National Geographic : 1955 Sep
This Young Giant, Indonesia From Sumatra to Celebes and from Bali to Borneo, a New Sense of Urgency Grips the 5-year-old Nation of 3,000 Islands and 79,000,000 People BY BEVERLEY M. BOWIE National Geographic Magazine Staff With Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer J. Baylor Roberts EVEN before we could see them, we could hear their laughter. We had been following a straggly dirt road through the highlands of Sumatra above Bukittingi, and as we rounded a clump of sugar cane they came into view-some 60 children gathered on a grassy bank. They were strung out in a long line from an excavation in the side of a hill, and they were passing rocks along from hand to hand, piling them in a heap beside a shed which had acquired a tin roof but no walls and no floor. They were students and this was a Sunday. Yet they had come together each week end in this way for two months to build their school, and they would continue for another year until it was done. "In Indonesia," said one of their teachers, "we call this gotong-rojong: helping each to help the other." A nation in knee pants, only five years old last December, Indonesia is relying heavily upon this spirit of mutual cooperation at the village level in its struggle for survival. By Garuda over the Island Chain Sixth most populous among the world's nations, and potentially one of the Far East's strongest, the young Republic still staggers under a legacy of economic dislocation and political dissension bequeathed by a decade of enemy occupation, revolution, and civil war. Now, however, it is straightening its back, getting a grip on some of its most urgent problems-especially education-and "help ing each to help the other" toward maturity. In the good company of Joe Roberts, Na tional Geographic staff photographer, I have just traveled more than 10,000 miles the length and breadth of the archipelago, watch ing Indonesia at work on this vast project of national rejuvenation.* For two months we were wafted on the wings of Garuda, Indonesia's wide-ranging airline-named, appropriately enough, for the Republic's national bird (page 356). Our travels took us from Timor in the east to Sumatra in the west; where Garuda couldn't go, we penetrated by amphibious plane, jeep, prau, or foot (see the 10-color Map of South east Asia, a supplement to this issue). Inevitably, we explored far more of Indo nesia than most Indonesians have ever seen. The people of this new Republic, indeed, are still getting acquainted with their own coun try and comparing notes at every opportunity on regional manners and aspirations. No easy job. Their nation is made up of 79 million persons speaking some two-score languages and clustered on 3,000 islands sprawled across the Equator. Superimposed on the United States, Indonesia would reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific. As Unlike as Cab Drivers and Eskimos Before we set out, old hands in Djakarta, the capital, warned us: "You won't find one Indonesia but 20 or 30. New York cab drivers have about as much in common with the Eskimos as the Minahassans with the Timorese or the Minangkabaus with the Balinese." True, up to a point. Yet a few charac teristics seemed to us as evident in one part of the archipelago as another. Indonesians, as a people, are exceptionally graceful, exceptionally polite, exceptionally clean-and in no great hurry.f Everywhere one gets an overwhelming sense of youth. The roads of Sumatra are as crowded as those of Borneo or Celebes with small armies of boys and girls traveling to and from their teeming schools. Lithe, well proportioned, and muscular, they walk with heads proudly lifted, as light-footed as dancers * See "Republican Indonesia Tries Its Wings," by W. Robert Moore, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1951. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "The Face of the Netherlands Indies," 20 illustrations, February, 1946, and "Netherlands Indies: Patchwork of Peoples," 23 illustrations in color, June, 1938, both by Maynard Owen Williams.