Picnic scenes (1)

Among thousands of pictures and photographs about picnic or picnicking collected by State Library of Victoria, there is a series of photos that interest me. The series was titled “Picnic Scenes,” and it is categorised under Rural Water Corporation collection. It consists of 23 photos; this writing analyses the first five photos of the series. The whole set was created by Victoria State of Rivers and Water Supply Commission Photographer.

There is no further explanation to the location of the photos, except an indication that they all took place in Victoria. But this makes the series intriguing for me. I like the uncertainty feels brought about by the series. It means I can imagine the location in accord with my knowledge of Victorian landscape. I should say it ‘the locations’ as it seems that the photos were taken in more than one place. There is a bush, a river, and a hilly scape. It can be Yarra Bend Park, or Flinders Beach. Most likely the locations were in places that I have never been into before.

Another point which I like about not knowing the exact location of the place in the pictures is because I can imagine the resourcefulness of a place, and not being confined within the popularity of a certain picnic spot. It reminds me of finding old photos in flea market; each photo would make us speculating about the people, the places, and the activities captured. What makes a place picnic spot? Perhaps a place regarded a potential picnic spot if there was a nice view to look at while enjoying picnic spread, or to take a collective photo at the end of the picnic. A place would be a perfect picnic spot when it has appropriate infrastructure to support picnic activities.

picnic scenes 2
A woman and three men by the river
picnic scenes 3
Three women and picnic food spread
picnic scenes 1
Two women washing cups
picnic scenes 5
A group of women took a souvenir photo–probably before leaving the picnic area


Public barbecue equipment: A note on generosity

We like going to a park. We went to a park for various reasons. A park is a place for Cahaya to play in the playground. It is common to see benches and tables; they are comfortable to sit and eat on properly. Children could play around the park, while parents supervise, and perhaps prepare food on the table. A park is a place for slowing down a bit, relaxing, enjoying the environment, and eating something–to make the relaxing situation more pleasurable.

In many parks or some open spaces here, there are barbecue equipments that are available to public use. To provide a barbecue gear in open spaces is such a thoughtful idea; so it was my first thought of the existence of this tool. We can do a picnic, and eating barbecued meats or veggies at the same time. The fact that they are available for public use opens up a possibility to talk about it as a sign of generosity. It is quite a generous act to provide barbecue grill equipments for free in many parts of the city.

Often I saw these barbecue tools were just standing idle. They seemed to be waiting for someone, a family, or a group of people, to cook something on them. So far I have never seen anyone using them outside the scope of picnic or barbecue activities. I always see them being used within picnic or barbecue activities. A public barbecue grill is functioned within familial and communal environment. It is a cooking tool for sharing with others in the park. The food cooked in the grill would be eaten together. A public barbecue grill is a friendly public equipment.

Barbecue in Wattle Park
A barbecue equipment in Wattle Park

To see the idleness of the barbecue tools in the park makes me wondering whether it would be considered appropriate to cook on them outside picnic activities. Would it be considered appropriate if someone cook in the park in early morning (for cooking breakfast) or in the afternoon (for cooking dinner)? Perhaps there were people who had tried to do that.




Arisan revisited: Notes on precariousness (2)


As a savings association to base on mutual help principle, the operationalization scope of arisanis limited to small groups in which the members know each other. Researches on arisan confirm the condition that it would not occur in a group where the members are unfamiliar to each other. The meaning of mutual help is restricted and not inclusive. What criteria for someone to be considered and invited as an arisan member? Inclusion and exclusion are two factors to govern the existence of arisan. It points to the limit of the common aspect of a community-based alternative financial group.

According to Erik Bähre, when writing about ROSCA in a South African township, ‘helping each other’, in many contexts, is often not compatible with ‘taking care of oneself’–“ ‘helping each other’ centered on sharing, while ‘taking care of oneself’ valued accumulation.”[11] The politics of everyday life is composed of countless moments where one has to make, again Bähre, “precarious choices” concerning when to help the others and to take care of personal safety. When helping each other and taking care of oneself collides, it results in frictions and episodes of what Bähre coined as “reluctant solidarity”.[12]


Difficult times often come unexpectedly. It causes precarious feeling. Not everyone has an advantage of being in a position where the availability of resources is abundant, or having a wealthy network to hold on. And nothing can be more dreadful than having debt bondage. The fear for debt is strong. Credit and debt have a long history in Southeast Asia. They informed social structures in many levels.[13] It tells about the power of the creditor and the limitation of the debtor. Arisan emerges as a support institution that derives from the familial realm. At once it is a mechanism with the certainty that each person would be able to support his or her own needs.

