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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Turtle time to open minds

Franklin carries distinction.  Two US Presidents were so labeled, Pierce and Roosevelt after the surname of founding father Benjamin.

Also a school-going turtle who ‘could count by twos and tie his shoes’, the star turn in a series of Canadian children’s books and a TV series.

In East Java there’s the multi-talented artist and musician Johannes Aziz Suprianto.  Rings no bells?  Try Aziz Franklin.

“I’ve long liked turtles because they’re independent, inquisitive, always go forward and carry their home,” he said. “So my puppet tells about the importance of developing a sense of curiosity about the world.

“That’s Franklin; on the stage he talks to me and I respond because I’m also Franklin.”

The Malang-based teacher and entertainer is a master of the sapeh or sape, a traditional lute from Kalimantan, which he finds more satisfying than the guitar he played till three years ago.

Along with green Franklin, the unusual flat-bed sapeh captures kids’ attention as the two Franklins subtly urge them to do well, stay the distance and beat down the barriers.

“What will you do when you grow up?” he asks around 50 elementary school children at a home-grown kampong arts festival while parents look on.

As the youngsters are scratching for answers which might suit Mom and Pop, Franklin throws in suggestions:  “Who’s going the be a doctor? Or a scientist?  Hands up those who’ll be teachers.  And who’ll be a pilot?”

The idea is to aim high and not clip the wings of the riverbank littlies where their adult role models are largely day laborers and snack sellers.  Franklin reminds them to open books; in this community some of the far-sighted leaders have set up a small library and reading room.

But without the money for private colleges they’ll still have to rise above the schooling on hand.  Independent research shows that although attendance is up quality is not.

Every three years Indonesia participates in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  The latest report tested 540,000 students from 72 countries. Although there have been some improvements - particularly among girls - Indonesia ranks 62, far behind most of its neighbors, including Vietnam.

Commenting on the findings in the on-line journal The Conversation Dr Arnaldo Pellini at London’s Overseas Development Institute said inequality and school performance remain an issue in Indonesia: 

The percentage of low performers in science among disadvantaged students is among the highest globally.’  Although Indonesia spends 20 per cent of its budget on education it bumps along the bottom ten nations in reading, science and maths. Singapore tops all; educationists say this is because the country invests in teaching.

“We, the people, and not just the parents must work to improve schooling,” said Franklin, 51.  “That means using every means possible and not just sticking to old techniques.

“In the Soeharto era we knew little about world events because information was tightly controlled.  So I had to work it out myself, seeking secret sellers of illegally printed or second-hand books by overseas and local authors.  

“I found writers like Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Muchtar Lubis which were banned.”

After training as a teacher Franklin joined Teater Keliling (wandering theater) founded in 1974 by director Rudolf Puspa to take drama to ordinary people beyond Jakarta.

Performances were licensed and restricted, and scripts checked.  Apart from local works by authors like the late dissenting poet and dramatist Rendra (Willibrordus Surendra Broto Rendra who died in 2009), they also staged the anti-establishment theater of Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco.
“We were followed by Intel (intelligence agents) and questioned about our work,” Franklin said. “We always had to be careful.  It was a frightening, exciting and challenging time, learning parts in buses and trains, a new town every night or so, not knowing how the authorities would react.  

“Now we have freedom. The problems today are fake news and getting youngsters to realize their potential.”   

The theater group toured several countries, including Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Germany and France.

Among the books Franklin scavenged were the fairytales of the 19th century Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen.  The teacher found European yarns also had a place in Indonesia alongside the indigenous fables told by his grandmother to help him sleep “and inspired me to become a storyteller - though my talents come from God.” (He’s a Catholic.)

From this mix plus embellishments has come Franklin’s present repertoire. His skills, drawn from working with the other knockabout creatives in Teater Keliling include ventriloquism, magic, singing - even hypnotism.  

“I’m no longer interested in politics,” he said, though activism lurks in his reasoning: “Indonesia is a rich country, but the citizens are not rich.

“I want to help open their minds. I know what can be done because I’ve been overseas and worked with clever people.  There are many creatives in Malang, but if you want to be famous you have to go elsewhere.  

“Now anything is possible. But each individual has to make the effort themselves.  That’s Franklin’s message - strive to be the best.” The big green turtle smiles and nods vigorously.  So does his creator. The kids laugh and clap. Their spirits have been lifted, and perhaps their futures.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 December 2017)


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