Empowering Communities with IBEKA

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Week 2: Sumba

As we dropped in to Bali, Connor "oogled" and "ahhed" at the gorgeous waves slowly rolling along the coast. After growing up surfing in Miami and spending weekends away from Duke at the Outer Banks, Connor was determined to find at least one good day of surfing during our trip. Bali is of course surfer’s paradise, and I almost felt like a torture witness seeing him look out at the coast knowing we only had 30 minutes until take-off for Sumba. Although maybe it was more like a taste of heaven for him. He’ll catch them on his way back. 

I chatted with the young man next to me the whole way to Sumba. For about an hour, Imawan and I conversed in 95% English and 5% my butchered Indonesian. We discussed our respective schooling, Jakarta’s heat, video games, price comparisons between Indonesia and America, and last as well as least, airline food. Partly through our conversation, Imawan apologized for his poor English skills. He must have been the tenth Indonesian to apologize to me for not having better English. Annoyed with this perversion, I laughed and said how silly it is for people in their own country to apologize for not being able to speak my language, when I can barely mutter a sentence in theirs. His grammar and word choice certainly weren’t ready for the nightly news, but we could understand each other well enough to sustain an hour long conversation. He laughed as I told him this, and said “yes, but I’m still sorry.” Oh well. 

As both of us were first timer’s to be on Sumba, neither of us knew what to expect and were giddy with nervous curiosity. We weren’t even certain if someone was meeting us at the airport or not. When we first spotted Sumba, we shared the window evenly as we scanned the clash of tropical blue sea and the verdant rolling savannah. Google Earth did very little to prepare me for the beauty that was to be my home for the next two months. During our last 30 seconds of descent, we saw no roads, no buildings, and no signs of inhabitance other than the lack of trees which, as Wikipedia had previously informed me, was due to heavy logging of Sandalwood during colonial exploitation. The vacant land scared Imawan quite a bit. His eyes widened and he asked me “Where’s the airport?!” 10 seconds went by. Now this time, he asked loudly enough for the closest 5 rows to hear us, “WHERE’S THE AIRPO-

The most ferocious landing I’ve ever experienced either sent his heart racing even faster or stopped it dead for a second. For the baby in the aisle across from us, the landing was as funny as its first time witnessing Peek-a-boo. A second after preparing my nervous system for an unintentional liftoff from our bounce-down to Sumba, Imawan and I heard the baby's laugh and immediately looked at each other and laughed as well, hearts returning to their normal rhythms as the plane thankfully stuck to the ground. 

While taxiing, we exchanged numbers and promised to call if we ever were passing through our respective homes. Coincidence ALERT: Today 6/2 Connor and I drove 2 hours to from Kamanggih (our village) to Waingapu (Main town in Sumba with the airport) to access decent wifi. When we showed up to the cafe which google sent us to, who did we see but Imawan and his two managers our for lunch! We all had a good laugh, and confirmed with each other that we were indeed met by someone at the airport. 

They said Sumba would be hot and sunny. It was hot and sunny. Thankfully dry, the air blowing across the single tarmac was sweet with a mixture of smells completely new to me. We were ushered into the Airport’s one room enclosed by corrugated metal and wooden beams. After introducing Connor to Imawan and his manager, I initiated farewells and headed to the exit. Out the door and rushing past thirsty taxi drivers and hoteliers licking their chops at the two white kids walking into their turf I suavely deflected their badgering with a friendly yet stern “tidak” and headed to the parking lot. “Hey Tyler, I think baggage claim is back there,” Connor said, perplexed. Wow. I was so excited to explore that I had completely forgotten about my two other pieces of luggage. 

After the embarrassing and decidedly un-suave return through the gauntlet of taxi drivers and hoteliers, we said hello to our friends inside again and waited for our bags. Okay, round two through the gauntlet. Well actually, the second time through the gauntlet was more like a one of those fun human tunnels some teams make as teammates are introduced over the loudspeaker to the crowd. Confused, our crowd now greeted us with the all too familiar "Hello Miiister! Where are you from?"

As everyone we saw near the exit looked surprised rather than expecting to see white people, we cooled our jets for a couple minutes on the side of the road. Content to wait it out before calling a non-emergency “Wambulence" at IBEKA headquarters back in Jakarta, Connor and I took off our shoes, stretched out and adjusted ourselves in the new sunlight. I figured I would walk around a bit to get the blood flowing and hopefully find a clue about our missing IBEKA representative. I only had to turn one corner and to find a teenager with sharply styled hair and “IBEKA” written on a piece of tape across his breast. Well that works too. I said hello and then foolishly tried to ask him questions in English. Right - they probably wouldn’t have dressed him up like a mobile blackboard if he could speak english. 

We piled into the truck, said hello to the 10 year old boy who confidently jumped into the bed for the 2 hour journey, happy to bake in the tropical sun. Our trip along the coast and up into the heart of Sumba was one of the most beautiful car rides I’ve ever taken. I’ll let Connor’s videography skills write the prose for this one. https://youtu.be/WQX7j6eG7nA

I am stunned by the natural beauty everywhere I turn in Kamanggih. (Kamanggih's center is located roughly along 3/4 towards the right edge of the photo. Look for the two cell towers.)


