Thursday, June 16, 2005

Tails from Goat Puddle

I am writing from a loud internet/gaming café in Kuala Tungkal, Jambi. It’s a lovely port town on the mud coast of eastern Sumatra. I spent the day at a research presentation that we gave to local governmental officials. I gave them a powerpoint presentation on Participatory Action Research. It was something to be up there in front of many officials, talking about participatory bottom-up research and community development in Indonesian. This evening my friends (including my boss and others I work with) went down to the port and sat out on the edge of a rickety dock while the sun went down, talking to a woman about the shrimp trade. She gets shrimp up to ten inches long and sells them on to Jakarta, where they are sent across the world. The port town is built on 20 foot long stilts above crabs and the largest mudskippers I have ever seen. It is really nice—the perfect small town size.

But, more relevantly, here is the news from Lubuk Kambing. I wrote while I was there—so it is long and detailed. If strapped for time, I think the June 10 entry is the most coherent.

A few weeks ago, when I was still in Bogor, I got the wonderful chance to get back in email touch with many of you. So many people have written me back, and I just don’t have the chance to write back to anyone yet. I just want you to know I am thinking of you, and I will email you when I get back to Bogor.

June 2, 2005

I love rainstorms. For the last week, the entire week that I have been here, the clouds have been grey and threatening and have done absolutely nothing. It has been hot and hazy, and generally unpleasant. But tonight it finally has decided to rain, and has been raining for the last three hours. It feels lovely after waiting the whole week. Tomorrow things will be clean and the dust of the week will be washed away. Of course, it means that the people of Dusun Suka Maju will not be able to get out of their village for the next few days, but so it goes.

Today, I woke up to the sound of gibbons. Their whooooo-ooooo call echoes through the jungle that is so close to the outskirts of the village. The village looks in on itself so closely, and the roads are so surrounded by farms, that you can sometimes forget that you are very much in the jungle. But the call of the gibbons make you remember.

And, VERY EXCITING, today I saw wild LEMURS! Neldy and I were on his motorbike on the road from Suka Maju (direct translation: Wants/ Likes Development) back to Lubuk Kambing (loose translation: Goat Puddle) when I saw something moving from the side of the road. I told Neldy to stop, and I found myself looking at four or five huge, black and white lemurs, handing out a couple of rubber trees. They looked at us, and started jumping, huge leaps, from tree to tree. It was beautiful to watch them move. They really could fly, from one tree to another. I am so happy to see them here, just on the side of the road. Sumatra is supposed to have incredible biodiversity, everything, including rhinos and elephants. And of course, gibbons.

In my front room right now, there is a drawing party. I was sketching yesterday evening, and the kid next door came over to look. So, I sat him down with some paper and some of the pens and the oil pastels that I had got in Jambi. He, and an extended group of his friends, drew ‘til it was time for me to go to bed. Tonight, a group of girls came by after their religious studies lessons across the road and drew for two hours. The schools here just do not have any supplies, especially not for art classes. So—the kids can use all the paper and pens they want here. I put up some of the pictures on the wall. Today people came by to see the pictures—an art show…

Generally, as I myself can read from the tone of this blog, I am in a better state of mind. Much of this I attribute to buying sheets and a new (very comfy) pillow in Jambi. Also because I set up my room, and it is more my space than somewhere I unpacked my bags. Also because today I went to a wedding in Suka Maju—

tangent: The girl who was getting married today was 17, and she looked like she was 12. Her husband was not much older, and they both looked totally terrified. Thank god I was not expected to get married at 17.

-- But my rants aside, it was a lovely wedding. Everyone was so friendly. And I am also happy because Neldy and I set up a series of meetings with our two focus groups, which should get things more and more rolling. I am always happier during the cool parts of the day than during the hot. I am guaranteed to be in a bad mood from 1 to 3 o’clock. But in the cool of the evening, all is well.

The rain is letting up a little, and I am getting tired. Sleep well, or wake up well, depending on where you are in the world.

June 6, 2004

It is nine o’clock in the morning, and I have just finished my laundry. I decided not to take my laundry to the river today, but instead wash it in the well by the house. There were not many people at home, and they left their doors open knowing I would be here, so I figured I should stay near.

