For different reasons we decided to spread and travel separately for a few weeks. We chose Indonesia. Thanks to that decision I, Anna, had the possibility to create a deeper relation with some of the women I met. Above all with Ajeng, which for one week hosted me in her family house in Malang, Java. This story is about her and her Muslim community.
Ajeng: I want to make some changes for my country. But today I just want to make a change for my environment, my village or my district. Change is about education, I want people to feel how education can give them a better future. Furthermore we should appreciate our own culture, without leaving it behind as many young people do. They think culture is for elder. I hope that youngsters will learn again how beautiful their own culture is. Their traditions. Our heritage is our pride.
I contacted Ajeng through Workaway. I was her first volunteer and as she admitted, she was scared about this meeting. The day before my arrival she even thought to cancel everything. Fortunately, she didn’t do it and the next morning she picked me up from the bus station and brought me to my room, which even featured a separated bathroom. A very simple room but with everything one may need. The only pitfall was the noise, Ajeng’s place lies on a very busy street. But it was enough to walk a few meters on a cross alley and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of an Indonesian village, quiet and calm, so much different than the yonder street. In the village, as well as in nearby schools and kindergartens, I had the chance to teach English, speak about our journey and motivate students to learn. The most important though, were the evening classes organized in Ajeng’s house three times a week. Classes were free of charge and open for all kids from the village, regardless their age, educational level or financial situation. She organizes them in her spare time - which was not much considering that Ajeng has three young daughters herself. She believes that helping others is an important, if not essential part of life. This belief is strictly connected with what Islam teaches.
The main job for villagers is farming. Not in their own farms, they work for other people. Many of them cannot write or read. Many people commit crimes, teenagers have bad habits like smoking, taking drugs. I think education can save them from bad habits, bad influences. I decided to organize the English class because that’s a thing that may catch their attention. If I created an Indonesian class or a mathematics class, people wouldn’t come. But with English many people are interested: I want to speak English! I want my children to speak English well! So they bring their children here. Sometimes I also visit some family and try to convince the parents that education can make their children’s future better, they can have better job and better living.
The English class is but an excuse to educate. Educate, in the broader meaning of this word. A very important topic for Ajeng is ecology and environment protection. She is one of the very few in the country who sees a problem in the mountain of rubbish lying along the streets, everywhere you go. Before each class Ajeng asked me a few times to tell the students about clean streets in Europe, how people throw the rubbish in bins, and in a segregate fashion, about rivers in which you can safely bathe, because they are not just dumps.
People don’t have a good attitude here. It’s different than in Europe. Maybe in Europe you don’t have group activities in the neighborhood, maybe you do everything individually but here people do everything together. That is good. On the other hand… we aren’t disciplined, when there is traffic jam, everybody just try to be first. And with garbage, that’s everywhere. People should know that if they don’t put rubbish in bins everything will be dirty.
The evening class in Ajeng’s house is not her first initiative. Everything started with a project called “One night, One book”.
We started about five months ago. At the beginning we worked with people coming from Yogyakarta, another Indonesian city. I have a friend there who likes to read books and supports my small library, which I opened for local kids, who can use it for free anytime they want. He also has many foreign connections, that’s how foreign tourists started to come to my place. Our OMAH backpacker offers stay for free here in exchange for a book. We call it One night, One book. You can stay here for a night if you bring us a book, can be used, can be new, it’s ok. All books from our library were donated like that. Now we are trying also with “One night, One teaching”, you can stay here and teach children during my English class.
Already many foreigners have visited Ajeng’s place. She is very open and she knows the differences between people from East and West, Global South and Global North or whatever you want to name those two (supposedly) completely different worlds. She realized the differences in expressing emotions that Westerners say openly when they don’t like something, which for Indonesian people is a great shame. Indonesians never express disappointment or anger; even in obvious (from our point of view) situations, such as when you order something and you don’t get it. We have a different sense of time, as well as different ways of eating. We usually eat three times per day, more or less the same hours, waiting for others to join and sharing meals together. In Ajeng house, similarly to all Indonesian families I had the chance to visit, food is prepared in the morning and stays in the kitchen. Whenever you are hungry you go and grab something, without considering the meal an occasion for gathering.
Ajeng also respects many of the values which are important for us but quite unknown to Indonesian, just to mention privacy as an example. One of the first questions is usually about husband and children. And photos… Ajeng protected me from mass selfies, which are a real scourge in this part of the world. People literally jump on you trying to do as many pictures as possible, rarely even asking for permission. What was, though the most important, Ajeng took me with her to very different places, showing me the real life of a woman in an Indonesian village. Together with her and her fellows I prepared a ceremony for the 100 days after burial, observing them in this informal situation, busy with cooking, but also being together, sharing their thoughts and feelings. The ceremony was prepared by women but only men could take part in it. Another day, visiting nearby villages, I had the chance to try freshly cut sugar cane juice, prepare my own coffee - meaning to fry, ground and sieve the coffee beans -, try many local dishes cooked in traditional kitchens and take part in the ceremony of a boy becoming a man, a ritual rich in many traditions and practices which will remain fixed in my memories for long time. Everything started with a procession where the boy on horseback is surrounded by the closest family and followed by local dancers and musicians as well as leviathans the shape of a lion. Just after them there was a shaman trying to fight with the demons which possessed four men from the village. The ceremony takes place only if at least one person is possessed - that means nature agrees for the ritual to happen. Possessed men have superhuman strength, they have to be managed by at least 3-4 other men so they don’t harm anybody. The procession comes to the water, where the boy is washed and the family shares food with each other and special guests. As a stranger I was invited to join them.
In Indonesia Islam is merged with traditions rooted in the culture long before Islam appeared. This creates a mixture which only locals manage to follow. Which day you can or must do something. In which register you should speak with your peer, which one for formal discussions and which to use to speak with elders. What to do when visiting the house of a new born kid. These and many other things I learnt during the seven amazing days I spent with Ajeng. She surprised me every day, not only by showing me the daily life of her family and neighbors, but above all by our deep conversations. Ajeng is an open-minded person, with very interesting, we would say, modern opinions. We spoke a lot about the role of women, which on the one hand follow traditional female duties like caring about house and family, on the other they have will and quite a lot of freedom to realize their passions, to help society. As I could observe in another city, they have their own meetings, where they discuss common problems, support financially and otherwise those in need, speak about contraception and health. Ajeng, as much as other Muslim women I met on my way, was eager to learn about Europe and our way of thinking. I replied honestly to all her questions, sharing my thoughts and my culture, being sure that she will be curious about it and she won’t reject what I say. Ajeng values a lot her own traditions and Muslim religion, but at the same time she is open to different kind of changes which she sees can improve her environment, like new methods of teaching foreign languages or the already mentioned attitude toward ecology.
The most difficult is to change people’s minds. Sometimes we teach children good attitude, good manners. But when they come back home, they come back to bad habits. Rubbish, watching television in learning time. Family never says anything. They think that as long as children go to school it’s ok, even if they don’t learn. That’s our big purpose here: change people’s mindset.
Through her work, Ajeng affects not only local people, but also those foreigners visiting her house. Thanks to her they have a chance to experience and understand Indonesian culture and Islam, around which there is so much misunderstanding, misconception. Ajeng was so careful not to force me to her religion that we never even visited a Mosque, and yet we saw some Buddhist and Hindu temples. She was open though, to answer all my questions and to point out her own opinion about good and bad sides of her religion. Interesting enough, if I didn’t know she was speaking about Islam I could easily believe the all thing was about Christian or any other religion I’ve got to know so far.
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