore unique and rare in the country.

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Continued Eruptions on Mt. Sinabung in North Sumatra

After being dormant for hundreds of years, Mt. Sinabung in North Sumatra, Indonesia awoke with a bang in August and September 2010. The eruption caused thousands of people to flee their homes and created a temporary crisis. The mountain calmed until September 2013, when more eruptions—and new crisis—began. Hundreds of eruptions occurred over the following months, as the government forced evacuations and provided initial assistance to the refugees. As time passed, the ones whose homes were destroyed were promised resettlement from the government.

In April 2014 I went to the Karo regency of North Sumatra to Kabanjahe, a town near the Sinabung volcano (4-5 hours by public bus from my main residence at the southern end of Lake Toba). Accompanying some of my students from the Deaconess Theological School on their practical field work, we learned about the social ministries of the Gereja Batak Karo Protestan (GBKP, or Karo Batak Protestant Church), especially those housing, feeding, and caring for thousands of still-displaced refugees from Mt. Sinabung’s eruptions.

Click here for my original brief post about that time.

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Talking and chewing betel nut with Mt. Sinabung’s grandmother refugees. 16 April 2014.

During the visit we talked with refugees in several camps, helped prepare and serve meals, and gave impromptu English language lessons to some children. The stress of being in a refugee camp was apparent for many—their homes destroyed, or in danger of being destroyed, and because of the continuing danger they were unable to attend to their crops. A life forever altered.

I was told that after an initial response from the government, aid had dropped off and the GBKP churches hosting camps covered most of the long-term care for the victims. It had become a normal way of operations on church properties to have hundreds of people camped out, waiting. Money and assistance promised from the government failed to arrive, and some suspected corrupted officials skimming the pot.

sinabung eruptionAfter a few days with the ministries of the GBKP, I spent a few days with another student of mine, this one from the Nommensen University in Pematangsiantar. She is a Karo Batak and from a village about 10km or 12km from Mt. Sinabung. She inherited an orange crop, which over the last few years has suffered from damaged by ash. Pictured left is a photo she sent me earlier this year from her village.

I ended my work in Indonesia and left the country in July 2014, just after Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected as Indonesia’s new president. Jokowi visited the Karo regency last October, spending time with some of the refugees. His government promised re-settlement for at least some of them, but assistance for some was reportedly slow to materialize.

Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sumatra, Indonesia.
Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sumatra, Indonesia. 19 April 2014.

Now, as June 2015 sees more intense eruptions, the government again promises aid. It has been more than a year since I visited the region, yet eruptions continue and more people are displaced.

I give my thoughts and prayers for all the victims in this continual disaster, and I do hope the government is able to follow through with relief and resettlement.

These are some of my photos from April 2014 in Kabanjahe:


There are more photos from the recent eruption here: Living in the Ring of Fire.

Featured image atop this post credit to Ulet Ifansasti/Getty, from this article: Mount Sinabung Erupts Again.

Wedding Crasher

I stood in the yard in front of the church while the crowd began to gather. For once in my life I felt tall—at 5’2” I’m a short American, but next to the young Indonesian women who surrounded me, I could see the tops of their heads without straining.

We had run across the courtyard from our dormitory when we heard the siren that we were certain was the police escort for the wedding procession. People came from every direction to stand in front of the church and wait. Police lined the red carpet keeping the crowd from mobbing the wedding procession, as news cameras rolled and people snapped photos from their cell phones. Life in Balige, a rural town in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, rarely reached this level of excitement.

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Keep Spirit

The elderly woman’s body lies inside the house in a coffin covered only by a thin white veil. Aside from the coffin, the room is void of furniture. A dozen members of the family and surrounding village sit cross-legged on the multi-colored plastic woven mat spread across the tile floor. I add my sandals to the pairs already stacked in front of the open door and step inside.

Delviana Naibaho—a co-worker at the Deaconess Theological School where I teach in a town a three-hour drive away on windy pot-hole ridden roads through the Sumatran rainforest—greets me. I call her “Ibu,” a word that means mother, but is also a polite form of address for women akin to “ma’am.”

Today, to show support to Ibu Naibaho, I attend her mother’s wake with a delegation from the school.

