Jakarta. Despite the complexities, many agree that education plays a crucial role in establishing the foundation for our future leaders, and global efforts pioneered by governments, civil society and young people are underway to help prepare the next generation for the challenges that lie ahead.
While reading is undoubtedly an essential part of one’s education, be it formal or informal, access to books and the availability of quality publications is still a luxury for many Indonesians, particularly those in remote villages across the country.
According to a Central Connecticut State University study in 2016, Indonesia ranked 60th of the 61 most literate countries in the world.
"Children in villages have limited access to interesting books they can read, their access is often restricted by geography, social and even economic factors," Niniek Febriany, the co-founder of non-profit organization Book for Mountain (BFM), told the Jakarta Globe in an interview.
She added that reading materials for young children in villages are often limited to school textbooks, serving to hinder children’s interest in reading.
"When we brought them children's books, with colorful illustrations, larger fonts and easy-to-read yet educational stories, they were really into it. They kept on reading and re-reading until late at night,” Niniek said.
Realizing that the issue is not about interest, BFM has set out to build libraries for primary school children in Indonesia, especially those in remote areas, and seeks to collectively contribute to a better education in the archipelago.
Book for Mountain
In 2010, Niniek and 25 other college students from Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University (UGM) traveled to the village of Bebidas in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, to carry out a community service program, known as Kuliah Kerja Nyata (KKN).
The initial plan was to build a water reservoir and corresponding pipelines for the village, but upon arriving at their destination, they discovered that the village residents were opposed to the program.
To overcome the disagreement, Niniek and her peers identified other issues that the village faced, which led to a collective decision that those issues would be tackled through smaller programs. One of those programs aimed to revitalize the libraries of local primary schools.
The students managed to collect 3,600 books and build four primary school libraries and two public libraries in the village, and eventually decided to form a community focused on building libraries in Indonesia’s remote villages at the end of their KKN.
"We realized that many primary schools did not have libraries, and even when they did, the books were limited or in bad condition," she said.
According to Niniek, the keys to improving education in the country should focus on select objectives and equal access.
In the past eight years, Niniek said, the BFM community has learned the importance of providing books that are immediately relevant to each village.
"We bring with us different types of books on each project. It depends on whether the village is located on the coastline, if it’s at the foot of a mountain, or if it’s in an area with strong local customs," Niniek said.
Since its inception, BFM has conducted 18 library projects and has built a total of 40 libraries in villages across Indonesia, including in Papua, West Sumatra, East Kalimantan and Maluku.
After the libraries are established, operations are typically handed over to active residents or organizations based in each location. BFM also tries to continue monitoring the programs for at least two years, though they often face difficulties, such as access or internal issues in the villages.
The Yogyakarta-based organization also organizes a range of other activities, including a Mobile School program that is focused on villages in the city, and the Book Courier program, which forges collaboration with other stakeholders to build libraries.
The selection of books include storybooks, encyclopedias, books on character-building and world leaders, comics and magazines.
"It’s important that the books are colorful and illustrated. Each book must have good quality, physically and content-wise, because we don’t want to waste our time, efforts and funding for books that are not worth reading," Niniek said.
BFM finance its operations through crowdfunding and and sales of merchandise, with products such as notebooks and postcards.
Anecdotes From the Ground
In carrying out their library projects, BFM spends two weeks at each project location to facilitate the library’s integration into the lives of the children and also the larger village community.
"We include children, youth, mothers and other village residents in the building process so they will have a personal connection with the new facility. It helps them acquire a sense of ownership and hopefully lead them to care about the sustainability of the library itself," Niniek said.
As their projects have taken them to various corners of Indonesia, Niniek said BFM members have learned valuable lessons along the way.
This include meeting children who were not aware that they live in a country called Indonesia, getting to know children with incredible passions for learning, as well as cultivating and strengthening their own tolerance toward differences.
Children in villages, like elsewhere, have an extremely high interest in reading, and can spend their whole day in libraries, especially in places where there are no televisions or mobile service, such as in Agandugume, Papua.
"It’s very difficult to find books that are relevant with lives in villages. Most books on the market are very much catered to the urban community," Niniek said.
At the end of last year, BFM began the process of writing and producing storybooks for children that are specifically catered to their project locations.
For their next project, which will take place in Mulakoli Village of East Nusa Tenggara, the BFM team is writing a story on candlenut, or kemiri, farming. It centers on the story of a child named Yori who plants, tends to and cultivates candlenut.
"This book aims to instill a sense of pride for farming, raise awareness to use fertilizers and natural pest preventions and teach the children how to farm candlenut independently," Niniek said.
Reading for the Future
As features of Indonesia’s diversity extend across geography, the economy, culture and other social aspects, Niniek said education should not be homogeneous.
"Context is very important in helping children relate the information they receive to their daily lives. However, the curriculum in Indonesia is made uniform from Sabang to Merauke, from cities to villages," Niniek told the Globe.
This is why BFM took an initiative on writing and publishing their own storybooks, so as to help create a younger generation that can actively contribute to the development of their own towns.
BFM also believes that the government must provide more relevant reading materials for public libraries in villages, taking into account their specific cultures and geographical and social conditions.
"The government must collaborate with local civil society organizations to identify the relevant types of books while also preserving the sustainability of local libraries," Niniek said.
She added that the government must also cooperate with publishers and writers to produce more diverse stories.