Local writers help combat illiteracy in rural Banten
By Ibnu Adam Aviciena – Inside Indonesia.org
Inspired by Banten’s past reputation as a centre for Islamic learning, a small group of citizens is tackling the high levels of rural illiteracy in this West Java province. They have established an organisation that hosts a library of thousands of books, conducts weekly discussions and runs writing classes. Some of the participants in these classes have written articles, stories and poems that have been published in local and national newspapers. Some have even gone on to write novels and screenplays. Every three months the group also publishes a book of poems, and this year it opened small libraries in a number of villages.
Known as Rumah Dunia (The World Home), this community was founded on 3 October 2002 by the novelist and script writer Gola Gong, his wife Tias Tatanka, poet Toto ST Radik and journalist Rys Revolta. At first it was no more than an empty block of land behind Gola Gong’s house, but bit-by-bit a library, a performance space, a bookshop and other buildings were erected around a central courtyard. Gola Gong donated the first books to the library from his private collection. But as Rumah Dunia became better known, many publishers and individuals have made donations, enabling its collection to grow.
Rumah Dunia is positioned between a middle class and a lower class village. When they started Rumah Dunia, Tias Tatanka and Gola Gong invited children and teenagers from these neighbouring villages to visit the centre and meet the organisers. Most of those who responded to the invitation were from the lower class village: children of labourers, ojek (motorbike taxi) and pedicab drivers and small-scale vendors. When these children were asked to stand up in front of their friends and introduce themselves, many of them cried because they felt so intimidated. Now, through participating in the theatre class, they are accustomed to presenting dramas and even creating their own stories. They often perform outside Rumah Dunia, at book fairs in other parts of Banten.
Gola Gong also asked the painter Indra Kesuma to volunteer at Rumah Dunia. One afternoon a week he comes to the community and teaches dozens of children and teenagers how to paint. Rumah Dunia provides paper, pencils, pens, watercolour paints and any other materials they need.
Their poetry often features stories about their fathers who work as labourers or pedicab drivers, their friendships and their mothers.
Tias Tatanka, who normally writes screenplays for popular Indonesian television programs, teaches the children how to write poetry and short stories. The easiest way of teaching them to write is to encourage them to write poems about their own experiences. Their poetry often features stories about their fathers who work as labourers or pedicab drivers, their friendships and their mothers. Rumah Dunia collates this poetry and in 2004 the collection was independently published in a compilation called Salam dari Rumah Dunia (Greetings from Rumah Dunia).
Gola Gong and Toto ST Radik teach older students from senior high schools and universities once a week. Gola Gong focuses on short stories and novel writing, while Toto ST Radik teaches essay writing and poetry. Rumah Dunia is now running its eleventh writing class. With an average of 20 participants in each three-month intake, to date about 220 students have passed through its doors. Not every student lasts the full three months: some drop out because of work commitments. Firman Venayaksa, Endang Rukmana and this writer are among those who have gone on to write novels. Other participants have had their short stories included in anthologies.
The community also engages with other literary communities and figures. To date it has organised two annual Ode Kampung (Village Ode) or gatherings of writers, and guests, often from outside Banten, are invited to speak every Saturday. The presence of guest writers has engaged Rumah Dunia with wider literary polemics. For example, at the last Ode Kampung meeting in July 2007, the participants made a statement pledging to reject sexual themes in their work. This stance indirectly targeted the Jakarta-based cultural group Komunitas Utan Kayu founded by Goenawan Mohamad. A few months after the agreement was made, Rumah Dunia invited Goenawan Mohamad to speak at the weekly discussion. Some considered his presence at Rumah Dunia to be a violation of their agreement. A week earlier the poet Taufik Ismail, who has also attacked the Utan Kayu position, had been invited as a guest speaker to the weekly discussion. At the time of these visits, a discussion about pornography in literature and freedom of expression raged for weeks in Indonesian newspapers and mailing lists.
