Eunuchs, cooked snakes, pig racing and girls named Jealousy – that’s my Indonesia.

Okay perhaps what I had said was a bit controversial. We had been talking about the differences in perception of tolerance in Australia and how this differs from the perception of tolerance in Indonesia. But for the National Director of a World Vision office in Asia to look me straight in the eyes and call me a eunuch did seem to be going a bit far. In these kind of situations things can slow down and I am thinking; yes from time to time I have felt a little emasculated at World Vision, but does he know that? Then back to the meeting, “Oh did you say “u n i q u e”, yes of course, thank you.”

Misunderstandings can be an exciting part of the territory here, and woe betide visitors who make too many assumptions.

Some misunderstandings are humorous.

The agent for my apartment in Jakarta is a Chinese entrepreneur named Jackson. He also lives in the same apartment complex that I do, along with nearly 7000 other families. There are 18 towers. One evening as I was walking through the central community area, I was greeted by Jackson and he introduced me to his fiancé “Jealousy”. “Did you say your name is Jealousy?” “Yes” she said and nodded sweetly. The ensuing silence must have communicated something to Jackson, who with a grin from ear to ear said, “Yes Jealousy, same as the football team”. “Ah, Chea- o –sie so nice to meet you”

Some misunderstandings are perplexing.

I hadn’t been here long and was trying hard to get a sense of what people in one urban slum did to generate income. Through an interpreter several of the women told me that they sold snakes. And the conversation went something like this:

“What do you do with the snakes?”

“We cook them.”

“Then what do you do?”

“We sell them”

“Are cooked snakes popular?

“Very popular.”

“Do you have any snakes her you can show me, is it safe to see them”

Perplexed look, and in half a minute our host arrives back with an armful of cellophane wrapped home cooked snacks.

I take a sideways look at the interpreter , “How do you say snack?”, I ask a little too sharply.


How do you say the creature that slithers along the ground and has a poisonous bite?


It reminded my of my first visit to rural Cambodia. To the village chief: “ How do most people in this village make a living?”

“Pig racing.”

“In Australia we race horses and people gamble on them. Do people gamble on the pigs as well?”

“Yes everyone gamble on pig.”

Five minutes of circular questioning , I am trying to find out how the villagers make the income to gamble at the pig races. It turns out we are taking about pig raising not racing. It was really hot right , I didn’t have a hat.

But sometimes misunderstandings can create wider ripples.

The visiting donor all the way from North America, walking through a tidy North Jakarta slum asks, “ If these people are so darn poor why do they all have televisions?”

Fair enough question. We know that half of them are living on less than $1.50 a day. We know around a third of the children suffer from malnutrition, we know that in the ADP area around 22 kids a day over the next 12 months will drop out of school because their families can’t afford to keep them there. So why do you think so many of the very poor have televisions? For status?

As the cheapest form of entertainment available? Answers too late for the North American donor, but it seemed like a question we should know the answer too. So next opportunity we got, we asked about 20 people. It turns out television is the easiest way to keep the young children happy when the parents and grandparents are busy doing the best they can to make enough to survive.

And sometimes misunderstandings are messy.

One of our projects is on the Indonesian island of Rote, I visited there about a month ago. It is a bugger of a place to get to, you fly to Kupang the day before, then go to the ferry at 7 am the next morning arriving at Ba’a the capital around midday. So effectively one looses nearly four days just in travel on a return trip. During my last day last visit, I was asked whether I would like to meet more of the community members. I asked whether they were different from the producers I had met in the past? They said no. I asked whether it would be alright if I didn’t meet them as we had had a very long day.. Through an interpreter, the ADP manager said this would be fine.

But now a month later I find out that this was a community committee that had formed especially for my visit  to work on our Economic Development Pilot and our staff were too polite, or confused something to mention that they were all waiting for me and now some weeks later were becoming impatient as I hadn’t come back!

One of the benefits of living in Jakarta is the plentiful supply of fresh seafood. Or so I thought, but this is a misunderstanding it would perhaps have been better not to know more about. Many of the community who make up the ADP community at Cilincing in north Jakarta are dependent on fishing and supplying the local Jakarta market with fish and prawns. They make a living by cultivating fish and prawns in ponds or going out with nets in small boats and fishing in traditional waters. Well it turns out that ponds are often so polluted that around half the prawns die. So they are switching to Milk Fish which resists the pollution better. Increasingly I am seeing Milk Fish on menus. And the fish from the ocean, must be safe, right? Wrong. It turns out that ice costs about $1 a block, but and because they need to buy through middle men , fishermen pay $3 a block for ice, plus it melts to water, which fishermen already have plenty of. The cost of ice is roughly equal to their average daily profit. So resourcefully they use Formaldehyde aka Formalin, this is a chemical that is used to preserve or embalm dead bodies, a litre of formalin costs only 75 cents, and it is convenient, reusable, highly toxic and causes cancer.

So for better and for worse all is not what it seems.

And just to close, Glenn Jimmy our market analyst , has done some work on how we can make this local fishing industry more profitable and sustainable and this maybe us in promoting the use of a safe and effective extract from cabbages to preserve fish as an alternative to formalin. We will all be better off.

Jock Noble Jakarta December 2008

About jocknoble

I have worked in thirty countries with most time spent in India, Kenya, Indonesia, USA , Australia and Armenia. My current role with World Vision International is as a Livelihoods Advisory based in Manila. Before this I spent 4 years based in Armenia leading an economic development learning hub for 10 countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I spent 8 years with World Vision Australia where I founded and lead the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Unit (SEED), a team of economic development specialists,to establish and support innovative initiatives in poor communities from Africa to the Asia Pacific, Senegal to Timor Leste.. I believe the reason people are poor is that they do not have enough money and our challenge is to help instill hope and a genuine sense of self-belief, starting with those of us who somehow work in development. I was the founder and CEO of Diversity@work Australia Inc, a social enterprise developing innovative models, strategies and educational programs to strengthen companies through diversity and inclusion. I hold a Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a Masters of Strategic Foresight from Swinburne University in Melbourne, post-graduate studies in Not for Profit Management at Georgetown University and Negotiation and Conflict Management at Latrobe University Melbourne. I was the Carey Medal winner for 2007 for exceptional and outstanding service to the community. So it goes Published Books: 'Postcards - What am I doing here' (2016) which is a collection of my blogs along with selected photographs, and Stores from the Road - Ten stories for workers in international development (2016)
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