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Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

Chapter 2

Ways of Knowing Indonesia

The Personal Journey of an Academic and Activist

Lea Jellinek

For the past 40 years, Indonesia has played a central role in my professional and personal life. In 1969, I caught a cargo ship from Brisbane to Jakarta and island hopped from Java to Timor. I travelled by bus, train, boat, car, horse-cart, bicycle and on foot. My adventures continue to this day as I hunger for greater understanding of a culture that is geographically and emotionally close to me and yet very different from my own.

Indonesia still surprises and evades me, and its magic and charm keeps me coming back for more. In coming to know Indonesia, it is through relationships and personal involvement that I have learned the most. I believe there can be a productive synergy between the detachment of the academic and the committed involvement of the activist. In this chapter I look at my years as student, volunteer, consultant and action researcher, and how these experiences shaped my ways of knowing Indonesia.

Early experiences

As an undergraduate at Monash University in the 1970s, I was introduced by Herb Feith to the study of Indonesia. His influence on my life path was profound. Feith’s passion, enthusiasm and personalised approach encouraged me to push beyond what I found to be an otherwise mostly uninspiring university experience.

I love books, but as an undergraduate student at times I felt overwhelmed. There was so much to read and so little of what I read related to what I was trying to understand – ordinary peoples’ lives, the context within which these people lived and the daily challenges they faced. I remember the sense that the masses of books, piled high on the towering shelves, could fall down upon me. Maybe it was my rural upbringing and intensely social primary education at a two-room, one-teacher school, or my background as a child of Czech non-English-speaking migrants and my frustratingly slow reading. At any rate, the elements that had intrigued me about Jakarta and the villages of Java were not reflected in the literature.

The literature as it was in the early 1970s described Indonesian culture, history, geography, politics and economics, but rarely gave detailed integrated pictures of the lives of the urban and rural poor – the majority of the Indonesian population and the people I was most interested in. I was keenly motivated, and so I wondered why the library material did not resonate. In hindsight, the answer is probably that the experiences of the poor do not lend themselves to being recorded in the academic literature. The poor mainly have oral traditions, rarely leaving written records or letters. Their bamboo houses are flimsy and don’t make it into the archaeological record. Scholars are understandably reluctant to venture into these untidy, often toxic communities where research is time consuming and difficult. Since the mid-1980s, more researchers ventured into the field to record the lives of the urban poor, but to this day it remains a marginal and difficult area of study.

At the end of my undergraduate studies in 1971, Feith encouraged me to go to Indonesia as a volunteer and provided me with the opportunity to teach sociology and political science at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. There I found academics and students to be remote, theoretical, statistically oriented with vocabularies full of big and abstract words, and closed in their willingness to learn from and communicate with uneducated people. More rewarding were my personal explorations of Jakarta. I found myself welcomed into the city centre or kampung of Kebun Kacang, where I began listening to people and the stories of their lives, their histories and their concerns. This proved to be a life-changing experience.

As a graduate student in the mid-1970s I returned to Jakarta with a desire to understand poverty. I had read the literature on urbanisation, migration to cities, social networks, housing in shanty towns, informal sector employment, the impact of politics and big business on the poor, growing inequality and politicisation and rebellion. I had found insights into the predicaments that faced Jakartans in unlikely places. Booth (1902), Mayhew (1861) and Stedman Jones (1971) writing about nineteenth century London shed light on the lives of migrants and peddlers in the kampung I was studying in Jakarta. Some of the writing that inspired me included Oscar Lewis’s portraits of the poor from Latin America (1961; 1966; 1976) and the importance of community networks (Lomnitz 1977); Terry McGee (1969; 1977) on Asian cities and the informal sector, and Clifford Geertz (1963a; 1963b) on Javanese peddlers and his description of the elaborate sharing systems in Javanese wet rice cultivation. I wondered which of these areas was the most important for understanding poverty, and which would provide a framework and discipline for my study.

It was not clear which department or discipline at university I should work within. My study and my interests were not confined within any of the singular disciplines of history, geography, politics, anthropology, economics or sociology. My interests lay across all of these – what we now term ‘area studies’ – but interdisciplinary studies were not common in Australian universities in the 1970s and 1980s, a period when Australian academia suffered from a ‘hardening of the categories’.

Observing one community in depth over an extended period of time was not something that many academics were able to do. Pressures of limited time and finances meant most doctoral candidates completed their research in one session of fieldwork, producing a snapshot in time. I was finding that my observations varied greatly from one visit to the next. I wanted to put all these snapshots together to get a meaningful picture of change. Inspired by Oscar Lewis and his longitudinal studies of families in Mexico and Puerto Rico, I decided that I wanted to study one community over time through the lenses of many disciplines.

Studying over time: the urban kampung, Kebun Kacang

Over a period of 10 years, I collected many case studies of individuals and families in Kebun Kacang – a community the affluent world called an ‘urban slum’ (Jellinek 1991) – in what is now central Jakarta. To me it was a lively and even attractive, dense village. I had been welcomed into the kampung by Ibu Bud, a petty trader who invited me to share her life. I lived in her household of three wives and one husband. This type of extended family was not atypical among the Indonesian urban and rural poor. The arrangement had its own logic and benefits, with Ibu Bud receiving considerable support from the other wives (Jellinek 1977; 1988).1

People in the kampung were essentially rural villagers living in the city. Every third house had some type of cottage industry or trade employing family members or others who had come from their home village to the city. One relative invited another to the town and they lived together in communal lodging houses or settled nearby and supported one another helping with work and shelter (Jellinek 1978). The kampung was a mosaic of kinship clusters and village ties.

Instead of the widespread poverty I had expected, I found many people earning more than they ever had before, and certainly more than they would have earned in their rural villages. Many sent substantial sums back to rebuild houses and educate children. In the city, they progressively rebuilt their shanty houses into more substantial dwellings. Over time, they began to be able to afford consumer goods. Soon televisions, motorcycles and even cars began to appear in the kampung.

Growing prosperity brought about increased jealousy and individualism. Those who had acquired more wanted to keep their wealth for themselves and found it difficult to do so within the traditional Indonesian culture of sharing (bagi bagi rejeki) and togetherness (rukun). Within 10 years, a growing gap appeared between those who had accumulated wealth and those who had less. As the disparity increased, the more affluent became increasingly reluctant to share or loan money to neighbours or kinfolk. They wanted more privacy and distance from their neighbours. Some began to build houses of brick rather than the standard bamboo. Increasingly, physical barriers separated people. The evolving architecture of the kampung mirrored the social and psychological changes that were taking place.

By the late 1970s, political and economic forces began to destroy the way of life of central city kampung dwellers. The informal sector livelihoods that had been so important were in decline. Traders were being pushed off the footpaths as roads were widened and traffic increased. Kampung dwellings were standing in the way of planned multi-storey office blocks, hotels, embassies, malls and supermarkets. In the eyes of Indonesian politicians and decision-makers, kampung were an embarrassing anachronism to be eliminated as the modern city developed. The new city of Jakarta was being created in the mould of modern cities around the world and the kampung were to be pushed aside.

Rapid change over time was a major theme. In the 1930s Kebun Kacang was a garden of peanuts and spinach (the literal translation is garden of peanuts) with fewer than 10 houses. Between the 1950s and 1970s, many jobs emerged in construction, cottage industries and petty trade. In the early 1970s, during the oil boom in the Indonesian economy, kampung dwellers also experienced an economic boom and were able to earn good incomes and build homes. Ten years later, as the modern economy encroached, government and business pushed for the elimination of the kampung. From the 1990s, thousands of kampung were demolished and replaced by multi-storey commercial developments. Homes, communities, and livelihoods were lost. In many parts of central Jakarta, urban kampung living became a thing of the past.

Kebun Kacang was demolished in 1981 and replaced by multi-storey flats, which provided housing for only 21 per cent of the original inhabitants. Most of the remainder moved to other kampung on Jakarta’s periphery. The now inner-city flats were surrounded by tall buildings, highways, malls, offices and traffic jams. The qualities of Indonesian peasant culture that had so attracted me in the 1970s – the harmony, togetherness and communalism – were disappearing. In a rapidly urbanising environment, they were transforming into the previously alien values of individualism and capital accumulation.

By intensive study of the Kebun Kacang kampung in a multidisciplinary and holistic way over more than 10 years, I was able to identify some of the major trends affecting many poor urban communities. I know I would not have been able to understand the poor of Kebun Kacang through the lens of a single discipline or by focusing upon any one aspect of their lives or at one point in time. I needed to understand their families, household and neighbourhood relationships, the community in which they lived, their aspirations and basic needs as well as the social, economic and political factors that impinged upon them from the outside world. The life patterns observed in Kebun Kacang during the 1970s and 1980s repeated themselves again and again in many kampung in Jakarta and other major cities of Indonesia as well as in other parts of the post-colonial developing world.

Qualitative and quantitative research

I have learned that many Indonesians dislike formal questionnaires and surveys because they evoke the language of distrusted officialdom. At first I went about trying to document everything and collect data from every household. But when I sensed their discomfort, even shock, I stopped this approach. Formal interviewing techniques were treated with suspicion and respondents answered in a way they thought the interviewer wanted. In trying to please, they gave misleading answers. People from the villages responded better to questions asked in a natural way in the course of everyday life: preparing food, eating, walking, or trading in the market. Effective interviews had to be ‘open-ended’ discussions without too many direct questions. In order to understand what was important in people’s lives, I found it more effective to let them direct the conversation. If I directed the discussion, then I was determining priorities that may not have been their own. Although this may seem inefficient, it was when people went ‘off the track’ that the richest insights were gained. To me this is a key to qualitative research.

Qualitative research explores the subtleties and complexities of people’s lives, their interactions with others, their thoughts and behaviours. It is often considered inferior to quantitative research, which focuses on simpler factors that are more easily measured by means of formal questionnaires, simple yes/no answers and the collection and analysis of statistics. The two methods of research are complementary. Qualitative research provides an in-depth picture of people’s lives and helps to determine which questions are appropriate. Quantitative research deals with variables that can be precisely measured, but results in a more general picture of how many people fall into a particular category.

A problem with quantitative research is that it is often done in isolation of qualitative research, with questions being asked of informants that are of no or marginal relevance, resulting in unhelpful data. I argue that qualitative research (getting to know you) should precede quantitative research (getting to know how many there are of you) if the latter is to be useful. Case studies provided by qualitative research can stand alone because they provide a colourful picture that can be verified to be more general or not by follow-up surveys.

In 2000, I came across the concept of action research (Greenwood and Levin 1998) and it was exciting to discover an approach to research that came naturally to me. My way of understanding Indonesia was to go to the field, observe and respond, and over time think deeply about my experience. Then, I sought literature and information that resonated with my experience. I started with an experience that moved me and drew me to where I wanted to focus. This is far more attractive to me than reading, hypothesising and then going to the field with questionnaires to collect data.

I believe field experience should be a substantial part of undergraduate study at the earliest stages. Experience is a powerful motivator for learning. Reading, writing and manipulating symbols can become a refuge from the untidy storms of real life. It is not enough to be immersed in symbolic representations of reality, as I fear too many academics are. We must encourage our students and ourselves to take time out from computers, libraries and classrooms in order to experience – not just read about – the wider human condition and the environment of the planet.

Self, personality and research

I have discovered that oral history comes naturally to me. I enjoy talking to people and delving into their lives. I am endlessly curious and intrigued by their stories. I like to be surprised by their secrets. I like to use my senses and feelings to try to understand their world. The scholarly term used for this is ‘embodied research’.

Some people find my prying and prodding annoying, but there are many who welcome my interest and attention. Very early on, I was taken by the openness and tolerance of Indonesians who were keen to embrace me as a family member. By the age of 20, I had been ‘adopted’ by Indonesian families both rich and poor. This gave me a perfect vantage point for listening to and observing family members and feeling the texture of daily life.

In the past, I have preferred to move instead of sit still, talk instead of listen. I tend to be an explorer who jumps into situations and blurts out an idea rather than carefully thinking about it. I often process my ideas by expressing them in interaction with others rather than sitting alone and reflecting. I learn best through direct experience and interaction with others. The most well thought out research methodologies may miss the point that the enthusiasm you bring to your research and your personality are possibly the most important factors in qualitative data collection.

If we think about the self as an instrument of research, then we can also think about how unknown cultures become known through comparison with one’s own. In trying to come to understand the mysteries of the Javanese, I have spent much time thinking about myself and my own culture. My understanding of the Javanese has been generated by finding points of similarity and difference.

In significant ways I resonate with my subjects’ culture – the warmth and welcoming openness of the ‘little people’ living in extended families at close proximity with each other, is similar to what I experienced as a child. My mother’s sister and her husband (my father’s brother) lived with us and were an extra set of parents for me. Along with grandma and my siblings and cousins (who felt like siblings) we structurally resembled the extended families I came to know in the kampung of Jakarta. And, like Indonesians who have guests constantly dropping in, we had hordes of Jewish Czech-speaking visitors who arrived for coffee and cakes each weekend. In this sense, I felt at home in Indonesia.

In terms of personality, I could not imagine more difference than that between myself and my Javanese friends. Where I have been hurried, they have been endlessly patient. Where I have asked too many questions, they have refused to probe for such a style is felt to be rude and offensive. Where I have been (from their perspective) coarse and crude, they have been supremely polite. Where I have been an extrovert, they have been shy. Where I am somewhat oblivious to boundaries and propriety, they are highly sensitive. Where I like to debate every issue and idea, they may be offended by too much candour and discussion. Where I have a thick skin and am not easily hurt, their faces fall with the slightest offence. Where I am transparent and open, their thoughts and feelings are often hidden. Interestingly, while a Javanese would be considered offensive if they addressed someone with excessive candour and directness, I am tolerated because I am an outsider.

The ethics of consulting

After earning my PhD I was lured into the glamorous world of consulting for large international aid agencies, for example, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and AusAid. I had many assignments with these prestigious organisations, and I enjoyed the pay and the status. In the early days, I believed that my work would benefit the ‘little people’, but I gradually came to feel that this was not the case. Ensconced in luxury hotels, I dipped in and out of the world of the poor as I benefited from high fees and generous expense accounts. The people we were supposed to be helping – what did they get? Too often it was only promises and rhetoric. Aid organisations often did not deliver what I had hoped for or recommended.

As an anthropological consultant, the time I would spend on any one project was usually brief – up to three months. Often anthropologists were brought in late, to look at the impacts of a project in progress. The anthropologist was needed to officially assure the donor organisations that there would be no negative social impacts, in other words to rubber stamp their projects.

I encountered numerous problems with aid projects. The team leader of most aid projects was usually an engineer or an economist, often without local knowledge or language capacity. Plans and targets were frequently designed by engineering firms in offices far away (sometimes in Western countries). During the planning, feasibility and implementation phases of a program, different firms took up different parts of the project and there was little communication between them. Agencies within the Indonesian government wanted to control a project and refused to work or cooperate with other government agencies because they wanted to monopolise donor funds. Donations intended to benefit the poor were often largely absorbed by consultants, advisers and government officials, many of whom had little contact or understanding of the people they were supposed to be helping.

Projects were often developed by specialists who did not have an integrated understanding of how the different program parts (housing, health, education, water supply, income generation) fitted together in village life. For example, in Aceh after the Boxing Day 2006 tsunami, many houses were designed, built and located without consideration for livelihood needs, space for cottage industries, livestock, trade, or vegetable growing. The specialists (architects) in the housing section typically did not communicate with income-generation specialists, who were brought in only as an afterthought.

I saw my job as going into the field and collecting as much information as possible about the communities and their needs and demonstrating how the proposed project would or would not satisfy these needs. Most aid agencies, however, did not want to go into such detail. They were often focused on technologies and constructions that were highly visible, quick to implement and objectively measurable.

In emergency situations, pulling people out of harm’s way, treating the injured and building temporary shelters is important. This crisis phase is usually followed several months later by a community development phase. Aid agencies often don’t know how to elicit information from aid recipients about their needs and wishes. The task of reconstructing people’s lives and communities involves many more options and choices, and is much more challenging and time consuming than the first immediate task of saving lives.

The big aid organisations did not seem to appreciate my ‘ways of knowing’ Indonesia. They spoke the language of statistics, spreadsheets, logframes and objective indictors that had less meaning to me. I was told that my research had low reliability because it provided knowledge of only one community or was based on detailed interviews with individual people. These critics do not appreciate that in-depth case studies of people and communities over time often shed light on widespread trends occurring in many communities, not just the one being observed. One community is often a microcosm capable of revealing what is happening in many.

I came to believe that pursuing the life of a development consultant was unethical. The knowledge that had been given to me by kampung people was building my career, providing me with prestige and improving my bank balance. It is true that particular friends from among the poor with whom I maintained lifelong relationships benefited from my assistance with housing, education and medical attention. But I worried that most of the urban and rural villagers were benefiting little. Even the thought that I had empowered them to better understand their world and their governance could not compensate for the gross inequality of our lives. I had become relatively rich and famous through knowing them, but for most, their lives changed little, and this troubled me.

From academic to activist

My desire to improve the lot of Jakarta’s urban poor ultimately led me away from academia to activism. My first taste of this came at the conclusion of my work in Kebun Kacang in 1981, when I contacted government ministers in the Department of Housing and encouraged them to try to understand the nature of life in Jakarta’s kampung. From the fortunate position of being able to move easily between the kampung poor and the governing elite, I was able to encourage and facilitate kampung dwellers’ demands for more generous compensation for their housing and land.

In the late 1990s, I helped start a micro-credit program, the ‘Women’s Barefoot Bank’ in Jakarta (Jellinek 2001). I also facilitated the creation of a non-government organisation (NGO) composed of social workers that conducted research among kampung dwellers during the Asian economic crisis of 1997–99. By working with young committed Indonesian social workers, I gained insights into the joys and pitfalls of setting up an NGO, especially around issues of funding transparency and accountability (Jellinek 2005).

Our research highlighted the critical role played by social networks and the informal sector that enable the poor to survive economic downturns (Jellinek et al. 2002). While better-off people relied on cash for their survival, the poor turned to friends, neighbours and relatives to help them survive the economic downturn. They pooled their resources – time and labour – and worked together sharing outputs. While big companies went bankrupt and the middle classes lost their jobs, the poor continued to work in informal sector jobs such as small trade, small-scale building, cottage industry, becak driving or scavenging. Ironically, prosperous times may lead to the breakdown of the social fabric that enables the poor to survive times of difficulty.

Sukunan: a model for village waste management

In 2003, my partner Ed Kiefer and I were living in Yogyakarta, Central Java while employed as the resident directors of the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) supervising Australian university students studying Indonesian language and culture. The noise from traffic and the mosque coming from outside our home was often so loud that inside the house we could not hear our conversation. We were often awakened in the midst of a night’s sleep by the roar of motorcycles. The blades of a newly installed white ceiling fan in our bedroom grew a black moustache within a week. Walking along a river gorge in the city, we found ourselves dodging rubbish dumped from the banks above. Crossing roads on foot was dangerous. We were unable to find any place to get away to anything approximating unspoiled nature, or even away from the sound of traffic and the smell of burning rubbish.

At home in Australia, my partner Ed lived in a healthy rural environment with a composting toilet, stand-alone solar electricity and solar hot water and grew much of what he needed. He felt that my urban poverty focus in Indonesia was a losing battle because urban environments were so severely polluted and the crowded urban poor had little time to think of anything beyond daily survival. He argued that I could be more helpful working with people in less despoiled rural environments and trying to help preserve and protect them. Ed believes in healthy living with regular exercise, a good diet and environmental responsibility. At our home in Yogya, he separated our household waste for recycling, and food waste was composted for use in the garden and potted plants.

We met Iswanto at a student gathering at Gajah Mada University. He lived in the nearby rural village of Sukunan, where farmers were concerned about the plastic waste accumulating in their rice fields and interfering with their crops. Iswanto visited our home and observed our meticulous waste separating, recycling and composting. Iswanto decided he would try some of Ed’s methods in his own home. So the program began.

Iswanto had been burning his waste in a drum outside his home before he saw Ed’s careful management of waste. Sukunan is located just outside the city limits of Yogyakarta and had no government waste collection system. Most of its inhabitants buried, burned or dumped their waste along the pathways, on vacant land or in the river. Iswanto told us that the Polytech of Health where he had studied and where he now taught advocated the burning or burying of plastic waste. He was unaware that burning plastic produced toxic gases, and surprised when our advice was confirmed on the internet.

Iswanto was well connected within its leadership group, even though he was not a native of the village. Together with Iswanto, these leaders came to the view that waste management was a major priority. He personally adopted techniques of waste separating, recycling and composting and introduced these ideas to his night watch team – a group of neighbourhood men who guarded their hamlet at night. This team included Sukunan’s headman and other leaders.

At a village meeting, most attending agreed that they needed better waste management. The main concepts of waste management were subsequently introduced to each of the six hamlets by headmen, women’s groups and youth leaders. Many methods were used to encourage people to participate. A competition was held among young people to paint colourful recycling drums. Children ran races carrying different types of waste to be placed in the correct drum. Parents cheered on the sidelines. Women formed a choir to sing about caring for their village and the importance of cleanliness. Important guests from newspapers and universities were invited to view and write about these activities.

The program evolved organically, step by step, as we came up with new ideas. Unlike big aid programs, there wasn’t a master plan, a clear target or a budget that had to be spent at a certain time. We hoped that people would adopt better waste management ideas and practices. At first we relied on local headmen and women’s groups to convey these ideas, but soon realised that without practical demonstrations door-to-door and face-to-face, poor uneducated people had difficulty understanding what was expected of them. At the same time as we were getting this realisation, Sukunan was becoming famous as the one village in Indonesia doing household separation and recycling of waste.

Within two years, Sukunan had received over 5000 visitors from governments, universities, NGOs and other villages to learn about waste separation, recycling, handicraft and compost making (Bambang 2004; Jakab 2006; Webb 2007). The outside world admired Sukunan but insiders faced many challenges. Few people wanted or were able to work as motivators in the community. The burden fell to a few active individuals who were overworked and could not serve as volunteers for long. They needed financial support to feed themselves and their families. When we tried to pay them, the rest of the community objected because of the tradition of not paying locals for working to improve their own community welfare.

The challenges

Women were expected to do most of the household waste separation but did not fully understand the program. They were left out of the decision-making, which was largely done at men’s meetings. However, decisions the men made were not passed on to the women even though the women’s groups (PKK and Dasawisma) were said to be critical channels for communicating to most of the community. Once the separated waste had been pooled and sold, most women did not know what was done with the money. The village headmen decided how it was spent.

Young people did not know how to communicate. They would gather in youth meetings to discuss the program and remained silent throughout. A tradition of discussion and debate did not exist. Young people feared saying something wrong when talking to the elders. Sungkan, a strong sense of shyness, malu (embarrassment) and isin (reluctance) inhibited young people from taking an active role in the program. Only a few emerged, and all of the burden fell on their shoulders. When we gave them a wage, there was resentful gossip in the community.

Guests flooded into Sukunan. Iswanto, the main figurehead and only person who knew how to speak to the public, was overworked. He was supposed to be teaching students at the Polytech of Health and caring for his young family, but found little time for either. In 2006, we invited him to visit Australia for three months for further training in waste management and environmental issues. This gave Iswanto many new ideas but again took him away from Sukunan, his family, and his job at the Polytech where he was much needed. Iswanto had become well known as the pioneer of the Sukunan program and he was struggling to cope with fame and the new demands on his time and energies.

Iswanto returned to Sukunan in May 2006 10 days before the Bantul earthquake. Sukunan was not far from the epicentre, and 90 of its 250 houses were damaged. The focus of the community and the leaders of the waste management program shifted to coping with the disaster and then to rebuilding homes. Initially there was harmony, but when money from government and aid agencies came up for grabs, togetherness turned to competition, jealousy and hate. The team leaders were dismayed and exhausted by this ugliness and soon burned out. Yet visitors continued to come and wanted lessons about waste management and handicraft making.


Sukunan experienced stagnation between 2007 and 2009, overwhelmed by the challenges of recovering from the earthquake, finding good leaders, learning communication skills, and involving women and young people. Changing patterns of thought and behaviour seemed beyond reach. We held interactive meetings to help people reorient and decide on new or different plans and priorities for their village. Many questions came to mind. Had we failed to help the community to formulate a vision or make a community development plan? Perhaps the original program had been too top-down or monopolised by a small group of leading men in one corner of the village? Perhaps the program had lacked transparency and proper accounting? Perhaps we needed to focus more on women, children, farmers and/or youth?

Although lacking energy to carry on, the original leaders were not willing to let go of their status and control. They said they wanted others – young people and women – to be involved, but when we tried to facilitate educational and motivational meetings the old guard objected, claiming we had no right to intrude, as we were outsiders. This was very disheartening, and for a time I thought our program had failed.

I turned to others for help and advice. I had invited a young woman from Jakarta – Wati – to become involved with educating women and children. She struggled for two years against great resistance. I also turned to leading NGO figures in Yogyakarta to ask them what to do. They advised that the Sukunan program was experiencing a normal plateau after four to five years of functioning well. Few programs, they suggested survived to this point. They also pointed out that Sukunan’s early excessive fame contributed to this stagnation. The people who started the program had become celebrities prematurely. Some were too proud of their achievements and were not open to new ideas and suggestions.


In frustration, we encouraged the groups that felt excluded to experiment in new directions. Two young men, Muji and Hari, gave women in one neigbourhood of Sukunan intensive door-to-door training in household waste management. Wati set up classes for the children of Sukunan, introducing them to games, songs, theatre, English language and environmental ideas. She also invited mothers to attend cooking, sewing and English language lessons. We funded travel to Bali for nine leading farmers to learn about biogas production, worm farming, compost making and organic farming.

To my surprise, by 2010 things started to change. A new generation of women and young people began to become increasingly involved. Muji’s efforts in extending waste management skills door-to-door in one neighbourhood paid off three years later. Under the leadership of an educated woman, Ibu Rini, 45 women in that neighbourhood cooperated together to make and sell compost. They were the talk and envy of most people in Sukunan who admired how the women worked together each week, raised money from the sale of their compost and were able to go on bus trips to the beach or other interesting places each year.

Guests continued to arrive to see the famous village of Sukunan. It seemed as if there was no other village in Indonesia doing waste management. Although practice of in-house separating of waste was not perfect in Sukunan, government officials, academics, NGOs, women’s groups, students and villagers continued to visit. By 2011, an estimated 20,000 people had visited Sukunan. It was not unusual to see four large buses lined up with crowds of visitors walking in groups around the village. The guests brought in money and fame, and distracted Sukunan from the many serious unresolved problems of effective village-wide waste management. We tried to challenge the old guard to spread the program beyond the village centre, and to train the young to become better environmental educators and practitioners.

In 2011, Sulung became the new village headman. He had been the young man in charge of Sukunan’s workshop that had made drums and composters from 2004 to 2010. Wati, the Jakartan woman brought in to help educate women and children married Hari, who was invited by the Ministry of Environment to extend ideas from Sukunan’s waste management program to many parts of Indonesia. Hari and Wati jointly became hamlet leaders. A new generation was emerging, although the former pioneers continued to play a critical role.

Muji, the former undervalued youth leader and door-to-door teacher in Sukunan, became a teacher of waste management to institutions such as Gajah Mada University and the Yap Eye Hospital. Iswanto continued to travel the length and breadth of Indonesia for the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Marine Affairs to promote a broad range of environmental management ideas. He no longer played a dominant role in the Sukunan program, letting others take the lead.


Most impressive of all were other villages that were implementing environmental programs inspired by the Sukunan model. In 2011, I visited several villages around Bantul, all of which openly acknowledged that their waste management ideas came from Sukunan. They had visited Sukunan some time between 2005 and 2009 and invited members of Sukunan, often Iswanto, Hari or Muji, to come to their communities and present their ideas.

Jumali, the head of Salakan village admitted that he had stumbled across Sukunan’s colourful rubbish bins while mulling over what to do with the problem of waste in his village (Jellinek 2011b). This fortuitous event had meant that his village, which had been severely damaged by the earthquake of 2006, was able to help rebuild itself by collecting, separating and selling waste, making compost, growing and selling seedlings, and planting and selling organic chillis and eggplants. The women of Salakan also made handicrafts á la Sukunan (Jellinek 2011a). Similar stories emerged from many other villages I visited. Each had learned from Sukunan and then went on to adapt the program to its own needs. One of the highlights was the evolution of a waste bank and waste cooperative modelled on Sukunan. These were introduced to the refugee settlements of the volcano victims of Mount Merapi (Jellinek 2011d; 2011e).

In September 2011, a Waste Bank Congress sponsored by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment was held in Yogyakarta to which newly established waste banks throughout Indonesia were invited to share their challenges and experiences (Jellinek 2011c). Prior to this, the regency governments of Yogyakarta and Bantul had been promoting the spread of waste management to other villages. They are providing facilities such as waste bins, motorcycles for collecting waste, composting equipment and waste storage facilities. The Yogyakarta government had placed billboards near the city centre requesting citizens to be responsible with their waste. The city slogan was changed to ‘A civilized person separates their waste and puts it in its place’ (Orang beradab memilah dan menaruh sampah pada tempatnja).

The program we had started went well beyond our expectations. It moved from one village to 150 other villages (each of these villages have on average from 1000 to 2000 people). The program moved from a poor village where most people were uneducated and worked as farmers and labourers to one of the most prestigious universities and eye hospitals in Indonesia.


Concern and sadness about the great damage brought by modernisation to Indonesia has meant that I cannot simply observe and document. I feel that I should play an active role. The transformation of Java from rural tranquillity to urban chaos between 1970 and 2000 encouraged me to turn towards ecology and psychology – disciplines I had not even considered in the 1970s. I believe many Indonesians are not coping well with the rapidity of change and the loss of their culture and environment. I want to understand what motivates people to change their behaviour. How can people who are focused on income earning be motivated to develop a broader sense of wellbeing, which includes caring for the quality of their own lives and their environment?

I became disillusioned with the formality and impersonal nature of the institutions of aid and academia. I believe that we need to create a good model working with poor people who are prepared to do the hard, time consuming, often dirty and meticulous work. These ‘little people’, not the politicians or academics or aid agencies, provide the motor for progress. But the ‘little people’ need the assistance and advice of students, academics, NGOs, entrepreneurs and politicians.

We need knowledgeable and talented outsiders who are prepared to go and live in community and spend their time, money and effort sharing their ideas with local people. In Sukunan, it has taken at least eight years for villagers who lacked knowledge, confidence and the ability to communicate to successfully run the program. It takes a combination of top-down and bottom-up processes to get a program working in the field.

The main lesson I learned from Sukunan is that one has to be patient. We cannot predict where a program will go or how long it will take. Change can be imperceptibly slow but it does happen. We need people to try things out, make mistakes and then try again. Failures will occur and we need to learn from these. All we can do is open doors and create opportunities and encourage people to take up new practices. We need to share networks, contacts and information as widely as possible. We need financial support and careful monitoring of funds. We should not insist that funds be spent quickly or according to a timetable. Success may bring its own pitfalls: swollen heads or competition for acclaim. We need to forgive and move on. When others copy us and even become better than us, it is the biggest honour. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

My way of knowing Indonesia has been to identify a place, get to know its people, find out about their past and identify their key problems. My aim has been to understand and then facilitate new possibilities for better and more fulfilling lives. This has given rise to active involvement and commitment to change. From interaction with the world I have gained my major insights.


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1  Herb Feith supported my activities in Kebun Kacang. Every so often, an envelope of cash would appear for me to distribute to those most in need. I knew Herb had sent it. His heart and mine went out to the orang kecil, who were, at that time, often accused of being communists.

Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

   by Jemma Purdey