Book me a future
Today (23 April) is UNESCO World Book Day. Duncan Graham reports from Yogyakarta on a community initiative to encourage reading,
When university administrator Heny Wardatur Rohmah was pregnant with her first child she went into debt.
Not to buy maternity gear or baby clothes, but books. “I believed that if I read aloud to my unborn child then she would also develop a love of reading,” Heny said. “I wanted her to be clever.”
She is, most certainly. Syakiri Divany Wijaya (Diva), now 11, is an exceptional child, known locally as Ratu Buku (the Book Queen). She could read by age three, is a chess champion and public storyteller with a remarkable handle on English.
Her sister Nayahani Imara Wijaya (Naya), 7, is also smart and equally curious.
Whether the girls could hear their Mom’s voice while in the womb is a matter for medical science to ponder. What’s not in doubt is the environment in which they’ve been raised.
The girls’ parents started a free local library in a room at the back of their building materials store in the village of Tegal Manding, about 14 kilometers from Yogyakarta.
It proved so popular that it attracted government support. NGOs and corporates keen to discharge their community service responsibilities on a worthy cause also got involved by donating books and equipment.
Now the original book room has expanded sideways and upwards to create areas for reading and playing games, principally chess. Outside is a red tree house where individualistic kids can read in peace and let their imaginations soar.
Hanging from a branch is a sturdy swing for those who can’t sit still while their heads are in a book.
Below is a motorbike-powered van that tours kampongs and villages. The outfit was donated by a company to the local government for use during the 2010 Mount Merapi eruption, then repainted and fitted out as a mobile library.
This is Mata Aksara (Seeing Letters) and it’s the creation of Diva’s father Nuradi Indra Wiyaya (Adi) and his uncle Badruddin, a man with a talent for inventing and making educational toys and puzzles.
“As a family we’ve always been keen on reading, and we wanted to share our enthusiasm,” said Adi, who studied child psychology at university.
“My father Ki Wahyu Pratista, who used to teach in a madrasah (Islamic school) wrote a book on philosophy and also helps as a library volunteer.
“Neighbors liked the idea and started coming in to read and borrow. The interest grew and here we are spending much of our time on the project.”
Once a week he drives the motorbike to six villages and asks what sort of books they want. In one case this has had an astonishing economic impact. (See sidebar)
The 4,000 volume collection is eclectic. There are giant picture books designed for class reading and given by the US-supported Asia Foundation, news magazines donated by journalists, comics from Japan, an encyclopaedia and a wealth of other material.
There’s even a critical analysis of Karl Marx’s writings by Jesuit Franz Magnis-Suseno. This sits alongside biographies of first President Soekarno, his deputy Mohammad Hatta and shelves full of volumes on other national and international famous names.
“I like reading about these people,” said Diva. “One of my heroes is Marie Curie (the Polish / French physicist and first woman to win a Nobel Prize), and Leonardo da Vinci (the 15th century Italian polymath).
“I also enjoy legends and funny stories, but I don’t like comics because there are too may pictures. However my friends want to hear ghost stories, so that’s what I have to read to them.”
Also in the library is a separate room with two computers linked to the Internet and a TV monitor. Rules prohibit watching anything other than documentaries on DVDs.
Adi said he gets frustrated by official attitudes towards reading. He rejects the idea that Indonesians put money for food before books, pointing out the high uptake of costly cellphones, even among the poor.
When Mata Aksara started to expand Adi’s friends thought he was wasting his time and should concentrate on selling cement and loading lumber.
“Only a minority like books, yet these are the key to education and our future,” he said. “They are so important, yet so ignored. Too many think libraries are for the elite but we’re showing they’re for everyone.
“Orde Baru (Soeharto’s New Order administration) stopped the development of reading habits through tight censorship and printing restrictions. Now we have to catch up.
“Free libraries do work in Indonesia – we’ve only lost about 50 books, and what does that matter? If they’re stolen it means they’ re being used. I hope that in the future everyone will be able to have books in their homes.”
Said Diva: “I don’t know what I want to be – it changes every day. Sometimes a doctor, maybe an archaeologist.” Then she went back to her book.
Indonesian literature graduate, film maker, blogger, author and self-confessed impulsive book buyer Lutfi Retno Yahyudyanti, 30, came across Mata Aksara through a radio program about books and her book club. Her day job is communications manager with an NGO concerned with forestry.
To justify her love of books she quotes a verse from the Koran: ‘Read, in the name of your Lord who created.’
“Some parents prohibit their children from reading anything other than text books because they think literature will distract from schooling,” she said.
“I tell my radio listeners that the culture of reading has to start early, but not with serious books.
“When I was young I enjoyed comics, even against my parents’ wishes, but I grew out of them. Now I’ve moved on and read a vast number of topics. I read to learn how the world works.”
Knowledge is profit
The well-paved roads of the Central Java village of Nglebeng Margorejo Tempel are flanked by low stone walls. Without them the dense salak palms, which already arch across the lane, would surely take over like some mutant science fiction plant.
The people wouldn’t be able to flee and the vicious thorns would shred their flesh.
Salak, also known as snake fruit because of its scaly brown husk, has long been grown in villages around Yogyakarta.
When the Mata Aksara mobile library first visited Nglebeng several years ago the community asked for books on plant breeding and organic farming.
According to Adi the village has since stopped using artificial fertilizers in favor of organics and now harvests three times a year instead of two. Growers have also developed a variety called salak madu (honey snake fruit) that sells at a premium.
“All this came about because the people started reading books that gave them information appropriate to their needs,” he said.
##(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 April 2014)