Arisan is often considered a typical ibu-ibu, or woman’s practice. Plenty of research suggests it is not a gendered practice. To locate arisan in the everyday domain of women provides space to examine the use of arisan and imagination of precariousness within the inter-relational framework of the wife, the husband, and the family. Hanna Papanek and Laurel Schwede read arisan as part of a woman’s strategy to help deal with economic stress of the family. Further, they see it as part of the conscious decision of a woman to actively engage in earning and managing in the family.[14] It signifies a degree of independency. The husband, the children, or other members of the family usually do not put serious attention to arisan. Such attitude stems from a perspective of the practice as woman’s practice. It has made arisan a special locus to lend freedom in managing the fund obtained.

A woman and mother, in Papanek and Schwede’s research, found many reasons to participate in arisan and to think about how to make and save more money for her family. Throughout time women have been affected by different kinds of uncertainty—the inflation of the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese occupation, the fear of hunger, the fight for independence from the Dutch—experiences, which shaped childhood and disrupted schooling.[15] Each woman might have different reason, which encourage her to join an arisan. My mother always thinks about her desires for having enough money for my sisters’ family and myself. The purpose of the money does not need to be specific. What is important is there is enough money to be used when the needs call. My older sister always thinks about money to fund the education needs of her children.

Keep going

There have been attempts at modifying the structure of arisan. In a recent conversation with a friend, I was told that she participated in anarisan, in which three persons would get the money in one ‘pull’ (narik). It reduces the amount of money received, since the lump sum fund needs to be divided into three. At least, it is certain that fresh cash will be at hand on a scheduled time. There are many factors to ignite precariousness. Hence the feeling seems to be persistent. This is a factor to maintain the relevancy of arisanArisan is a known practice emerged as cultural reference to approach uncertainty. It is an attempt to come to grips with difficult situation. It shows the will to find something to hold on, and to endure.

[11] Bahre, Money and Violence: Financial Self-Help Groups in a South African Township, 90.

[12] Bahre, ibid., 99.

[13] Henley, “Credit and Debt in Indonesian History: Introduction”.

[14] Papanek and Schwede, “Women are Good with Money: Earning and Managing in an Indonesian City”.

[15] Papanek and Schwede, ibid., WS-77.


Bahre, Erik. 2007. Money and Violence: Financial Self-Help Groups in a South African Township. Leiden & Boston: Brill.

Geertz, Clifford. 1962. “The Rotating Credit Association: A Middle Rung in Development.”Economic Development and Cultural Change 10, no.3: 241-263.

Henley, David. 2009. “Credit and Debt in Indonesian History: An Introduction”, in Henley and Boomgaard (eds.), Credit and Debt in Indonesia, 860 – 1930: From Peonage to Pawnshop, From Kongsi to Cooperative, 1-40.

Hope, Kempe Ronald Sr. 1993. “Growth and Impact of the Subterranean Economy in the Third World.” Futures October: 864-876.

Miguel, Edward, Paul Gertler, and David I. Levine. 2006. “Does Industrialization Build or Destroy Social Networks?” Economic Development and Cultural Change 54, no.2: 287-317.

Newberry, Jan. 2007. “Rituals of Rule in the Administered Community: The Javanese Selametan Reconsidered.” Modern Asian Studies 41, no.6: 1295-1329.

Papanek, Hanna., and Laurel Schwede. 1988. “Women are Good with Money: Earning and Managing in an Indonesian City.” Economic and Political Weekly 23, no.44: WS-73-WS-84.

Shanmugam, Bala. 1991. “Socio-Economic Development Through the Informal Credit Market.” Modern Asian Studies 25, no.2: 209-225.

Arisan revisited: Notes on precariousness (1)

Arisan is a popular community-based savings association in Indonesia. Amid various ways of saving and credit facilitated by modern banking platforms, arisan proves to be a sustaining mechanism for accumulating money. What aspects of arisan to help contribute to its sustainability?

Arisan: a transitional economic system

Jan Newberry defines arisan as a monthly credit lottery and describes how it works as follows: “At each meeting, members contribute a fixed amount, and each in turn receives the entire collected amount during the course of the arisan’s run (several weeks, months, or as long as it takes). Although identified here as a credit lottery, the arisan is just as easily described as a savings association.”[1] The members of arisan refer to it as a way of saving—a forced one. There are other definitions, however.

Edward Miguel, Paul Gertler, and David I. Levine discuss arisan as an Indonesian typical self-help group that built on the foundation of social networking, saving mechanism, and loans provision.[2] Kempe Ronald Hope defines it as a group saving association in which temporary loans are possible.[3] Bala Shanmugam refers to it as a rotating credit association.[4] Both Hope and Shanmugam respectively emphasize arisan as part of the subterranean and informal economy. They provide many examples to show the existance of arisan-like mechanisms in different contexts—tontines and Kootu (Malaysia), paluwagan (the Philippines), adashi or cha in Nigeria, ROSCA or rotating saving credit association (South Africa), chita (India), sou-sou (Trinidad and Tobago), tanda (Mexico), and gameya (Egypt).

