Professor Unni Wikan – A Balinese formula for living

Unni wikanProfessor Unni Wikan, celebrated Norwegian anthropologist and author of Managing Turbulent Hearts –   A Balinese Formula for Living (a book that strips the veneer off the prevailing society and lays bare the intricacies of everyday life of the Balinese on the isle), speaks to Mark Ulyseas, editor Voices Today, in an exclusive interview.


MU – Many visitors, women being in the majority, view Bali as a ‘feminine’ island with a culture that is all embracing. Do you feel that the increasing number of immigrants to this island will dilute or distort this culture? And will it (Balinese culture) morph into a more aggressive form thereby seeing a clash of cultures?

UW – I never thought of Bali as a ´feminine´ island; to me, such a concept does not make sense. Bali is a rich and complex civilization with a multitude of ways and “cultures” being practiced, some of them strongly patriarchal.

I do not think that immigration as such presents a danger to this remarkable Culture.  On the other hand, the exposure of youth to manifold influences through globalization, modern forms of communication, tourism etc. will undoubtedly have its impact, in Bali as elsewhere. We cannot say at this point in time what will emerge. It is not just a question of what happens in Bali but in the wider world.

MU – Do you think that the concrete jungle that is growing across the isle will alienate the Balinese with the growing influence of the “hotel and villa” culture? And what, if any, is the way out?

UW – I wish I had the answer to your question for there is clearly the danger that you point to.  The Balinese have traditionally lived in close harmony with nature; you couldn´t cut down a tree or erect a building, even a hut, without appeasing and taking permission from supernatural spirits.  The “hotel and villa” culture is fundamentally transforming the land and disturbing spirits that used to belong in certain places and that are a part of Balinese cosmology.  On the other hand, the Balinese resemble other humans in that they are pragmatic, and these new developments offer jobs to many people.  There is no win-win situation.

MU – Many long time residents believe the Balinese must be more pragmatic in terms of rescinding their responsibilities of the numerous mandatory attendances at religious ceremonies for the responsibilities of a job? Please comment.

UW – This is a challenge in many societies, how to accommodate job obligations with religious or ritual observances. I did fieldwork in Bhutan, a Buddhist country, and the same concern arose there: what could be required of job attendance of people who every so often had other “legitimate” ritual concerns. Or take Muslims in Norway, my country: praying five times a day at specific intervals is not easily combined with many kinds of job. Solutions must be found and generally, religions can be flexible:  they are, after all, partly man-made.

MU – There appears to be a growing gap between the haves and have not’s – the former being expats and the latter, Balinese. Do you think that this will lead to a backlash that will see a rise in criminal activities and in general disrespect for the Tamu (guest) leading to law and order problems?

UW – We see such problems emerging in many societies, they seem to be part and parcel of globalization. Organized, transnational crime is also on the rise everywhere.  What is special about Bali, as I know it, is how peaceful and orderly the island still is. But one should be aware.  Large-scale tourism naturally changes people´s perceptions of the Tamu, and the way many tourists (and some expats) behave further creates disrespect.

MU – Some say that marriages between expats and Balinese, where the age gap being a generation or two is abhorrent and should be curtailed; often these marriages are not legalized with competent authorities from the foreign embassies thereby disenfranchising the offspring from their rights to citizenship of the foreign country from which one parent comes from. Are we witnessing the birth of a generation existing between the gaps in society? And will these children of the morrow become the catalyst for change? And what change do you perceive this to be?

UW – I do not have first-hand knowledge of such cases, therefore it is hard for me to think through the implications with regard to Bali. Not having a legalized marriage is, however, a problem that many people in many countries are dealing with, and there is much international discussion of how to secure the rights of the child to paternity, inheritance and citizenship. Recently, there was a case in Egypt where a woman went to court because the man, with whom she had entered into a non-legalized (so called traditional – urfi – marriage) denied the child he had fathered paternity. In this case, both were Egyptians. She won, and has become an exemplar for others.  I believe women can become the catalysts for change.

MU – “I will not blame the rapes on Norwegian women. But Norwegian women must understand that we live in a Multicultural society and adapt themselves to it.” “Norwegian women must take their share of responsibility for these rapes.”

You stated this in reference to high profile incidents in Norway involving immigrant men and the local (Norwegian) women. Do you think the reverse will happen in Bali, like attacks on ‘visitor women scantily clad’ by ‘locals’ because the ‘visitors’ have shown ignorance of the social norms and/or not understood the prevalent culture?

