Arts and culture are more than something to enjoy. They are a celebration of humanity, something that binds people together, and overall, a way of living. In individuals, arts and culture can have positive impacts on certain health conditions, enrich a person’s emotional world and teach compassion. On a wider scope, arts and culture can contribute to a society’s economy and the cohesion of its people.
In the ASEAN region, the bond between arts, culture and humanity is something that can be especially felt—here, arts and culture are deeply rooted in people’s lives even as they progress towards modernisation. Realising this importance, ten youth from this region who participated in the eMpowering Youths Across ASEAN (EYAA) programme decided to create a project that supported this. Headed by Nurul N. Nasarrudin from the Maybank Foundation, these ten participants united to initiate project “Rejuvenating Torajan Arts and Culture” or otherwise known as project “RETACXTORAJA.”
EYAA itself is a partnership programme between the ASEAN Foundation and the Maybank Foundation, which consists of mentoring, regional leadership training, and overseas local community projects. Its purpose is to engage young people from Southeast Asia in impactful volunteer work which will be done across Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia. The programme allows its participants to choose between community empowerment, environmental diversity, education as well as arts and culture to be the focus of their project, and the latter is the scope that project RETACXTORAJA chose.
RETACXTORAJA is a project done in partnership with the Tourism Village Body of Suloara village and a foundation called Torajamelo. It was created to invigorate and promote local arts and culture in North Toraja, a beautiful regency in Indonesia famously labelled as “the land above the clouds.”
When asked why the RETACXTORAJA team wanted arts and culture to be their priority, a member named Joshua Santos answered, “Our team valued creativity and wanted to make an impact in the location. Moreover, we believe that the celebration of the arts such as music, design, dance, and drama is an important part of facilitating culture and identity. And through this project, we wanted to gain a deeper appreciation of other cultures as it would enhance peace, tolerance and understanding amongst the differences that exist in our world.”
Within two weeks—the execution period given to each EYAA team—RETACXTORAJA managed to bring tangible impacts to the North Torajan people and the promotion of their heritage, which included creating and organising the soft launch of the Bamboo Forest Market. Nurul claimed that the village head was formerly sceptical about the project but eventually changed his mind when he saw how the market was able to attract over 300 visitors on its first day. The soft launch welcomed customers to the cooling, natural view of the area’s tall bamboo trees, a selection of local food and crafts which were laid out on tables made of bamboos, and special art performances from children and adults dressed in colourful traditional clothing. Even up to this day, the site remains an official tourist destination where locals still sell their products at.
Apart from the above mentioned, the team also impacted the community through other ways. They gave English lessons to 45 children in the Suloara and Batutomonga villages, and furnished the Sesean Suloara Tourist Information Centre into a mini-museum which displayed textile swatches and other special products available for purchase. Additionally, this Centre is now a place for Torajan handicrafts, culinary traditions, and performance arts workshops to be conducted and showcased.
Like any other good success story, the journey for the ten wasn’t simple nor instant, and the pages leading to their triumphant ending were filled with challenges. “The primary challenge was tapping into our creativity to ensure that our activities and impacts were sustainable beyond the two-week period we were there, and that took a lot of work every single day,” said Joshua.
Before going to Toraja to begin their project, the RETACXTORAJA team first underwent a training event in Bangkok where they argued amongst themselves as they brainstormed and received harsh criticism from the panel when they presented their ideas. After the team overcame that, Nurul shared that they encountered a difficult situation in getting to North Toraja, as one member missed his flight and there were no additional financial allocations from the committee to help him purchase a new ticket. Thankfully, this person was able to gather his own funds to make the travel, and his teammates were previously willing to contribute should his funds had not been enough. Finally, there was their arrival and time in North Toraja, where they had to live amongst the locals who had different lifestyles from them and turn their ideas into reality even when they received doubts. Despite the hardships, however, Nurul contently revealed that in the end, “we worked together as a team and realised we needed each other. Even if we are not the best group, the ten of us have become one. I think, this is the greatest achievement of all.”
Overall, RETACXTORAJA is not only about arts and culture, and what it can do to a community—the project also reflects the importance of young people coming together to help preserve these things. That is why when asked on what the importance of arts and culture is to Dinny Jusuf, founder of Torajamelo and mentor for the RETACXTORAJA team, her first answer was that arts and culture involve the youth. “When it comes to culture, people sometimes think of it as something of the past, but you need to work with the young to continue it,” said Dinny. In relation to Dinny’s statement, Joshua was happy to express his views on why young people should be involved in volunteer work. “Personally, volunteer work has given myself the opportunity to meaningfully engage with communities, genuinely build friendships, fostered an understanding of my place in the world,” said Joshua. “It has also given me the flexibility to maximise my skill development and apply them into addressing our social issues of today in ways that cannot be taught in a classroom setting. Finally, I thank volunteer work for facilitating the many important life lessons and wisdoms that I have gained from engaging with people who are different from me. There's something special about volunteering which enables you to be a part of something bigger than yourselves.”
When ten young people united to rejuvenate the arts and culture in North Toraja, the results were fruitful: the North Torajans now had more ways to share their rich heritage to others, and their community can grow economically from this. Apart from the North Torajans enjoying these perks, project RETACXTORAJA also allowed people outside North Toraja to discover the enriching arts and cultural landscape in Toraja, and just as importantly, served as a learning opportunity to the ten young change-makers themselves.
If ten youths can bring that much impact, imagine what would happen if even more young people did the same. After all, it is arts and culture, and the joint efforts of people to preserve it that keeps our humanity colourful; or in other words, alive.
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