A friend to people of the jungle

Although he had first regretted his decision to study anthropology, Robert Aritonang says the career choice has paid off because it has allowed him to live with the Orang Rimba (the forest people).

"It's not easy to understand the Orang Rimba because they are good at hiding their emotions. The tribe fiercely defends its traditions and see outsiders as evil beings that bring suffering," Aritonang said.

Aritonang first became acquainted with the Orang Rimba when he joined the Jambi-based non-governmental organization (NGO), WARSI, in 1997. During the first six months, he learned all aspects of the Orang Rimba lifestyle, including how they speak, eat, dress and how they view the meaning of life from their perspective.

"The Orang Rimba hunt in the forest for any kind of animal for their meals -- any kind except for farm animals, such as goats and chickens. Men, called jenton, wear a loincloth, while women, or betina,, wear a sarong wrapped around their body. If we insist on being a part of their tribe, we have to live accordingly," Aritonang said.

He said the Orang Rimba were sometimes as unpredictable as the weather.

"They will say that they are dying when they are only hungry or suffering from a minor injury. Newcomers worry after hearing these complaints, but later realize that the Orang Rimba have a penchant for overdramatizing," said Aritonang.

When he first came to Bukit Tigapuluh National Park where the Orang Rimba live, Aritonang was a stranger to be avoided. Nobody wanted to talk to him or get close to him. The Orang Rimba refused to accept him as a new friend out of fear that Aritonang would steal their land and supernatural talent.

One day, Aritonang was in the middle of the jungle and it was close to midnight.

"It was so cold and I was so afraid of being alone in the forest. They -- the tribe members -- just watched me from a distance. It went on for days before they eventually talked to me," Aritonang said, laughing as he recalled that moment.

Born in North Sumatra on Nov. 27, 1969, Aritonang finished his studies at the Medan-based North Sumatra University in 1997. He then applied for a job to be the assistant of his professor and conducted research on various tribes in Sumatra.

Aritonang married Riris Marpaung four years ago and they have two children. His father, who raised him to be independent, died when Aritonang was a boy.

"My professor, who is one of the few people who inspired me to learn about human nature, always connects everything to the history of men. For example, when you hear two men arguing with each other, you have to figure out what triggered that argument. There has to be a cause-and-effect principle in every human act or attitude."

"Over the course of time, I started to learn why and how men make their own history. We used to be simple, innocent and not a part of the rat race. I learned a lot from the tribe," Aritonang said.

Aritonang was interested in learning about the Orang Rimba because they are the only indigenous tribe in Sumatra that continues to maintain a strong relationship with the forest.

"I'm not really interested in learning about the Dayak, an indigenous tribe in Kalimantan, because I think they have lost their purity. Maybe someday I'll learn about the Baduy in West Java as I believe that they are a tribe that maintains their traditional lifestyle," Aritonang said.

During his time with the Orang Rimba, Aritonang had many new experiences, including being the object of desire of a woman in the tribe. One day, the woman tried to serve him a meal while the men were away hunting for animals.

The Orang Rimba believe that a man who has touched something made by a woman or accepted something from her has to take her as his wife. If you violate this rule, you will be punished according to their traditional beliefs. Punishment includes giving hundreds of cloths and sarongs to the woman's family or being cast out of the forest.

"It was so unexpected because the Orang Rimba highly respect their women and children. A newcomer like me could never imagine how they were supposed to react to the gesture," Aritonang said.

"I told her that I wasn't really hungry. Thank God none of these men saw us during that short dialog exchange," Aritonang said.

His effort to change the lives of the Orang Rimba has borne fruit. In 1998, Aritonang, along with his colleagues of WARSI, conducted research on the tribe's behavior, including their nomadic lifestyle and beliefs about death.

The Orang Rimba hold a ritual, called melangun, when a family member passes away. They will leave their home and move to another place in the forest because they believe that the further they go, the further they are from their sorrow. Sometimes, they walk for three days before deciding on a new place to live.

Aritonang and his colleagues usually find it difficult to meet them again once they move.

Radical reform began in 2000 when the WARSI started introducing education and medical programs to selected members of the Orang Rimba. Some WARSI activists worked as teachers, and gave lessons on everything from reading to mathematics.

It was a tough experience. Almost all of the activists, including Aritonang, became afflicted with malaria. One of the teachers for the children died a few months ago from the mosquito-borne disease.

Becoming a part of the tribe was not Aritonang's only purpose as he hoped the presence of "outsiders" could benefit them.

"Certain Orang Rimba have continued to reject the education program because they believe that knowledge will affect their sacred life," Aritonang said.

But he has vowed not to stop trying to impart knowledge to the younger generation of the tribe because "I believe that someday they will face another world outside the forest".

Due to his patience, Aritonang received the Man of Biosphere award from UNESCO in 2001. The award was also conferred to four others, including another WARSI activist, Butet, who had dedicated his life to the environment.

"This award would mean nothing without the support of my family and friends in WARSI," Aritonang said.

The Orang Rimba have become like a second family to Aritonang, who he can run to whenever he feels down.

"Living in the forest and listening to its sounds is a great miracle for me. It is a blessing for me to meet them here."

"Someday I will bring my wife and children to the forest to meet the Orang Rimba. I've promised them that," Aritonang said.

Published by The Jakarta Poston November 19, 2002

---- Tiarma Siboro and Muninggar Sri Saraswati