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The Return of Siti Habibah the Dayak Dancer

This remarkable story began on May the 18th 2012. The day I flew to a place I had never heard of just two weeks before, a town in Central Borneo called Palangkaraya and a chance meeting with a beautiful young Dayak dancer.

I attended the annual Isen Mulang Dayak Cultural festival and I took about 5000 photos over those 7 days but there was one face that seemed to appear in my photos more than any other. This particular woman of extraordinary beauty who filled up my viewfinder with her spirit and natural joy while she was dancing. There seemed to be this natural flow in her movements that suggested she was born to dance. However we never connected at that time apart from a photograph that my Dayak friend took of us on the last day of the competition. I always wondered who was this woman in my photos and if I would ever meet her again. About 6 months later I was back in Palangkaraya showing some of the photos from the festival to my friend Ferra when she pointed out this beautiful dancer and said this was her friend and she was a dance teacher named Siti.

Shortly after that we connected on facebook and traded messages every once in a while, I saw her again briefly at the Isen Mulang Festival the following year and she came out and danced for our photography group.
Siti was very friendly and we seemed to connect in some way. I respected her dancing skills and she was intrigued by this white guy who could not speak much of her language, but seemed to be so excited about Dayak culture and dance.

The Facebook messages started to increase and I was very excited to see Siti again in November last year when I returned with a photo group and her fantastic dancers performed a spirit dance in the forest, which surprised and delighted the photography group.

Early this year Siti decided to start her own Dance Academy with nothing but high hopes and a desire to teach and pass on the skills she had learned as a dance teacher. With no local support and very little money the challenge ahead was a fairly significant one.

Our friendship continued to grow and I expressed a desire to help in whatever way I could, as I love to help people achieve their dreams and I am very passionate about Dayak culture and dance.
It seemed like a perfect match, the beautiful talented dancer and the crazy bule guy with a love for Dayak people and culture.

I helped out with a few things that the Dance Academy needed which Siti was very grateful for and then we met again in March. I purchased a few gifts for the dance students and among these was a dream catcher, which I suggested Siti put in the studio somewhere and if we all dreamed hard enough the dreams would come true.
Here the dream was born.

Then amazing things started to happen. In April I released my first book about Indonesian Culture that featured three stories about Dayaks and a couple of photos of Siti. The publishers were interested in my idea to bring down Siti’s group to perform at our official book launch at the Museum National in front of the deputy minister of culture. They designed a dance in honour of this event and to wish great success for the book.

Their performance was the highlight of the night and they won many admirers.
I then wrote a story about Siti for an expat magazine in Jakarta, which received many positive reviews.
During this years Isen Mulang festival her elementary school age students won against the best dancers in all of Central Kalimantan (of course!, how could they not with all this good karma and hard work!) and will now travel to Semerang to compete against the best in the land.

In late April I sent the story I wrote about Siti to Lorna a consultant on Eco Tourism who works with the American Government, who advised me that the village where Siti was born Mungku Baru is the Village that is ear marked for a Eco Tourism project as the area on the other side of the Village contains primary forest with wild Orangutans and is an area of significance that needs to be preserved for future generations.

Then I got an idea, to bring Siti home to her place, to the village of ghosts ( in her words), where the Sandung with the beautiful princess dwells and the legend of 350 years is still very much alive today.

And so last night May 28, a holy day for Muslim people the return of Siti became a reality. Two very significant events occurred. I learnt from the oldest person in the Village that Mungku Baru means a place where things come together, like a bowl where all things mix together in a spirit of harmony and good. I had brought with me 8 photographers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and Lorna the protector, and I had brought Siti home.

Just as I entered the centre of the Village a beautiful white Hornbill flew over my head, which signifies good luck in Dayak folklore.

The entire village showed up to watch their Siti return to her home, with her parents and family and dance with such grace and beauty, with her friends.
The Village chief was extremely excited to welcome us to his Village and was bursting with pride. There was a feeling of such joy and happiness as this wonderful connection of cultures came together in this special place in this ancient land for a brief time.

Perhaps the real significance of this moment was how people from vastly different backgrounds can come together with no fear, in a spirit of love and friendship that there perhaps is hope for this beautiful planet, if we can just love Mother Earth and each other enough, respect each other despite our differences.

Siti’s grandfather hugged me and would not let me go. I think he summed up the feeling that day, that the Dayak people need us and we must work together to preserve their culture and save their land.

But this was also a coming home for me. To a place where my soul resides, to a people that I love and feel loved and accepted. This past 10 days has reinforced in me a deep commitment to devote the rest of my life to these beautiful people, To document their culture, to communicate to the world the beauty and wisdom of these people. And to do all I possibly can to help these Dayak people.

I realize now it is my destiny, and the connection with Siti is an important part of that plan that has been laid out before us and it seems that we are in fact just actors in this play.

Others will show up on the way to assist us in achieving our dreams, I am sure, they are already starting to.
This wonderful journey continues.

I hope Siti’s achievements will be an inspiration for young Dayak children in this village and other villages in Kalimantan.

A young lady with a passion and love of dance is now starting to become famous. She has performed in Jakarta at the National Museum, this month she performs in Bali in front of Jane Goodall one of the worlds most famous environmentalists, in July in Jakarta in front of the NZ Ambassador and many Jakarta celebrities incl Harry Darsono, and plans are to perform overseas and bring Dayak culture and dance to an International audience.
So if a woman such as this can be born in a small village named Mungku Baru, to poor parents and achieve what she has so far in her life it gives hope to any child that they can do the same.

That dreams can be achieved in this country no matter what situation the person is born into, Siti Habibah is testimony to that.
This dream must never die, as it carries the hopes and aspirations of so many people. For Pak Anden and all the Village elders who have a deep love and belief in their culture and are concerned about what the future holds, For Aini Abdul who works so hard to provide better education and opportunities for Dayak children, For Yun ( Siti’s sister) and Ferri’s beautiful son because if we don’t do something what future will they inherit? For Lorna who works tirelessly trying to protect the beautiful forests and rivers of her adopted home, and for the many honest, trusting Dayak people of Kalimantan who are innocent victims to this Tsunami of ignorance and greed which is devouring the earth and leaving behind nothing but a wasteland for the future generations and with it their culture and belief systems. And for Siti and her team of dancers who one day will present their dance to the world and the stories and legends of their people.

And for mother earth, as there is still time to turn this insanity around.
With enough committed people, guided by the wisdom of these Indigenous Cultures, and working together miracles can happen. Just like what happened in Mungku Baru on this special night in May.

Author: David Metcalf

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