Javanese Children’s Stories, the Old-Fashioned Way
The goal of Ayo Dongeng, an Indonesian collective that aims to promote storytelling to children, is a simple one: get every adult picking up children’s books again to return to the days when spending quality time with kids meant sharing pages rather than apps.
Of course in these days of 140-character conversations and endless rush hours, trying to promote such an exercise is far from easy. Even the collective’s name — which translates roughly as “C’mon, let’s tell a fairy tale” — is a literal plea for an increasingly seen-as-archaic activity.
Officially established last December, this self-billed “social community” involves a storytelling class, called belajar mendongeng (learn to tell stories) is taught by Mochamad Ariyo Faridh Zidni, better known as Kak (older sibling) Aio. Kak Aio’s students were mostly — though not all — parents who wanted to learn how to read stories to their children. The membership also includes students, college lecturers and regular working folks.
These students, along with their mentor, formed Ayo Dongeng, with the aim of putting their storytelling skills to a greater socially-conscious use. Among their activities are visiting cancer-ridden children, elderly people at retirement homes and kids in remote islands, always with the aim of entertaining them.
Astrid, Ayo Dongeng’s representative, explained that this community-conscious movement was mostly inspired by Kak Aio’s habitual activity of entertaining — through a process dubbed “trauma healing” — victims of natural disasters, as well as his going around to various schools to spread the good word about reading and storytelling.
“It was a virus that spread,” Astrid said of Kak Aio’s influence. Kak Aio himself summarized the activity of reading books for social causes as reading fairy tales to people whose lives are far from a fairy tale.
The stories come from a variety of sources, with most being original Indonesian tales with moral-based messages, which — depending on your taste — range from heartwarming to tacky. Most are typical fairy tales in nature, with talking animals and magic central to the plot.
Ayo Dongeng received support from the country’s Ministry of National Education, which allowed the group to search its library for more books to add to its collection. They also received the backing of Ikapi, an Indonesian publishing collective, as well as the organizers of the annual Indonesia Book Fair, who lent them space in Istora Senayan.
The group grew in numbers and currently holds an official membership of more than 30 storytellers — or fairy tale manggala , from the Sanskrit word meaning “leader” — with many additional members helping out when they can. This growth in membership coincides with Ayo Dongeng’s growing success in influencing other book-reading clubs around the country to establish their own storytelling communities.
“Right now storytelling is rising in terms of popularity, which you can see through the many storytelling activities for children that are taking place [around the country] in different communities,” Astrid said.
She added that the group does not see similar collectives as rivals, rather, Ayo Dongeng is happy to share the burden of trying to educate and entertain the countless number of children in need. After all, many of Ayo Dongeng’s members are struggling trying to balance time for themselves with time committed to the group.
“It’s definitely a challenge to stay consistent in what we are doing, trying to tell stories to as many people in Indonesia as need it,” Astrid said.
To make sure that everyone who signs up with Ayo Dongeng is truly capable of weaving good stories, they must undertake lessons that aim to teach them the appropriate nuances required to keep the listeners’ attention in a fun way.
“After we launched [in December], we did a lot training sessions with the increasing number of people who wanted to sign up with us,” Astrid said.
To help spread the word, Ayo Dongeng has also regularly collaborated with public figures whose images are familiar to children. One of these was Suyadi, a legendary figure whose puppet character, Javanese statesman Pak Raden, is an icon to many Indonesian adults and children (Suyadi also appears in public in his Pak Raden costume). Although Suyadi’s personal finances have seen him living in mild squalor — due to the lack of rights he had for his character during its heyday — Pak Raden was and still is a storytelling icon whose connection to Ayo Dongeng’s campaign makes perfect sense.
For Ayo Dongeng, it all boils down to giving back to the community in an unorthodox way that helps people forget their problems, if only for a the length of a book.
“[What we want] is for society to understand the importance of communication, especially through storytelling,” Astrid said. “Because telling stories is easy and anyone can do it as long as they are willing to learn.”
For more information, find Ayo Dongeng on Facebook