Updated: Aug 8, 2019
Originally written for jakemahal.com
In a break from summer tradition, summer 2017 saw us end up in Indonesia. We had initially planned to be in the Philippines, but the attack on Marawi city meant that safety concerns and insurance policies prevented heading back to Cagayan de Oro. However this led to a great opportunity.
The KKi director for Asia suggested that we head to work alongside a couple in Java running a children's home but also pioneering some work on the island of Sumba, a mainly rural and somewhat impoverished island. Strangely both Frey and I had connections with the couple but hadn't joined the dot's immediately. I had worked with Novi on a biogas installation in northern Philippines and Sheryl is the sister of one of Frey's best mates - bizarre!
Our team was comprised mainly of older teens and young adults alongside us as a family and James & Ben who I've worked with in various ways over the years.
Our work was divided into two areas. Helping with some practical jobs at the children's home & getting to know the community in Laillungi (pronounced Lai-nyar-nyar) and looking at how we could come alongside them.
Children's Home - Drainage
It was great to get an insight into the work of Sheryl and Novi, how they have loved not only children with seriously reduced life prospects but also families that are in dire situations. All of these people have been welcomed into a new family where they are given the opportunities to develop in a healthy environment with access to education, healthcare and all that we would see as the necessities of life.
One of the things that the house struggles with is flooding. Every rainy season a whole half of the downstairs, including the kitchen and dining room, is submerged. We were asked if we could help put some new drainage in. We looked at a plan for diverting some of the main water flow down the road outside the house and agreed that this would work. However, we also noticed that this would then leave the neighbours, who also flooded, with an even greater amount of water heading that way. No one seemed too concerned about this. The Indonesian mindset is that once it's past your plot it's not your issue. But we were alarmed! There was no way we were about to be bad news to the neighbours. To our mind it wasn't even satisfactory to be no news to the neighbours. We had to be good news.
At this point it's worth pointing out that going 'cross-cultural' always brings up issues like this. We can be so blind to some of our own oversights because of our cultural conditioning - this is never one way! One of the beauties of the kingdom of God is the multicultural family that we are born afresh into. Together we spot things that aren't our 'normal' but are someone else's, we shed light on this with kingdom culture and encourage change. We also have to allow ourselves to be humble enough to have our culture and assumptions challenged by brothers and sisters from another culture - and heck they were on this trip, more on that later.
After asking a lot of questions, not only about culture, but about local water flow, topography, what sewerage systems people had seen locally and even why team members were disappearing down a hole when wandering over the adjacent grass land! We proposed an alternative drainage plan, which would mean about 500% work on top of the original plan, a lot more resources and some outside help. But it was a plan that would connect 2 unfinished drainage systems that already existed (that's where team members were disappearing into) and mean that the neighbours would no longer flood... we would be good news!
We set about clearing blocked drains, clearing long undergrowth, chopping trenches into the ground and attempting to build new channels out of bricks and mortar (not our preferred building method, but it is what the locals know). Now, I'll be honest, while I fancy myself as someone who can fix the odd thing around the house I am no brick layer and nor was anyone else on team. We did have a few pro builder friends from a nearby community working with us but we were out of our depth...
But then something magical happened. The neighbours around the house, seeing the incompetent white people trying to do a simple task, came out to help and even take over! The business man opposite redeployed a couple of his workers to take a sledgehammer to the drive of the premises so we could clear blockages underneath and then insisted that we rest and have some deep fried food (win!) The cockerel farm over the road had a couple of guys help us build and render a wall outside the house to deflect water flow and then gave a few of us a tour of the farm - guess how much their best cockerels were - three thousand pounds!!!
As we set about doing a bit of graft we realised that this partnership of a WildFire team and a children's home, working for the good of the wider community, was a prophetic action and people were drawn to it. As a team we didn't build massively deep relationships with these neighbours but get this...
The children's home, inspired by the new drainage, now spend an hour every Saturday morning heading out to clean the drains round the local area and other locals join in! This is HUGE. Prior to the summer the children's home had little connection with neighbours and the neighbours weren't very well connected to each other. A community drain cleaning initiative was totally not on the cards but people are now taking collective action to live life more fruitfully, without flooding!
Laillungi - Sumba
We touched down in Waingapu, the 'capital' of Sumba island at what Freya described as an airport made of lego. We had three days in the capital, which already felt rural, to get used to our new surroundings and meet the locals who we'd be partnered with for our trip to Lailunggi. We had some fun times meeting locals, praying for the sick, playing some sports and bathing with the buffalo. This more central location also gave Freya a great opportunity to run a seminar for women on antenatal education as well as wider healthcare.
We were up at the crack of dawn to catch our ride up to the other side of the island... our ride arrived around midday! We spent around 7 hours in the back of pickup trucks on some of the narrowest paths atop some of the steepest slopes that you can imagine are home to a 'road'. Dense jungles, vast plains, a handful of monkeys, the occasional house, oh and the side of a hill setting itself on fire. Yes, you read correctly, spontaneous forest fire land! We also crossed several bone dry river beds, the locals laughed and said we should pray it didn't rain else we might not be going home for a while!
We eventually arrived and were greeted by an incredibly timid bunch of wiry framed locals (it turns out they'd only ever seen one white person before). We were offered the local past time as a measure of hospitality - what I can only describe as part way between chewing gum, a cigarette and acid powder. It was not a pleasant taste or chewing experience but it did have quite the effect. Roughly two minutes later I had a headache, felt a bit faint but also strangely blissed out. I think this may have been the only time in my life that I have taken some sort of drug (caffeine et al. aside). The handy byproduct of this was that it broke the ice - I guess this was the equivalent of us being a bunch of lightweights which was a needed bit of a laugh.
We settled in for the night with the locals watching our every move - yup, even in the bedroom - not a culture with a high value for privacy. The next day we were given an overview of what was going on in the work of the local church. It turns out that they had been left with some money to build a church building but couldn't build it as they had no food to eat and therefore no energy. This got us questioning!
Questioning is important as it helps you get to the root of an issue but people aren't always fond of questions being asked. Questioning stretches people's minds and potentially makes them rethink their paradigms.
Alongside our questioning we got to work adding the man power for the building of the church building and sneakily suggesting that they could use the 'church' as a community centre that went beyond being used for church services. It was the building together and the general larking around that comes with manual work that allowed us to really bond with some of the community members. Language was difficult as we only had one person who could fully interpret from Sumbanese to English, but we did manage to pick up 'upu tana' - dig the earth, 'piti watu' - move the stones, bulakutiko - bald man, pala lugi - white hair, malai lungi - long hair. We shouted these repeatedly as they seemed funny to both us and the locals - especially their chief chanter and village clown 'Hewalacombumbu' or Fat Man - that's his name, he is all skin and bone!
In the evenings we were able to go a little deeper, to sit with our new friends, eat and learn. I'll break down what we discovered, by incessantly asking 'why', step-by-step so that it is easier to follow.
We couldn't build the building because we don't have food
Why don't you have food?
We can't grow any crops like we used to.
Why can't you grow them any more?
Rich people allow their cattle to graze on our land and they trample on and eat the crops?
Why don't you move the cattle, or tie them up or shoot them?
The rich people would be angry if we touch their cattle in any way and take action against us.
Why don't you build fences around your crops? The cattle can roam, to a degree, your crops are protected and you don't lay a finger on the cattle.
We don't have anything to build fences with.
You're surrounded by trees, why can't you use them?
We're not allowed to cut them down, the government don't allow us due to deforestation.
Why do the government not allow you to use resources on your own land? We understand the need to protect against logging but if you were to manage it well and replant etc surely that is a good thing?
Well they would let us do that, but you have to keep a record of trees cut down and we can't do that.
Why is it you can't do that?
We can't read or write.
So, the short of the long is, 'we're malnourished because we're not literate'. The only way we could get to the root of the issue was to repeatedly ask 'why'. This was not a simple conversation, but was spaced over several days with many caveats. Of course there was nothing we could do about the root cause of the issue but we had helped deepen our local partners' understanding. Helpfully our local partners are extremely well educated and can now begin to look at ways of getting alongside our friends, help them document things well and long-term get them the necessary education to be able to complete this process, and more, under their own steam.
On the surface we didn't really do that much in Lailunggi - we scratched the surface - but this was one important scratch - that got us below the surface - a few layers below the surface.
Edit: Our local partners have now bought some land on Sumba in order to be able to set up a sort of village that uses sustainable technology and models how, using what is available locally, villages can operate in a way that not only allows good production of food and processing of water to make it safe, but also methods of power and income generation. Hopefully, long term this may also be able to provide life-skills such as literacy which are vitally needed.
One of my favourite bits of our Lailunggi adventure was that on the way there Freya heard this from the Lord 'You are far away but not forgotten, you are remote but remembered'. Freya shared this with the village on arrival - they got pretty emotional! They went on to tell us that their name, the way they self identified, is 'the forgotten people'. At the end of our time in Lailunggi there were lots of tears, partly mourning us leaving each other's company but also tears of joy as the locals expressed that they now knew that God had not forgotten them, that he is the God that remembers - he had demonstrated this to them by the fact that we had come simply to be with them. I love this, our main job as humanity is to represent God to each other and the planet we live on - this is what it means to be made in His image.
Earlier I mentioned that we need the humility to learn from cultures that expose our blind spots. Well, here we needed to do some serious learning. In the west we're so often dulled to the spiritual dynamics of what is going on around us. We're so wrapped up in the spiritual dynamic of consumerism that we don't even know it. Across the distinct cultures of Java, Sumba and our downtime and debrief in Bali we found ourselves is some starkly different cultural and spiritual environments. We had a team that had not been exposed to anything quite like these before and had mostly never taken the time to even consider what was going on below the surface of these cultures. This meant that attitudes, emotions and egos were flying around all over the place as people came under the dominant spiritual atmosphere of each island and this was something that needed to be unpacked on so many levels.
I've had some experience in these areas but I was out of my depth. It was amazing having Ben to be able to help us unpack some of this more but what was really helpful was our locals who follow Jesus in the midst of these overtly spiritual climates. Alongside processing what was actually going on in our experiences in these different regions, our hosts were able to provide a framework for better understanding our hidden spiritual dynamics in the UK. Some of this sounded wacky and weird but those who embraced this understanding, since coming back to the UK, have felt much more equipped to navigate their own everyday life.
It was a tough time working together. In our team we had to deal with a lot being 'thrown up' in these different spiritual atmospheres but it was also tough learning to work alongside our hosts and the cultural blind spots we both have. Through committing to each other, choosing love and walking humbly together we all learned a lot and were able to serve two communities in ways that led our host to describe us as 'the best team we've ever had'. In truth this was one of the harder teams and trips I've ever had but it is amazing what God can do if we're simply willing to go. In the future we hope to head back to work in these communities again, especially in Lailunggi where we have some deep bonds and an understanding of how we can come alongside each other in a way that we hope will lead to some lives experiencing justice and joy!