Inclusion for All in Bengkala, Bali's Deaf Village


Visits to villages, primarily because of language barriers, are not always the easiest to coordinate. I had been in touch with several people about making a visit to Bengkala, a village in North Bali known for having a large deaf/hard of hearing population. Things did not exactly seem to be working out, and at the last minute it all came together, and I'm so grateful it did! After a nearly 3 hour drive from the south-side of Bali where I've been staying, we arrived at one of the schools in the village. 

We met with a couple of teachers, the principal, and a few students. Our interactions and the knowledge we gained are something I'll cherish forever. 

Let's start with some preliminary information about the village.

The population of the village is roughly 3,000 people. Nearly 40-50 of those villagers have been deaf since birth. The high percentage of deafness is a result of a geographically-centric recessive gene which has been present in the village for over seven generations. Initially, the villagers thought the large deaf population was the result of a curse. 

"The famous story is that two people with magic powers fought each other and then cursed each other to be deaf," says Ida Mardana, the mayor of Bengkala village, who speaks Balinese, Indonesian, and English, in addition to signing kata kolok. "The meaning of Bengkala is 'a place for someone to hide.'"

Rather than dismissing the deaf residents, the villagers and schools in Bengkala have adjusted to a deaf lifestyle. Throughout the village, people communicate using kata kolok, a rural sign language, independent of international or Indonesian sign language. Nearly 80% of the villagers, hearing and deaf, use kata kolok to varying degrees.

Pursuits to ensure equality in the village start at a young age, with a Bengkala elementary school, the one I visited, teaching all children side by side. The school, consisting of about 75 students, gives all lessons in spoken language in addition to the local sign language with some elements of Indonesian and international signing, so the deaf and hearing can communicate with each other easily. Kata kolok is something that belongs to the ENTIRE community.

Some deaf children even travel from other villages to attend the school.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of resources and poorness of the village, there are no junior high schools in the village equipped to teach deaf students, so many have to drop out once they've graduated elementary school. Some, however, are able to enroll in a nearby deaf boarding school in Jimbaran. 

Luckily, thanks to the integration efforts, many deaf children are able to stay in the village and be contributing members of society. They are trained in skills such as making handicrafts that can be sold in the tourist regions of the island, and they work with the other villagers in the rice fields.

The heads of the village are working to promote the village, bring in tourists and provide more opportunities for all of the villagers. One of the most empowering initiatives so far has been the introduction and development of janger kolok, or "the dance of the deaf." This unique style of dance was created with Bengkala's deaf population in mind. Between the dance and kata kolok, the village hopes to expose others to the "oneness" between deaf and hearing people in Bengkala.

Many scientists, sociologists, and deaf tourists from all over the world have made visits to the village to study and witness the uniqueness of this special place. 

After my own visit, I can definitely see why people would want to learn from this community. Now, of course, as a hard of hearing person, I may be a little biased, but it was fascinating to see the two worlds integrated as compared with the more parallel worlds we often see in other parts of the globe. 

The deaf children are able to thrive in this elementary school (and village) just as much as their hearing peers. We had the pleasure of meeting two little deaf girls who had the best personalities! So much sass and had nothing to hide from. It was really beautiful to witness.

There was a lot of translation happening, but luckily one of the professors speaks English and knows the local sign language, which has a lot of ASL influence. Of course, I know that not all ASL is the same in their language, but I learned the hard way when I tried to explain some ASL phrases that I know, particularly the sign for "team". The men (the professors and principal) were stifling laughs, and despite their respectful and modest demeanor, I could tell I'd done something wrong! Come to find out the sign for 'T' is the sign for 'sex/to have sex' in kata kolok. Clearly, that is NOT what I was trying to say, but now we have a great memory! Our driver did not fail to keep reminding me of my mistake on the way home from the village ;)

Nevertheless, that's the beauty of learning new languages, specifically sign language, in other countries because instead of being offended that you've said something wrong, you're praised for putting forth the effort. It's one of the best and most genuine things about traveling. 

The enthusiasm from the school's staff to integrate the school's students as much as possible is incredible. As the students departed for the day, you could see the even levelness in all the students. They all treated each other, hearing or deaf, with respect and the best part was to see the respect the students have for their elders. 

I feel respect for your teachers and elders is not something that is super present in the states. The students at this school grab the hands of their teachers/elders and place them on their heads which is a sign of regard. They even did it to my mom and I, who clearly are not a part of their village. 

Not only did I get to learn about the village and school and witness it firsthand, I learned more about the beautiful Balinese culture.

While many might consider Bengkala to be behind in a lot of ways because of the low socioeconomic status, I think they are WAY ahead in terms of human rights, human interaction, and mindfulness. The rest of the world has a lot they learn from this tiny village in north Bali!

I'm grateful to this village for giving me hope that one day down the road, the deaf and hard of hearing may be fully integrated in the hearing world.