Familiar Faces


Three weeks in and life has settled in to frightening normality. I wake up at 6:00 am and head straight to the cali (the pond) to shower. Once a week I carry a bucket of clothes and laundry detergent. I then trot back to the house, wet kain slapping around my legs to eat my nasi and labu breakfast. By 7:00 am (or 8:00 am depending on the day) we’re ready to head to school.

The mornings consist of me bugging Ibu Ellen (the librarian) to get teachers more involved in the library and teaching my rather scatty English lessons. We’ve now progressed to head, shoulders, knees and toes – the song is on constant repeat in my head and I’ve firmly got over any squeamishness I used to have about singing in front of people.

Indonesian schooling is wildly different to how I remember primary school in the UK. There are six classes, starting from 6 years old and ending at 13. After that is three years of SMP and three of SMA. At my school – SD Kondas – there are 180 children and around fifteen teachers. This amounts to about one teacher to every twelve children. In fact, Indonesia has the lowest teacher to children ratio in its income bracket. Every year, the Indonesian government succeeds in educating 55 million children. Nine out of ten children get through junior high school (SMP) and almost everyone I have met is literate. For a country that is scattered across 17,000 islands, this is truly remarkable. And yet, these small class sizes do not amount to a higher level of education. In the 2012 international PISA tests, Indonesia came 60th (out of 65) in maths and science. No university from Asia’s fourth biggest country has made it to the top 100.

This is, to a large extent, a result of poor teaching. Many Indonesian teachers are teachers because it is a fairly easy job. The pay might not be good but there is an official uniform and a certain prestige that comes with the title. Unfortunately, this means that not many teachers are natural borne educators. The teachers turn up to lessons late (or not at all) and spend most of the lessons lecturing half asleep kids. If the teacher doesn’t turn up, which happens fairly often, the children are left to work through their textbooks in class. Imagine a cover lesson in England. Obviously, going through your textbook by yourself is not something any child ever does.

Still, when it’s National Education Day as it was last Monday, everyone turns up in their finest. We arrived in Roe, an hour away along the worst road ever (I have a bruise on my back from where it hit against the back of the seat in the otho – a type of bus truck) at 7:30 am. There were already huge crowds of children lined up in rows, all wearing the identical merah putih uniform, a red skirt or shorts and white shirt. After another hour, an important looking man dressed in army uniform marched out. Everyone saluted and launched in to the Indonesian National Anthem. For such a scattered state, everyone seems to have a certain level of patriotism. Every Monday morning, for example, the whole school comes together to raise the Indonesian flag and sing the anthem. When I explained that I didn’t actually know the English Anthem, the children all looked aghast. Even I was surprised. I know more of the Indonesian one and I’ve lived here a year. I don’t know anyone in the UK who can sing past the first few lines of ‘God Save The Queen’.


This patriotism in part boils down to the remnants of the Sukarno period. At the time, the whole country was controlled by a centralised government that put a lot of effort in to unifying all the islands, hence the emphasis on military and nationalism. Since then, Indonesia has become decentralised. This means that there are hundreds of different districts and local governments (buparty). This in turn makes corruption so much easier. It is also the reason for the bruise on my back – the local government doesn’t really care about just one of the hundreds of rocky roads in Flores. There is one road that is smooth tarmac the whole way along – the TransFlores, maintained by the central government in Jakarta.

While poor teaching seems to be a fairly regular occurrence, SD Kondas is actually doing really well. On the whole, the teachers do turn up and they do teach. The head teacher is there every day and, at the moment, is lobbying the buparty to set up an SMP in the area as well. Hopefully, this will mean more children will go to junior high school – at the moment, the closest is an hour walk away.

And, of course, they have a library.

I am a firm believer that books can teach just as much, if not more, than sitting in a lesson. In fact, most of my history knowledge comes from reading novels about different periods. That is why it is so important for these children to have access to the library. On the days when teachers have been excused for a meeting, they crowd in to the small building and pore over the books: stories about princesses, an overview of how the human body works, short books on different fruits and their nutritional values… Ibu Ellen, the librarian, is excellent – she gets them to sit down, to read, allows them to check the books out to read at home. The library is an example of how important literacy and access to books can be.

Of course, not everyone is overly interested in reading. Those that are, however, can also come to the library in the afternoon.

The two hours I spend in the library every afternoon consist of reading, drawing and playing volleyball – it is so embarrassing how bad I am. There’s also writing and telling stories and the odd dance party in the inner room. Yesterday I asked them to write a story about their day – at first all I got was dubious expressions and then, after my I went to school, I ate nasi example, the girls all sat down to immerse themselves in their stories. What I received varied greatly: Val’s contribution was the story of Cinderella copied out of a book, Eccy’s a short story on when Lukas came to visit that ended in a scribble of incomprehensible words. Elsa’s hari ini, teman2 dan saya menjemput kak malee dari rumah dia untuk pergi ke perpus… (today, my friends and me picked up Maleeha to go to the library…) was brilliant.

At around 5:00pm, I head back to the house for a cup of coffee, TV and dinner. After dinner, the whole family gathers round the small TV for two hours of ‘Anak Jalanan’. ‘Anak Jalanan’ or Roadman as it translates to in English is a two hour drama that is on every single night. And every single night, everyone seems to watch it. The drama is set in Jakarta (a clean, green, traffic free Jakarta) and follows the story of Boi (the palest Indonesian I have ever seen) and his friends as they battle against the rival gang. Every episode consists of at least five big fights and two relationship breakups – it’s messy. Still, everyone laps it up and everyone knows about it.

One of the people that is in love with the programme is Ine Bet.

Ine Bet has wide childlike eyes and a mouth stained blood red from chewing beetle nut. “She eats humans,” say the children in the village but, although she hardly ever speaks to me in Indonesian (choosing instead the local language, Bahasa Manggerai), she has quickly become my favourite person. Ine Bet walks in to the room and I start laughing. She’s a wonderful mix of the evil old grandma Sonia used to pretend to be in imaginary games and a crazy old woman who loves to talk. She has taken it upon herself to introduce me to everyone in Kondas and teach me Bahasa Manggerai.


When I don’t understand her, I turn to her daughter Kakak (sister) Mel. Mel is the only girl around my age and is hilariously funny. She also comes every evening to watch ‘Anak Jalanan’, along with Bapak Simon, Ine Bet’s husband, all twinkly eyes behind a permanent cloud of cigarette smoke.

When you’re in a new place all by yourself you often look for familiarity. There’s a thirteen year old boy who reminds me of Dhillon; a Class Four girl with long hair always in a ponytail and a smile that is exactly the same as Riyana’s; another girl looks exactly like someone I knew in Primary School. Ine Bet is Sonia’s alter-ego in the games we used to play. These small bits of home in a place where you’re always the new person help to keep you sane.

But at the same time the people of Flores, or actually, the people of Manggerai Barat (the western tip of the island) are completely different to anyone I know. Flores is a whole world away from Java where I’ve spent most of my time. The people have different skin colours, different hair, completely different languages. And this is all in one country. It’s unbelievable how diverse, how huge and wildly varied, Indonesia is.

At the end of the day that is what makes this year so special and, of course, so hard. Every time you go somewhere new, you have to learn a new way of life and bits of a new language. This last month has been incredibly hard but, at the same time, unbelievably interesting and fun. I am having the most amazing time, regardless of the numerous times I phone home to complain or how much I dream of showering in a real bathroom!


And now I am finally posting this. At the moment, there is no signal in Kondas and so I have escaped to Labuan Bajo. Yesterday I went to see Lukas in his village, Molot Kondo – an hour walk from the road, no signal but the best river shower I have ever had. Today I’ve been sitting playing scrabble with the host family in Dalong, twenty minutes from Labuan, and enjoying my brief respite from Kondas life. Still, a part of me is so excited to be going back tomorrow. Familiarity, my own bed and Efin, Bapak Alo’s daughter is who is back from Ruteng!

Sampai jumpa.



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