Dika and the children of Desa Pelita, Indonesia Mengajar
At the port in Desa Pelita, the sea is clear and the fish so plentiful that the locals joke they don’t need their nets; they sit on the jetty in the morning sun and wait for dinner to jump into their baskets. It’s a small island of mostly fishermen and coconut farmers in the far north-east of the Indonesian archipelago. ‘The villagers are financially poor but they are not really poor in that they have enough; they can get food easily and eat well,’ says Rahmut Danu Andika (Dika), who now calls the island his second home. But there is no electricity, internet or phones on Pelita. ‘They don’t get a lot of outside information so their expectations about their futures and their children’s futures don’t change,’ says Dika. ‘So we try to be a window to another future.’
Dika has just returned to Jakarta from a one-year teaching placement at Desa Pelita’s only primary school. At 25 years of age, he is not a teacher by training. He resigned from his job as an engineer in the Kalimantan coal mines to take up the role with Jakarta-based NGO Teaching Indonesia Movement (Indonesia Mengajar). Since 2010, Indonesia Mengajar has sent 170 of Indonesia’s best university graduates to some of the country’s most far-flung and poorly resourced communities.
Anies Baswedan is the organisation’s founder and vice-chancellor of Paramadina University in Jakarta. He says the formula is simple: get more qualified teachers into low socio-economic areas, ‘wait a few decades and see society transform’. His organisation selects the ‘crème de la crème’ from thousands of bright, young applicants. After an intensive seven-week training program in pedagogy, leadership and first-aid, the young teachers are deployed to isolated schools that lack teachers. Baswedan says each of them becomes ‘a role model, an initiator, and an inspiration’, planting hope and dreams in each village they join.
Universal primary education
At the 2012 Millennium Development Goal Awards in Jakarta this year the program received the Public Sector Special Award for its contribution to the futures of Indonesia’s children. According to United Nations statistics, Indonesia is making good progress towards its goals of universal primary education by 2015.
Approximately 95 per cent of children are enrolled in primary school and 95 per cent of 15-24 year olds are literate. This is a huge achievement for a country whose population was mostly illiterate when it gained its independence in 1945. At that time, 95 per cent of Indonesians couldn’t read or write and there were just 92 high schools and five universities for a population of 70 million. Few nations have been able to combat illiteracy in such a short period of time.
Anis Baswedan attributes Indonesia’s success to the Higher Education Student Deployment Program (Pengerahan Tenaga Mahasiswa) of the 1950s, an early model of what Indonesia Mengajar does today. The newly independent government set about building senior high schools in all of Indonesia’s districts and sent university students, mainly from Java, to teach for two years in outlying villages. The program ran for ten years in 161 schools across the country. The result, says Baswedan, was an ‘explosion’ of university students in the 1960s, from villages as well as from cities and villages, and from poor families as well as rich families. ‘Every student, parent and villager that was touched by those bright young people aspired to send their own children to university,’ he says.
But today, despite the promising UN statistics, children in remote villages across the Indonesian archipelago do not receive the same opportunities to learn and grow as those in the cities. According to the World Bank, only 55 per cent of children from low-income families are enrolled in junior secondary school and that the average student will receive just 5.8 years of schooling. In remote areas, the numbers are much lower. In West Papua, for example, 32 per cent of children under 15 are illiterate.
Almost half of all Indonesians living in rural and remote areas, poorly served by roads, books and qualified teachers. As a consequence, the opportunities for many are limited. Anies Baswedan says education in Indonesia is still very ‘urban-centric’: the majority of universities are located in the big cities and school textbooks refer to city life, alienating children from learning and from their environment. To achieve education for all, he says, investment and learning must be brought back to the community.
‘A child with low marks, from a poor family far from the city will have a problem to get quality education,’ says Baswedan. ‘Many young Indonesians have no access to higher education, not because they lack intellectual capacity, but because they do not have money to finance it.’
