Desa Kolok

Trip Start Sep 11, 2007
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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A few months before I left the UK, I was in a library of books about deafness, and I found an article about a village in the north of Bali called Bengkala, where there is a high proportion of deaf people - it is known as Desa Kolok (deaf village). Over time, the village has developed its own sign language (Kata Kolok - deaf talking) which, unusually, is also known and used by most of the hearing people when they communicate with deaf villagers.

I was talking to someone about it at the International Deaf Children's Society, and he gave me the contact details of a Dutch research student called Connie, who is studying the village sign language - he had met her at an event at the University of Central Lancaster.

That is how I came to be making a four hour bus journey to Singaraja, twisting and winding along the Pupuan road as it rose up through the mountains of Bali, on my eleventh day in Indonesia. The journey was spectacular, passing several volcanoes that appeared and disappeared as they were covered and discovered by clouds.

There were hundreds of paddy fields inland, and I'm now beginning to understand why there is so much rice in the diet! Some of the villages along the way had lots of bright yellow parasols along the roadside that covered offerings in preparation for a village wedding.

As the bus started back down towards the coast, the number of passengers slowly increased. I was very happy to be sitting in the middle of the bus by the time we reached the coast, as the front and back of the bus were crammed full with Balinese men and women with lots of large baskets and boxes of produce for market!

Singaraja (Lion King) is Bali's second largest city, and was the centre of Dutch power in Bali, remaining an administrative centre until 1953. When I arrived, I took two bemos - and repelled a rather hopeful and very expensive offer of transport along the way - to get to the main road near Desa Kolok, where I had arranged to meet Connie.

Desa Kolok

Desa Kolok is about 30 minutes from Singaraja, in the Buleleng area, and it was a 600m walk from the main road. It is a traditional Balinese village, with three temples - the Pura Desa (village temple) in the middle, the Pura Puseh (temple of origin) in the east, and the Pura Dalem (temple of the dead) in the west. A road and a few narrow tracks pass through the village, with paths leading to several yards that are surrounded by houses. The view of the mountains from the end of the village is spectacular.

The village has a population of 2,000, and 50 people are deaf - much higher than elsewhere (the deafness is mostly hereditary). Marriage rates are the same for deaf and hearing people because, to the surprise of people in other villages nearby, marriage between deaf and hearing people is not seen as being unlucky or problematic. But as you move further away from Desa Kolok, the gap between the marriage rates of deaf and hearing people increase.

The high number of deaf people in the village means that being deaf is not regarded as problematic, and sign language has emerged as a natural medium of communication for deaf and hearing people. Somehow, deaf people in Desa Kolok do not face the stigma that deaf people face elsewhere in Bali, and they have become equal members of the community.

On Friday evening, after eating with Connie, about fifteen deaf people came, and it was really interesting to watch them communicate using Kata Kolok. I was not able to communicate with them very successfully, as Kata Kolok is not based on any words (for example in Balinese or Indonesian). It is also heavily contextualized - there is lots of pointing to places in different parts of the village and beyond, and of course I had no idea what these were. Fortunately, Connie was on hand to help me out.

All deaf villagers have a sign name, and the conversations I had with different people were similar - everybody wanted to know firstly if I was Connie's partner, secondly if we came from the same place, and thirdly when I arrived and when I was going to leave. The slaughter of animals was another topic that occurred with high frequency! One of the questions I was asked during my stay is 'Do you like to eat dog?' They also enjoy eating cat sometimes (apologies to dog- and cat-lovers out there!). Lots of people wanted their photo taken, and I've added some of them to the photo album.

Back to school

After a tasty breakfast of pisang goreng (banana fritters) on Saturday morning, I went to school! While deaf people in Desa Kolok have more equality than most deaf people elsewhere in Indonesia, they have never been to the village school (which is equivalent to a primary school in the UK), although recently some had been to the deaf school in Singaraja, and further away in Jimboran. There, they are taught using Indonesian Sign Language, which the government 'published' in 1994.

With this in mind, Connie set up a classroom for the deaf children on her first or second trip a year or so ago, so that they could be taught in their own language, Kata Kolok. This had fallen through by the time she returned, so she set it up again. Last year, she helped the village to apply to the government for formal recognition, and the class has now been formally accepted with funding. She now plans to help the teacher to draw up a curriculum.

As Kata Kolok is not based on written language, there is no spelling, so the American Sign Language alphabet has been introduced. After a cheery signed greeting from one of the children, I watched an 'Indonesian' lesson, as the children wrote and signed words such as bunga (flower) and kerbau (buffalo). Then I watched a maths lesson. There were three children in the class, and quite a lot of distractions - lots of hearing children spent much of the morning playing in the yard, as it was Saturday, and a number of them were very keen to see what was happening in this lesson.