The emphasis on informality indicates the function of arisan as a transitional economic system. For those who are not familiar with the cold and bureaucratic banking system, the familiarity of arisan is a feature to make it easier to partake in organizing personal finance. Arisan is the intermediary, “the middle rung”, says Geertz, from a traditionalistic agrarian society to a commercialistic one.

More economic

According to Geertz, arisan has become “more and more specifically economic rather than diffusely social institutions.”[5] It has become the norm to be part of two, three, or even more arisan groups. The reason is to be able to save more. On the one hand, it indicates willingness to save. On the other, however, the savings might be distributed for different expenses and needs, and dissolved as soon as they are obtained.

To illustrate this, I use my mother’s story as an example. She is a member of four arisan groups. As much as my mother enjoys going to arisan, there were many occasions where she could not attend due to her work obligations. Despite being busy, she did not want to miss a single arisan meeting, and at once lose the possibility of narik. A common strategy that is applied to deal with this problem is to get a representative whom is tasked with paying the contribution money. A simple solution is to get a wakil, or representative – for example, a daughter or close relative. My mother often asked my older sister to represent her.

The social meaning of arisan, often unsettled by the busy and hectic lives of its members, has the potential to be reproduced and revitalized in some ways. The difficulty in getting a representative is because arisan requires high social skills; a skill not everyone is at ease with. Especially if this includes chit-chat with a group of much older women. The challenge is to convince the prospective representative that going to arisan can be an OK experience too. After regularly being present at my mother’s arisan groups, my sister eventually had the idea of joining the groups herself. Rather than going to arisan as a mere representative, she made the most of it by subscribing to its meaning—a powerful economic institution.

Another aspect to reveal from the fear of losing the opportunity to get the arisan fund is an attempt to learn to commit to the basic principle of the arisan, as Shanmugam writes, “the duty-bound to make regular contributions.”[6] The failure to provide the commitment would result in shame[7] and distrust among the group. Because it suggests the lack of “discipline to set aside money regularly.”[8] This is an aspect, which has brought Geertz to conclude arisan as an “educational mechanism.” The educational value lies in its capacity “to change their whole value framework from one emphasizing particularistic, diffuse, affective, and ascriptive ties between individuals, to one emphasizing—within economic contexts—universalistic, affectively neutral, and achieved ties between them.”[9]

Communal harmony

Kerukunan, communal harmony, manifested in the gathering, has been the key element in the operationalization of arisan (see Geertz).[10] Geertz alludes to the word ‘arisan’ as mutual help. My assumption is that it derives from Javanese, the language spoken by the people in Mojokuto, Geertz’s main research area. But ‘arisan’ sounds like ‘warisan’, an Indonesian word, which literally means an inheritance. It derives from ‘waris’, a Javanese word that is absorbed by Indonesian, which means an inheritor. The collected lump sum of the arisan, succeeded to one member to the other, indeed feels like a collective inheritance.

The gathering aspect aside, based on my childhood memories arisan is an opportunity to share good food and eat together. The host of the arisan meeting always provides special food, the kind of food and drinks that might not be available on a daily basis. Eating together is an added element that makes arisan pleasurable. Going to an arisan is a much-awaited event, because it is like going out to eat, which does not occur often. For the same reason, I liked it when my mother asked me to come to an arisan with her. Though I always ended up doing my own things there—sitting quietly next to my mother, reading.

To organize an arisan is like organizing a feast. It is a time-consuming process, which involves complicated preparation. The whole house has to be clean and tidy (in fact, the host needs to perform well too—wearing a proper outfit is a must). Beautiful plates, bowls, mugs, and jars are curated and displayed out on the table as part of the food display. The guests will praise the delicious food provided. They will extend particular attention to the spatiality of the arisan—the house of the host (the neatness of the living room, what paintings, photos, and other things are displayed on the walls, or the cleanliness of the toilet). The host will go about arisan preparation as best she can in order to avoid being the subject of gossip. Gossip, ngobrol-ngobrol, and other types of casual conversations are essential parts of the meeting. The members express enthusiasm for arisan by coming early (so that there will be ample time for chit-chatting and gossiping).

Arisan is a powerful performative tool. It is an open platform that can be appropriated for showing the current state of possession to others within a familiar environment.

