The Druid of Tandem Hilir
By Dirk A. Buiskool
Beyond Binjai, 20 kilometers from Medan, in Sumatra, lies a vast area of former tobacco plantations. Here lived Kakek (grandfather) Rebo, the Druid of Tandem Hilir. He was credited with superhuman gifts. Countless people came to his kampong (village) in Tandem Hilir to ask him for advice on life issues, marriage partners, business decisions and health problems. People came to him from far and wide. Because Kakek Rebo gave advice that you could use. The Kakek had direct contact with his Guru (teacher) Kakek Purbo in Kroya.
As a Dutchman working in Sumatra you meet the most diverse people, I came into contact with Kakek Rebo through Simon, the brother of Diana, my wife. Simon had heard of a Javanese sage and brought me to Kakek Rebo. Kakek Rebo was very simple and modest, at the same time special qualities were attributed to him. What surprised me was that he knew things that I don’t think he could know.
One day we were involved in an accident, we were unharmed – a moped hit our car – but the person who hit us broke his leg. The next day, from his kampong, four hours’ drive from Medan, the Kakek suddenly came to our house without a telephone to inquire how we were doing. Because there had been an accident, he knew it. How did he know?
The Kakek was officially Islamic, like more than 90% of the Indonesian population, but his personal religion was a mix of Islam and Javanese philosophy. And that Javanese philosophy is also influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism. He never said much, often he said almost nothing, then you can’t say too much. But people trusted him, felt comfortable with this charismatic personality.
Kakek Rebo (circa 1906-2006) migrated from Purwokerto on Java to Sumatra around 1930. He was 22 years old when he signed a contract through an agent in Java to work on the plantations in Sumatra as a coolie, a contract worker. The first plantation where he came to work was the oil palm plantation Tindjoan, owned by the Handels Vereniging Amsterdam (HVA) or Amsterdam Trading Company. He then moved to another oil palm plantation, Bah Jambi, also belonging to the HVA. From Bah Jambi he moved to Sidamanik, also of the HVA, where he became mandor (overseer) of 20 to 40 Javanese coolies. He worked there until the Dutch left in 1958. From 1942 to 1945 the Japanese were in charge, from 1945 to 1949 there was the Indonesian struggle for independence, then the Dutch came back until 1958. After the Dutch plantations were nationalized in 1958, Kakek Rebo was able to buy some land and then became a farmer in Tandem Hilir.
When Kakek Rebo came to visit us in Medan, I made him coffee, to which he said:
Dahulu saya bikin kopi untuk orang Belanda, sekarang orang Belanda bikin kopi untuk saya.
(I used to make coffee for the Dutchman, now the Dutchman makes coffee for me).
I once asked him “what did the Dutch say to you?” To which he said: “Damn bastard”. I was shocked. Then I asked “that’s all they said”? To which he simply replied: “Yes”
From the 1990s he regularly returned to Java, to his native village near Kroya, close to the Java Sea. The Kakek’s family all still lived in the village and they all lived to be 90+. He received the money for the plane tickets from Sumatra to Java from people who came to him for advice.
In the village of the Kakek near Kroya are the graves of the three brothers. They are brothers who died more than two hundred years ago. The grave of the eldest brother is under a big waringin tree, it is a holy grave, and this was the grave where the Kakek went. He brought some flowers, burned them and started to meditate. In this way he had contact with his guru. The large grave under the waringin tree was bought by the Kakek. He maintained the grave, or rather had it maintained, by his family.
Although the grave of the eldest brother is somewhere in central Java under an ancient waringin tree, it is well known. Former President Suharto has been spotted there several times, in the middle of the night, to avoid being recognized. He got out of the car and went to pray in front of the grave.
My parents loved coming to Sumatra. Also in October 2002, the month that a major bomb attack was committed in Bali. Shortly afterwards we visited the Kakek in Tandem Hilir to ask his opinion about the consequences of the Bali bomb. My father, a retired general practitioner from Sappemeer, the Netherlands, wrote on October 24, 2002 about this visit:
A journey to the Kakek, a Javanese sage and seer who is consulted by many people. It was a long journey, he lives in the interior of Sumatra between extensive plantations, the roads are lanes with bumps and potholes. “Dirk said, a white person comes here twice a year, and that’s me.” Cars hardly drive there. After a two hour drive from the main road we arrived at a few houses. The Kakek was with the neighbors and a moment later he came shuffling or striding, very fragile. From a distance it looked like he was wearing some kind of white habit, but it was a light jacket and baggy trousers. He shook your hand and looked at you very calmly and penetratingly, without any show of importance. His cottage had several rooms with nothing in them. There was a hanging clock on the wall that showed the correct time, and there was also a television set somewhere. The Kakek was cared for by his cousin and his wife who lived with him. He would be 96 years old. We sat outside under palm trees. The Kakek sat cross-legged on a kind of couch. Diana had brought him gifts, a box of biscuits and fabric to make into a suit. We had brought him a box of Drum shag tobacco from Schiphol. He really liked the roll-your-own, it’s a chain smoker, and he immediately ate a lot of the biscuits, very nice, he said. A chain smoker and a snacker, an ordinary man, but he was not completely ordinary, you could see that. He was very quiet. The place behind the house was very quiet and very peaceful just like the man himself. Diana asked him about the tourism implications of the Bali bomb. “It won’t be long,” he said, that’s all. After the consultation we took the car and our sage to the tailor with the fabric Diana had given. We also went to the grave of the Nenek (grandmother), the wife of the Kakek. It was a small cemetery on the edge of beautiful rice fields. The Nenek has a bright white tombstone. Then we went through the plantations back to the house to drop off the Kakek. Two cars could not pass each other, but that was not a problem, there was hardly ever a car. After we had returned our advisor, we drove back from the oasis of peace to the bustle of Medan.
In January 1996, the Gurita ferry disaster from Banda Aceh to Sabang killed nearly 300 people. Also on the boat was our employee Juliardy, who miraculously survived after floating in the sea for 14 hours. Soon after, Kakek Rebo held a kenduri (thanksgiving service) to give thanks for saving Juliardy.
Kakek Rebo died in 2006. He would have turned 100 years old.
Dirk A. Buiskool is a historian and owner of a hotel, www.hotel-deliriver.com annex travel agency www.trijaya-travel.com in Medan. Tri Jaya Tour & Travel has been providing tours across Sumatra for 30 years.
Photo Kakek Rebo by Dirk A. Buiskool
Photo Kenduri-meal by Shutterstock