Me and Toba


Chapter 1

Mornings are generally quite chilly in the Toba region, and this one was no exception. There was always someone burning refuse in the backyard for fertilizer, and we children, attracted by the warmth, often gathered around the fire. But on this particular morning I sat warming myself by our hearth, cooking. My little sister was still asleep, and Mother sat weaving a mat near the door, where there was more light. My father had gone out with our buffalo cart, which he hired out to carry other people’s goods to market. He did this three times a week: Friday to the market in Balige, Saturday to the market in Sigumpar, and Wednesday to the market in Porsea. This was our livelihood, in addition to the rice we grew in the paddies.[1]

Our house was a balebale ,[*] so we were obviously not rich.[2] It was all black inside from the smoke, and in a corner under the roof hung a basket—the kind used to carry things on one’s shoulder—which had been saved as a souvenir by my father. From others I heard that when my father was young


he had mangallung (or carried things to sell at the market in Pematang Siantar) and he had hung it there as a reminder of his younger days.

My father was an elder in the church, something like an assistant Gospel teacher. This position was called sintua in our land, and because he held this position my father did not have to pay the corvée tax of fl. 6.60 a year.[3] Maybe this is why the title was much sought after. Anyway, my father had been sintua for so long that the title was considered part of his name; when people would call him they wouldn’t just say his name but would use Sintua Ananias.

An odd custom in our region was that the given names of one’s father, mother, maternal uncle, grandparents, and so on were taboo to children. Because we were forbidden to say them aloud, many of us were grown before we knew our parents’ or grandparents’ names. In fact, there were often fights about names, for example when a child dared to say the name of another child’s father.

One time, a child was punched by another, and as revenge the child who had been hurt threatened to say the name of the other child’s father. “I’m gonna . . . I’m gonna say your father’s name!”[4] Finally he could not stand it any longer and cried out, “Betuel!” But what is so awful about that? Well, in fact, the name he shouted out was that of his own father rather than the other child’s, so we all laughed at him. A fight could even occur if the one child said to another “Hey, I just said your father’s name to myself?

Anyway, on that particular day I was standing on the hearth in front of the fire when I heard a voice from the front yard below say, “Sintua, Sintua!” It was our guru, the village schoolteacher, the man who was also, every Sunday, our gospel teacher.

“He’s gone, Guru. He just left,” answered my mother from above.

When he heard that my father was not home, the teacher said, “In that case, Inang (Mother),[5] please tell Sintua that Djohanis (that was me) should be told to go to school, since he is six years old now.”

“Fine, Amang (Father),[6] ” said my mother, and the teacher went on home.

My thoughts were still directed at the pot boiling in front of me, so the significance of this conversation was not immediately clean I was already used to cooking at home, even though I was only six. We village children were taught very early to help our parents in things like cooking, gathering firewood, fetching water, and so on.

Cooking was not difficult, for village people cooked in a very simple way. To cook rice, for instance, water was first heated in a pot. When it was hot, rice was added and left until the water came to a boil. Then the water was stirred with a spoon and the amount adjusted so that there was neither too much nor too little and the rice would be neither too soft nor too


hard. Fish was usually just roasted over the fire. As for greens, cassava leaves were finely pounded and then placed in a skillet with heated water. Then they were seasoned with a bit of salt and left to simmer until done. It was indeed very useful for us children to know how to cook. Our parents were usually away from home and it was nighttime before they returned. My mother, for instance, went to market every day to sell mobe , a kind of fruit used to preserve fish. She would go as far as Porsea, Balige, and Sigumpar to sell the mobe, and on foot too, even though sometimes she made no more than twenty-five cents profit.[7]

I scooped out all but a little of the boiling water from the pot with a coconut shell spoon. Then I damped down the fire and lit one in another hearth to cook the greens. But my mother said: “Djohanis, you better bathe or at least wash your face at the well. Then put on your clean shirt. The teacher has come to say that you are old enough to go to school now, so you should get along. I’ll cook those greens myself later.”

I had wanted to go to school for a long time, since for us children going to school meant being “promoted.” Now, we reasoned, we would be able to join in all the school talk instead of sitting around listening with our mouths hanging open while our friends told stories about school. We would often try to gauge our own ages, to see if we were old enough to go to school yet. Since we had no understanding whatsoever of days, months, or years, we had a general method of determining age. The usual method was to have a child stand up straight and put his hand up as straight and far as he could, then wrap it around his head to see whether he could touch his ear on the other side.[8] If he could, it meant he was old enough to go to school. I had just been tested this way a few days ago myself, but my fingertips had only just brushed the top of my ear.

As happy as I was at the thought of attending school, the news had come so suddenly that it startled me for a moment. But I soon ran off to wash at the well. After eating a little and changing my clothes, I left for school with some friends who were already quite accustomed to going. The schoolhouse was not far; indeed, the schoolyard was just behind our house. The end of our backyard was marked by a clump of bamboo, then there was a road, and then the schoolyard fence.

My heart went thumpity-thump at the thought of attending school, my fear mixed with joy. All this time I had heard my friends’ stories about school, and I had often looked in from outside while the students were doing their lessons. But now I wanted to see the school from the inside. Might going to school bring happiness? The question filled my head as I awaited the great moment. The bell had already rung and the students had long since gone in to study, but we new pupils-to-be were only allowed to play in the yard. I waited and waited for us to be called inside too, to


start school. But that day we did not attend school. We were only allowed to play in the schoolyard, and then when it was time for the regular pupils to go home, the head teacher told us to go home too. He said that we would start tomorrow. This disappointed me. All my hopes and dreams about school, and the joy I had felt when I left the house earlier in the morning, vanished entirely. I went home dejected.

I found this first experience bitter, and the next day I did not want to go to school any more. Over and over again my father ordered me to go, but I remained resistant. He threatened me with a beating if I did not go, but even that did not work. Then he slung me over his shoulder and carried me to school. I cried and struggled to free myself, but no matter what I did my father continued toward the schoolyard with me over his shoulder. There he put me down, moaning and groaning. Friends crowded around, watching the spectacle.

Imagine my embarrassment in front of my friends! If I had dared face up to my father then, surely I would have hit him. But how in the world could a child of six hope to fight a grown adult? After that I was no longer brave enough to play truant. I was afraid of my father and embarrassed in front of my friends. It could be said that I was among the most hardworking students after that.



Me and Toba




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