The hosts have to use their personal money to prepare the food. Some feel burdened with this aspect, since it seems contrary to the spirit of arisan as a saving mechanism. While the social aspect of arisan is highly valued, it entails performing a series of careful calculations. It would be careless to spend large parts of the saving just for food. Some arisans ask their members to contribute an extra amount of money to be allocated to create a collective saving pot. The collective saving pot can be used for different purposes—funding for the food preparation included.

For practical and economic reasons, some hosts choose to provide takeaway snacks in boxes instead. It removes the risk of losing the lavish element that is commonly expected from arisan food. Nonetheless it does not seem to reduce the excitement that emerges from getting free food. When I did not join my mother to an arisan, I would wait for her at home in anticipation of receiving a small box of snacks.

[1] Newberry, “Rituals of Rule in the Administered Community: The Javanese Selametan Reconsidered”, 1296-7.

[2] Miguel, Gertler, and Levine, “Does Industrialization Build or Destroy Social Networks?”, 290.

[3] Hope, “Growth and Impact of the Subterranean Economy in the Third World”, 869.

[4] Shanmugam, “Socio-economic Development Through the Informal Credit Market”, 209.

[5] Geertz, “The Rotating Credit Association: A ‘Middle Rung’ in Development”, 246.

[6] Shanmugam, ibid., 219.

[7] Geertz, ibid., 247.

[8] Shanmugam, op.cit.

[9] Geertz, ibid., 260.

[10] Geertz, ibid., 243.


Picnic food

Sausages is a must in our picnic diet. Cahaya always likes sausages. And when the picnic location is equipped with a barbecue equipment, it does not seem right to not have sausages on the menu. Andy does not eat red meat much. To avoid eating red meat-based dishes, he always prepared bananas, apples, and peanut butter, in any picnic occasions.

We recently had our family picnic in Flinders beach. It was almost the end of summer; it was a bright and warm day. It was a perfect day for a picnic. We brought sausages, onion (to be sautéed, and served as a side dish), and bread. M also prepared smoked trout, avocado, dill, lemon wedges, tomatoes, and rucola. Cahaya and I baked lemon ricotta cake a la Rachel Roddy in the morning. I wanted to bring cake to the picnic, because I always thought that one would need to eat something sweet after eating something savoury. I also bought two packages of Peckish rice crackers, a package of Twisties, and two small packages of chocolate (in case Cahaya would crave something really sweet). To add more nutritional values to our picnic, we brought fresh strawberries and grapes to the menu.

As with what happened throughout many of our family eating occasions, for our Flinders’ picnic session, M–Andy’s Mum, took charge of the food preparation. This included prepared a variety of sauces to accompany our meals (pepper was left at home sadly). Who prepared the food for my picnics in Indonesia? I am sure that the food was prepared by Mum, perhaps with interventions from Grandma sometimes. I took it for granted that women prepared food, and did not see it as something to problematise.  But Andy was in charge of cooking the sausages on that day. Does the picnic food politics mean ‘women prepared food, and men cooking them’?

Aneka saus dan bumbu
All the sauces that we need
Other food picnic
Other food picnic

Picnic food is a combination between practical and non-practical food. What I mean by non-practical food is the kind of food, which involves long time cooking process to prepare. It is possible to bring non-practical food for picnic–but the food should be prepared and cooked at home prior. Barbecuing sausages is regarded practical as long as the barbecue equipment is available in the picnic area. Recently Andy, Cahaya, and me, went on a picnic in Jells Park. Andy needed to go far from our picnic spot to find a vacant barbecue machine. As Cahaya and me played a little bit of egg hunt near the picnic spot, my eyes caught a group of Afghani women who sat together and prepared their food. There were about 10 women sitting in circle (their children were playing in the playground, no men in sight). They chatted while kneading the dough of the bread. When they were ready, some women brought them to cook on the barbecue grill. Making bread on the picnic spot might not seem practical. But to eat certain food is like an instinct; it comes unexpectedly. For them, eating bread is a must. They had to eat the bread in every eating occasion. Perhaps this is like my Mum or Grandma who would insist on packing a bowl of rice for a picnic, or a lunch box.

Hidangan piknik di piringku
On my plate–sausages, smoked trout, sautéed onion, pickles, fresh cucumber, tomato, and dill

Another important element to consider when preparing the picnic food is the amount of food. I prefer to bring a bit more food in the picnic bags. I do not like to feel that I bring too little food in the picnic. I want to feel that I have enough food to eat. This would run in contrast with the practicality of picnic. To bring much food means to carry many bags–an aspect that some people attempt to avoid. But is not going for a picnic partly mean relocating eating gears outside home? Bringing many bags full of stuff is unavoidable. Picnic is also an opportunity to eat outside and feel relaxed in an enjoyable atmosphere. To bring many bags might add a layer of heaviness, which potentially disrupt the relaxed ambience.