Partnering Ayo Indonesia in Ruteng

Twisting from Bajawa to Ruteng, along, around and over the mountain range, in some places the road in so good its as if when the landscape was formed it came complete with tarmac. In other places nature is belittling human effort to control the land by tossing boulders as if they are pebbles; around one hairpin we have to dodge a fresh rock that is bigger than the 4×4 we are in. We will spend the next four days partnering Ayo Indonesia who has a packed schedule in store. Since they begun their work they have listened to communities and together negotiated strategies forward; from agriculture and roads to advocacy and education.

At the Ayo Indnesia office they have recalled field staff and invited people from local organisations, including Indonesia’s national family planning organisation; there are over twentyfive community activists. One of the women immediately asks Inna why she does this work focusing on abortion. Sometimes this could be a principled ‘why’ as in ‘how dare you’, at other times it is a ‘why’ of passing curiosity. It is always a question that deserves a succinct answer because since 2009 women having abortions and those avocating on abortion face a fifteen year jail sentence. Conversation then goes from sex and gender to contraception rights and informed choices. Inna is explaining that women not only have a right to contraception but a right to know the related side effects and an option to refuse. In the past Indonesia’s national family planning organisation has provided contraception without telling people of the side effects, not only breaking some medical principles but endangering women’s bodies and relationships. The representative today reacts to by talking about the culture of Flores and Manggari, how if women were informed many would refuse to use contraception. Inna responds by suggesting that its not simply about chucking information at people but how they are informed and also explaining coping strategies. I had a conversation with one women whose mother suffered from heavy bleeding for over twentyfive years, nobody knew that she had a intrauterine device and not even she believed that it was the cause of the heavy bleeding until last year when it was ‘discovered’ and removed. At the end, as always, people are asking for more information and copies of presentations.

Over one hundred nuns look after a sparkling building, six nuns look after almost two hundred orphans, the logic isn’t in the distance…

Later that day we are taken to an orphanage where some one hundred and fifty children, many with visual, hearing and speaking disabilities, are awaiting us. There isn’t time to work in smaller groups and we must sieze the opportunity. ‘Salamat sore’ [good afternoon] I say, ‘salamat sore’ they roar back. The concert has begun. So that those with physical disabilities are included from the beginning I suggested doing a few brief Shakti exercises and when it comes to describing the the female reproductive system I had the idea for everyone to touch their own eyes (ovaries), follow the eyebrows (fallopian tubes), down the nose (cervix) to the nostrils (vagina). Perhaps I am not the first to have this idea but I am happy to see so many children doing the actions; the idea for the male reproductive system was certainly less original! We do workshops with four or five big groups of children at schools, orphanages and nunneries. The children are invariably split into groups, asked to think of changes during puberty, and then to feedback in front of everyone. At times these moments are like concerts with someone coyly saying ‘menstruation’ followed by houls of laughter and Inna cheekily asking ‘what did they say’ getting more and more to shout ‘menstruation’; it is and excellent to watch as permission is granted to say taboo words and discuss subjects, for some, for the first time. At other times these moments are like politcal rallies with everybody listening with great intensity and taking notes as Inna writes a keyword.

Ayo Indonesia also take us to do a workshop with one of the villages that they have worked with. Over twenty villagers greet us; the older they are the darker they are, from all those years under the sun in the fields I guess. We are treated to an organic lunch fresh from their labour. There are also eight students from a nearby college doing a two month field study in the village. Its hot under the tin roof and I go out for a break. Quickly the students have followed me and I feel guilty because I assume they want to practice English. They introduce themselves and we chat and then I ask them why they left the workshop, was it not interesting. They embarrasingly reply that ‘too many taboo words are being used’. I ask what words but none want to say. Having met so many children over the past few days that have really embraced the opportunity to discuss these topics it is suprising to hear this from people in thier early twenties. I say lets go back in and they gradually follow as Inna is explaining about cervix exminations and breast examinations. I can tell they are uncomfortable throughout. At the end of the four days in Ruteng Inna tells me we have met over fourhundred people!

Conservative nuns, good nuns, nice nuns, polite nuns. Don’t think none, don’t talk none, don’t see none…

I, like Inna and Ayo Indonesia, appreciate the satellite workshops as an opportunity not just to present information to others but to learn from communities about sexuality and reproduction. We know that we cannot rely on governments to meet our daily needs or to save us in times of crisis. Only by listening to each other and being willing to take on projects together, with or without government assistance, can we find solutions to the problems we face. These people are too busy for protesting; they are living their lives, not demanding to be told how to live.



On Their Black History Month

I write from a specific personal history and a precise place. Of course I do, everyone does. I’m from a single-parent family, just my mum and five children, growing up on council estates in a small city. Despite living in the ‘black area’ I went to a different school from everybody else and found myself to be the only ‘non-white’ sitting in the classroom. Both, the all so English white children at school and the all so English ‘non-white’ children after school would often take me to task over whether I considered myself ‘white’ or ‘black’. Perhaps I thought this was a result of where I lived and where I went to school rather than my parentage, but either way I learned from an early age that such questions contained a great deal of bullshit and were irrelevant to me. Still every time there was a nameless African, Asian or some Other in a textbook at school, childish voices would call out, ‘Martin, is that a relation?’ The teachers did nothing, it was so normal that years later at university when people told me that there was no racism at their schools it was hard to see them as anything but stupid. Racism was normal back then, and yet our memories know it wasn’t acceptable. Today inequality and racism have increased rather than decreased; a strange twist sees only our memories acknowledge an inappropriate acceptability of racism that grows evermore unchecked.

Today, when reports reveal that the police stop to harass non-whites as much as twenty-six times more often than the 85% of the population with a lighter skin tone (and Hampshire is one of the worst areas), nobody cares. Senior (black) police officers and (black) equality officers come forth suggesting that their own stats are wrong, yet they maintain increased policing in ‘black areas’. When they go onto suggest that such statistics are just the outcome of too much paperwork (a ridiculous proposition not because I love paperwork) I know that their colour means nothing to me and that their position does even less to protect me. When I say to them that we have witnessed the return of Swamp 81 stop and search tactics, that caused so much harassment and tensions to rise into riots before, they seem to hold back laughter. Their position matters little to me, their concerns are not mine, and they are not interested in protection. Partly this is their own self-indulgence and partly this is the success of a system that has largely succeeded in segregating us along religious, ethnic and gender lines. During the eighties workshops explained what such different starting points had in common in terms of colonialism, art and oppression; links were forged. Today Muslims have a problem with ‘Islamophobia’, Afro-Caribbean people have a problem with prison, and we all have a problem with the Polish; the issues are divided and not even theory is allowed to unite them.

While first generation migrants of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are stereotyped as keeping their heads down and trying to fit into the system later generations forced their way into the system, but for what? So they could stifle the voices opposing institutional and everyday racism? So they could commercialise the concerns of people struggling to live in the face of adversity? It has been said before that that the greatest problem with the anti-racist movement today is that we have lost so many excellent and respected voices to institutionalisation; the voices that could precisely make the links between the Toxteth and Brixton of 1981/1985 and London thirty years later, in 2011 and beyond. The voices we need to hear speak about unreliable and divisive journalism of riots thirty years ago and those today. While we all share in this loss there are some weird statistics to go alongside; there are less non-white councillors than there were thirty years ago; perhaps suggesting that that old guard are consolidating and holding onto their positions (it doesn’t really suggest this but it’s what I think). So when reports are revealing that there are more black people in prison in the UK, proportionately, than in America (who have more black people under lock and key than during slavery), I say to the old guard speak up or make way.

Black History Month, like Notting Hill carnival, was an achievement that came from struggle. The impetus came from the supplementary schools movement when parents wanted to stop feeding their children Eurocentric versions of history; classes were formed to combat racism, teach relevant history and to positively discuss non-European accomplishments. It was their achievement that they are right to reminisce but time has come to stop listening to their pacifying voices and start building towards such an achievement of our own. The month is sometimes criticised for being the one time to bring in the ‘black’ pound, highlighting the point that it a light-hearted moment devoid of the meaningful struggle. I think we are witnessing this most vividly this October in Southampton’s Black History Month when there is nothing on the Black Panthers despite the month coinciding with the 45th year since they were formed, and we see nothing discussing riots. But the thing that becomes clear from such reminiscing as well as from our everyday lives is that, despite statistics, colour is of little importance. Yes, colour makes for an easy target for the those in power to harass but if we bypass the politician’s and the corporate media’s system of classification we can see that there is more that ties us together than divides us. We are neither ‘white chavs’, ‘black thugs’, or ‘the aspiring middle class’ so often portrayed. We are all being fucked. Ever since I can remember I have loved the words of one civil rights activist in particular:

“If you’re not careful, the newspaper will have you hating the
people who are being oppressed and loving the people doing the
oppressing” – Malcolm X


Dale Farm: Big Brother 12

It’s eviction day on Dale Farm. Nobody seems capable of stopping it and worse than this, most parties seem to be gearing up for a big day of confrontation. Activists and the traveller community are prepared to barricade themselves in and use a variety of tactics to keep the bailiffs and authorities at bay for as long as possible. The media has prepared helicopters and towers, while some journalists will report from within the barricades others will be safely tucked out of harms way in a ‘green zone’ courtesy of the authorities. The whole affair has become a spectacle just like the Channel 4 television series, Big Brother, but reality is a lot harsher than ‘reality television’. Although the media do not play a twenty-four hour live feed from Dale Farm they could. Everyone could then speculate on the next turn of events; who will be arrested first and who will be evicted last. If fires and fights come to pass we might just have this kind of coverage but if the bailiffs and authorities decide to wait things out perhaps the media will lose interest and coverage will be cut just like Big Brother. In any event there can be no real winner, it is not a game show and surely we have all lost.

I spent just over twenty-four hours at Dale Farm this weekend and the atmosphere was totally different from the one I experienced nine months earlier. The fear of eviction seemed to have sunk into anger and despair: a sense of the inevitable. Many families were moving their most valuable possessions to areas safe from bailiffs, this left many plots of land empty; void of the life I saw last December when I was so warmly invited into people’s homes. The camp of people supporting the resident community, Camp Constant, has grown with tensions running high as people organise for the eviction day. Activists and residents work together to build barricades, discuss tactics, keep watch, and communicate with medical and legal teams off-site. They are united in a paranoia of unknown faces but this is something that plagues much of England. The environment is quite a sight and looks like a natural disaster has hit the community with broken furniture in piles and homes reduced to their shells. Amongst all this, a stream of media people never ceases to try and gain access to those caught up in events; it’s hard not to see them as anything but vultures preying on distress and misery but when times are hard any lines of help are welcome.

I would like to have stayed longer and got more involved but it was hard to find a meaningful role and make sense of a situation that sometimes seems certain to turn violent. Watching as families make hard decisions about what they could and could not take in the hurry to get valuables out of the reach of bailiffs and wondering how many will return. I am indifferent about how I could help. When families return to defend their bare plots of land, with only graffiti slogans for decoration, it might amount to only a weak protest; truly a sign that they are a part of the British community as the rest of us. Like anyone else in their situation, they deserve to have people at their sides in the event that their homes are taken from them. At other times spirits were lifted and people were wondering how long they could fend off the evictors, either way the conclusion was the same; people get arrested and families are forced out of their homes. It seems to me that the situation has been dichotomised; either you’re for or against, either you’re right or wrong. I’m not happy with such clear-cut distinctions but it’s hard not to think in these terms when the outcome seems so certain; the travellers will be evicted no matter if they own the land or not, no matter if it costs taxpayers more to force them to move than to allow them to remain, no matter if the United Nations and human rights organisations back them up or not.

On Saturday night some off the travellers decided to construct a brick wall on the legal side of the land, right where the bailiffs planned to come in on their newly built road. This feeble wall was on the land that had been granted building permission and so was permitted, so it might present an interesting legal issue that forces the bailiffs to relay their road. Or perhaps the bailiffs will simply demolish it with some legal reasoning; the law is there for them after all. Either way it illustrates my point that this unjust eviction is creating more barriers, racism and damage than it can ever possibly resolve. I spent Sunday stationed at the main gate telling journalists that they weren’t allowed to enter without prior appointments. It didn’t seem fair to be telling people they couldn’t enter but the residents and supporters had agreed that there was still much work to be done and so journalists should be kept out of the way. Still, a few journalists were allowed onto the traveller’s land and I found myself escorting one around to meet families. I facilitated a positive interview but I don’t know the extent to which I trust the condescendingly nice words of a journalist trying to get a story. I also had the opportunity to talk with a senior police officer, a bronze commander, who was insistent that he was there to protect people, but when I asked him just whom he was protecting in this instance he couldn’t answer.

Now I am at home watching the comedy unfold on the news. One moment the High Court has dismissed an appeal, the next they have told Basildon Council that they cannot touch the site until a hearing on Friday. It is good to see that confusion and misunderstanding don’t only rule supreme within Dale Farm and amongst the media but also at ‘higher’ echelons of society. A few things remain crystal clear; the travellers own the land, planning permission is a poor excuse to evict families from their homes and all parties are still gearing up to a day on confrontation… The candlelight flickers as much as ever.


Dale Farm: A first meeting with gypsies

I wrote this late in 2010, things are coming to a head and I am about to return.

In London a few weeks ago I heard of a place called Dale Farm, just a few miles east of the M25. Apparently a group of ‘travelling’ gypsies, after legally being told to settle somewhere, had purchased this isolated piece of land in Essex. The gypsies had lived there for a very long time but were now about to be evicted from their homes, at the cost of millions to the taxpayer. Immediately a plan hatched to go and meet the people, to talk with them and see what they needed or wanted.

I arrived late, just as darkness was about to fall. The final five minutes takes me down a narrow single and pot-filled country lane with a few houses on it. Turning onto Dale Farm I am immediately struck by such an ordinary residential scene; kids playing in yards with council issued bins stood to attention at the front of well organised homes. There are caravans but most homes seem well established spacious shallots with small gardens and driveways. On the walk from the car a few dogs came to inspect me but they were tame, friendly and pleasant. I thought of the stereotype of gypsy dogs and thought of Bali where they are more like creatures of the living dead; two stereotypes that didn’t fit. This place clearly wasn’t a council estate, a country village or a suburban complex; this was another unique place in England with its own distinctive feel.

We had told Marion we would be late and she answered the door with her gorgeous great-granddaughter in hand. “Are you Martin? Come in, come in” her thick Irish accent coming over loud and clear. It all seemed too easy for a meeting of strangers, bearing in mind she’s expecting to be evicted. Marion calls out for her daughter so that we can talk more easily, even though the great-grandchild hardly makes a sound throughout our stay. Her home is immaculate, fashionable and well designed, matching rugs and sofas, everything colour coordinated (magnolia?) with a 28-inch television in the corner, complete with digital set-up. I must have seen eight large decorations or Jesus Christ before sitting down. The place was so clean I felt underdressed and like I was a messing up the front room but Marion just got on with chatting. When one of her grandchildren walked in she immediately set to fixing us a coffee. Having peered into some of the other homes this layout seemed by no means unique.

Marion and her daughter told us about the history of Dale Farm, the community of gypsies, and their family. She remained understandably reserved on some subjects because she was frightened of being evicted this was especially so with issues relating to the community. Dale Farm had been a big scrap yard, not ‘greenbelt’ by any stretch of the imagination, until the 1970s when they had taken the opportunity to purchase the land. It had taken two years to clean and clear the land; to make it liveable. The community had built and supplied all the amenities themselves; cess pits, electricity, running water. Basildon Council had done nothing although settled life eventually provided some benefits; while Marion and her daughter were largely illiterate her grandchildren had attended the local schools. Marion was Irish but all her children had been born in the UK and are British citizens.

A few months ago another settled gypsy community near Hoverfield was evicted from their homes, which were then bulldozed. The threat is real. This is England not some distant place like Jerusalem. Although like the Palestinians these people are happy in their homes and simply want to remain. As the red tape gets tighter petitioning and protesting won’t cut it, and this is a community that understand that such things never helped them anyway. Luckily some of us, like the gypsies themselves, are dynamic enough not to be taped in by bureaucratic pen pushers. Marion’s grandson walks in, he’s in the furniture business and plans to go to some clubland island like Tenerife for Christmas; all so normal.

There was one funny story Marion told us. Essex County Council had paid for the construction of a community hall right in the middle of Dale Farm. It is used as a youth club, to hold church services and as a storage space. Basildon Council were not pleased with this, they after all are the main instigators willing to spend over £10million to evict some two hundred children, men and women from their homes and livelihoods. Why? Because they are ‘Irish’; because they are ‘travellers’; because they are ