The Gayo live in the isolated central mountains of Aceh province on the island of Sumatra. Their homeland lies in the Bukit Barisan Range (“Parade of Mountains”). They are over 12,000 feet high and extend more than one thousand miles. Most Gayo live in the Central Aceh and Southeast Aceh regencies.
The Gayo language has four dialects: Lut, Serbejadi-Lukup, Lut and Luwes. Their language does not have a writing system, but folk tales, stories and poetry are passed down orally. The Gayo are close neighbors to the strongly Islamic Aceh people.
In the past, the sultans of Aceh conquered the Gayo region and made them slaves. After the initial Dutch resistance (when many Gayo were killed), the Dutch occupied the area from 1904-1942. During this time, the Gayo developed a thriving cash crop economy in vegetables and coffee. During the occupation and during the last several decades of Indonesian independence, the Gayo have gained access to higher levels of education, and participated to some degree in the Islamization and modernization of their area.
What are their lives like?
Coffee farming is the main source of income for the Gayo. Other sources of income include fishing and gathering forest products. They also have developed skills in ceramics, weaving mats and weaving cloth. Another well-known handicraft, called Kerawang Gayo, is gold embroidery with many other colors.
Gayo houses are made of thatch and wood. Typically, several related families live together in the same house. Each village also contains a building called a meunasah, where older boys, bachelors, widowers and male visitors sleep at night and study or hold religious activities by day.
The Gayo marriage pattern calls for marriage outside of one’s own family, but marriage between cousins is not forbidden. Most men marry women from the same area so that they already know her and so the woman’s family can continue to look after her. A first marriage must be approved by both families. Polygamy is rare but allowed. Divorce and remarriage, however, are fairly common.
Gayo arts include sama and didong, which are mixtures of movement, literature, poetry, and singing. Apart from entertainment and recreation, these arts also have ritual, educational, and informational functions. They also serve as a means of maintaining balance in the social structure.
The separatists of the Aceh Freedom Movement (GAM) were active in the Gayo area because it is at a high elevation with areas of thick jungle. Other areas, however, are bare because the jungle has been cut down without concern for reforestation.
What are their beliefs?
Most Gayo are Muslim, but lack orthodox understanding of the religion. Many Gayo people believe in good and bad spirits and in holy men, both dead and alive. They regularly give ritual offerings and sacrifices to the spirits, to holy men, and to their ancestors.
What are their needs?
The Gayo need medical workers to improve their low understanding of health matters. The
Gayo also need help in overcoming erosion and dangerous landslides, which at times block important transportation routes in their area.