Bali's Village Of The Deaf
By Aubrey BelfordMarch 12, 2012
In one corner of Bali, both the deaf and hearing speak the same silent language.
As the daylight slowly dies and the dragonflies dance and dart, walking with Ketut Kanta through Bengkala involves navigating a gauntlet of Balinese village small talk.
Where are you going? Who’s the visitor? people ask as we weave through the alleyways.
Village of the Deaf, Bali
Sometimes the chatter comes in the lisping lilt of Balinese, the language spoken throughout the island. The rest of the time, the talk happens without a sound, merely a flick of the hands and maybe a twist of the upper body.
This is Kata Kolok, a language of the deaf, unrelated to any other language, spoken or signed. It is, in a way, the dialect of the village: whether or not they can hear, most of the more than 2,700 people here are fluent.
In the rest of the Bali – indeed in much of the developing world, and especially in its remote villages – being born deaf can be more profoundly isolating than others can easily imagine. With no language and little chance of education, the world is not simply silent, it is utterly bewildering. Frequently, deafness carries not just neglect but also a cruel stigma and separation from everyone around you.
On the northern slopes of Bali, about four hours from the tourist-heavy south, Bengkala is a fascinating example of a community that has spontaneously adapted to ease the burden of deafness.
The village has its reasons for this.
According to local history, congenital deafness began showing up among village children eight generations ago, says Kanta, 55, a villager who has taken it upon himself to lead the education of local deaf children. Five generations ago, the number of deaf exploded, a situation that has continued, likely because of close intermarriage in the village.
Today, 44 villagers are kolok, or deaf (33 of them are currently living within the confines of the village). With a high rate of deafness, the indigenous sign language has evolved and spread, aided by the uniquely close-knit nature of Balinese life, where extended families live in walled compounds and are intimately tied to clans and, above that, powerful hamlet councils known as banjar. Because each of the village’s 12 clans contains kolok, Kanta explains, most villagers know how to speak with them. In daily life, the deaf are at little disadvantage.
“If the deaf and the hearing are interacting well with each other then it automatically becomes part of the culture,” Kanta says.
By culture, Kanta means mostly religion — the Balinese variant of Hinduism that permeates every aspect of life through its elaborate, time-consuming and costly rituals. While in the rest of Bali the deaf are often shunted to the side, in Bengkala they play a special role in temple rituals. Kolok in Bengkala are exempt from paying many of the compulsory fees levied on Balinese for temple ceremonies. Kolok men, who from youth are trained in martial arts, are brought in to work as pecalang, or ceremonial guards tasked with keeping order.
“Sometimes during a ceremony there are drunks, or people who want to fight,” Kanta says. “Only the deaf are truly brave enough to approach them and say, ‘Don’t fight. If you really want to fight, take me on.’”
The deaf in Bengkala have their own form of janger, a Balinese dance, keeping time by sight rather than by sound, Kanta says. People travel from Bengkala to another village, Sinabun — from which many Bangkala people trace their ancestry — to bring offerings to a local deity who cannot speak.
While Kata Kolok is spoken in only one community, it is by no means a simplistic language, and it’s not the only of its kind. Around the world, there are fewer than a dozen village-based sign languages that have sprung up to accommodate the local deaf. Kata Kolok is one of the most intensively studied of these languages and has been found to have a rich vocabulary and unique grammar.
The language is distinct from both Indonesian Sign Language and spoken Balinese, but is constantly absorbing these influences — as well as drawing on Balinese life. To tell directions, Kata Kolok, like all Balinese, use the holy Mount Agung and its relation to the sea as reference points. Ages and years are symbolised by bending all five fingers and pointing them downwards, showing the annual monsoon. Westerners, synonomous with tourists, are denoted by miming a long nose; East Asians, usually Japanese visitors, are described – in a symbol that would definitely fail to pass muster in any official sign language – by using the thumb and forefinger to close one eye into a squint.
When I visited Bengkala, the village was preparing for Nyepi, the Balinese New Year that is, aptly, ushered in with a day of silence in which people stay confined to their homes. At spots around the village stood two semi-finished ogoh-ogoh, terrifying effigies that are carried in noisy processions before being burned, symbolising renewal. In Kata Kolok, the festival is described by the banging of fists (the procession) and then a finger to the lips. Throughout Bali the day of silence is enforced, sometimes violently, by stick-wielding pecalang guards. In Bengkala, of course, the deaf also play a key role in making sure everything stays quiet.
Near one of the unfinished ogoh-ogoh is Wayan Getar. He is 75 and looks fit and lean, thanks to the handyman work, including fixing pipes and irrigation, which he does around the village. Speaking through Kanta, who provides simultaneous translation, Getar is cracking jokes, and doing it a little bluntly.
“If someone comes from outside the village and can’t speak Kata Kolok, I think something’s wrong with their brain,“ Getar signs, grinning widely.
Deaf people typically find it hard to communicate and retreat into themselves, he says. Even here, some people are a little withdrawn. But not Getar.
“I’ve never felt shy. My mind is good. I’m confident. I introduce myself to everyone who comes here,” he says.
Being included in village life doesn’t mean the world as a whole is open to the deaf of Bengkala. Outside the village, Kata Kolok is not understood, and many deaf here have had little or no education.
That is changing now. In 2007, after attracting the attention of foreign academics, the village primary school was designated an “inclusive” school and given a small shot of funding by Indonesia’s central government and Bali’s provincial government, which provides scholarships to the deaf children. A Dutch foundation that works with the deaf, Vrienden van Effatha, helps supply teaching materials and has provided a short-term grant for Kanta, who is the lead teacher for deaf children.
Five deaf children are taking classes at the school presently. Part of the time they are taught in a separate classroom and part of the time in mixed classrooms, where Kata Kolok is used alongside Indonesian.
The government has allowed the school to teach the children in Kata Kolok, rather than solely Indonesian Sign Language, something that Kanta says is key to keeping the village here united.
“For a long time, the non-deaf have been speaking Kata Kolok,” Kanta says “If the deaf here learn Indonesian Sign Language, the others will find it hard to accept and the deaf will be separated off from everyone.”
The end of primary school is a challenge though. With little money, the village can’t afford to send children away to middle and high schools for further education. Right now the only option is sending children to another town for practical training to take jobs such as motor mechanics or masseuses, says Nyoman Wijana, the school principal.
So far the school relies on meager funding and grants from the government and abroad. Wijana says he’d like for more tourists to pop in, visit and donate, but so far the village is largely obscure (the nearest resort town is Lovina, half an hour away on Bali’s north coast).
“I’m from another village, Banyaning. It’s a vast difference. Here the kolok are very close to the community, and to me,” Wijana says. “Where I’m from, I have a deaf neighbor and they’re too shy to talk to me. It’s as if they’re closed off.”
Cening Sukesti, a 45-year-old kolok, has four children, three of them deaf. As deaf children including her seven-year-old son, Ketut Aryana, run around their legs during recess, Sukesti, Kanta and another kolok, Made Pindu, gesture frantically in a conversation about another villager who had recently smashed his motorbike in a nasty accident.
I stand by, waiting patiently for Kanta to fill me in on what’s being said. It’s a fascinating thought that pretty much anyone else in the village, deaf or not, could join in the conversation.
“The deaf and the hearing are their own separate groups,” Sukesti had told me via Kanta, just a moment before. “But we’re not pushed off to the side. We can all associate with each other.”