UW – I have never said that women must take their share of responsibility for rapes. This is sheer misrepresentation of my statement. The rapist bears full responsibility for rape, which is a crime. What I did say was that many immigrants come from societies where the way many Norwegian women dress and behave is misunderstood to mean that they are immoral.  In a multicultural society, it is an advantage if people learn something about one another´s codes of communication.  The same applies if you are a tourist. It is a sad fact of life that women are exposed much more than men to sexual violence.  So women need to be careful, and knowledge is power.  But full responsibility for rape resides with the rapist.

MU – Is then, cultural clashes and clichés the raison d’être for an emerging ‘irrational society’?

UW – No, I wouldn´t use such a term. Society is not “irrational” but persons can be. However, rape does not have to do with irrationality. It is a crime usually committed by wholly rational people.

MU – You have written a number of books that have thrown light on the travails and tribulations and the constant fight for survival between man and woman in societies that discriminate. Does your book  “Behind the veil in Arabia: Women of Oman” shed light or reflect the state of women in general in societies across the world like India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and beyond? And is the treatment of women in a society reflective of its ethos?

UW – Oman is special. It was, and continues to be to me an exemplar of a good Muslim society where women are well respected and treated. Oman has an enlightened ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has had the power for nearly forty years, and has done a world of good for his country, including women. Yes, there is an ethos in Oman that underscores gracious behavior and that is reflected in the treatment of women. It is different from what you find in many other parts of the Muslim world, local culture and religion always intersect, and so Oman is quite different from not just Afghanistan or Iran, but also its neighbor, Saudi Arabia. That said, there are also similarities: Polygamy – a man´s right to have several wives simultaneously – still holds in many parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world, Oman included. Men are privileged in numerous ways. But Oman could point the way to what other traditional societies, more harsh to women – Muslim, Hindu, Christian etc. – can become.

MU – What is the role of a culture? Does it create, give birth to or is it a matrix in which we are all born? And does this matrix hamstring enlightenment/progress in all parameters of society?

UW – We are born into cultures; I was born on an island in the Arctic Ocean in a part of Norway called the Land of the Midnight Sun, and my view on the world is profoundly shaped by the influences I came under through my formative 18 years there.  But cultures are ever changing, just like people; indeed, it is people who make up cultures, we are the agents, culture in itself can do nothing, it is just a word, a concept. It is important to keep this in mind: People have in their power to create and make “culture” happen, for good or bad.  Therefore too, culture clash is not a term I use: it indicates that there is something there with the power to act by itself. Think of people instead, and you have a better instrument for building peace.

MU –  As a celebrated and highly respected anthropologist do you think that Bali will survive the onslaught of the continuing influx of alien cultures bombarding the island; and will this be the beginning of a convergence that will bring about a new evolved society or will it be another reason for a conflict of cultures?

UW – Bali has withstood a continuing influx of alien cultures for a long time in history. That gives me hope for the future of this gem of a civilization. Bali is bound to go on changing and evolving; and society fifty years from now will be different from the one we know. But I believe there is a solid core that is sustainable and that may even take on a stronger identity as “Balinese” as cultures mix and mingle.  Or, I should rather say, as people from different cultures mix and mingle.  My husband, Fredrik Barth, wrote a book called “Balinese Worlds”, plain and simple. That says it all: Bali consists of many worlds, many cultural traditions that have co-existed, competed, and also enriched one another. This is due to the resourcefulness and tolerance of Balinese people.

MU – What are you working on now and will you be visiting Bali in the near future?

UW – I have just finished two books – one published in the US, the other in Norway, on honor killings in present-day Europe. A sad topic I never planned to handle but that became urgent with the murders of several young girls by their (immigrant) families in Europe.  One is called In Honor of Fadime: Murder and Shame and deals with the fate of a young Swedish-Kurdish woman who was killed by her own father because she had “dishonored” her family by choosing her own love in life and refusing a forced marriage to a cousin. Her story made the international community wake up to the fact that honor killings do not just belong to “them” but to “us” in the West, and has helped to put the problem on the international agenda. Now I am about to do something much more pleasant: embark on a long fieldtrip to Arabia (Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia) to explore ideas of freedom and dignity post 9/11, and to see how these ideas are put into practice in various walks of life. As an Arabic speaker I can work without interpreters and as a woman, I have easy access to people, I am not considered a threat. Among places I will visit is the Hadramawt in North Yemen where some families I know in Singaraja  originally came from so I will explore the links; there have been close connections between inner Arabia and Indonesia for centuries, with influences going both ways.