On 10 February 2008, the community held a unique poetry reading competition. The participants were all wong cilik (‘small people’) – the ordinary poor people of the district. Hundreds of adults and teenagers attended, and about 30 participants from throughout Banten took part in the competition. They included angkot (mini-bus) and pedicab drivers, labourers and mobile food vendors. One angkot driver, Udin, explained that he had written hundreds of poems while waiting for passengers. Some of the poems talked about the particpants’ work, while others condemned corruption in the government and social issues.
The following poem was written by Sofyan an ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver from Kampung Ciloang, Serang.
Bencana terjadi dimana-mana
karna kita semena-mena
Hutan gundul tak berguna
karna pembalak terus bekerja
Longsor datang melanda
Banjir datang mendera
Rakyat kecil yang menderita
orang besar yang tertawa
Hanya tuhan yang maha kuasa
yang maha mengendalikan semesta
marilah kita tobat padanya
Agar terhindar dari segala petaka
Disasters are happening everywhere
Because we act without thinking
The forests are bare, and useless
Because the loggers are unstoppable
Landslides strike and ravish
Floods strike and punish
The weak suffer
The powerful laugh
Only God is the almighty power
He who controls the entire universe
Let us return to his laws
So we’re protected from all misfortunes
I was a member of the first class of 30 students to attend Rumah Dunia. Before we learnt how to write articles and short stories, we had to draft letters to local newspapers in response to local issues such as damaged school buildings, roads and high school fees. Almost every day one of our letters to the editor was published and Gola Gong said that it was a good way of introducing ourselves to editors and to the people. The first publication by the writing class was Kacamata Sidik (Sidik’s Spectacles), an anthology of short stories published in early 2005.
Soon I was working as manager of the group’s activities, living in the centre and writing an article every week for the local press. When I told Gola Gong I wanted to learn to write screenplays, he said that he would teach me after I had watched enough films. He allowed me to watch every film in his collection.
Needless to say, all classes in Rumah Dunia are free. This is a strong principle underlying the organisation. All student participants are required to donate a book to the Rumah Dunia library, but the programs themselves are all funded through donations from friends of the founders or from individuals who share their goals.
In the initial years, Gola Gong used his own funds to run the organisation and was also supported by his parents, brothers and sisters. Since the establishment of Rumah Dunia as a foundation, the local newspaper, Radar Banten, has been donating Rp 200,000 (approximately 30 Australian dollars) every month. Rumah Dunia volunteers whose writing is published by the mass media donate a percentage of their earnings. When a book of short stories by the participants of the writing class is published, Rumah Dunia asks that 50 percent of the royalties be donated to the organisation.
Between 2002 and 2007, Radar Banten also provided a weekly column for the article Salam dari Rumah Dunia, for which they paid Rp50,000. When this agreement ended in late 2007 it was continued by another local newspaper, Banten Raya Post.
The community also promotes accountability through the website http://www.rumahdunia.net , which reports on Rumah Dunia activities, including details of their current financial position.
A Better Banten
Rumah Dunia is now six years old. Although the founders and volunteers are satisfied with their achievements, they wish they had more funding sources to run their programs. One of their most recent initiatives is a program called ‘3/3’, whereby every three months three Bantenese writers are invited to submit poems for publication. The writers are then invited to Rumah Dunia to read their works and facilitate a discussion.
This year Rumah Dunia aims to establish small libraries in villages throughout Banten. The organisation also wants to expand the number of communities with access to books, and has already lent books to communities in Pandeglang, Bumi Agung Permai-Serang and Cilegon. Circulating the books among its own small libraries is a good way of adding to the quality and variety of books available.
Regardless of the funding situation, Rumah Dunia’s programs will continue. Although the government of Banten keeps delaying plans to establish a provincial library, the founders still hope they can create a better Banten. ii
Ibnu Adam Aviciena (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a volunteer at Rumah Dunia and a student at Leiden University, the Netherlands.