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In Eggi's Village, Harmony Rules by Consensus
For the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia, says Dr. Peggy Reeves Sanday, harmony "is as important as power is to us."
In this society, women inherit ancestral property and have a major voice in family matters, while male leaders discuss traditions and settle disputes in the village meeting houses. But, Sanday notes, "Neither male nor female rule is possible, according to Minangkabau social philosophy, because of their belief that decision-making should be by consensus." One villager told her that males and females complement each other "like the skin and nail of the fingertip."
Sanday, who serves as consulting curator of the museum's Asian section, says she chose to study the Minangkabau because she wanted to witness social interaction in a matrilineal society that was known for its egalitarian principles in order to find out whether rape, child abuse, and other forms of violence occurred more or less often there. In so doing, she says, she found a society that is nearly violence-free.
Even without this distinction, however, the Minangkabau make an engrossing study. Their name means "victorious buffalo," and to pay tribute to this animal, at traditional ceremonies some female participants wear bright red headdresses pointed like buffalo horns. The Minangkabau live in homes with upturned roofs that mimic the curves of those horns, and -- to avoid bad luck -- always build them facing the volcanic Mt. Merapi.
Through her photographs Sanday documents a colorful, three-day-long wedding in the village that was the culmination of a lengthy courtship between two young people and of circumspect discussions between their families. She also depicts a ceremony held to ward off spirits from a baby girl born on Sanday's birthday. The infant, born to the niece of the woman in whose home Sanday stayed, was fed special foods, such as mashed rice and coconut water, and her lips were touched with gold "to make her a person whose words are rich and carefully chosen." It was only later that Sanday learned that the parents had decided to name the girl after her. (Now age 10, she goes by the nickname Eggi -- hence the title of this exhibition.) Such an act was typical of the welcoming ways of the Minangkabau, Sanday says. "They were sort of accepting a foreigner in their midst by incorporating her name."
In addition to having a national police system, the Minangkabau uphold their own nature-based moral philosophy known as adat. They believe that if you violate adat law, you will be struck dead by your ancestors' curses. "I knew one man who died suddenly in a motorcycle accident," Sanday says. "Nobody would dare say it publicly, but a lot expressed privately that he had died because of a curse that fell upon him from his ancestors from breaking adat law. He had sold ancestral property for his own gain."
Sanday plans to return to the village this summer while she works on a book exploring the evolution of the Minangkabau social system. But regardless of what she's researching in the future, she says, "I will always go back. We're family."
(More information on Sanday and "Eggi's Village" is available on her home page.
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