A rare series of snowstorms have rendered the Seattle area into a beautiful winter scene.
One of the amazing things about my life is that I have met many great people in many places around the world. During the last two years in Indonesia was no exception. I have many friends in the country, and after I run the half marathons in Cambodia and Thailand, I will go back to Indonesia for a few weeks.
Below I share a link to a GoFundMe site I created. One of the friends I made is raising her grand-niece. The parents divorced and abandoned their child, Diva. So Diva lives with her great-aunt who is retiring. The small pension she is about to receive isn’t enough to cover the costs associated with Diva’s school. Every time I visited them, Diva’s great-aunt took care of me, often taking me out to lunch. I’m so grateful for that help and support and I want to return the favor. My goal is to collect some money through my generous friends and supporters so I can give directly to them to help Diva for her future. Here’s the link: Help Diva go to School
Keep reading the blog for updates about the adventure–race and travel updates, as well as a little about the friends I’ll be visiting along the way. Thanks.
For the time I was in Indonesia, I wrote in this blog (though not often enough) about my experience and shared some stories. I’d like now to share some current and historical events in Indonesia, specifically relating to the recent presidential election and subsequent challenge.
On July 9, just a week before I left the country, there was an election for president. Skipping through some history, a previous leader Suharto’s 30-year authoritarian rule came to an end in 1998 after mass protests called for democracy. Some of those protesters were kidnapped and killed. In the mix came horrendous riots aimed directly at the ethnic Chinese Indonesians.
I give that history, to say that one of the candidates in Indonesia’s presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, is a former general under Suharto, who has been implicated in the kidnapping and killing in 1998. After running a well-funded campaign during which he attacked his opponent, he nearly won the election.
Indonesia’s present problem of corruption is endemic and a cause of great sadness to many in the country. Despite people’s resignation that their country is still under a great weight of corruption, people came out to vote, and many of my friends were very proud to do so. Many of them voted for Jokowi; some of them voted for Prabowo, believing that he was the strong leader Indonesia needed. And that’s ok.
The winning candidate, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) is a former furniture salesman born into a poor family. He was elected mayor of a city in Java, and then was elected as governor of the special district of Jakarta. During his time as governor of Jakarta, he would make surprise visits to slums and talk to the people.
His deputy governor will take over his position–quite the historic moment on its own, considering the new Jakarta governor-to-be is an ethnic Chinese Christian–a double minority. Ethnic Chinese Indonesians still face discrimination, and they remember well the riots and violence against them in 1998.
As it is a sprawling archipelago of thousands of islands and the world’s 3rd largest democracy, it took several weeks for the election commission to count all the votes. Jokowi won the election with 53.2% of the vote. Although it is probably true to say some irregularities existed, and both sides could be culprits, Prabowo immediately insisted that the election commission’s data was wrong and alleged widespread systematic fraud. This claim was repeated, although he gave little in the way of evidence to support this claim. He gave his own result and took the case to the Constitutional Court.
Last week, the court gave its ruling and rejected Prabowo’s claim, citing that he did not sufficiently prove his claim of widespread systemic fraud.
Although he has publicly stated he will accept the court ruling, his political party has a coalition in the legislature that could obstruct Jokowi’s governance.
I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope and pray that this be a new beginning for Indonesia.
Previously, I posted a video about the danger of a single story. In that video, Chimamanda Adichie tells her story and experience with the single story. This post is commentary connecting the single story to volunteer tourism.
So, why is it important to consider the “single story” in reflecting on the trend of volunteer tourism? Volunteer tourism is designed so the privileged Westerner can “give back” while he or she travels abroad. I am wary of such an industry that makes profits while the root issues often maintained and real people and communities in the developing world are exploited for the benefit and enjoyment of the foreigners.
There are some good positions to volunteer short or long-term. The distinction, I believe, is volunteer tourism focuses on the needs/dreams of a traveler (build your resume/CV, get discounts on your travel, have fun, do some good stuff ) whereas volunteering focuses on the needs of those served. Both may have good intentions, yet also the potential to be harmful, so I think people must be aware of their own motivations and privilege. People with good hearts want to do good things—and good things can be done—but this is damaging if we allow ourselves to create a single story about the people and places we intended to “help.”
There exists the same potential pitfall that can happen with charities wherever they exist—that the goal becomes not to eradicate the problem, rather to maintain the existence of the charity itself. This means your impact may only be small and short-term. But you’d never know, since you go back home yet the real problems still remain. Even worse, people and children can be exploited. This has been specifically documented with orphanage tourism in Cambodia. Al Jazeera has an investigation into the particular problem in Cambodia: Cambodia’s Orphan Business.