“Turut berduka cita, bu,” (my condolences, ma’am), I tell her as we shake hand and sniff cheeks in the Indonesian manner.

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Life in Indonesia

Here is a image gallery of photos that show a little of what life was like in Indonesia. Most are from Balige and Siantar, the two cities in the province of North Sumatra where I spent most of my time. In 2 of the photos, you’ll notice a pig’s head. Although most Indonesians are Muslim, I lived among the ethnic Bataks, most of whom are Christian, and regularly eat pork. Indonesia is amazingly diverse, and therefore, my life in the region around Lake Toba was different than someone who experienced Java, Bali, Nias, or Sulawesi islands. I hope to make more galleries about different aspects of life there, as well as other places I’ve traveled.

Sumatran Rain

Today is the first day of Spring in the northern hemisphere–but for this post, I’ve re-hashed two previous posts about the rain in Sumatra (here and here), forming this one below about October:

Siantar rainIt’s October and the rain falls nightly, bringing a chill to the air, though it’s not cold and it isn’t Autumn in Sumatra, this lush island near the equator.

On these earth-soaking October nights, some memory inside expects to arise in the morning to see orange, yellow, and red leaves falling around. But when I peer out my window in morning light and the rain gone, the leaves remain bright green; it is Summer for another day in Sumatra.

Sometimes I awake in the morning after the night rain, missing the misty cool mornings of the Pacific Northwest. I stare at photos of Autumn leaves and remember seasonal transitions. But in two months when I greet Sumatra’s sunshine as friends trudge through dark December, I won’t miss the cold winter.


When I listened to the sound of the rain—which is at times a roaring noise echoing off trees and metal rooftops—I was grateful for shelter above my head and an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, and rice available all year round on the tropical island. I’m back in North America now, but really do miss the Sumatran rain. The heat never bothered me much; I miss that, too.

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Christmas with my brother

It is now past the middle of February, but here is a story from last Christmas. For Christmas 2014 I had the opportunity to be with my brother in Indonesia. To the Western audience it must be said that I don’t actually have a brother in my immediate family–this brother is my Indonesian family, and I am his sister.

The family system of the Batak Toba culture is more complex than in Western cultures. It is seen not only in how people are addressed in daily situations (the words for mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, grandmother, and grandfather), but also at a deeper level. The Batak people have distinct family surnames that are grouped together by ancestral line, which sets them apart from some of the other cultures within Indonesia (many Javanese have only one name). Those Bataks with surnames in the same ancestral group are family, and subsequently prohibited by culture to marry each other. To the Western ear it may ring as a bit harsh, but this is how they have kept true to their ancestors. They know when they meet a person in their group, that they really are family. Given this importance, it has never been nor will it ever be a custom for the woman to change her name in marriage; her family name is of higher importance.

What does this have to do with me? Because there is great pride in their culture and to share about it, some Batak people love to invite others into their family. I posted previously about preaching at a church, and the pastor and I have been close since. His surname is Lumbantobing (or just Tobing for short), and because he asked me, I am also boru Lumbantobing. It makes me think about family and naming, and what those mean. My family now extends far beyond my own blood and borders of my country.

I was glad to see my brother and his family for a few days over Christmas. Most of the time we were in the church, as the HKBP denomination holds worship Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas–but it was a blessing to be there. Mauliate, ito! (thank you, brother)

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Christmas Eve 2014

Mt. Sinabung volcano erupting again

Earlier in April, I spent some time in the Karo Batak region of North Sumatra with some of my students. We talked with residents in the refugee camps displaced by the previous eruptions of Mt. Sinabung. You can read about our experience here.

In the last week the volcano has erupted again. Although I am no longer in Indonesia, I guess there are still several thousand refugees (in April there were more than 5,000). Please pray for the people and families whose homes and crops have been destroyed and who cannot return home.

Look at some breathtaking photos from various sources here and get more information from the Smithsonian Institute Global Volcanism Project.

Below is my own photo, the closest I got to the volcano in April 2014, before the most recent eruption.

Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sunatra, Indonesia.
Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sunatra, Indonesia.

