Indonesia’s indigenous languages hold the secrets of surviving disaster
By Stanley Widianto
As the 2004 Indonesian tsunami bore down on the island of Simeulue , near West Aceh, the cries of “Smong! Smong!,” the local word for a tidal wave, rang from the coastline to the hills as soon as the shaking that preceded the disaster had finished. As they heard it, the islanders, mostly from the Nias people, began heading to the mountains, crying out “Smong!” in turn as news spread. The disaster cost more than 150,000 lives in Indonesia; only seven were lost on Simeulue —about a seventh, proportional to population, of the losses in other Indonesian areas.
Localized knowledge like this can save lives. Researchers concluded that the system had worked when “even a high-tech warning system with a 15-minute response time would have been of no help.” In his book Seeing Like a State, anthropologist James C. Scott describes this intense, observed learning with the Greek term metis, which he defines as “a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment.” But metis, passed down largely through experience and storytelling, is being lost in developing countries like Indonesia, as urbanization and modernization take their inevitable toll on tradition. Incorporating this wisdom into the formalized technical knowledge valued by institutions—techne, as Scott terms it—will be a daunting but worthwhile task.
Systematic efforts by scientists to incorporate indigenous knowledge into more formal warning systems, including reports from local observers, may be one way forward—bridging the gap between metis and techne. Previous efforts at such programs have often been scuppered by ideological bias, such as the “people’s science” trumpeted during China’s Cultural Revolution. A more clear-headed approach, mixing the skills of geologists, anthropologists, and sociologists and taking local knowledge seriously, could prove more effective.