Young people from Western nations pay large amounts of money just to have some great experience abroad before they get on with their adult lives without fully realizing the consequences within the communities they intend to help. The orphanage tour business exploits this idealistic attitude, and exploits the vulnerable children.
There is also a report by UNICEF specifically about the vulnerability of children in Cambodia.
Before considering traveling a great distance to volunteer, I would suggest looking at the needs of your own community. You may already volunteer at local ministries/agencies/events. Good. Keep doing it. Global issues are not only abroad, they are local issues within our own communities as well. Making that connection is vital. Even though individuals may be aware of issues within their own country, I believe the popularity of volunteer tourism displaces genuine needs locally and globally with colonialist attitudes.
Colonialist behavior perpetuates the idea that those from the developed world have a moral obligation to fix the developing world. Good intentions can be damaging when they involve the Western idea being superior to that of the other. This attitude glosses over the poor, social issues, and the brokenness within the developed country; and oversimplifies the complex differences in cultural values, the challenges faced from years of colonization, corruption, and poverty within the developing country. Again, this is the danger of a single story.
From the video, Chimamanda Adichie, telling a story about meeting her college roommate, says,
My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. …What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
If your desire to do good is brought on by pity for those “poor” Africans (or insert another grouping of people), then this perpetuates the colonialist behavior.
Rather than pay large amounts of money for some third-party organization to arrange the tour for you, build relationships and learn about the place, the people, the culture, and the history; establish relationships with people and solid trustworthy organizations.
I haven’t said volunteering is inherently bad or that you shouldn’t do it. I know from my current position in North Sumatra that there is great benefit from generous donations and volunteers; however, we have partnerships that have been around for a long time, and communication is open.
So if you want to take a vacation, take a vacation; if you want to volunteer, volunteer. Volunteering abroad is not inherently bad, but I would encourage that the first steps be establishing relationship and learning—before and after you go—so that your whole attitude is about learning from your hosts, even more than it is about doing something for them. Ask the needs of the communities and listen to the stories of the people. We can move beyond the single story.
Bottom line: It’s about relationships. It’s about learning. Build relationships not your resume. Travel and learn something new. See the world through the eyes of another.
Next, I’ll share some more personal reflections.
Recently, I came across an article about volunteer tourism, The Problem with Volunteer Tourism, and thought I would share my thoughts in a series of posts. First, a video to watch and reflect on (I have posted before, but it’s worth doing it again).
The description from the TED talk: “Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
“If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
Good intentions of those who want to “help” are not enough because they perpetuate the single story. It robs people of their dignity, she says. It is important then, to hear more stories that help us see the Other.
What if my roommate knew about the female lawyer who recently went to court in Nigeria to challenge a ridiculous law that required women to get their husband’s consent before renewing their passports? What if my roommate knew about Nollywood, full of innovative people making films despite great technical odds, films so popular that they really are the best example of Nigerians consuming what they produce? What if my roommate knew about my wonderfully ambitious hair braider, who has just started her own business selling hair extensions? Or about the millions of other Nigerians who start businesses and sometimes fail, but continue to nurse ambition?
Please watch the whole video:
Here are two recent images from a morning and evening walk in Balige:
It is Friday. I’m a little bit tired and homesick. I decide against spending the afternoon alone. The students also have a free afternoon, so I soon I find myself walking through Balige’s streets with a small group of students to the traditional market. Every day there are people selling their wares, but one day a week there is a special market. The streets in town are lined with people selling everything from fish to fruit to vegetables to shoes to used clothes and traditional Batak clothes.
As one of the students takes my arm, enthusiastically guiding me across the street, she asks about culture. “Is the market in your country like this?” At first, I struggle to answer, not because the question is difficult, rather my attention is elsewhere—at my feet, looking for potholes or other obstacles; beside me, careful of the cars, motorbikes, and people passing by; and all around, as we pass piles of dried fish next to a table of fruit next to a seller of toiletries and soap.
I answer something like, “yes, but no.” My hometown of Seattle is blessed to have the famous Pike Place Market and even better markets throughout the neighborhoods. I note, as we stop to wait for the group to look through a pile of shirts, that our outdoor markets don’t have clothes, and things are ordered. Well, at least, you won’t find a bar of soap being sold next to a pile of dried fish in America. And most people in America buy their food in stores, with sections of produce and aisles of pre-packaged goods.
Here in Indonesia, the street market is the lifeblood for the people. There are no supermarkets in small towns and villages here. The people buy their week’s worth of food—fish, rice, fruit, vegetables, chilis, and meat—as well as get shoes repaired or buy coffee or any number of items.
Somehow a small pile of apples from Washington state found its way to this small town in the middle of an island in SE Asia. Balige is quite the trek through mountainous and windy roads dotted with potholes; I know how far those apples have come. I had never given much thought to how significant the apple is in American culture until I came to Indonesia. Sure, we say something is “American as apple pie.” But we take for granted the plentiful bounty of apples all year round. Me especially, being from Washington state near a source of orchards and a major exporter of the fruit.
