A woman had never led the student council of my Indonesian university. Nevertheless, in 2015, when I was a senior, my friends encouraged me to run. I refused. I didn’t have faith in my own abilities. How could I represent the university’s 18,000 students? Anyway, a man had always led the student council.
My family and friends finally gave me the courage, but outside my little bubble of support, many challenged me, not for my capacity to lead, but for my capacity to lead male students. There were times when I felt deflated and thought to withdraw, but there were also times when I thought, “I have to break this stereotype.”
I won—despite a tough election, despite all the challenges—but I never imagined that leadership would be such a tough and rewarding task. One of the many things I realized was how important it was to bring more young women into our activities, that this could trigger their enthusiasm to get involved and create change. In our patriarchal society, the assumption—from men and women alike—is that men will have more responsibility and take on the bigger roles. Women are free to get an education and seek higher positions, but they are also expected to get married, have children, and become an ibu rumah tangga: a housewife. A Balinese woman has never risen to a position within the Indonesian parliament.
I wanted to inspire girls to think outside of their households, to take on leadership roles in their communities. Oddly, my next, best opportunity would come in the form of a comic book superhero.
BASAbali: A Collaboration of Artists and Advocates, Students and Scholars
I am from Bali, a small island in Indonesia, the fourth most populous country on the planet. The Balinese are predominantly Hindu-Buddhist (sometimes called Balinese Hindu), accounting for about three percent of the Indonesian population. The majority of the rest of the country is Muslim, making Indonesia home to the world’s largest number of Muslims.
Today, I spearhead communication at BASAbali, an award-winning collaboration of artists, community members, students, and scholars who engage with the public to value and fortify Balinese culture, language, and the environment. Our primary tools of engagement are a community-developed wiki dictionary and a virtual wiki library that contain a people’s history, an artists’ directory, a scholars’ room, a children’s bookshelf, and more. These tools have been used by over 1.5 million people and appear in the local Balinese language, the national Indonesian language, and English.
These virtual shelves bring local wisdom, stories, and Bali’s people to the world, and are especially noteworthy in that they record the achievements of great women who are often unknown outside their villages.
A New Superhero Co-Produced by the Community
The idea for a superhero came from the children’s bookshelf. There aren’t a lot of children’s books, or many fiction books, written in Balinese. As an oral society, we honor good stories but write them into books far less often. We have a lot of traditional heroes, but not many new ones who both resonate with modern youth and draw on traditional knowledge. So, we at BASAbali asked our communities through social media and our workshops what a modern Balinese superhero might look like. Luh Ayu Manik Mak emerged.
Our society wanted a modern female superhero! By day, Luh Ayu Manik is a smart, outgoing eighth grader who lives with her mom and grandmother because her father passed away. Luh Ayu has a special power: her traditional tridatu Balinese bracelet can activate her dragon-shaped tattoo, turning her into superhero, Luh Ayu Manik Mas, and providing her with a set of traditional Balinese weapons. Most Balinese, regardless of their gender, wear a tridatu bracelet. It is a powerful talisman that guards the wearer against danger and signals resilience and hope. The bracelet is made of twisted red, black, and white threads symbolizing the Hindu Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
Luh Ayu speaks Balinese—her mother tongue—in addition to the national Indonesian language and English. The Balinese language is at risk—even with a community of four million speakers. English is so prevalent on the internet, and, understandably, the country wants all its people speaking the national language. Through the adventures of Luh Ayu, BASAbali is stating the relevance of the Balinese language here in the digital age.
We also wish to encourage the joy of reading. In a place like Bali, very few people read for enjoyment. News, traditions, and public opinions are expressed through performance and ritual. Although the literacy rate is very high, our reading culture is quite low. This is a problem in a global economy that relies on reading and writing. Our locally developed character, Luh Ayu, makes it fun to read in a way that resonates with children. She is a lot like them.
One of the most compelling things about Luh Ayu Manik Mas is that our communities advise her during her adventures. She speaks through her own social media handles to seek advice and offer suggestions for addressing social, economic, and environmental issues. To facilitate this, Twitter gave Luh Ayu her own emoji with the hashtag #BeTheHero, and National Geographic provided our team social media training so that Luh Ayu can connect with more people.
Local writers and artists then turn her discussions into multilingual adventures. Each book is authored by a different person in conjunction with BASAbali illustrators, translators, and editors. The first three adventures received generous support from The Asia Foundation as part of their Let’s Read program. As Putu Supartika, author of the second adventure explains, “with these Luh Ayu Manik Mas stories, children will not only become literate, but can also achieve literacy in the issues covered in the stories.”
Luh Ayu adventures show her saving the environment, encouraging reading, and promoting sustainable development.
Now, our team is experimenting with animation. In collaboration with Pulau Plastik and Sustainable Suzy and with the support of my National Geographic Early Career grant, we produced a 2D animation short which describes Luh Ayu’s fourth adventure, her struggle against a sea creature that becomes a monster after consuming ocean polluting plastics. Suciarthini, author of this adventure and a feminist herself tells us, “the Luh Ayu Manik Mas story explains local Balinese wisdom and provides a model for other publications.” Local rock star Rovi Navicula sang to Luh Ayu in the public launch of this adventure.
Each tale invokes Balinese traditional wisdom, but the fifth book, funded by United in Diversity, an educational foundation based in Bali, goes deeper, in explaining the Balinese philosophy of tri hita karana, the happy balance between people, between people and the environment, and between people and the divine.
We created another innovation in book six. This time, the authors were two young students about Luh Ayu’s age: Made Suhendri Yani from Bali and Melania Torrey from Virginia in the United States. Writing together, literally across the world from one another, they penned a story spotlighting both the COVID-19 pandemic and the international crisis involving packaging waste. Melania hopes that this project “can reach children across the globe, educating them culturally and environmentally.”
Their Balinese mentor, author Kadek Sonia Piscayanti, explains that the adventure is part of her wish for children to be like Luh Ayu Manik Mas, to have the drive and the skills to “do the best for themselves, for their families, for other people, and for the environment.”
The Indonesian Embassy in Washington has purchased hundreds of copies of this adventure to introduce Washington, D.C., students to global environmental issues, the country of Indonesia, and a superhero with a different worldview. The U.S. State Department’s Regional English Language Program used the books to help Balinese teachers teach creative writing while underscoring the need to connect to children in their mother tongue. Rubianto, a teacher who attended the workshop notes, “I learned a lot of ideas about how to motivate kids to write and talk.”
We’ve tried to price the books for the local market, but, of course, not everyone can afford them. Bali Children’s Project bought books for kids to use on a lending system even when libraries are closed during the pandemic. Ikan Kecil, a group which helps impoverished children around Mt. Agung, gave families bags of rice, bars of soap, and superhero books donated by BASAbali supporters.
As we now move into developing a 3D animation, I’m realizing how much Luh Ayu Manik Mas has inspired me personally. I realized that we all need a Luh Ayu Manik Mas figure, and, at the same time, that there is a Luh Ayu Manik Mas waiting to be unleashed inside each of us.
Ni Nyoman Clara Listya Dewi is a National Geographic Early Career Grantee and the Head of Communication at BASAbali Wiki. She believes that with Luh Ayu Manik Mas, she can inspire people to care more about environmental issues and to take action to improve our communities.
Translation by Terry Rolfe. Editing by Alissa Stern.