Indonesia’s Indigenous Languages Hold the Secrets of Surviving Disaster
Introducing hard-learned local wisdom into warning efforts could save thousands of lives.
JAKARTA, Indonesia—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.
The islanders had heard a song about smong ever since they were small, passed down by parents and grandparents after the island was hit by a tsunami in 1907. The song’s message was, “When there’s a strong earthquake, followed by a low tide, don’t go near the coast to collect the fish on the shore, because there will be a [tsunami]. When that happens, run to the mountains to save yourselves. Take your kids, parents, and women to run away from the beach. Yell out, smong, smong,” a local told journalist Ayat S. Karokaro writing for the environmental website Mongabay.
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.
Simeulue had preserved an unusually strong sense of local learning, embedded in stories, song, and play. The 1907 and 2004 tsunamis have both become part of that tradition, researchers Alfi Rahman, Aiko Sakurai, and Khairul Munadi wrote in 2017.
The Kaili native ethnic group of Palu, in the Central Sulawesi province, has its own metis when it comes to natural disasters. But when a 7.4 magnitude earthquake and its subsequent tsunami killed 2,073 and counting this September, the knowledge embedded in local terms wasn’t heeded. There are four key terms dealing with earthquakes in the Kaili language, three of which are topalu’e (the lifted soil), bombatalu (three strokes of the water cresting on soil), and linu, the quake itself. While quake prediction is notoriously difficult, the awareness embedded in the first two words, warning of the immediate signs a quake is about to strike, can be a lifesaver in a situation where a minute’s warning can mean the difference between life and death
Yet the most haunting of the words is the fourth, nalodo—“buried under mud,” which describes the “liquefaction” that swallowed people and buildings whole during the quake. The village of Petobo, and parts of the neighborhood of Balaroa, were buried under the mud; even after search efforts ended Friday, ruins and debris still cloak undiscovered bodies.
The elders of Palu do their best to pass down their knowledge, but according to a 2011 survey by the Indonesian newspaper Kompas, 63 percent of Palu’s inhabitants had no clue that their home sits in a risk-sensitive region, and 95 percent of them felt insulated against such devastation. “Not a lot of people know these words these days. Most of the people in Palu are migrants; they’re not from there originally,” said Ahmad Arif, a journalist and researcher who has been on the earthquake and tsunami beat since 2004. “They believe that the stories of their elders didn’t happen.”
Science backs up the metis of the Palu locals who learned the signs of quakes. Palu is a risky area to occupy—it’s located along the Makassar Strait, where the highly active Palu-Koro fault zone has contributed to the 19 tsunamis that have been recorded since 1900 at the Palu bay and its surrounding areas, according to research in 2001 by tsunami expert Gegar Prasetya. Most of Palu, researchers found in 2012, was at risk of liquefaction, including the land where Petobo then sat.
But people built homes there anyway. In today’s Palu, according to Daryono, the head of the earthquake information and early tsunami warning division at Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, this heritage was too expensive to heed: “Due to land shortages, people have become permissive of the risk—they opened the lands to make money off of them, in the end.”
One of Indonesia’s first geologists, J.A. Katili, warned of the risk that Palu’s brittle soil posed, but he also recognized that growth couldn’t be stemmed. That growth inflicted a cost on the region’s metis. Central Sulawesi’s 32 ethnic groups were generally pushed out of the city by newcomers. “Unlike Palu, the people of the Simeulue islands are more homogenous, so their local knowledge is better preserved,” Arif said.
Indigenous knowledge has helped with or been a part of mitigation efforts for natural disasters all over the world. In 2002, Tikopia Island of the Solomon Islands was struck by Cyclone Zoe. When a radio warning transmission from Australia failed, locals heeding natural signs ran from hut to hut, warning them of an incoming disaster. Some of them survived by taking shelter under rocky overhead cliffs. The tribal people of Rajasthan, India, anticipate incoming floods by noticing changes in the color of the clouds, the movement of the sea, unusual activities of animals or plants, and more.
And in Palu and across Indonesia in the recent quake, techne, embodied in the high-tech warning system installed by the government, grossly failed: broken buoys, sirens that didn’t go off, and problems with foreign aid.
“There should be someone guiding a way” to bridge indigenous knowledge and the modern disaster reduction risk system, Daryono said, speaking of the lack of metis among the new generation. “Our cultural inheritance could still be taught in middle or elementary schools.”
Incorporating indigenous knowledge into education systems may be one path forward for disaster warning in Indonesia and elsewhere, said Arif, calling for disaster education, including local wisdom, to be compulsory in schools. But it can be difficult to persuade a younger generation that sees more immediate needs that their grandparents’ ideas are worth listening to—especially as groups break up or areas are flooded with migrants.
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.
For Indonesia, which sits within the Ring of Fire of Pacific quakes, the price of disasters, in lives and dollars, is already critical. According to estimates by Indonesia’s Ministry of Finance, earthquakes cost the country an average of $497 million annually. Just possibly, some of this could be avoided by listening to the words of the locals.