I have also an ongoing project in Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, where I have spent much time to explore culture and religion.

I was last in Bali a year ago, and hope to return later this year. It is very much a part of my heart.

Biorock – Delphine Robbe, Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Delphine“I prefer to see Tuna in the sea than on a plate”Delphine Robbe, Agronomist, Co-Founder of the Bio Rock Project,  Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

Delphine was born in Paris. She studied in France and Canada obtaining her Masters in Agronomy Engineering followed by fieldwork in Madagascar in 2002. After that she traveled for over a year and a half in South East Asia, India, Mexico, Costa Rica, Israel, Gautemala etc. and then came to Indonesia in 2004 to do a Dive Master and Instructor Course at Big Bubble, Gili Trawangan (Gili T). Here she met her present employer, Anna Walker who was instrumental in setting up the non-profit organization, Gili Eco Trust, with Anthony Clubbey and Maurice Stevens of Manta Dive. In 2005 Delphine founded the Bio Rock Project in Gili T with Foued Kadachi and Laurent Lavoye.

Recently Mark Ulyseas met Delphine at Scallywags, a beachfront restaurant on Gili T, to talk about her life and work.

What is Bio Rock technology?

The two scientists who invented Biorock Technology was Dr. Tom Goreau, a marine biologist and Professor Wolf Hilbertz, an architect and inventor of electrolysis. The discovery came about when Hilbertz was studying how seashells and reefs grow by passing electricity through the salt water. He observed that calcium carbonate (Aragonite) slowly formed around the cathode, coating the electrode with a material as strong as concrete. And as long as current was passing through the structure it continued to grow at the rate of 5cm a year. When damaged the structure could also heal itself. This discovery prompted Hilbertz to devise a plan to grow low-cost structures in the ocean for developing countries. It caught the imagination of author Marshall Savage who wrote a book titled The Millennial Project.

However, his focus shifted to regeneration of coral reefs when he met Tom Goreau, a marine biologist, who was working on the preservation of reefs affected by erosion, pollution and global warming.

The Biorock process is simple. Build a tunnel shaped steel structure in size 10 meters long x 1.5 meters in width. Then place it under water. Connect electrical cables to a 12-volt battery on the shore and attach the cables to the underwater structure. Through electrolysis with the salt water limestone forms and grows on the structure.

Coral can be broken off from the reef and tied to the structure. The electric current assists in the growth of the coral from 2 to 6 times faster than usual.

Why did you start the project at Gili T?

After one year since my arrival in 2004 on Gili T, I started the Biodrock Project with Foud Kadachi and Laurent Lavoye because I was concerned about the state of the coral reefs around the Gilis. There was too much dead coral, pollution and above all no one was doing anything worthwhile to protect, preserve and sustain the reefs.

I had earned enough money from my job in diving and I felt I needed to give back to the Gilis, to say thank you. This is my way.

What is the importance of the Coral reefs?

The coral reefs protect the shoreline/beaches from erosion by breaking the wave action. But most importantly the coral reef is the habitat of nearly 70% of the fish in the ocean. It also acts like a nursery for the sea creatures. So the survival, good health and continuance of the reefs are vital for all living beings.

The coral reefs act as a classroom for marine biologists; students and tourists to learn all about sea life because it can be observed at close quarters.

What are the results of your work?

I am happy to announce that we have regenerated nearly 1.5 kilometers of coral reef. I could not have done this without the help of the Gili Eco Trust, SATGAS (Indonesian Security Force that assists in protecting the areas from being damaged/illegal fishing etc.), the Professors and students of Mataram University, Lombok; And more importantly the expats and Indonesian businesses on the isles.

In 2006 we conducted the Fourth Indonesian Biorock Training Workshop for scientists/students/divers/artists from all over the world. There were 35 participants. A total of 10 structures were built and installed East-South of the island. Since then many more structures have been put up.

In 2008 we organized workshops for 52 students/marine biologists/diving instructors/Indonesian businesses and restaurateurs.

We are now registered to certify divers in PADI Biorock Speciality.

Recently, CNN  filmed a documentary on the work done on the reefs. This is very heartening as the international community will see how Indonesia is coping with its environment and help will come from all quarters.

Why do you like the Gilis?