Washing clothes in the morning is lovely—it is not too hot, and everything is calm as everyone does what ever they need to do for the day. The mothers clean, wash clothes, and cook the meals for the day. The teachers I live with are all at school, today giving the national exams. Neldy has gone to Suka Maju to pick up the head of the Farmer’s Group and take him to the subdistrict capital to get information for the farming group. In an hour and some I will go to do some work with the women’s group, building a fence for their collective medicinal plant garden. It sounds like such an Ithaca thing to do.

Life has developed into some sort of a routine. More like I know what the days will feel like, really, than that I know what the days will contain. Neldy and I have worked out a calendar of what we need to do each day—meet with the women’s group, talk about policy brief writing, prepare a clear outline of research questions, deliver letter to the farmers group—that kind of thing. But everything takes a while to prepare, and every conversation must be started with a long series of pleasantries about the weather, so and so’s wife, etc. There is an incredible tolerance for conversations that, to me, are repetitive and pointless. The same topics get discussed so many times. But the frustration that I feel about time is part of knowing how everyday will feel. I am getting used to it. And in the end, things happen. My patience is improving everyday, drastically.

I got sick on the third. A touch of the tiger’s paw, mom would say. I think the water that I drank at the wedding celebration was not cooked water, and I got a whole plethora of symptoms—throwing up, stomach ache, fever, exhaustion. But it was a day, and then it was over. It made me realize how far away I am from any medical help. There is no medical person in the village, and the nearest hospital is 5 hours away, and a car only goes once a day, at 6 am. If you don’t feel up to getting on a motorbike, you don’t get to see a doctor. Of course, most people don’t get to see a doctor ever—it costs too much money. There is one man in the village who was bitten by a bear a month ago—much worse than I was ever bitten—his arm and leg were both ripped. But he doesn’t have money, so he is just waiting to see what happens. The traveling medical personnel put some stitches in, but they all came out. And I got to go to Singapore and have the best medical treatment in the world when I was bitten. What so you do about things like that?

So, things are well, and calm. I have no idea what is going on in the world—my cheap shortwave radio can occasionally pick up Singapore radio, but all they ever seem to be reporting on the economics. I suppose if there was some world crisis, they would interrupt economic talk. I can just hope that everyone is happy and well, and that I am not missing any juicy dramas.

Three weeks is a strange amount of time to be somewhere (is there any amount of time to be somewhere that is not strange?). You just begin, begin, to get an idea of a place, then you leave. It is almost not worth getting emotionally involved in the place, but what is the point of being somewhere if you do not get emotionally involved in it?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It’s later in the day, almost evening. I am waiting for the well to be free so I can shower the sweat and dirt off myself. Making the garden with the women’s group was lovely. The women in the village who are my age all have kids and families, which serves two useful purposes. One, it means that I can interact with all married women, and that I am not seen as part of a younger age group. We are on par. Secondly, and relatedly, it means I am old enough to have useful information and to be a professional in what I am doing. And the women in the village, or at least many of them, are really nice. They are very spunky, which is in contrast to the generally misogynistic culture of the village.

We were preparing the toga, the medicinal plant garden. This is one of the plans of the wife of the head of the village, who is also the head of the PKK, or village-wide women’s group. No one is sure why they are making toga, as they already have medicinal plants growing in their farms. But, she asked them to, so they will.

We began by taking hoes to a piece of land in the middle of the village and clearing it of grass. I was a little afraid people would freak out when I tried to actually do work, but people were surprisingly accepting. They tried to get me to sit down and rest more than everyone else, but that is to be expected. And I won a “who can hoe to the end of the fence” competition. And, needless to be said (mom…), my hoeing was good quality. When we had almost finished, however, a grumpy old man stuck his head out of his door, in front of the garden, and told us to get off his land. Since the land looked abandoned, everyone thought that it was. Nope—it was his. Turns out his brother was buried there about 50 years ago, and there was no way he was going to let us build a medicinal plant garden there.

So, we gave up on clearing the land. It was later decided to use some land in front of some person’s house—no lasting damage.

The local language here is very like Indonesian—I can get the gist of what people are saying when they are talking to each other, but they clearly make a switch when they are specifically talking to me. The main difference is that the “a” in Indonesian words becomes “o” in Bahasa Jambi. So—tigatigo, kitakito. Easy. There are some different words, but mostly they are the same as in Malaysian, which I could also speak, once upon a time. Tengok for lihat, awak for saya. That probably made sense to only two people who read this blog. Three including me. Anyway.

