May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

The first volunteer

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Rachael Diprose

My first memory of Herb Feith is of him peddling along on his trusty bicycle several years ago near the Gadjah Mada University campus in Yogyakarta. The sun was softly falling on his thinning hair, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose, as he sat straight-backed in a faded batik shirt, negotiating the potholes.

I thought, 'so this is the infamous Herb Feith', popular amongst Indonesian and Australian students alike, respected academic and Indonesianist, and exactly the picture of eccentricity I had envisaged. He was working as an Australian volunteer in Indonesia, teaching politics. I am now lamenting the fact that when I was an Australian student on exchange in Indonesia I considered my Indonesian language skills inadequate to attend one of his very popular classes. Missed opportunities.

Several years later, working as an Australian volunteer in Jakarta, I was lucky enough to meet with Pak Herb. He was the guest speaker at the opening of a photo exhibition held in Jakarta in November 2001, celebrating 50 Years of Australian volunteering. Pak Herb pioneered the Volunteer Graduate Scheme in 1951 when he came by boat to Indonesia to serve as an interpreter in the Sukarno government administration. At the time he received a small, local salary, working alongside the Indonesian staff under local conditions, with the objective of promoting cross-cultural understanding.

Several things stand out about what Pak Herb said that evening. He spoke of 'curiosity' and 'solidarity'. The curiosity that arises when one becomes a volunteer and moves to a foreign country, and the solidarity one feels with those who are suffering and who don't have the basic rights others take for granted. Pak Herb described the fascination of those first volunteers with the Indonesian community, their way of life, political system, and open friendliness. This same curiosity and solidarity has led many volunteers to become respected academics in Indonesian studies, human rights campaigners, researchers and policy makers back home.

Being there

In light of the September 11 tragedy, Pak Herb highlighted the dangerous and saddening divide developing between what some call Muslim and non-Muslim countries. He spoke for many Australian volunteers currently living in Indonesia, who believe that now is the most important moment to be in-country. In times of uncertainty, simply being in Indonesia is a significant contribution we can make to our workplaces or the communities in which we live, despite the pressure from some families and friends to return home. This makes a stronger statement about Australians and our personal commitment to Indonesia than any foreign news report.

Volunteers may be placed in large cities, or very remote communities, depending on where their skills are required. When a volunteer moves to their placement country, they are given some preliminary language training. But they still have to overcome the communication barriers, learn to understand the culture, adapt to the food and climate, and simply learn a new way of living. However, lifetime friendships and extraordinary personal growth are the rewards that volunteers take with them when they return to Australia.

Employed as a translator and English editor with an Indonesian research institute, I could communicate to some extent upon arrival. However, learning to speak another language and live in another culture is a constant process, no matter how long a volunteer has been living in-country. And it is a joint learning process. My friends and colleagues seem to delight in my Australian mannerisms and question me constantly about customs at home.

As an independent, somewhat assertive, unmarried female, I feel at times like something of an enigma. While this is not unheard of in Indonesia, at present I still fall into the minority. Taxi and bajaj (automated pedicabs) drivers are amazed that I have not had children. Learning to eat with my hands at the office, without rice ending up all over my face and clothes, took months of perseverance! Living in a densely populated city has been challenging for me after the wide, open spaces of Australia.

Yet, when I go home at the end of each day I am constantly amazed at the new experiences I have shared. In what once seemed so foreign, I now find peace and tranquility in the call to prayer. I have learnt to order my day around the monsoon rains. I can see lifelong friendships forming, and imagine my relationship with Indonesia continuing long into the future. I only hope that I can give back a fraction of the wonderful experience that my friends have given me, and carry on the legacy of Pak Herb.

Rachael Diprose ( is an Australian Volunteer ( working at the Smeru Research Institute in Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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