As a child, what did you want to be when you, ‘grew up’? I wanted to be a palaeontologist, a fireman and a builder, simultaneously. Oh, and Prime Minister on the weekends. In retrospect, I was influenced heavily by the interests of my peers, and I’m fairly sure the weekend job was a listless attempt by my parents to prepare themselves for retirement. Nonetheless, my childhood dreams presumed much. I expected I’d have the socio-economic access, time, energy, self-discipline and intellect necessary to achieve them. Ironically, we’re taught that primary education, followed by secondary and tertiary, is the best route to fulfil these dreams [Redish & Finnerty 2002].
In the following dialogue, Rob Henry, independent filmmaker, speaks to Tabilik Kunen, one of the ‘Sikerei’, or shaman, of an Indigenous tribe in the Mentawai Islands, off the western coast of Sumatra. This community has become one of a small minority of the Mentawai population who still practice their traditional cultural belief system (Arat Sabulungan), revering the spirits of their ancestors and the land:
“Have you lived here a long time?”, Rob asks.
“We’ve been here since our ancestors! A long time, but I don’t know how to measure it.”
“Is it good living here in the rainforest?”
“It’s the best!”
For the majority, in 1954 the Indonesia government implemented policy (in the name of national unity and cultural adaption) which forcibly assimilated indigenous communities into government settlements, separating them from their traditional culture. The influence of western culture, in education, government and economy, has thus damaged traditional culture and separated many of the Mentawai from a self-sustainable relationship with land and kin. Hen, a Mentawai Indonesian and friend of Henry is one of those affected by the resettlement policy, generations on. Hen’s parents spent everything they earned on providing him with a complete education, but due to his low socio-economic background, he could never find a job in the city. Moreover, his ‘Western’ education had him forego education in Arat Sabulungan, leaving him stranded in-between cultures.
“We can’t allow other cultures to confuse who we are. Leave us wondering, ‘Is this my culture, or should I be more like that?’ We just end up in between. Not knowing where we belong. We’re like a kite flapping in the wind with no grip on the string.” -Ezma, friend of Henry
We in the West seem to presume that our system of education is the acme of schooling. As in Cajete’s thinly guised proposal for Native American educational assimilation [Cajete 1994], even with the best intentions, we’re inclined to impose our cultural values upon those with less established customs. The plight of the resettled Mentawai Indonesians highlights this collective foible. But what has design to learn from the errors of the Indonesian government and Western society in enforcing values? Dunne and Raby warn against presumptuous dreams (of which Prime Minister on the weekends must be one), instead advocating the value in challenging our own inherent values for the sake of effective design [Dunne & Raby 2013].
Perhaps, adapting Dunne and Raby’s position, by designing not within the confines of our own instilled attitudes but by arrogating the values of the culture for which we design, we can avoid the harm traditionally caused by Western influence and instead serve deeply those for whom we design. To recognise our predispositions and, for the sake of others, compensate humbly; more than human-centred design, other-centred design.
As Worlds Divide 2017, documentary, Roebeeh Productions, Melbourne.
Cajete, G. 1994, Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, Kivaki Press, Durango.
Dunne, A. & Raby, F. 2013, Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming, The MIT Press, Cambridge.
Henry with Malagawasak Tribesmen, Rob Henry, viewed 8 December 2017, <http://www.asworldsdivide.com/film>
Redish, M. & Finnerty, K. 2002, ‘What Did You Learn in School Today – Free Speech, Values Inculcation, and the Democratic-Educational Paradox’, Cornell Law Review, vol. 88, no. 1.
Suku Mentawai 2017, Indigenous Mentawai, viewed 8 December 2017, <https://www.iefprograms.org/images/PDFs/SukuMentawai_CRR.pdf>