So, instead of starting again, we decided to go across the river and look for wood to make the fence. So, we waded through the river, which is clear with a pebble bottom. Everyone bathes from rafts of bamboo, tied together with rattan. On some of the rafts are small wooden cubicles without roofs—toilets. On the raft are boards where people scrub their clothes. There is nothing nicer than rinsing clothes in a river—all the soap just washes off as you hold the clothes in the water.

So, we crossed the river. On the other side, the land looked almost like Wisconsin. It was a field of grass, with a few large trees dotting the field. It was a place where people had farms in the past, which they were now letting fallow. I could imagine having a picnic there, with a checkered table cloth. But we passed through this field and went in to the forest to find straight logs, about the width of my fist. They were easy enough to find, and these women chopped them down with their machetes. Then, since we were in the area, they gathered young bamboo from the bamboo patches and some sort of water plant, which they said was good to make chili paste (sambal). Now I know what young bamboo looks like if I ever want to gather it fresh. I really wish I had a knowledge of edible plants around me. Nothing could be more practical.

Then, shouldering our poles, we went back across the river, and back to the village. There was none of the expected “oh lord! there is a westerner carrying wood! ha! ha!”, the lack of which was incredibly welcome. After a village gets used to you, it is a great place to be. Before it gets used to you, it can be incredibly intimidating. After we got back to the village, we chatted for a while and they told me about problems in the village that they thought they could work on with the help of the project. Ideas for selling handicrafts, food, and something complicated about a land deal that was supposed to represent everyone in the village, but in fact is benefiting one person. We have a meeting tomorrow to talk over ideas more formally.

Anyhow. Just wanted to write about my nice afternoon.

June 8, 2005

I lay in a river today, around 5:30 in the evening, staring up at a couple of trees completely filled with flying foxes, and thought my life was pretty darn good.

June 10, 2005

I am sitting in my front room, taking a break from transcribing the large sheets of paper I have hanging around me. They are all outlines, work plans, and calendars that Neldy and I have developed over the last three weeks, and which I hope to be able to use again when I go and work with Yenti. If anything, it will be good to have a record of what I have worked on here.

It is a quarter past seven, and I can here the children across the street at their ngagi lessons—where children learn to read the Koran and speak Arabic prayers. They come to the house across the road every night for an hour for lessons. They form an out of tune chorus, in loud kid voices, learning to praise God. The cicadas, which I never see, but always hear, are also out tonight. Occasionally motorbikes go past, revving to get up the hill in front of the house. The generator next door is humming, giving me light to write by. I can also just hear catches of the TV up the hill—on whenever there is electricity, from 6:30pm to 11pm. In the room next to me, Pak Bahmi, the school principal is typing a letter on his typewriter.

Pak Bahmi has never used a computer. Neldy and I gave him a lesson on Neldy’s old desktop, and he was highly amused. He was quick at it because he has been using a typewriter his whole life, but bewildered at all the things it could do. Then I taught him how to use Microsoft Paint, which he really loved. I still think Microsoft Paint is one of the best programs ever programmed.

Today was spent in Suka Maju, the small village where the Farmer’s Group is based. Neldy invited some officials from the subdistrict level to come and talk to the farmers about programs for farmers from the government. Before 1997 and Suharto’s fall, Indonesia was completely centralized. Every important (and many unimportant) decisions and business deals had to be vetted through Jakarta. It gave Suharto and the Jakarta elite a great opportunity to take a cut for themselves, but (and?) it left the outer islands completely powerless to make decisions affecting themselves. After Suharto fell from power, Indonesia was decentralized, giving each of the regions autonomy to make decisions that would affect themselves. One of the many results of this new autonomi daerah (regional autonomy) was that there was a new emphasis on hearing what the community wants before the government implements its programs. In the past, the government would give a village ten cows—whether they wanted them or not. Now, the plan is, villages have to request cows, or rubber, or soybeans, or what ever, and then the government gives it to them.

Obviously, this does not run without a hitch. The new rules of the game were not fully socialized down to the village level, and many people simply do not know where to begin with the process of getting anything from the government. This visit from the subdistrict officials was a step in attempting to bridge the gap between villagers who need help and a government who has programs and no one to give them to. It turns out the official way to get seeds, cows, or anything from the government is to write a letter and get it signed by the village head, and send a copy to the relevant agency (and cc: it to 15 others). This would be easy except that no one in the village has a typewriter (and certainly not a computer with a printer), and that the village head (who really is a jerk) has an argument with the head of the Farmer’s Group, and refuses to sign their letters. So, every time the letter needs to be changed, everyone waits for Neldy to go to Jambi, 4 hours away, to retype the letter. And then people wait around for the village head, who refuses to sign the letter.