Our first translatorless week in Kamanggih was full of introductions and observations. As expected, we were greeted extremely warmly by our hosts and their family and neighborhood friends. We tried the Siri Pinang we had heard much about back in Jakarta. A bitter mix of areca nut, lime powder, and betel leaf it rapidly drew saliva from the gums into its blood red mix requiring spitting several times a minute. Producing similar effects as tobacco without the calm, I was happy to play along for a couple minutes but was relieved once coffee was offered and I could spit the clump out. My intrigue in taking part in this tradition wasn't helped by the red-stained and crumbling teeth of the many male smiles directed at Connor and I. I'll give it another go sometime. We were also greeted by Pak Sapto, an IBEKA Engineer who had lived in Kamanggih for several years during his work on the Island, and Mas Petu, a Kamanggih native who was also an Engineer. Speaking limited english, they helped introduce us to our new surroundings over the next couple days. 

We spent the first week touring Kamanggih, its 10 Kw wind farm, its 15 Kw Micro-Hydro Turbine, and its solar water pumping station. We learned about the installation process, costs, government involvement, and how Kamanggih operated before electricity and easy water access. It was clear that the hike down to the river for water had previously cost many women and children in the village between 15 minutes to several hours per day depending on their home's location along the ridge. We were told about how much of the tree growth in the village was a result of the water pump. Before, the sun beat heavily upon the roads and homes, but now the shade grown from dripping pipes and washrooms cooled the town while also providing new shelter for birds and animals. As Connor and I ate most of our dinners outside under the stars, we listened to the sounds of food preparation, dish washing, and bathing throughout the village and appreciated the helpfulness of electricity and water access for these simple tasks. During the days, we watched our friends construct a new home with power tools, appreciating the time-saving capabilities of an motorized sander and plane. It was obvious electricity had made life easier around here. Our observations helped us think of new questions to ask, and as we walked our first week in the shoes of Kamanggih villagers, we began to understand the possibilities electricity and water could continue to provide.  

The most beautiful wind farm I've ever seen. Kamanggih sits atop a ridge among these sharply rolling hills. Although no more then one to two thousand feet above sea level, the clouds always feel extremely low. 

Knowing we would be without a translator for a week, we pushed off interviews for later. Instead I focused on learning the language and meeting as many new people as I could keep track of. With the phrase book that was beginning to brown around the edges and the English-Indonesian dictionary I borrowed from Mas Petu’s stack of university textbooks, I pieced together sentences well enough to start making friends. As the week went along, I became more and more confident and graduated from both phrasebook and dictionary to just dictionary. Although, I don’t think the dictionary was all that helpful. A true artifact of Mas Petu's youth, it's torn pages began with C in English and ended with S in Indonesian. It was also probably only 75% accurate; I would often look up a word, and then proudly say it to a new friend only to receive a quizzical look. Upon showing them the translation they would shake their head and say the correct word. Although it has its limitations, it more than makes up for them by serving as a simple invitation for whomever is near to sit next to me and spark up a conversation.  

. . . 

In our 5th day in Kamanggih, we were treated to a very special occasion. Due to its growth and the logistical difficulties of remaining one village, Kamanggih was officially being split into two separate villages, and a new chief was being sworn in for the new village Prai Pahada. My host family and their friends drove me to the site for day’s ceremony, a house that Connor and I had run by many times and returned “hellos” to the children who played in the yard. Arriving an hour early, I was ushered inside the home and treated to an exclusive meal. Then we waited as the crowd grew larger, children let out from school, and official public vehicles could be spotted down the road. For the people of Kamanggih, the arrival of the district’s Regent was an invitation to dance, shout, and act like hollywood paparazzi with their camera phones. While I didn’t understand much of what was said during the two-hour long ceremony of speeches, the cigarette smoke filled air was excited, hopeful, and familial. I sat right behind the elected chief to-be, a friendly middle-aged woman in a pressed uniform with hair neatly tucked underneath the official hat. After several swings from raucous laughter from the crowd and more serious oaths from the new chief, the whole gathering was treated to a Kamanggih style picnic. Connor and I were ushered right behind the government officials in line for the rice contained in a 5 gallon gatorade jug and delicious toppings lining a table. 

During the ceremony, I wrestled with the whole notion of “community empowerment” again and again in my head. 

Not once have I attended any sort of celebration with my neighborhood. I don’t even know my next door neighbors’ names. I don’t know who’s on the neighborhood or local community council where I live. I don’t even know if there even is a neighborhood or local community council where I live. I had to google my representative to make sure it was the same as last year. I don’t know when he was re-elected and I certainly didn’t attend his swearing-in with all my friends and family. I’ll bet the voter turnout in my district was half of what it was in Kamanggih for the new chief. When I googled my representative, I saw that my district is so gerrymandered that it’s split into four separate shapes. Kamanggih wasn’t divided by any political self-interest which played upon the horrors of a violently unequal racial history and present. The village was split in two at the main intersection in town. You turn left, it’s Kamanggih, you go straight, it’s Prai Pahada. Who am I to enter into this warm, neighborly community to judge “empowerment" when it’s looking more like I’m the one who lives in the archaic and disengaged system? How about we start up a "Kamanggih Engage” instead of a Duke Engage and send their middle schooler’s to America to teach us a little bit about how democracy should work and how a community members should treat each other.

Despite this conundrum, I still knew there were ways we could be helpful for IBEKA and Kamanggih. Our translator would be coming in two days, and then we could begin gathering real data and stories. After the ceremony ended that night, Connor and I sat around with two dozen children ranging in ages from a deer-in-the-headlights 6 year old to too-cool-to-talk-to-the-americans-but-not-cool-enough-to-act-disinterested teenagers. We joked back and forth in muddied English and Indonesian and asked the children what their favorite part about Kamanggih is. With the help of our friend Eti's translation, we received the highlight of the day: "Turbines!"

Check back next week for progress with the interviews. 




Tyler Wakefield