In Papua, teachers trying to bring change

I’m not done reporting on Indonesia just yet, as I have two more weeks here before relocating to the Caribbean. Just came across this article from the Jakarta Globe and since I’m not sure it will make it in the Smiling Hill newsletter, I’m posting here. FYI, while the tendency of some Westerners after reading this will be to want to send money or something, as it was with me, the reality is that any money sent to any organization here is likely to never make it to the intended recipients. Unless you want to travel to Awai, Papua, and bring items these teachers and students need, your generosity will probably not reach those in need.

papua teachers

Sahriani teaches several girls origami. (JG)

Every evening at 8 p.m., Sahriani has to coax out of her home more than a dozen students who, far from tired, have come over after school to study, filling their teacher’s living room to bursting.

It’s a chaotic scene not many of her urban colleagues would countenance – but she’s no ordinary teacher, and she’s far from any big city lights. The light in the small wooden bungalow she shares with a colleague, Nining, runs from a cable slung over a coconut tree and across to a generous neighbor’s diesel generator, the two young women from Makassar among the few to enjoy that privilege in the village of Awai, on Papua’s Auki Island.

Sahriani and Nining are among 2,800 trainee teachers who were sent in September 2013 to make a difference at some of the country’s most remote schools. Perhaps it’s no surprise they’re still taking classes late into the night, since they’ve already been selected for their smarts and enthusiasm out of a crop of 14,000 who applied to the Education and Culture Ministry.

According to Septimus Sabarofek, principal of Awai-Auki elementary school, the pair arrived “siap pakai” – ready to go – after graduating from Makassar State University and submitting to a military boot camp to prepare them for Papuan austerity.

Sahriani, who teaches the school’s youngest class, is not so old herself and never lived apart from her family before this job. She admits to some homesickness when she started a year of teaching, with her parents almost 2,000 kilometers away.

“When I first arrived, I cried and dreamed of them every night for a week,” she said. However, despite the Auki islanders having their own language (Bahasa Biak) and practicing a different religion to her own Islam, Sahriani said she felt quickly welcomed into the fold.

“When the children are over at our house doing their homework, and one sees that we are having a prayer break, she will tell the others ‘shush, be quiet, bu guru is praying’; meanwhile I’ve learned my share of Christian songs during village singalongs.”

It’s one of the things that have made the island feel like a home away from home. “Before I arrived, I thought a year away would be too long – but 10 months have gone by in a flash,” Sahriani said.

The arrival of Sahriani and Nining brought to six the number of teachers charged with educating Auki’s 62 students, many of whom arrive each morning under their own paddle power, piloting sampans from settlements elsewhere in the atoll that lies to the southeast of Biak, in Cenderawasih Bay.

As participants in the Graduates Teaching in Remote Areas scheme, Sahriani and Nining receive only a modest wage during their placement. But they soon discovered that their students’ parents were happy to help make ends meet.

“The villagers are very friendly and kind, they share their fishing catch with us, and if we need to go into town, we’re not charged for the boat ride to Biak – even though other passengers have to pay.”

Do they ever get sick of fish three times a day? “Well, sometimes we wade out and collect shellfish, and when it’s stormy the boats stay in, so we eat instant noodles,” Sahriani says, adding that the village “Mamas” go into town two or three times a week and bring back orders of fresh vegetables.

In mid-June, Sahriani’s first-grade students were carefully folding origami flowers to decorate their homes. The glossy paper was in surprising contrast to the black-and-white books stacked in one corner. Sahriani bought them out of her own allowance, as she often does for school supplies.

“When we arrived, the students had no shoes, nothing to write with, and their lesson books were hand-me-downs already filled with scribbles,” Sahriani said. “So we bought them pencils, organized for shoes to be bought with government funds, and encouraged the children to ask their parents for money for new books.”

The school could do with far more than extra staff. Looking around its two buildings, we asked the principal where the library was, and if students liked to take story books home to read.

“Never mind a library, we don’t even have a cupboard to keep these in,” Septimus said, pointing to a corner of the staff room, where a stack of lesson books teetered, no general reading novels visible among them.

Looking out from the staff room, past the rusting propane bottle that serves as the school bell, grass stretches out to a long white beach fronting gorgeous turquoise water over a sand and coral shoal. But despite its beauty, Auki Island has seen its share of hardship. In 1943, the Biak area was occupied by the imperial Japanese army, which worked many islanders to death strengthening its defensive positions in anticipation of a counter-attack by the Allies. That confrontation came in May of the following year, when the Battle of Biak saw 10,000 Japanese troops fight to the last round as the island was overrun by American and Australian forces.

“But the Americans left something less gruesome behind when they moved on northward,” said Septimus. Auki’s tropical beauty put the U.S. troops in mind of Hawaii, and they called the island’s largest settlement by that name. When they left, the locals decided to keep the name, but “an ‘H’ and an ‘I’ must have floated off at some point,” the principal said, leaving the village’s official name – Awai.

Then nature took its turn. On Sept. 17, 1996, an 8.6-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami leveled the islanders’ beachfront homes and the Awai school. To protect itself from future tsunamis, the village was rebuilt 500 meters inland, but low-lying Auki is in the firing line for global warming-induced sea level rises, and the relocation of residents away from the island is already being suggested.

As Sahriani notes, environmental concerns are inescapable when you’re reliant on subsistence fishing, as with all but one of her 14 students’ families. That’s why she, determined to adapt the national curriculum to local realities, has chosen such themes as coral and fish to illustrate her teaching.

“There’s no point asking questions about locomotives or other things the children have never seen,” she says. “But coral, for example, can be a great starter for just about anything. Counting, Indonesian vocabulary, any topic you like can be related back to the local environment if you are creative about it.”

It’s probably this fresh approach to teaching that their students will miss the most when Sahriani and Nining wrap up their posting in two months’ time, soon to be replaced with another pair of new faces from far away. Faces that may or may not have such an accommodating living room. – The Jakarta Globe

About 2bagsandapack

Lifetime journalist, author, magazine editor and publisher, now semi-retired and traveling the world. My plan, after living in Costa Rica for 14 months, was to visit a new country in southern Europe every three months to experience the culture and the challenge of adapting to a new environment, while on a fixed income. That plan was sidetracked when I was offered a job in Indonesia, providing an opportunity to explore Asia. Indonesia lasted for a 4 wonderful years but I have now moved on to Hua Hin, Thailand.
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