No cars. No motorbikes. No dogs. It’s quiet and I can dive everyday.

Any advice for visitors to the isles?

Don’t throw toilet paper in the bowl. Don’t throw plastic. Save water, save energy. Enjoy Nature don’t destroy it. Don’t walk on the reef. Don’t collect seashells or coral. Don’t buy seashells or coral. As an incentive we offer one free dive on the first Monday of every month to those who spend one day on the isle picking up plastic and other polluting waste from the beach and other areas.

Why do you seem one with the sea?

When I was twelve years old I did my first dive. It was off Reunion Island (next to Mauritius). During this dive I saw dolphins, the angels of the sea. The feeling of being part of a beautiful environment and being one with it was so overwhelming that I had to become a citizen of the sea and protector of it. The sensation of water all around me caressing my body, the colorful sights of fish and coral and the silence…yes silence.  Swimming in the sea is like being an intrinsic part of an exotic world. Do you understand what I am trying to say?

Where do you think this passion and lust for life comes from?

My father. He was a pilot with Air France and he also performed stunning aerobatics. Unfortunately during one of his maneuvers he crashed. I was six years old when he died at 33. I love him very much. I carry him in my heart wherever I travel.

You are now a 31-year old, unmarried? Do you ever think of settling down?

Why should one settle down? Life is one fascinating journey. I don’t want to get married or have babies because I will die by the time I am 33, just like my father. I have so much work to do for the environment and not enough time.

Will you continue living on this island?

No. My dream is to live on an Eco Boat and sail around the world educating people on how to preserve and sustain the environment.

Do you have a message for the readers of Voices Today?

The seas sustain all life on the planet. Help us to preserve it by not plundering its natural resources and polluting its world. I appeal to you to become true vegetarians – no meat or seafood. This will help stem the savage rape of the seas, thereby giving us an extended lease of life.

“Mike”, the world’s first hydrogen bomb, vaporized Elugelap Island and other parts of the Enewetak Atoll on November 01, 1952. (The blast was 700 times more powerful than the explosion that leveled Hiroshima). In the half century or so since then humans have destroyed around a quarter – some say a half – of all tropical coral reefs, which are one the world’s richest and oldest ecosystems and provide vital benefits in over 100 countries. Will the rest be gone within another fifty years – or less?  – Http://

(Note: Professor Wolf Hilbertz died of cancer in Munich, Germany, August 11, 2007. The world has lost a true citizen of the sea. Many Indonesians and expats in Bali and the rest of the archipelago fondly remember him for his assistance on the preservation of the coral reefs in this country).

Gili Eco Trust 02 copy

The story of a rice farmer somewhere in Bali

Rice Farmer 01 copy“I want to tell my Gods, it’s not fair”

Seventy five year old Pak Wayan Runia is a farmer who has been tiling the immaculately laid out terraced rice fields like his forefathers had done for hundreds of years. He lives with his wife, daughter, son in law and a grandchild in a modest dwelling. The daughter and her husband work part time for a workshop producing handicrafts.

Pak Wayan owns 20 Are of land cultivating rice and reaping two harvests a year. Each harvest, which is every six months, gives him 100 kg rice. Some of this he sells for approximately US 40 cents per kg if money is in short supply, which is quite often. The rest is for domestic consumption for a period of six months.

He pays US$ 5 per month for electricity, US$ 5 per month for water, US$ 8 Tax per annum, 6 kg rice from every harvest to the Subak (water authority), US$ 5 and US$ 2.5 for every major and minor religious ceremony respectively.

Free or subsidized medical aid and/or insurance are absent.

Pak Wayan has a fiscal deficit of US$ 40 every month as sometimes his daughter and son in law who work part time are laid off.

In return he gives the people of his homeland and tourists a free view of the world famous terraced rice fields of Bali. The reward? Commercial establishments mushrooming around his ‘work’, peddling the rice field views through the media, local and international, hotels selling rooms at a premium for the view he has created with great toil; Photographers, journalists, artists et al jumping on the bandwagon.

The local administration gives him US$ 25/- per year for the view.

Recently, a foreign movie crew filmed one whole night on his land after seeking his permission and promising to pay him. They have never returned nor paid him for trampling through the rice field.

Voices Today asked him if this was the great rip off and who should be contacted to seek justice for him.

“I want to tell my Gods, it’s not fair”, replied Pak Wayan and then turned his back and silently walked into the rice fields.