Boy Scouts Thrive in the Darnedest Places - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Boy Scouts Thrive in the Darnedest Places

Boy Scouts Thrive in the Darnedest Places

By Nathan Siegel

23 Jan 2003, Java, Indonesia --- International Boy Scouts exercising at the SMP Muhammadiyah 7 Islamic school in Kodagede, Central Java. The city is predominantly Islamic. January 23, 2003.
SourceJohn Stanmeyer/Corbis


Because wilderness survival techniques are not dead — at least not in Indonesia.

By Nathan Siegel

Morse code and map reading. Right up there with ice delivery and chimney sweep in terms of skills for the modern world. And we’re guessing even Elon Musk didn’t start electric-car and space-exploration firms by roasting marshmallows around a campfire. So it should be no surprise that membership in both Boy and Girl Scouts is on the decline in the U.S. Elsewhere, however, wannabe John Muirs are booming, and in a place that might actually get your attention — the world’s largest majority Muslim nation. Yep, that’s right:

In Indonesia, there are

22 million

Scouts, more than anywhere else in the world. 

Indonesia has six times as many youngsters in patches as the U.S., where not even 5 million young Americans (both boys and girls) are in Scouts. Indo Reyano, director of international relations for the organization, calls it a national movement.

So what is Indonesia doing differently from the U.S. to make its youth thrill for twee embroidered patches? Not much, in some respects. The organization has largely stuck to the program — lots of roughing it in the woods. But there are some key distinctions. In this country, one of the social media capitals of the world, the Scouts are introducing new intitatives — like training to build small, tech-based businesses — to a traditionally “how to survive in the wilderness” curriculum. “We have to evolve with the young people,” says Reyano. 

But adapting to the times for a generation of social media naturals is only part of the picture. In a stark break from tradition, Indonesia welcomes Scouts of any sexuality, religion or race — whereas the American Boy Scouts didn’t accept openly gay members until last year. It also doesn’t charge fees — again, unlike its American counterparts. Some money comes from enterprising Scouts who run honeybee and fish farms, among other projects. The government pitches in too. 

It’s a bright new era for an organization with a history as fascinating as it is rough-and-tumble. After being introduced by the Dutch back in the early 20th century, the Scouts of Indonesia were almost quashed by the Japanese, who occupied the then-Dutch East Indies during World War II. The Scouts were then instrumental in the struggle for independence from the Dutch, who tried to return to control after the war. Since the ’60s, the splintered federations of scouts were unified and schools adopted them universally. And all along we thought the little do-gooders just ate s’mores.

Despite their status as quasi-revolutionaries, they were never really considered “cool” among young Indonesians, says Enda Nasution, a Jakarta-based entrepreneur who was once a Scout himself. But clearly something’s working if 22 million are buying in — our guess is it’s not the spiffy duds.


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