• This is Indonesia

    CAC volunteer Emily Spring talks about her time in Salatiga, Indonesia with Uni Papua.

    September 22nd 2015. We were picked up in Salatiga by three coaches from Uni Papua (UP) – the partner program we would be working with for the week – during the hottest hour of the day. Markus, CJ, and I hopped into an old mini-van with no air conditioning. We asked to open a few windows and, after giving us a strange look, Mosby – one of UP’s volunteers – casually opened the van’s side door. As three Westerners who aren’t exactly accustomed to driving on the highway with the car doors open, Mosby met our stares and, as if to answer our unspoken question, he said, “This is Indonesia…”

    This phrase became somewhat of a motto for our time in the small mountainous city of Salatiga, Indonesia. On our first day, when we were scheduled to conduct a training at a local primary school at 8AM, we were puzzled when our ride had failed to pick us up. At 9:30, we recognized the old van, and when we asked why we hadn’t been picked up earlier, our translator told us, “This is Indonesia…we had to sort out some logistics in the morning.” Sure enough, we showed up at the school nearly two hours behind schedule but we were greeted as if that was the plan all along; the session went off without a hitch.

    When our coaches fell into fits of laughter at the word “condom,” we were told “This is Indonesia,” and when we asked why boys wouldn’t pass to girls at the schools or why there were no female participants in this program, the first explanation we received was “Well, this is Indonesia…” With this simple phrase, three westerners were introduced to a culture different from our own – a phrase used to explain people’s reactions to certain situations both on and off the field. As the week went on, we better understood what saying “This is Indonesia” meant for the people of Central Java. Therefore, it had become our responsibility to recognize and respect local culture while at the same time challenging and questioning traditional practices that may be unfair.

    Uni Papua’s program was unique because we spent each morning working with children from local schools and each afternoon with UP coaches. One thing we immediately noticed at the first school was the way in which teachers became involved in our games. During Circle of Friends – a game where players stand in a circle and run to new friends, shouting their names and favorite foods and football teams – we spotted teachers telling the children to fill gaps in the circle and even deciding for them what food they liked best. I turned to our translator, Rara, and asked if children were encouraged to make their own decisions or to find solutions on their own. Take a wild guess at what three words that served as her answer. Yup, “This is Indonesia.”

    We soon came to understand what Rara’s use of the phrase meant. We had seen it multiple times during the previous week’s sessions with children: teachers who fed the answers to their children and children who were discouraged from creating their own solutions. This was not a practice created with mal intent but rather a cultural norm practiced in schools throughout Indonesia – one we have witnessed time and time again.

    However, I was lucky enough to meet a child who challenged this norm. Gabriel is ten years old and in the fifth grade. He has been a UP kid since its beginning, basically serving as the program’s poster child in Salatiga. After chatting with Gabriel for just five minutes, I quickly learned why. Gabriel is a natural leader and works hard in school and on the field. He has an infectious smile and a desire to be everyone’s friend. Coaches adore him, shouting “Hi Gabriel!” when he would show up at the end of training sessions. Wanting to find out more about this special kid, I got the opportunity to talk to his mother and hear their story.

    About a year ago, Gabriel was living in Papua (which is on another island in Indonesia) with his mother and the rest of his family. Gabriel was smart, but he knew he had little educational opportunities in his small village. He told his mom he wanted to go to school; he wanted to make a better life for himself. His mother, knowing of Uni Papua and of the opportunity for better education in Salatiga, allowed her son to leave home to pursue his dream. In the end, it was Gabriel’s decision to leave home. It was Gabriel’s decision to join a football team through Uni Papua. And it is Gabriel’s decision to push himself to go to school every day.

    Uni Papua is working to encourage more kids to follow Gabriel’s example – to make their own decisions and to become leaders in the classroom and on the football field. Alongside UP coaches, we were able to conduct trainings at local schools where adults were encouraged to step aside and let the children solve their own problems. After some nudging, teachers obliged, and we even overheard some of them admitting that this new approach is quite effective.
    In the years to come, this Uni Papua promises to create a space where “This is Indonesia” takes on a whole new meaning. They dream of an Indonesia where coaches and football fields provide safe spaces for children, where girls are invited to play sports, where sexual education is no longer taboo, and where kids are encouraged to create solutions to their problems. And, hopefully we’ll even see an Indonesia where everyone is on time.