Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Between Sakit and Schizophrenia in West Sumatra, Indonesia

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Between Sakit and Schizophrenia in West Sumatra, Indonesia

Article excerpt

A Lifetime of Being Sick

By her own account, Amak Dahniar has been ill for most of her adult life. (1) Physically, she explains, she is strong, and always has been. Bending her small, wiry frame to sit down on the mat between two of her daughters, Amak says that she is getting old now though, and so she is slowing down. In her late seventies, she lives alone in the small house that she built with her late husband in the village where she was born and raised, and where she raised their children. She still works her fields by hand, tending crops, planting and harvesting rice, and collecting firewood, just as she has done since she was a child. Sitting between her daughters--Sariaman and Novi, her second and eighth children--Amak explains that, although she has always been physically strong, she started getting sick (sakit) as a young woman. Prompted to recall when she first became sick by her youngest, Amak tries to remember when she began having frightening dreams. After some discussion with her oldest daughter, she says that they began sometime in her early twenties, between the end of the civil war in their province and when her third child died soon after birth. (2) This was when she started having dreams, and hearing voices, both while asleep and awake.

Sakit is the word Amak Dahniar and her children use to describe times when she hears voices, sometimes sees people who cannot be seen by others, and wakes from terrifying dreams to physically fight off those attacking her and her loved ones. Meaning 'sick' or 'hurt' in Indonesian, (3) Amak recalls being sakit when she tries to hide from people only she can hear, or when she tries to protect herself and her children from other people in her village trying to harm them. Her two daughters recall that the intensity and frequency of these dreams have come and gone during their mother's life; the older daughter, Sariaman, describes frightening incidents when their mother would wake and begin destroying parts of the house. Both daughters say they know their mother is sick sometimes but they emphasize how strong she is and how she has "worked hard her whole life so that her children could succeed". She may "believe things that are not real when she is sick", they explain, but this is not a big problem because, although it can be difficult, they have always managed the sickness.

Managing the sickness, for Amak Dahniar, her late husband and her children, however, has changed over the years. In this article we explore the oral history of Amak and two of her children, Sariaman and Novi, to examine how she and her family have understood and managed the voices and dreams over the course of her adult life. This exploration of Amak Dahniar's life narrative and story of illness grew out of another oral-history-based study into women's narratives of trauma during the 1950s and 1960s in West Sumatra. This period covers a series of violent events, including the 1958-61 civil war in West Sumatra and the nationwide mass killings of communists in 1965-66, which caused widespread upheaval and social unrest in that province (Feith and Lev 1969, pp. 467-80; Narny 2016, pp. 117-26, Amak Dahniar was originally identified as a potential informant for the study because of her experiences during the civil war period; after the initial interviews with Amak, we asked her and her family whether they would be willing to explore the stories they had told about Amak's hallucinations and delusions further.

Through a collaborative oral history approach, in which Amak Dahniar and her children co-construct their account of Amak's life and her illness, we examine how their understandings of why Amak becomes sick--and the ways in which they name the sickness--have shifted at different times to incorporate various discourses of mental illness, of physical and bodily influences, and of the role that tangible and intangible external actors can play on when and how she becomes ill. These understandings draw together medicalized discourses surrounding mental health in Indonesia, as well as religious and spiritual aspects from more longstanding and localized perceptions. …

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