Does it matter where you live? Yes – the Servants team in Banda Aceh have found it speaks volumes about your values… The Servants program in Aceh has been based in 3 locations – a hotel, a city apartment and a village house.
In February 2005, 2 months after the tsunami that swept over the Aceh coastline, we stayed in the rambling hotel that housed many of the smaller Christian agencies.
The mentality and modus operandi were “relief” and the devastated tsunami zone looked like a moonscape with houses and trees reduced to rubble and sticks and not a blade of grass in sight.
Daily ventures to squatter camps and displaced communities to offer relief were the norm. Three months later with a rehabilitation program starting we relocated to a 3 bedroom house/office beyond the reach of the boxing day waves. The target coastal villages were 10 to 30 kilometres away and the cost of commuting added up.
The team expanded with many short term expatriate volunteers and several staff appointments. We needed more space and would likely have to pay 1 million Rupiah per week!! It was a moment of decision.
“Why don’t we ask if there are any houses to rent in the village?”
Dedy, the Indonesian project coordinator agreed and we naturally approached our key informer, link person and gatekeeper to the community: the headmaster of a village school that disappeared in the waves. With so many homeless people and orphaned children we imagined that every surviving coastal house would fully occupied so were surprised when Mr Subaroom said “I have a spare empty house – in another village 8 kms toward town”.
Within 5 minutes we were on the motorbike to check it out. It was not exactly unoccupied, because for 5 years goats, chickens and bats had enjoyed its shelter, while palm trees had sprung up in the roofless bathroom. It had possibilities. Set in 2 acres of palm trees, 400 metres from the beach, protected by a sea wall and slightly elevated, it was a derelict garden of eden. We struck a deal that we would renovate it for some rent free use.
So what are the implications – we have done a rare, and some have said, a dangerous or impossible thing:
a) We are living in the community we serve. Most agencies have city offices and commute to their project sites. They meet the community leaders, local project workers and a few others. We are able to relate to the whole community.
b) We are there 24 hours a day. Other agencies come by the day and retreat each afternoon. But we have found that many meetings take place informally at night when the days work is over and our village house has become a meeting place.
c) We do community development. On a cowboy model projects can succeed, but to empower and transform a community it takes a different process – a sharing of dreams, an impacting of values, a mobilizing of opinions – for a different, better, more sustainable and just future.
Results count! We do not discount the value of the agencies who have built hundreds of houses, boats, roads and bridges. They have helped thousands pick up the shattered pieces of their lives, but we have not done those things. What have we done?
1. We observed that social activities had died in the coastal villages along with hundreds of their people and opined that playing the sport they were most passionate about might be therapeutic. When word got out that we were organising a soccer contest between 4 villages, all 13 in Mesjid Raya sub district joined the competition and played 45 games on a buffalo grazed field.
2. We noted that the village we lived in had no educational facilities and coordinated the building of a kindergarten by another agency with local volunteer labour and management.
3. We discovered that this, and several other villages along the coast had water springs in the hills behind them that had never been tapped to provide drinking water for the residents and got an expatriate water engineer to design a simple and sustainable gravity feed system.
The list goes on – but it all comes out of living with the people, sharing their routines and discovering how they want to improve their lives. The best possible compliment was paid to Dedy and the program when on the aniniversary of the tsunami the village people said, “You are not an NGO, you are part of our village!”