I’m back in Aceh, have been here about two weeks, seeing all the exciting things JMD has been doing since my last visit. I’m trying to make some headway with some donor agency reps as well, since we now have proposals in to both UNIFEM and the Multi Donor fund for projects totaling over $4 million! I have high hopes that we will become a key player in sustainable livelihoods here. Unfortunately, or perhaps what’s sadly fortunate, is that the UNIFEM funding can’t have been offered at a more crucial time in the history of the province. With the increased legislative support of enacting stricter applications of shar’ia (Islamic) law, the Indonesian government stands to negate a many of the great human rights strides it has made over the past several years, most notably with respect to women and their equal treatment/protection under the law. The UNIFEM grant would allow us to assist the government in implementing some of the very good human rights protection laws it has on the books, through a district-wide series of programming revolving around women’s centers that offer training, civic education, high school equivalency, health, nutrition, and pre/post natal assistance, and a voice in their community’s development.
So I’m glad I’m here for many reasons . . . and yet I don’t want to forget all the good things this agency has already done. So in my spare time this trip (ahahahahahaha) I decided to write a series of articles that could turn into something else in the future, describing in detail some of our more challenging and successful programs. The first one I’d like to share concerns a project funded through SERASI/USAID in the sub-district of Simpang Jernnil, in the Aceh Timur District. I think I want to call it The Road to Hope.
The district of Aceh Timur is the poorest in the entire province of Aceh --which is saying a lot. And Sempang Jernnil is the poorest sub district in Aceh Timur. It lies miles and miles from other villages and the only access, taking over 4 hours, is by 4 wheel drive vehicle, hoping it has not rained lately since you will not be able to traverse a 20 meters stretch of the road that one needs to get by before continuing on. Or, you can take a dugout canoe (motorized) for 5 hours up river and 3 hours back down (the current is with you). Either way it is an onerous trip, though it passes though one of the most beautiful areas of the province we have ever seen.
For over 64 years, the government has been saying that it will build a road connecting Langksa (the largest nearby city) to Sempang Jernnil). If such a road did exist then the travel time would be cut to 30 minutes at the outset. So it really opens up an entire new world for people living here. They can attend schools, trade, go out and get jobs and come home at night, etc. The road and our project there are their two symbols of hope. The government has started building it but it is very slow going. JMD had an idea: to video both the progress of our project and the progress of the road. It’ll be a race to the finish, and to see who will be the turtle and who will be the hare.
Our first visit to Sempang Jernnil took place in February, when we were assessing the Rohingya refugee camp. We had been invited by the government to assist with this camp, located in the village of Idi. In talking to the local government officials we were asked if we could help them by trying to encourage NGO’s to come to the District and help them. Not one NGO except for a few local ones had done anything to help the people of this very large district. The infrastructure in Aceh Timur is so bad that it is hard to maneuver around, and administering assistance of any kind is next to impossible. We told the local authorities we would try to raise money for a small project, and asked where in the neighboring vicinity they needed it the most. A few hours later, lo and behold there was the sub-district head coming to see us and telling us how much they needed help in Sempang Jernnil. He wanted us to go there the next day, and we agreed. If only we knew then what we know today! I have photos of that first trip that I’ll post here shortly--
We were lucky to have a four wheel drive vehicle. As I mentioned, Sempang Jernnil lies 5 hours by road from Idi and is totally inaccessible when it is raining or has just rained. Thirty minutes at the most by car if there were a road, but 5 hours in reality, on what could only be called a road if one had a very good imagination.
As we bumped along, Dina, my JMD program manager, and I were really curious as to what we would find. We had been to many isolated places before but this seemed to take the prize. We arrived to find the entire village waiting for us with a big feast. I was the first white person they had ever seen and we were the first non- local NGO who had ever come close to them.
Many of the people who have settled there are not Acehnese but are ethnic minorities like Gayo, transplanted Javanese and many other Indonesian from all over. All families have been there a long time and all are Muslim.
The sub-district of Sempang Jernnil is comprised of 8 villages; the capitol of this sub-district is also called Sempang Jernnil. Two villages are within 15 minutes of the capitol by the river or walking; the farthest lies 2 ½ hours by boat and motor bike. In 2006 a massive flood wiped out most of the houses in Sempang Jernnil and its neighboring villages. In the entire sub-district, 6 villages were destroyed and about 10 people died. The schools, hospitals and most of the homes were destroyed beyond repair. The government gave each family 15 million IRD, but a new house cost more than 30 million so families have been unable to rebuild. A few local NGO’s came to their aid but that was only for emergency relief. Today there is one school, a small clinic, the office of the head of the sub district (but he is only there 3 times a week), the police office, and 26 TNI families. This is very strange because none of us had ever seen TNI living in a village. We couldn’t get a straight answer when we asked what all these Indonesian military families were doing in this far-off place. But to an outsider it all looked very calm and orderly.
The government provides rice to the villages, and most men make their living in illegal logging or fishing so they can buy vegetables and necessities for substance living. It is a harsh example of rural poverty, even for Indonesia.
After lunch we met with the local officials to discuss what we could do. They were in desperate need of agriculture assistance, additional livestock, and technical education as well as basic literacy skills. Nearly everyone in the village is illiterate.
We assured them they we would make our best efforts to find funding for a project there, but we could not promise anything . . .
After returning from our first trip to Sempang Jernnil we decided that we would apply for funding to implement one of our typical projects there, but with a bit of a twist. The community had volunteered 10 hectares ( about 25 acres) of land for our project so we thought that instead of goats we would raise ducks since ducks are cheaper to buy, there is a great need for eggs in Aceh, and the eggs are far easier to transport than milk or goats. We also decided that since we didn’t need to grow feed for goats, we would increase our variety of cash crops and add some vegetables that we didn’t normally grow but which here were part of the local diet.
We submitted our proposal and 8 months later we received an award from USAID/SERASI. were We were so excited we called the local government immediately-- they were even more excited than we were!! We said we would be there shortly and started to plan our trip. At least now we were better prepared, since we knew where we were going and what we were getting into.
Off we went on our next adventure: me, Dina, Sarah, our Associate Director based in Banda, who had not been with us on the first trip, and Mirza our agricultural expert. We were told that this time we had to take the boat since there had been a lot of rain and the road was impassable. We all thought it would be a great experience and that we would see so much more of the landscape that surround Sempang Jernnil. It also would give us a chance to see just how isolated this area really was.
Since I had a bad back and was not sure I could make the 7-9 hours drive to Langska (the biggest city near the water), we flew to from Medan, and from there it was only 3 hours to Langska. So after a good night’s sleep in a nice hotel in Medan, off we went in a rented car. (Our agency car was arriving from Banda later that day). We had some appointments with local government people and in fact had a large meeting with the local heads of the Ministry of Agriculture and Education, some of their staff, and the District Head’s assistant.
The conversation was interesting but totally confusing since they thought we were going to set up a Cow Breeding Center and we kept trying to explain that we might have enough money in the grant for chickens but Cows and breeding centers where not what our grant was about. We must have explained what we wanted to do 100 times but nobody really understood except the representatives from the Ministry of Education, who gave us every assurance that they were behind us 100 per cent. They were very grateful.
During this meeting I made a tiny faux pas—looking back on it it’s kind of funny but it sure was embarrassing at the time. I had been told that the people in Sempang Jirnnel were an ethnic minority whose traditions included the raising and eating of pigs. I was so excited because I thought it would be a great addition to what we already do. I kept asking Dina to ask them about the pigs and she was very reticent about doing it but I insisted. So she took a deep breath, gave me a look, and then asked if there was any chance that we could raise "the forbidden animal." They asked which one that was. She said, swallowing hard, “Pig.” Everyone grew terribly pale and fidgety. Finally someone explained that pigs were absolutely forbidden in Aceh—even there. So much for that idea!! It had its humorous side to it.
When we had finally lost our patience with the Agriculture representatives who kept insisting that cows were on the menu, and finally told them straight out that if they wanted cows or goats or buffalo they should find an NGO that had the money since we did not. We then asked them very nicely if they would prefer if we found another village who wanted to work with us on a duck project. That was suddenly the end of that discussion, and from then on they were very happy with us and expressed pleasure that we had come.
After the meeting we decided to retire to our hotel, which although simple was very clean and had a/c--a must for me. We had just gotten there when the sub-district head showed up, wanting to meet with us. It seemed that there was so much excitement about the grant and our plans that he wanted to talk to us before the next day’s trip. He wanted us to know how much he appreciated our getting the grant and wanted to know what we had planned. We had spent quite a bit of time telling him and explaining it to him, when he told us that he had changed the plan and now the community was putting up 50 hectares (about 123 acres) of land and he wanted the entire village to be the beneficiaries. We tried to explain how hard that would be and that we had very limited funds, but he insisted that that was what he wanted. He did not want any jealousy among the people, he said.
What to do?