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Gotong Royong: a recent flood and strong leadership strengthen a system of solidarity in Lombok

By Jop Koopman

On the 6th of December 2021, a massive flood happened in the area of Gunungsari in West Lombok. Floods are not rare in the rainy season in this region, but due to heightened weather variability and climate change, they are increasing in intensity. Around seven villages were heavily affected by a large landslide and rivers that expanded their boundaries. As the first picture shows, many houses were dragged into a river and overflown with mud. Luckily, most of the residents made it out alive, but sadly several people were missing and died.

A bridge between two neighboring hamlets, that was used by hundreds of people on a daily basis, was almost completely destroyed. Because of this, around 600 families lost access to clean water, and children on their way to school will have to traverse a wild river as soon as rain starts falling again. The same counts for people from one side of the river who want to visit the masjid to go to prayer. These examples show how the bridge is not only important as a spatial connection, but also as an infrastructure that acts as an important artery for renewed social connection.

The local population is currently repairing and rebuilding their villages and the bridge, for which they also receive support from local NGO Harapan Baru. In this undertaking, an intricate system of solidarity is put in place, in which the kepala dusun (hamlet head) plays an essential role.

The kepala dusun is responsible for organizing a form of mutual help which Indonesians call gotong royong. This is a form of community service in which the majority of the village population helps to fulfil a task. With many hands, a heavy burden will become light, as the locals say. In an article published in 2021, I have described the restoration of gotong royong as a form of post-disaster solidarity. After the 2018 earthquakes I observed that in the villages with strong leadership gotong royong was executed effectively. Furthermore, it was even bolstering social cohesion and connection between hamlets and villages that once rivalled.

After the recent floods, the kepala dusun in this particular village was a highly effective leader. He managed to mobilize both sides of the river to participate in gotong royong. Before the flood, both hamlets were rivalling in prosperity, conviction in faith, and social infrastructure. Needless to say, there was a lot of friction and jealousy between both sides of the river.

When I visited the site on the 3rd of February, almost every member of both hamlets participated in gotong royong. Children, elderly, women, and men worked alongside each other to move cement, construct the iron fences for the reinforced concrete, and move stones out of the places that needed to carry the bridge’s construction. Children from the age of three even walked alongside the women that were moving baskets and buckets filled with stones (as seen in the picture below). The women worked in teams of approximately six, excluding the children who participated too. When there was need to rest, they switched places with the team that was taking a ten-minute break, and so on. The men lifted rocks, mended the iron for the reinforced concrete, and tried to lift the bridge (as seen in the picture above).

The kepala dusun plays a central role in the entire organization. He mobilizes the people from the different villages, takes care of the distribution of food and water, manages the supply line of construction materials, and talks to various officials from the government, police, and army. Without strong leadership and proper management in times such as these, the gotong royong is bound to fail.

Since president Jokowi’s first term, the position of kepala dusun after being elected is paid. Their tasks are to stay up to date with the problems in their hamlets and find solutions to solve them, to organize gotong royong, to help with bureaucratic issues of their citizens, and to report back to the kepala desa (village head), to mention a few.

There are examples of kepala dusun who only focus on their monthly income instead of taking care of their citizens. Without their effective leadership and willingness to fulfil their key role, projects such as rebuilding the bridge in a cooperative manner fail. This is even the case in villages affected by the flood. A lack of trust, not being motivated to help, and wanting this permanent leadership role for financial security are often a thorn in the side of proper mobilization of gotong royong. However, when the kepala dusun does step up and acts as they are supposed to do, the people in Lombok can (sometimes literally) move mountains and build bridges.

Jop Koopman is a PhD candidate at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His current research focus lies on smallholder farmer perceptions of climate change in Lombok, Indonesia, and how these influence adaptation practices and resilience. He also took the pictures accompanying this text.

Further reading: Koopman, J. (2021). The restoration of gotong royong as a form of post-disaster solidarity in Lombok, Indonesia. South East Asia Research. DOI: 10.1080/0967828X.2021.1966318.

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