Table of Contents

2012 • Extended Service, Kristina Blank

My entire trip with Friends Peace Teams in Asia West Pacific has been an amazing adventure as I live and travel in Java and Sumatra. I joined a Friends Peace Team to get to know a variety of Indonesians and particularly to assist the Society for Health, Education, Environment and Peace (SHEEP) in Jogjakarta with research and development of household, ceramic water filters.

On a recent trip, I flew from Java to the city of Medan in North Sumatra with Nicholas Rozard, coordinator of water filter research and development. We got a ride with Herman from SHEEP, from the airport in Medan up to Tamiang, Aceh to attend an Alternatives to Violence workshop, a three-day, intensive, basic training in living nonviolently. One of my favorite activities in the workshop was a game called “Crocs & Frogs,” which had everyone bonding as frogs trying to share a tiny lily pad to escape the crocodile. Gender and religious barriers melted away as workshop participants clung to each other to help themselves balance, and there was a smile on every face in the room.

From there we traveled up the coast of Aceh province to the City of Langsa, where we visited a store that sells Acehnese traditionally-embroidered handbags, and I bought some beautiful bags to take home. Then we traveled further up the coast to Lohkseumawe to visit the people sewing the bags. It was a small production house in an Islamic community, so there was a room in the front for women who do the embroidery free-hand, mostly on treadle machines, and a room in the center for women cutting the patterns, and a room in the back for men who sew in the zippers and do the final assembly.


Nick and I went around the factory and tried to talk to the workers and take pictures. The women were incredibly shy, even when Nick left the room and I was talking to them alone. Indonesian was never a “native language.” It was developed as a trading language for communication across groups. It is easy to gain a rudimentary use of the language and people listen generously for the meaning, not precise construction. But since they do not speak Indonesian at home, they understand much more than they can speak. Also, as women raised in thirty years of war they are not used to meeting people from outside, let alone speaking to anyone they do not know. What seemed to me simple questions such as, “Do you like working here?” did not get answered. They were still friendly though; one woman held my hand and led me outside to take pictures like the one below, and when the men weren’t around the women giggled and had me take some more informal photos with them.

The working conditions seemed tolerable but I don’t know what wages they earn. Most of the women at the production house are young, using the income to pay for room, board and the costs of going to high school. Compulsory education in Indonesia goes through nine years. Many young people have to work in order to get a high school or college education. Older women also do the embroidery, but work primarily in their homes in more rural areas that we were not able to visit.

We spent that night with Dahlan, a fish farmer along the highway back to Langsa, which made him really happy. He lives there with his mother and his wife and new baby. He had come down to serve on the facilitating team for the nonviolence training in Tamiang. All the the facilitators are volunteers, conducting the training to support their own practice of nonviolence in their daily lives. I found it interesting that Dahlan accommodated visitors by giving his usual spot in bed next to his his wife to me, while he shared a spare bed with Nick. In traditional American culture, the married couple would keep their bed together, offer the female guest the spare bed, and the male guest would sleep on a couch. Fortunately, while traveling for 2 weeks, I did not have trouble falling asleep next to women who I had often literally met just a couple of hours prior. Everyone was so kind and gracious about opening their homes to us, I felt very safe and comfortable.

We then took a minibus back to North Sumatra where Mislan met us with motorcycles to take us up the mountain into Barak Induk, a village of thousands of people displaced out of Aceh during the war. We walked around and saw some of the village and the school they have built. Mislan reported that 500 families live in Barak Induk–likely between 2,500 and 3,000 people. One evening Mislan invited the preschool teachers over to his home and they asked us to offer advice on teaching. The language barrier was difficult, but Nick responded to their questions by teaching them how to brainstorm so they might be better prepared to solve their own problems in the future.

Playing Soccer in Barak Induk

We flew from Medan to Bandung in West Java, where we visited the Pelita ceramic water filter factory. Two caucasian men from the U.S. seem to hold the upper management positions there, while the manual labor is performed by Indonesian men from the local area. There are, however, two Indonesians doing education and distribution work in the office. Their water filters are identical to the ones produced in Cambodia. Although the Pelita staff appreciated Nick’s ideas for innovating and improving the filters, the ideas seemed beyond their self-perceived intellectual capacity, but primarily beyond their motivation. They appear pretty content with doing things the way they are doing them and are not overly interested in innovation or improvement. With that said, they were friendly and open to future collaboration.

Interestingly, I found out that Pelita has been working with Plan International, a group I discovered while investigating hygiene and sanitation education in Indonesia, since I’m interested in making sure our filters are used properly. Even with the most perfect filter in the world, people can still get sick if they misuse it. Plan International’s projects in Indonesia have decreased open defecation and increased incidence of hand washing, so I identified them as capable hygiene educators whose resources may be useful when our filters are production-scale. Plan International is currently distributing some of Pelita’s filters, but they are unsatisfied with the way the filters clog over time and with the gaps in the supply chain.

The next day we visited Balai Besar Ceramics in Bandung. We were heartily welcomed in and spent four hours touring the facilities, meeting people and checking out the machines. Nick was pleased with the machinery he saw and our going there definitely opened the lines of communication and initiated wonderful relationships. Everyone seemed very willing to work with us in the future in some capacity.

On this trip, the language barrier was frustrating at times but I have been improving and my companions have been very understanding. Indonesians speak many different languages. They have access to education, but much of it is poor. And, especially in Aceh, they struggle with brain injuries common in poverty and war. Thus, language challenges are very common for them, so they did not in any way hold back or isolate us because of our language deficiencies. Since much communication is non-verbal, real, significant, meaningful connections and relationships were possible. Still, for me, facing such extreme language challenges is a new experience and dramatically disrupted my sense of control, power and orientation.

One final word: if you live in a first-world country, you may have noticed a certain tone that is employed by the media when it reports on developing nations. It is a patronizing tone that betrays a sense of superiority, as if the people of first-world countries are better than those of second- or third-world countries. It was never anything I believed, it was just a background noise. But after this trip, it is a thought process that I would like to actively reject. Possessing advanced technologies and economies do not make humans of the first world better people. In Indonesia, I saw some of the purest examples of humanity: people looking out for one another’s health by encouraging frequent bathing, people sharing their food and homes with near strangers, grown children taking care of their elderly parents, and people cheerfully taking time out of their own busy schedules to help a neighbor. This whole trip has been amazing for me; it made me more of a humanitarian because I had the chance to live and play with Indonesians who honestly care for the people around them, and taught me the true meaning of humanity.