This is a small example of what collective action concerning property rights in Lubuk Kambing is up against. This, of course, is my job. Or at least, my job is to work with Neldy, whose job for the year is to work on developing and evolving these collective action strategies. The work is slow, but very satisfying when it is going well. Most of my time is spent working with Neldy, figuring out the best way to develop writing skills, transfer an understanding of Participatory Action Research, and generally get more out of the work he has already done and the knowledge he already has. He has no background in writing, which makes social science research and recording conversations difficult for him. He also (this holds true for most people who have gotten an Indonesian university education) is used to thinking of research in terms of excel files and yes/no information. Very different from field notes and writing stories. On the other hand, he is very personable, and has a huge amount of information from the random conversations he has everyday. He is also interested in what he is doing, and (at least with the all male farmer’s group), good at it. I am still worried about the women’s group—there are too many social norms telling him not to work on bake sales.

So, I am working with him on writing outlines (which I am now transcribing), discussing what information those in Bogor are really looking for (they want him to be creative and fill in the blanks of big questions—he wants them to send him excel sheets to fill in), and talking about PAR. I must say, my understanding of PAR has gotten much better from being out here, and trying to explain what it is and why it should be used. I have also read a lot about it, trying to figure it out clearly enough in my head to make it an understandable lesson. It is hard, but good. I am enjoying myself, when I am not hot, tired, and frustrated. I feel like I am doing something out of the ordinary—something that is challenging me, a lot.

At the same time, I am annoyed every time I realize I am missing summer, and that I already missed spring. A good frolic in a gorge or sailing on a lake would be really nice. Tank tops would be nice. Going out dancing would be nice. All you wonderful friends would be nice. But so it goes. Sometime in the future.

June 14, 2005

It’s the evening of the fourteenth, my last night in Lubuk Kambing. It is amazing how time moves. Three weeks ago it felt like these weeks would never pass. Even while they were going on, many days felt long and so much like the day before. And now it is over, and I am about to rush off to a new place and another, albeit similar, challenge.

I am very glad to report that I feel good about the work that I have done here. I feel like I have fulfilled my goals here. All of the concrete aims I had while I have been here are either done or in process: Neldy is working with the women’s groups. We had a meeting today to discuss the first steps of the microfinance projects they are planning for their groups—selling cakes and raising ducks. Nothing too spectacular, but it means that they will not have to rely on their husbands for everything that they want or need. We have begun individual interviews and resource mapping— the individual research portion of this project. We have developed outlines for papers and discussed writing. The room around me is littered with outlines and calendars on newsprint. We have discussed PAR. I cannot know for sure how well I got this across, but I tried my best. I certainly learned a lot. I hope Neldy did too.

However-- My clearest success, hands down, has been the evening drawing classes in my front room. For the last two weeks, almost every evening, and often in the day time as well, my front room has been filled with kids, from ages 6 to 12, who have taken over my oil pastels and markers and raided my supply of white printing paper. I bought these supplies for myself, not thinking, when I was in Jambi. When I sat down to draw, I found a huge number of kids very excited to see what I was drawing. And so I gave them paper and my pastels and told them to enjoy themselves. At first, the adults who live with me teased the kids about their pictures—“what kind of house is that, it’s red! haha"—until I set down a rule that nothing that was drawn in my room was wrong or ugly. Since then, every day kids have been coming by too draw. I put up some of the most creative pictures on the wall after every evening— the local art show. Grown ups from around the village come and see the pictures. And the kids love seeing their pictures on display. Kids here just don’t have pens and paper to play with. Their parents are too poor, or they simply don’t think about getting drawing supplies for their kids. It’s not a normal play toy. But they clearly love it, and I am very happy to let them use my pens. When I go, I’ll leave the supplies with an older kid next door so people can still use them.

And now I go on to my next job—doing the same work, but this time in Sungai Telang, Bungo, also in Jambi. It is about 8 hours from here, in the foothills of the mountains that are the backbone of Sumatra. It is a smaller village, more traditional. Supposedly, the scenery is lovely. I am not sure about that what I will be expected to do, exactly. I need to read up on the work that Yenti has been doing. On to the future.


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