A battle is raging in a classroom in Sydney’s inner west. A group of Indonesian women is locked in earnest debate. Voices are raised, hands are waved. Then, at the point where it seems things really will explode, everyone dissolves in raucous laughter. The topic? Beef rendang.
This support group for Indonesian women was established in mid-2002. It meets every Thursday morning at Marrickville West Public School, in a richly diverse area of suburban Sydney. Dewi Putru, the group’s founder and facilitator, explains that the group aims to cater for women who may have been the victims of domestic violence or other social problems, or for those who would simply benefit from some informal social contact.
The first half of the session is an English lesson, followed by coffee, then another activity, which could be advice on childcare, a craft workshop, or a discussion about a welfare issue, such as the relationship between parents and wayward teenagers. There’s also a crèche facility, and a monthly arisan savings circle, where everyone in the social group contributes a little money, which a lucky person wins each month.
The group provides an opportunity to get together, to share experiences and concerns, as well as jokes and laughter, and to learn together about the complex process of living in urban Australia. It’s not uncommon for Indonesian women who migrate to Australia to become quite isolated, especially if they are at home with small children. Many members of the group have been in Australia for a long time — several decades, in some cases — but their lives often remain almost exclusively within the Indonesian community. Their English is often poor, and as a result they find it difficult to find meaningful work.
Most of all, the women lack confidence: confidence to engage with the world around them, confidence to stand up for themselves in domestic or bureaucratic situations, and confidence in their own skills and abilities. Particularly since the Bali bombing, Muslim and Indonesian people throughout Australia have generally preferred to keep their heads down, and not to draw attention to themselves. The result for a group of non-professional women like these is near invisibility in wider Australian society, and accompanying mutual wariness.
For some time the Department for Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs, which funds the group, has been pressing Dewi to gradually encourage group members to take more responsibility for running the sessions and planning the activities. Dewi was very concerned that this could spell the end of the group, as the women tended to take a rather passive attitude to the group and its organisation.
This is where the beef rendang (a type of curry) comes in. Hidden Treasures, a collaborative project bringing together community workers, council representatives, and educators was on the lookout for ways to identify and support emerging leaders within the community in the Marrickville area. They spotted the Indonesian women’s group, and made a suggestion. How would the group like to plan, organise and run a one-day Indonesian cookery course at a local college, to teach Australian students about Indonesian cuisine and culture?
The response at first was cautious, and there have been many moments over the last few months when individual group members have had doubts about their ability to participate in the project. ‘My English isn’t good enough’, says Lanny. ‘I’m too nervous to speak in front of people’, says Asadah.
But if there’s one thing the group does know about, it’s food, and how to prepare it. As we got down to the business of deciding dishes and writing recipes, the women forgot their reticence. The rendang argument was about lingkuas: how do you translate it (we decided on galangal), what type is required (fresh, in case you’re interested), and which was the best Asian supermarket in Sydney to buy it from.
The debate is sophisticated and practical — what alterations do we need to make to recipes to allow for the availability of ingredients in Australia? What cultural information will we need to provide the students with in order for them to understand the significance of, say, the tumpeng (cone-shaped rice dish served on ceremonial occasions)? What’s Australian for es cendol?
Once people realised that Australian students would pay to come along and hear them explain about what they did at home every evening, the atmosphere on Thursday mornings shifted subtly. After observing another cookery lesson, and meeting some of the students, Lanny says ‘They couldn’t wait to sign up for the Indonesian course — they really wanted to learn from us’. There is a new pride in the group’s knowledge and skills, which was obvious when, having been asked to help cater for a function at the school, the women refused payment, saying instead they wanted everyone to know the Indonesian women had contributed.
The cookery course will be held in February. It looks set to be a success: the self-esteem of the women has been built up, the students will learn new cookery skills, and who knows, perhaps the project will encourage some group members to pursue catering careers, or become community leaders. But, importantly, the exercise will have contributed to the kind of grassroots, person-to-person engagement and understanding between Indonesians and Australians that is so important in the current climate.
Nicola Frost (email@example.com) is a PhD candidate in the anthropology department at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her thesis is on Indonesian community organising in Sydney.