Since 2010, Indonesia Mengajar has been overwhelmed by more than 19,000 applications from young graduates wanting to teach. Dika was among 50 graduates accepted in the first year of the program. Having grown up in a big city, he considers himself lucky to have received a good education in a supportive environment, with good neighbours and opportunities. He says he applied for the program so that he could share this privilege and for the chance it offered to learn about his country. It took a four and a half hour flight to Ternate, a night ship to the island of Bachan, then a trip by motorbike, minibus and longboat before he reached Desa Pelita. He says the village was so small that ‘everyone knew everyone’. Fellow teacher, Granasti Aprilia (Asti) is a psychology graduate who spent last year in a small school in West Tulang Bawang, South Sumatra, five hours by plane from Jakarta. It’s a region of palm oil and rubber plantations and in the rainy season the streets become red mud rivers. ‘Some days it was like a waterfall coming down the hill, and to get to school, we’d have to put the motorcycles on canoes or wade through the flooded river,’ says Asti.
Both Desa Pelita and West Tulang Bawang are traditional communities that rely on the land for their livelihoods. The challenges Dika and Asti felt in promoting education when they arrived were the same. Asti says it was difficult to convince parents how important education is. In West Tulang Bawang people tap rubber and earn good money from palm, or they farm cassava for ethanol fuel. It is not obvious to them why their children need an education. They think: ‘Why send kids to school if we can get easy money from rubber?’ Asti’s students were often missing from class and parents would say they were sick or visiting grandparents. ‘But some families with young girls would keep them home to work,’ she says. So most days, she and another teacher would go around and pick the children up from the rubber fields.
Dika and Asti were the only teachers in their schools with bachelor degrees. Most teachers are senior high school graduates, who are not formally trained because it is too far and too expensive to get to the district capital for courses. Dika says he was shocked when he arrived in Desa Pelita to see teachers using a wooden stick with oyster shells attached to the end to discipline the children. ‘It was not because the teachers were cruel but because they knew no other method,’ he says.
The young graduates split their time in the villages between teaching and education advocacy in the broader community. From morning to noon they’d be in the classrooms, but evenings and weekends were spent teaching computing skills, English, self-confidence and career planning at the local high school. Dika says they also became medics, sex-educators, counselors and mobile phone technicians. ‘The villagers think that because we are from Jakarta we can do anything!’
In schools where students often have low expectations, Asti says they ‘make the children dare to have big dreams’. One of her students told her that her father had said she didn’t need an education because she could just go to work in another country as a maid when she grew up. But with encouragement and information about scholarship programs, three of the senior high school students from her district are now studying at university in Jakarta.
In this sense, the young graduates are fulfilling Indonesia Mengajar's other goal, which is to develop future leaders. Baswedan says that the program aims to develop a network of young people who can represent Indonesia globally, but who also have a grass-roots understanding of their country so that they can connect and relate to the people they are leading.
Asti and her pupils in Tulang Bawang Barat, Indonesia Mengajar
For the young teachers themselves, the placements have been life changing. Dika says his year on the island inspired him; he learnt just how big his country is and ‘to appreciate things more’. Back in Jakarta, he has stopped wearing his wristwatch, saying he learnt from the islanders ‘not to chase the time but to glance at the sun’. In Desa Pelita, people look to the sky to see if it’s going to rain and they drink coffee until it passes, he says. ‘When it rains in the city, we sit in traffic jams for three hours!’
In 2012, a fourth round of 71 young graduates were deployed to replace teachers like Dika and Asti in the outer regions. Asti is now back in the capital working with one of Indonesia Mengajar’s sponsors, Indika Energy. But she calls West Tulang Bawang her ‘other family’ and plans to travel back to visit ‘her children’ soon. Dika hopes to win a scholarship to study in the United States next year. But for now, he has stayed on with Indonesia Mengajar as an outreach officer supporting new teachers.
At night in Desa Pelita, you can see the colours of the stars with the naked eye because there are no lights on the island or at sea. Dika says the children loved to stargaze and ask questions: ‘Why are there red and blue and yellow stars and why do I always see the same side of the moon every month?’ He’d explain what an astronaut is and when they replied that they all wanted to be astronauts when they grew up, he’d tell them: ‘Well you have to study very, very hard!’
Does he feel like he’s making a difference? According to Dika, ‘There are thousands of villages. We hope Indonesia Mengajar can be one of many community movements that can make Indonesia great,’ he says. ‘We hope that we can light more candles so that every child in the country believes they can be anything they want to be.’
May Slater (email@example.com) is a journalism student and freelancer in Sydney. May travelled to Jakarta in 2012 to work with Tempo magazine as part of a Journalism Professional Practicum with the Australian Consortium for 'In-Country' Indonesian Studies (ACICIS).
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