05 August 2009

The plight of a "new community"

Nova Fransisca Silitonga , Ljubljana, Slovenia Wed, 08/05/2009 12:46 PM Opinion - On one very hot afternoon a group of curious children surrounded me and began keenly taking note of my appearance. Apart from the fact that these children spoke the same language as I did, we shared similar looks with brown skin, dark hair and big eyes. The only thing that differentiated me from them was my city style!

One girl finally plucked up the courage to break the ice and proposed a question to me. "Where are you from?" she asked me sweetly. I told her that I came from Jakarta, an enormous city which differed greatly from the small and remote village we were standing in at the time.

That encounter took place almost five years ago now as part of an opportunity I had to visit "new communities", the term given to the areas in West Timor where thousands of refugee resettled following the pro-independence vote in East Timor in 1999 and the subsequent escalation in violence.

Today most of these refugees are still struggling for their rights and livelihoods in communities which are fast being forgotten as rapid development occurs in the rest of the country.

The term "lack of access" could be applied to the long-term poverty issues these communities face. They lack access to education and thus information, infrastructure development, financial aid, public services and government assistance. In some cases it is the actions of local authorities that lead to these situations worsening.

One school in Naibonat, West Timor, is an extreme example of this situation I am describing. The school is located close to the capital of East Nusa Tenggara province, Kupang, and provides less than 15 classes for the more than 1000 students from the "new community."

Six days per week, teachers at this school work exhausting days teaching classes with 90 or more students. Most students are happy enough having just two hours of classes per day because there are not enough teachers or classroom areas.

Turiskain, an area located near the border of East Timor, is the location of another "new community." When I arrived there with my colleague, the community welcomed us with traditional dances, one from both the cultures of the refugees and the host community.

This came as a huge surprise to me, as I had spent most of my life in the capital city. I could not believe there was a village in Indonesia which remained lively without electricity or power, even for lighting. Once I had a chance to chat with the community and the children, I understood how much thirst they had for information and education.

In another subdistrict in East Nusa Tenggara, I was shocked to learn that none of the children knew where Aceh was or anything about the infamous tsunami. I thought these children were of about sixth-grade level, which meant they should have passed tests relating to Indonesia's geography. When I looked inside their classrooms and saw there was no globe, let alone an Indonesian map, I realized why the gaps in education were occurring.

There was supposed to be a new "education act" launched in Indonesia that prevented public schools from collecting money from parents, which meant more children theoretically would be able to attend school. However, I was astonished to learn that this law actually has disadvantaged the community.

It had been a while since schools in this area stopped collecting money from students, yet the parents of these poor children had been voluntarily collecting small amounts of money for education. Even though now schooling is free, they knew that funding from either the central or region authority would not be enough to keep teachers in the region. As a result, they felt it necessary to collect a little extra to try and persuade teachers to stay.

"I want my kids to have a good future, unlike me, and in order to have that good future they need education," a man told me so. It is painstaking to watch people crying out for education when they realize they cannot access it.

The writer is a Masters candidate in Comparative Local Development within the Erasmus Mundus Program at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.


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