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Le plus ca change…

It can be tough for me to articulate why I love the rhythm of living in East Java, even to myself at times. At a recent meet-up with friends I hadn’t seen for months, we couldn’t do much more than exchange cursory “everything’s good’s” when we asked after each other’s news. For some that may indicate months devoid of value or riddled with disappointment, frustration and boredom, but to me it’s the essence of rural Java. Julia Suryakasuma, a columnist for the Jakarta Post, begins one of her columns with the French saying of “le plus ca change…” (the more things change, the more they stay the same). She uses it to show that the wrongs that regime upheavals in Indonesian politics claimed to fight, including Sukarno’s fight for independence against the Dutch (and Japanese), Suharto’s New Order, and Reformasi (the political era ushered in by the coup that deposed Suharto in 1998), did not in fact deliver on their promises of increased freedoms for Indonesians, but rather replaced old skins of oppression with new ones. A typical, cynical and deserved lens on history and one that is entirely appropriate for Indonesia, amongst many other places.
But, in ways that Julia Suryakasuma perhaps did not intend writing from Jakarta amidst a circle of finely educated and globally-minded liberals, it’s also a surprisingly accurate description of the FEEL of living in rural East Java.
The subdistrict where I live was established about 11 years ago, which in Indonesian governance years means it is still an infant (the bupati system of traditional leadership has gone formally uninterrupted since the time there were kingdoms in Indonesia, though the positions were entirely co-opted by the Dutch as they imposed colonial rule). Most people in the area say that their lives changed drastically with the consolidation of 11 villages into a new sub-district because it meant that they began to receive government services that before wouldn’t make it all the way up to our hills. The unpaved 7km of rocky hills that stand between Grabagan and the closest village (market) of significance, Rengel, made it much harder on the lives of people in Grabagan. Farmers had a harder time transporting their crops to market, miners lugging their stone and sand to factories and kids getting to school if they wanted to continue their education past elementary school. When Grabagan was ushered into kecamatan-dom, the road was paved and widened with sidewalks, a subdistrict office was built, along with a community health clinic, a police station and a military post. Five years later, a public high school was built and the public middle school became more robust with an influx of PNS, government civil servant, teachers.
Things are definitely changing, so much so that all adults I’ve spoken to on the subject tend to divide history as pre- and post-kecamatan. In daily life, though, it is extremely hard to feel that change, and as a community volunteer, to tap into it.
The 33 years of Suharto’s rule left a deep sense of disempowerment in Indonesia. Reading back on the pemuda movements around independence, particularly the resistance to Allied forces in Surabaya (commemorated as the Nov 10 resistance), it’s hard for me to place my students in those positions. There isn’t a tradition of eliciting new ideas or of critical exchange, and most of anything new comes from the top. The wheels of grassroots change are terribly difficult to see turning. Many teachers see themselves as working for the state and thus, the community, rather than the other way around of working for the community first, and by extension, building the state. One might think that a foreigner to the community presents a wild card, an added element that may be able to evade the top down structure of decision making, but that doesn’t translate. Volunteers tend to be most successful when there’s an ok to be successful from the top, and even then it’s sketchy because expectations of English learning or anything else may be too high and unrealistic and a lot of energy is lost in debunking that myth. Or, more clearly said, volunteers have some serious roadblocks to their work when there’s no genuine ok from the top. This bureaucratic power that Suharto’s Golkar party thrust on Indonesia is alive everywhere. Despite the shift of decision-making power from Jakarta to schools under the school autonomy law, the Indonesian education system is still handed down to teachers through curriculum that prioritizes breath over depth learning that is inappropriate to the level of kids’ learning, through a large volume of administrative tasks that keep teachers too busy to focus on teaching, and through the process of teacher certification itself, which does not reward highly-effective teachers, but well-connected teachers or those willing to pay thousands of dollars in bribes for the full-time job.
The way that I’ve experienced that western label of disempowerment isn’t all negative because you have to recognize what’s behind it. It is true that the classic scene of a community meeting where young and old are standing up, raising their voices, bursting with ideas of what they want for the futures of their communities is rare. Indonesians are most likely going to show up, in ironed coordinated uniforms, listen to their elected or appointed officials stand up and give speeches outlining the information they’ve received by whoever is above them, the plan of action and then eat the catered meal that’s sitting waiting for them before heading back home. Where’s the back and forth about ideas, the public weighing of pro’s and con’s to reach the best conclusion? Where’s the democratic space where all community members are urged to contribute to validate the importance of each individual’s perspective? Is that microphone really necessary when there are 20 people in the room?
So much of that makes it very discouraging to be working in education in East Java. A top-down environment is rarely inspiring to observe and the average higher than normal positivity of the Javanese can make it seem as though important issues that need to be dealt with are glossed over. That last point, I can’t stress enough.
But the rhythm that Java provides is one that takes in all of those negatives and creates a non-negotiable safe and agreeable surface environment to deal with them. Changes – both positive and tragic – are so quickly absorbed into the fabric of life, that so little can feel like a surprise. That kind of environment takes an almost inhuman strength to build because it rests upon accepting the shortcomings of the life you’ve been dealt and meet each day with the scrappiness needed to not only get yourself and your family through it, but also to tie your success to that of your neighbors, classmates and colleagues’. To be at the receiving end of a top-down system is no picnic and more subtle channels to initiate change in communities have to be developed, channels that aren’t as obvious as hand-raising in community meetings. It doesn’t help visibility in all of that evasiveness lot of unexplained things are inserted. So subtle and harmonious, in fact, that despite changes happening, yesterday feels the same as today, and tomorrow will most likely look just like today.
The consul general in Surabaya is on his second tour to Indonesia and when asked what changes he perceives between Indonesia 11 years ago and today, he explained that he thought Indonesia was much more open. I don’t know what 11 years ago felt like, but Surabaya definitely feels open today. Cities tend to be the center from where change pulsates out to the rest of the country and in Indonesia Surabaya, Jogja, Malang and Jakarta definitely have their own thing going. Grabagan has only been a kecamatan for about 10 years and it’s not just western volunteers who have 6 weeks of language training and 1.5 years of experience in a community who fail at understanding villagers’ visions of change. “Everything’s good” is an inadequate summary of months of changes but it gets at the essential.

P.S.: Here’s Aime Cesaire’s take on this subject in Martinique: “At the end of the small hours, this town, flat, displayed… It crawls on its hands without the slightest wish to stand up and pierce the sky with protest. The backs of the houses are afraid of the fire-truffled sky, their foundations are afraid of the drowning mud. Scraps of houses that have settled to stand between shocks and undermining. And yet this town advances. Every day it grazes further beyond the tide of its tiled corridors, shame-faced blinds, sticky courtyards, dripping paintwork. And petty suppressed scandals, petty shames kept quiet and petty immense hatreds knead the narrow streets into lumps and hollows where the gutter pulls a face among the excrement.”

I may not have been critical enough.

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