I was also taken to the headmaster's office, a very official looking room with a photo of the president above the desk and lots of tiny writing on blackboards that were mounted on the walls. There were some young children and a few people walking in and out, which I couldn't imagine happening in a UK headteacher's office! The headmaster told me that there are about 130 children in the school, and asked me to write my name in the guest book - then there was coffee and Indonesian cakes. I told him I was impressed that the class for deaf children had been set up, and Ketut, the deaf teacher, explained more to him about their plans.

The telu bulanan that never was

Like hearing people in the village, the kolok have a full role to play in the performance of family-based, clan-based and village-based Balinese ceremonies. However, deaf people also tend to go to the ceremonies of other kolok, even if there are no ritual obligations to do this. So there seems to be some sense of 'deaf identity' among deaf people, which is not common in other parts of Buleleng.

On the Saturday that I was in the village, there was to be a telu bulanan in a family that the deaf people knew. I was invited, so I was given a sarong and an udeng (not to be confused with udang, which means 'prawn') and I went on the back of Ketut's motorbike. It soon became clear to me that it is not possible to ride pillion in a sarong without displaying a considerable amount of leg. Happily my motorbike helmet hid my face from view, and there are no photos to speak of. It was all good fun.

The telu bulanan, which means 'three months' in Balinese, is a ceremony marking the occasion when (usually in the first year) a baby, having survived the first dangerous few months, joins humankind by touching the ground for the first time. I was looking forward to it, but alas, when we arrived at the house, we were told that we had the date wrong, and it was actually happening on Monday! Still, we had a nice lunch and a few laughs (some very visual humour!) then took some photos.

The origins of Desa Kolok

Deafness has a place in the cosmos of Desa Kolok, and there is a well-established myth about how deaf people came to be part of the village. When we got back to the village, I asked Ketut for more information about this.

Many years ago there was a couple in the village who wanted to have children, but had no success. After a while, they sought help from the gods. A family member went to the cemetery near the Pura Dalem at midnight, to get some special offerings to take to the family temple. At the ceremony this person encountered a deaf ghost. When the couple had a baby, the baby was deaf.

There is another story that the people of Desa Kolok originally came from the nearby village of Sinabun. In Sinabun, there is a temple conaining a shrine to Bhatara Kolok, a deaf god. In Bali, it is believed that the gods descend to their temples on the day of their temple festivals (odalan). At certain times, the village communities engage with the gods through a balian, a spirit medium. Ketut spoke of an occasion some time ago on the festival of Bhatara Kolok, when a balian - who could not sign - went into a trance and started to sign the responses of the god. This was interpreted for the worshipers by a temple priest from Desa Kolok, and cemented Ketut's beliefs in the existence of the deaf god.

Through myth and legend, people see the existence of a deaf ghost and a deaf god as a sign that there will always be deaf people in their villages. Yet in spite of this, Ketut (who is hearing) was adamant that his deaf friends in the village were not marked out or 'special' in any way, nor did the deaf people have such an opinion of themselves.

Lawar and farewell

On Sunday, the deaf villagers 'invited' me to pay for them to have lunch! Apparently, other visitors have done the same thing, and as I was given free accommodation and food, I was happy to pay for fish and other meat and vegetables, which were chopped, cooked, and served as lawar with rice. They also added copious amounts of chilli, and it was so hot I was unable to actually eat it, to my disappointment! Then it was time to go, sadly - but the villagers did a bit of dancing for me to send me on my way, and they all came to the roadside to see me off back to Singaraja in a bemo. I think the bemo driver was quite surprised to see twenty villagers waving me off!

I had a great time with the people of Desa Kolok, threw up a number of questions about sign language and deaf issues. Not all hearing people in the village sign - there are ten or eleven clans, and those clans that include deaf families sign better than those that do not. Increasingly, those villagers who are educated cannot sign, while the children who have gone to schools in Singaraja and Jimboran meet other deaf people, learn Indonesian Sign Language, and sometimes regard this as being superior (or at any rate, more worldly-wise) than Kata Kolok.

Bahasa Indonesia, the relatively new national language, is the language of the government, the media, authority and education, as opposed to regional languages such as Balinese and Javanese. A similar trend is detectable in Desa Kolok, with the possibility that some will attribute sovereignty to Indonesian Sign Language at the expense of Kata Kolok.

I hope that the class in the village school for deaf children will survive. Among other things, it will stop deaf villagers feeling they have lost out on something for not having received an education at school. It may also help to reinforce the validity of Kata Kolok.

But exactly is the rightful role of visitors, and linguists? To record? To influence? To intervene? Who has, and who should have ownership of Kata Kolok? Are the growth of external forces a good thing, and are they unstoppable? Where does genuine equality for deaf people lie, and how and when should it be sought? None of these questions are easy to answer, and my trip to Desa Kolok gave me a lot to think about.
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