This clay elephant I bought in the Jogjakarta region in Indonesia many years ago is a symbol for me of how even the poorest of people and communities, lacking many of the comforts enjoyed by people in other communities, can create business and income by focusing on their skills.
It’s my “don’t complain about what you don’t have, work with what you’ve got” story.
The back story, as I was told it by Indonesian friends who took me to the village where the elephant was made, is that the Indonesian Government had sponsored a famous artist, the late Sapto Hudoyo , to help the village use its traditional clay object handicraft skills to create products which would be more commercially viable. As I understood, they made traditional, utilitarian household objects such as bowls and pitchers, many of which I could see baking in the sun when we entered the village.
When I visited it was clearly a very, very poor village, even by developing country standards. And the objects, like my elephant, were very fragile for having been simply sun-baked, unlike the kiln-fired pottery I was used to in Australia. I remember carrying my little elephant, wrapped in multiple layers to protect it from fracturing shock, around Indonesia and then in my carry-on luggage, back to Australia.
This was the simple combination: a specific skillset, clay, sun, their modest homes from which they worked.
They made an industry of it, eventually exporting to the world.
And, like the people of that village, businesses they could develop from their own homes.
Name of the village? It’s times like this I wish I’d kept travel diaries more assiduously, but from some searching today on the web I’m at least 95% sure it was Kasongan.
A tourism site I found via Google included a whole piece on Kasongan which sounded very much like the place I visited (emphases added by me):
Kasongan village is the dwelling place of kundis, which means earthenware jugs and later refers to people who make any earthenware jug-like as kitchen tools and ornaments.
At the beginning, these ceramics did not have style at all. The legend of the dead horse, however, inspired the craftsmen to create horse motifs on many products, especially the horses carrying earthenware goods or roof-tiles complete with bamboo basket placed on the horseback, in addition to frog, rooster and elephant motifs.
The entering modern influence and culture from outside through various media and the first introduction of Kasongan to public by Sapto Hudoyo around 1971-1972 with artistic and commercial touch and commercially sold in major scale by Sahid Keramik around 1980s enables tourists to see various ceramic motifs.
From what I’ve read today, the village of Kasongan went from strength to strength, not only selling to people who visited there but shipping quantities of goods internationally and became its regency’s main source of foreign currency. Then the Bali bombings in 2002 affected trade badly and then the village and its business were devastated by the major earthquake in 2006.
An article in the NZ Herald at the time, “Quake survivors forced to start from zero”, painted a grim picture of the devastation caused and the anxiety among the survivors.
But judging by this video (warning: turn the volume down as there is some serious static part way through), apparently taken from a motorbike driving through Kasognan recently, the village and its industry seem to be thriving again. It’s certainly a bigger and more bustling place than I recall from those days long ago when I visited.
I couldn’t see any little clay elephants in the video. I like to think they are still being made.
Because my elephant reminds me of how those very poor people took that one skill they had as a community, making earthenware vessels and then drying them in the sun, getting help from someone more creative to add value to their work and thus created livelihoods for themselves and their families.
I see it as a story to encourage and inspire many of those people around the world who have in recent months been put out of work or had their savings destroyed in the great economic meltdown. I’m sure many of those people, who may understandably be grieving for the loss of their jobs and/or savings, have skills which they can translate into viable businesses.
My hope is that someone who reads this story of the resilient people of Kasongan, who made my little clay elephant and turned their dirt poor village into an exporter to the world, and then picked themselves up after a 6.3 earthquake to do it all again, might be moved to share the story with someone they know who is feeling pessimistic about their economic situation and who might just be inspired by it to re-evaluate their own skills and how those skills could be successfully employed and marketed.
If the story helps just one person get back on their feet and create a successful business I will feel I have done something useful to honour the people of that village.