St. Francis and the Tropics, Or Why I Sing Praise to the Gecko

October 4th is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Once a favorite of mine, I am re-reflecting this year about St. Francis and a spirituality of the tropical climate. As the Autumn season begins in North America and leaves are changing from green to yellow, orange, and red, life along the equator continues to be lush and green, with drenching downpours soaking already wet earth. Near the equator, there is no Autumn, there is no winter darkness. Alas, I returned to my native land more than two months ago. The Autumn is beautiful, but I do miss my tropical environment.

When I think of St. Francis, I remember his deep commitment and vow of poverty; I remember his Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, which the hymn All Creatures of Our God and King was based on; and I remember his love of all creation and animals. I can’t help but wonder what a St. Francis in the tropics would be like. His life in poverty wouldn’t be far above some Indonesians. Would he preach to the Orangutan and the birds of paradise? Would he preach to a mosquito on his arm and call it his brother, or take a whack at it like I’d do?

Geckos (called cicak in Indonesia–that’s pronounced chee-chak, with a very short “k”) are friends to those who live in the tropical climate near the equator. These wall lizards are welcomed into the house, and in Indonesia there are also superstitions about the cicak. In my room in Indonesia I used to talk to the cicak on my walls, and thank them for eating the mosquitoes. In this cold climate with well-sealed homes in the USA (specifically in the Pacific Northwest), I miss the chirping of the cicak, and the comfort it gave me as it devoured mosquitoes. I can imagine the cicak as my brothers and sisters, and even St. Francis preaching for them.

Although I get laugh out of trying to imagine St. Francis being bitten by swarming mosquitoes trying to preach to the birds in the midst of a massive Sumatran downpour, I do think about walking and praising everything in the spirit of St. Francis–underneath the forest canopy and through the traditional markets and the rice fields of Indonesia. And that gives me joy.

My Indonesian friends might be surprised that many North American Protestants follow the calendar of saints and celebrate the lives of long gone Roman Catholics. It’s a beautiful thing to recognize the great people that have gone before us and help us connect with the Holy One. But it’s not just them; the saints are, in fact, all around us. They are us. We are all saints, and indeed sinners. I think about the saints dear to my heart and wonder about the ones I’ve never heard of. I think about creation, and specifically the rich biodiversity found within Indonesia’s archipelago.

On this Feast Day of St. Francis, I sing my praise to the cicak, the geckos of Indonesia, and I offer this verse reflecting Creation in the tropics that can be sung to the tune of All Creatures of Our God and King (but I’m still not ready to give thanks for the mosquito):

Thou brother cicak on the wall
who keeps us safe from dangers all
Oh praise Him, Alleluia!
Thou mother forest standing strong
Thou growing forest all year long

O praise Him, O Praise Him
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Gecko (cicak) on the wall
Gecko (cicak) on the wall

Ministry with victims of Mt. Sinabung eruption

Before Easter, I had the opportunity to visit some refugee camps for those who have been displaced by the recent eruptions of Mt. Sinabung in the Karo regency of North Sumatra.

After hundreds of years without any activity, Mt. Sinabung erupted again in 2010, causing mass evacuations and refugee camps. People were allowed back, but have been displaced again since last September when the volcano again erupted. Since September hundreds of eruptions have occurred, a few of them large with ash, lava, and pyroclastic flows. As many as 20,000 were evacuated during the eruptions, and now that number is still more than 5,000–the remaining are from inside 3km from the volcano, and many of their homes are destroyed.

Together with 4 of my students, we went to Kabanjahe to learn about the social ministry of the Gereja Batak Karo Protestan (GBKP, or Karo Protestant Church). The GBKP currently supports 12 refugee camps for those not able to return to their land, and they will continue to house and feed them for as long as necessary. Help from the government is scant, although it is hoped that the government will be involved to resettle the people whose homes were destroyed and for whom it is too dangerous to return.

After touring some of the camps, we volunteered to help cook, wash dishes, clean, and talk with the people, even give the children an English lesson. Below are some photos.

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Teaching songs to the children
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Kids still going to school
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Chewing betel nut with the grandmothers. In Karo culture, this is common for women.
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Serving a meal.
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Washing dishes
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The list of camps from the GBKP; total number of people is 5,761.