In Indonesia, apples do not grow and thus are very expensive, so they are not eaten often. My students pick up some fruit I’ve never seen before and ask, “Sister, this is (fruit name in Bahasa Indonesia or Batak, which I soon forget), what is it in English?”
“ahh. uhmm. We don’t have that in America”. I find myself stammering more than once (at the market, and in the kitchen). Their eyes grow wide with surprise. So different we are—skin color, language, and food. I tell my students that where I live in America we do not have fresh papaya, nor guava nor starfruit. Yes, so much different between us, and yet we share a common love of God and neighbor.
America: Apple pie. Apple juice. Apple cider. Caramel apples. Fruit salad with apples. Apple cake. Apple crisp. Apple turnovers. Apple dumplings. Bobbing for apples. Apples 2 Apples. How about them apples? You are the apple of my eye. The Big Apple. (in Washington State) The Apple Cup. Cinnamon and apple in your oatmeal. Fuji apples. Granny Smith Apples. Red Delicious Apples. Honeycrisp Apples. Braeburn Apples. … …
I don’t talk about apples with the students (maybe another time) but it comes to my mind as I continue to see the differences in our cultures and foods. I make note to have a conversation class about food. I am learning about food here: bakso, mie goreng, sak sang, ikan jahir, and more. Much for me to learn, too.
Refocusing myself back to the market again, I delight in the company of my cheery students and observe the bustle around us. We walk past a butcher with a sliced up pig and over to a stand selling fried banana. We eat and they continue to ask me questions. My presence here is not only to teach in the classroom, but to be in the community. The bonus is we come to know each other more deeply. And this is a learning experience for all of us—they practice their English and I learn about Indonesia and the Batak people.
We continue to laugh about the differences.
Hello. I’m still here! I am getting closer to having my visa finalized. Last week I was in Penang, Malaysia arranging the visa (it has to be done outside Indonesia). I have the sticker in my passport that is good for 1 year. Now I am back in Indonesia, and have submitted a stack of paperwork, my fingerprints, passport photos and paid another fee. It may be a few days before I hear back about that. So now I wait.
The last few weeks have been full of experiences, which I do want to share. I have been very blessed by my time here—now it has been 5 weeks. This post however, is just to say hello, I’m still here, and look forward to stories and pictures of life here, and of teaching.
As I wrote yesterday, I had been listening to the deep booms of an approaching thunderstorm. Barely 10 minutes after I posted my previous entry, the ground started to shake. It took a few seconds for my brain to register that this was, in fact, an earthquake.
Balige is well inland, and was far from the epicenter. Nevertheless, we felt some shaking. It was not violent enough cause damage here or knock anything over. I came out of the school and waited with students and others for the shaking to stop.
Then, as I was trying to update to family and friends what had happened, as I was sure this would make the news in America, the second one came.
I am well, and have made it through my first earthquakes. It was a concern at first, what would happen in the Aceh and West Sumatra provinces, as well as the chain of small islands to Sumatra’s west. People here have deep memories of the quake and tsunami that hit Banda Aceh in December 2004. Live news reports here showed people leaving the city.
We are very thankful there was no tsunami. Please, however, continue to keep this region in your prayers.
EDIT – 13 April:
Below is a link to a report by a local partner to the ELCA Disaster Response.
Final Report Earthquake 11 April 2012
The report has a map of each of the earthquakes and aftershocks, and details the situation. All the contacts have reported, and thankfully, very little damage has been reported.
The other day, I had the great pleasure of visiting an 85-year old Indonesian deaconess, Ibu Gultom (“Ibu” translates to “mother” in English, and in Indonesia is used as a term of respect. Perhaps it’s equivalent in English would be “m’am”). She helped start the HKBP deaconess school and also spent nearly 6 years living and working in Germany with the deaconesses there. We spoke in German, as that was the best common language for both of us. What a surprise that my German skills would be useful so far away from home and from Germany.
Mostly, I sat with my coffee and listened to Ibu Gultom tell stories about her work in Germany (in Kaiserswerth, and other places, including Tuebingen, the city where once I studied for a year) and her family. She also told me some history of the Batak people and their culture, as well as some history of Indonesia. The younger generation of Bataks sometimes do not know the Batak language well. The children only learn Bahasa Indonesia in school, and it is then up to the parents to teach their children the language and culture. Batak is only one of about 300 languages spoken by the peoples of Indonesia. Therefore, Bahasa Indonesia is used as a unifying language. But it is important that the different cultures continue to pass on their own languages.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to listen to such wisdom in the presence of a woman who has committed a long life to service of others.