The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Endah Setyaningsih

Encountering Indonesia’s realities   


In her mid 20s Endah Setyaningsih took a leap into the unknown.

The University of Indonesia (UI) graduate had a good well-paid job, a permanent position with a private company using the knowledge she’d gained getting a degree in public health.

She had friends and family in Jakarta, the city where she’d lived for most of her comfortable life.  Why risk it all on overseas education, and then join a non-government organization (NGO) on a remote and undeveloped island where conditions were rough and living primitive?

“I wasn’t confident,” she said. “I was scared. “I thought about it for a long time.  I just knew that working for the community was something I had to do, but till then I’d never had the courage.

“My mother gave her blessing though she had many concerns, including that I was single. (Her father had passed away.) 

“I’d been unemployed for three months after first graduating, so I knew about being jobless.  I had no clear plan. My bosses, friends and family thought I was crazy.”

Though not now.  Following a Masters degree in Australia she spent almost four years monitoring health needs and evaluating remedial programs on Nias, the quake-smashed island 125 kilometers off North Sumatra’s west coast.

Last year Endah was invited by the business and government funded NGO Asia-NZ Foundation to join its Young Leaders’ Network, giving inspirational lectures and encouraging others to take up community service.

Now she’s a PhD scholarship student at the Victoria University of Wellington, working on ways to motivate midwives and improve the survival of mothers and babies.  Her fieldwork is likely to be in Sumbawa in East Nusa Tenggara.

When Endah graduates she plans to work with the United Nations or an NGO, developing policies to stop babies dying.

“Indonesia still has a bad record among ASEAN nations,” she said. “Progress is being made, though I don’t think we’ll meet the Millennium Development Goals of reducing child mortality by two thirds by 2015. There’s still so much to do.

(The young child mortality rate in Indonesia is around 29 deaths per 1000 births according to the World Health Organization.  In most developed countries it’s below five.)

“A doctor’s job is to work with the person to cure sickness.  A public health officer’s task is to get rid of the problems that create the disease.”

Although Endah constantly cites luck as being significant in her success and downplays her achievements, she conceded that hard work has been another essential factor along with family support.

As a teenager she wanted to be a lawyer and was attracted to UI mainly to be involved with the university’s traditional dance group. She studied public health only because she had vague and unformed ideas about community service. Slowly these began to take shape.

“I realized something was not right in society and I wanted to be part of the change,” she said. 

“My parents worked for the government and my family is liberal. We were encouraged to do what we wanted and told that religion was a personal choice.  So I’m a Muslim but I have a Protestant sister and a Catholic brother.

“My grandfather’s philosophy was simple: Be nice to each other – because everything else is secondary”.

After studying she joined SurfAid International, a humanitarian NGO started by New Zealander Dave Jenkins.  In 1999 the Singapore-based doctor was holidaying on a yacht in the Mentawi Islands when he encountered malnutrition, deep-seated poverty and easily preventable disease in coastal villages.

He gathered a few mates to register SurfAid, and then started raising funds from Western surfers to buy mosquito nets and provide basic health care. The organization has since expanded and now runs multiple projects.

Nias was brutally damaged by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed 155 and shredded coastal communities.  Three months later a major earthquake took 800 lives, injured 2,000 and left many thousands homeless. 

Endah often had to walk for hours to reach villages because the interior roads were too rough to take vehicles.  At other times she slept in boats.

“As an Indonesian living in Jakarta I had absolutely no idea how bad the situation was for so many people,” she said. “Now I consider myself lucky because my eyes have been opened to see other sides of my homeland.

“When I arrived in Nias I was shocked.  In the city we’d been talking about issues like globalization and free trade, yet here were villages without running water and toilets, where the people had little schooling and didn’t speak Indonesian.

“I felt inadequate because there was so much I couldn’t do.  I had to adapt and learn the local languages. Although the infrastructure has been repaired and the situation is almost back to normal, the psychological damage remains.

“The experience made me think: ‘I’m lucky enough to be strong, educated and enjoy a good life.  Why don’t others have the same opportunities?’

“Apart from poverty, the problems in such areas include a lack of resources, proper hygiene and knowledge about good health, the key to a better life.”

In Wellington Endah lives alone in a student flat and when not studying swims in the ocean and tramps the hills surrounding the NZ capital.  She mixes with locals to improve her language and cultural skills and follows the outdoor life favored by New Zealanders rather than the mall culture of Jakarta.

During the Christmas break she returned home, surprised to find her friends happy with her new life.

“I didn’t realise that I could motivate others,” she said. “Make the most of your opportunities. If you work hard and have a dream you can be what you want to be. Without realising it you will start to walk in that direction.

“Compared to others I have only done a little for the community. I know I have to do much more.

“Thank you for interviewing me – I hope my story can be useful for others.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 February 2014)

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