One thing that I learn again and again in Indonesia, is not to take anything for granted, not the day , not the plan, and especially not the sleep.
I arrived in Rote on Monday morning with Chris Rowlands, a Markets Development specialist from Australia. It is a long journey; Melbourne to Denpasar then a flight to Kupang in West Timor and a two hour morning ferry to the island of Rote. In this case a three day journey. And the journey is not guaranteed. Last year Olivia and I hung around in Kupang, hardly a jewel in the crown of Indonesia, for three days because the ferry could not run due to bad weather.
Rote is almost an island paradise, lovely beaches fringed with coconut palms, 100,000 friendly island people on 250 square km just one hours flight from Darwin. Most people on Rote live from the land or the sea, but they are poor beyond belief. It only rains two to three months each year and f in the dry season many people survive by drinking the sap of a palm they call it Sugar Water. According to Government statistics over 7000 children suffer from malnutrition and stunting. There is little water, little vocational education or training, and virtually no application of new technologies that could make farmers more productive.
We are here to facilitate a workshop and maximise the effectiveness of our access to markets work here. Our team comprises Chris and I and three Indonesian Market Facilitators and Lerina, our project coordinator from Jakarta. Each of the Market Facilitators is located in a large city with the task of seeking tangible opportunities for poor producers in projects on the islands of Rote and Flores. During the week we aim to review our progress to date and brainstorm approaches to meet the current challenges and also those we expect will arise.
We spend Monday afternoon scoping out the weeks activities and coming up with a formidable list of operational concerns. These include; what if these staff are physically threatened because they are helping poor producers find ways around the existing mafia like monopolies ? And the lack of support our team sometimes feels from other World Vision staff who don’t understand a markets driven approach to development.
The capital is Ba’, a town of a couple of thousand people. The only hotel to stay in is called ‘The Grace’. It is run by a Chinese family who used to have a trucking business. It is rough but okay. I am told there is another hotel, but not to bother even going to look at it. It is hot, really hot. The hotel has air conditioners – the ones that are installed in windows – and they grumble away when the power is on. Five of us are staying at the Grace and after dinner every one retires early.
Next morning I sat with Chris over a breakfast of oily orange colored fried rice and our conversation went something like this:
“How did you sleep?” I asked
“Did you hear the rooster?”
“Did I? It wasn’t one rooster it was like a roosters train, I could hear them start at one end of the village and the crowing got louder as they got closer until they ended up with our rooster”
“I think the rooster was next to my room”
“No, he was next to mine.”
“When did he start?”
“About one thirty I think”
“ He crowed about every half an hour”
“No it was more like every 5 minutes”
“Did you hear when someone turned on the TV loud in reception”
“And then had a coughing fit”
“Yeh, about 4am”
“And the call to prayer from the mosque?”
“Yeh, about 4.30 am”
“And that rooster!”
“it wasn’t one rooster!”
One of the hotel house boys walks past, “rooster!”, I said, “ayam jago” and I ran my finger across my throat several times. The boy disappeared at once. Chris tells me he thinks that my actions conveyed I had it in for the boy personally. Anyway, we didn’t see him again in the whole week were there.
But in the harsh heat and light of the day, memories of roosters, disappearing boys and early morning calls to prayer soon fade. We focus our workshop on discussion about how these three new Market Facilitators can increase incomes for producers who are poor. The room is stuffy and hot, there is no fan and we are all dripping with sweat. Every so often one of the facilitators gets “the thousand yard stare” and we stop for a short break.
It is around 6pm and we are back at the Grace. Chris and I negotiated room changes and now both have rooms on the second floor, further away from the rooster train…..progress. The two of us are on the roof three levels up, with drinks. The sun is setting. It is big round and red and its redness reflects in the water in a line straight to us, as though we are the only two people in the world.
“Have you ever seen the green flash?”, I ask Chris “It happens just as the sun disappears beneath the horizon “
We watch together , red sun ball in the sky, in the sea and little by little, gone….
“Did you see it?” I ask as the last slither of sun disappears
“No, did you?”
“Have you ever seen it ?” Chris asks
“How do you know it’s real?”
“I read it in a book and I believe it is real.”
Chris nods, as a Christian he also understands about faith.
Lets watch tomorrow, I say, and Chris chuckles.
I sleep better that night .
The next day I am to facilitate a workshop with a newly established economic development committee from the local community. It has been arranged by the local staff and they want me to work with the committee on local economic empowerment. I like this work and think I am good at it. There are about ten staff present, then the six of us and eleven members of the economic empowerment committee. I get the sense that no one is quite sure why we are all in the room together. I work on faith, I believe that as poor as these men and women are, they can actually take more control of their own destinies and do things together that will improve their situations economically, but they also have to find a way to believe this themselves.
After around 3 hours of working with the group, I think we are done and they think we are done. I suggest some next steps to them and tell them that if they decide they want me to come again then they should invite me, and I will find a way to come. Lerina gives me a harsh sideways look, she knows I really don’t have time to come back for a follow up but I feel I must offer.
The Project Manager makes a short speech and tells the committee to report back to him, but in such a way that puts him in charge while making them responsible. He and I have already discussed this dynamic the day before and agreed he would not do this, but he can’t help himself. The people are so poor and will see him being in charge, as a better option than trusting themselves. So having wrestled for three hours to see intent and an emerging faith in the eyes of each member, that they are not powerless, our local manager has reversed that with one expedient sentence, and we are all back to where we started; wondering why we are in the room together. This is what I call “ 1000 moments of truth”, we have to be consistent in our actions in empowerment, one wrong message can potentially sweep all the others away….. in a breath.
After it is over I ask the manager how he thinks it went. He says “Okay”. Interestingly okay seems to be part of every language on earth. Here I think it means good, but I am not sure.
It is the end of the day. Chris and I are sitting on a rock on a section of island beach. There is no one around except for a local spear fisherman. We have been watching him diving in the shoulder deep water at the edge of the reef about 300 meters away. The sun is setting and in the fading light he is now making his way back to shore, through knee deep water across the very uneven coral reef. We can’t quite make out how many fish he has on sling, but feel somehow involved in his catch. We have been watching him and talking about our fathers. The fishermen gets closer and is met by his son who must be six years old and has brought him some thongs, so that he walks the rest of the reef in more comfort. We can hear snippets of them sharing news, joking with each other. The little boy seems proud to be helping his dad. Again a beautiful sunset, pink and silver and God in the sky and water and everywhere around.
The sun sinks. “Did you see the green flash?” I ask Chris,
“No, did you?”
“No.” We get up and slowly make our way up the beach, flash or no flash, it has been a good day.
Ba’ Rote Indonesia April 2009