Here is an article from The Atlantic of some incredible photos of the eruptions from Mt. Kelud (on Java), and Mt.Sinabung (Sumatra).

Easter Holiday

Selamat Paskah! Happy Easter!

I spent the Easter holiday in the Batak Karo region. There are 5 Batak tribes–Toba, Karo, Simalungun, Pakpak, and Mandailing. Locally, the use of the term “Batak” refers to Toba Batak, as the other tribes go by their respective names. I’ve spent nearly all of my time here among Batak culture.

The Karo people have their own language as well as some different customs from the Bataks, with whom I’ve spent most of my time. So it felt a little strange not knowing exactly how to address people (outside of using Indonesian).

I will add another post about the ministry with the victims of the eruptions of Mt. Sinabung, which has been active since 2010, but the recent eruptions have occurred since last September. This post is just to share photos from my time relaxing in Kabanjahe and Berastagi.

In the region are 2 volcanoes, Mt. Sinabung–which I’ve already mentioned–and Mt. Sibayak. Mt. Sibayak (near to Berastagi), although not erupting, has sulfur venting from the caldera, as well as nearby hot springs. It is one of the volcanoes in Indonesia that can be hiked. So, on Good Friday (18 April), I ascended up Sibayak with a Nommensen University student and friends, and was treated to an amazing landscape both in the volcano and out to the surrounding area.

Then, invited by the student, I spent a night in her village near Mt. Sinabung. The region is fertile and well-known for it’s agriculture. In Sinabung’s eruptions earlier this year, the village, maybe 10-12km away, received about an inch of ash, making a mess and destroying some crops.

Here are the photos:

Hiking on Mt. Sibayak
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A view of Mt. Sinabung, from a village outside of Kabanjahe
Gunung Sinabung

Much needed update

A lot has been happening in the months of silence on this blog. For one, I was able to have some time in the States over Christmas and New Years. When I returned to Indonesia in January, I still had paperwork to clear up with immigration, and had to make a quick trip to Jakarta to take a letter from the Labor Department. Finally after I got that squared away at the end of January, February flew by.

So to summarize, I’ll provide a few recent photos to share about the time that has passed. First, however, I’ll say that my time in Jakarta back in January was quite an adventure. It took 3 days of waiting, and on the 3rd day when I needed to collect my document, torrential rain overnight again flooded the streets of Jakarta, setting up a crazy commute. Long story short: I ended up taking a motorcycle taxi over flooded streets and zoomed through a massive traffic jam, weaving through traffic. Glad that adventure is over and that I can stay in Indonesia until July as planned.

Here are some photos of happenings in Sumatra (there’s more, but I hope to make a separate post on that):

In February, we had a seminar on child poverty and trafficking. Really interesting information, but also very sad to hear some of the stories.

Students and staff listen to a presentation on child poverty and trafficking in February.
Students and staff listen to a presentation on child poverty and trafficking in February.

Occasionally I take my students outside to have class in the yard of the church next door. They love the venture out of the classroom and are always willing to pose for pictures. This is the first year class (’13-’14).

First year students pose for a picture.
First year students pose for a picture.

Then in early March, we had a retreat for the first year students. It was a great two days of reflection, Bible study, and worship.

Individual reflection time at the retreat.
Individual reflection time at the retreat.
Worship at the retreat.
Worship at the retreat.

A bishop of a nearby district (who also comes here to teach) had his 50th birthday. A group from the school went to represent and celebrate, and it gave me an excuse to wear the outfit I received for Christmas.

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Posing for a photo at HKBP Pearaja in Tarutung.

On the Batak Alphabet and Maps that Make Sense of the World

Recently, blog posts about “maps that will help you make sense of the world” (one example) circulated the internets and facebook. My current location in Indonesia, gives me a different perspective when viewing these maps than my friends from North America and Europe.

One of the maps explains population. Indonesia’s population is more than 245 million people, making it the 4th most populous nation in the world. An archipelago of 17,000+ islands, makes it also spread out and incredibly dense in population, part of the circle that contains most of the people on the planet (from reddit user valeriepieris):
valeriepieris' population map

When I saw that map, it didn’t change my world. I’ve lived in Indonesia a year and a half and during that time, haven’t been outside of that circle once, so, yeah, I know. But, Sumatra is less dense than Java, and I live in a rural area. This doesn’t mean the same as it does in North America, however. Even though Balige is a small town, on a day like today (which is traditional market day), the city is bustling. Actually, every day is bustling with people by American standards; life here is is more public. Nevertheless, it’s easy for me to walk about an hour to a village that is difficult to access by car.

Here’s one that made me smile. This map (source), shows writing systems of the world. To my surprise, I see the Batak script listed there in Indonesia. I wasn’t surprised that there is a Batak script, rather that it was noticed at all.
WritingSystemsOfTheWorld

The old Batak alphabet, labeled on the map as "Surat Batak".
The old Batak alphabet, labeled on the map as “Surat Batak”.

Although the old alphabet is not all that functional anymore in the lives of the Batak people, it does appear on some signs in the region around Lake Toba in North Sumatra (including the hospital across the street from me now).

To match its high population density, there are a dense amount of languages spoken in Indonesia (more than 700). So I’d add to the maps that will help you make sense of the world, a map that gives the Ethnic groups of Indonesia:
Indonesia_Ethnic_Groups_Map_English

I am living in the heart of Batakland, so I regularly encounter the language Batak Toba–at the market, at my school (although all instruction other than my English class is done in Bahasa Indonesia), and in the church. Strong in their culture, it may seem living among the Bataks, that the language and the lake nearby is the center of the world. I love living here and am happy to see mention of the place where I live. These days Batak writing uses the latin script, but below are two photos of the Batak alphabet in use.

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A Batak language bible written in the old alphabet, on display at the Batak culture museum in Balige, North Sumatra.
A Batak language bible written in the old alphabet, on display at the Batak culture museum in Balige, North Sumatra.

A Slice of the life in Indonesia

Snippets of life in Indonesia for the North American/European:
* I eat rice 3 meals a day and that’s normal.
* It’s considered abnormal here to not eat rice every day.
* While in Balige I eat my lunch with the other staff outside. Every day. We sit at a table outside the entrance to the kitchen and under the stairs to the 2nd floor classrooms.
* Yesterday I washed my clothes by hand and that’s normal.
* I can count on my fingers the number of times I have had access to a washing machine and used it in the last year and a half.
* I can’t count on my fingers the number of times the power has gone out (whether for a few seconds, minutes, or an hour+) in the last month.
* If I have digestion problems I can walk across the street to the hospital, see the doctor, get medicine and be home in less than 20 minutes and less than $10 for everything (true story from back in January).
* But if I have heart disease (which I don’t), it is better to drive the 7 hours to the nearest airport, fly an hour to Penang, Malaysia, and visit the hospital there for treatment and check-ups and medicine than it is in Indonesia.

And this is the view from my desk. I work with the door open. Every day.
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Back to Bali

Over the holidays, I was able to return to Bali, this time meeting with my family. It was a wonderful time—2 weeks in all—though I must admit I experienced culture shock to go from rural Sumatra to Kuta’s busy hotel-lined streets. With the family I spent time time walking, shopping, and seeing some traditional dance among other things. I learned to surf and took a downhill bike tour. All in all a good time.

While in Bali I also learned more about the culture and family life. We took several trips to visit sites around the island using a hired driver. After taking my parents to the airport, I had 3 more nights to spend, so the driver took me to my next destination, Ubud. We spoke in Bahasa Indonesia, and during this time he told me a little bit about his life, and then invited me to his home. We arranged to make this happen just before I left. So, in the hours waiting for my afternoon flight out, I visited his home and met his wife—an experience not really available to tourists. I’d been in Indonesia 9 months at the time, so I knew how to be polite. We chatted in my limited Indonesian and her even more limited English.

Their home is simple, in the city of Kuta near the airport. Bapak (“father”, the driver) works hard to feed his family. He, in fact, had to work that day, so I didn’t even see him. Ibu (“mother”, the wife of the driver) was welcoming, and invited me to her village if I want to come back to Bali. Although they live in the city, every Balinese has a traditional family home in a village. I’d be honored to visit.

Below are a few photos of my time: