We want you to meet our friends from eastern Indonesia. They’re a student organisation called MITRA, or ‘partners’ in Bahasa Indonesia. It stands for Mahasiswa Indonesia Timur Relasi Asing, or East Indonesian Students Foreign Relations Society. Their goal? To empower the students of East Indonesia. After travelling East-West across Indonesia, I understand why MITRA’s work is so important.
From the outside, Indonesia seems to be another Muslim, South East Asian country. But it’s actually a complex and extremely diverse “empire” ruling over many different nations and regions, with differing languages, customs and even climates. This is a country made up of more than 17000 islands! I didn’t realise before arrival that Indonesia is the world’s 4th largest population! However, 58% of these people live on Java – the most densely populated island in the world. This skewed population density makes for inequality of resources, as allocated by the central-focused government.
East of Java and now prosperous Bali, Indonesia looks quite different. We are talking about Nusa Tenggara Timur (Flores, Timor, Alor, Sumba), Maluku and Papua. We spent a month in NTT. Dances to gong music at rice harvest. Gifting of elephant tusks in wedding ceremonies. Richly coloured woven sarongs, depicting motifs of the cultural group. Animistic rituals practised beside Christianity. All of this tradition alive today! It can seem the only things that connect these places with Java are the language they must learn in school, the individually-wrapped sweets sold in roadside stalls and the television programs showing pale-skinned, perfect straight black-haired actors living out lives that look nothing like life on these islands. The regions MITRA is active in encompasses 5 of the Indonesian provinces ranking lowest on the Human Development Index, provinces neglected by the core-focused government.
Students in peripheral Indonesia do not have the same opportunities as their peers studying in Java. If a family has the means to, university aged children will be sent to distant Java to better their studies – taking the best and brightest to the greener pastures of the country’s core; and new ideas of how things could be different with them. However, few amongst these agriculture-reliant islands can afford the expense of the ‘Java dream’. Many families will take their children out of high school (which costs a fee; only primary school is free) to help in the fields. Even travelling to the next city on the island can be a journey people rarely have reason or funds to make – the bus fare along the single winding road of connection to the next place costs about U$8 – about 15% of a teacher’s monthly salary. So while the poverty in the region does not see people suffering from starvation (though malnutrition is still present), there is a poverty of information through the isolation, caused not only by water and mountains.
1 year-old MITRA is a pioneer in the fight to overcome these barriers for students of peripheral Indonesia. The organisation provides a network to link university students of the eastern islands together, even linking people of different cultural areas on the same island for the first time. MITRA unities educated, young people across this region. A region that desperately needs basic education about how to deal with the problems of the global world; things like how to deal with rubbish, or that smoking next to children might not be the best idea. MITRA is a group of student that want to take the future of their region into their own hands.
There are three main ways MITRA actively works towards equality in eastern Indonesia:
1) English language clubs: For students in eastern Indonesia learning English can be very difficult, due to the lack of contact with native English speakers. MITRA organises weekly English club, for students to get together and practise their English.
2) International student support: very few international students visit the region and for those that do, there’s not much support. MITRA is there to help these students settle in.
3) MITRA Hijau: Environmental education is really lacking in eastern Indonesia. MITRA is actively raising awareness about environment issues through organised tree planting days and working with elementary/primary school students to educate about the importance of proper waste management.
For anyone making a trip or doing work in the eastern Indonesia, we encourage you to get in touch with MITRA. This could include Couchsurfing with MITRA members, giving a guest lecture to an English-language class, or joining one of their many events, such as tree-planting or a music camp. Many people in eastern Indonesia might never travel to Java, let alone overseas. This might be one of the last places in Asia where the rare sight of a foreigner brings genuine excitement. We still have so much to learn from each other. And MITRA is helping make this important exchange happen.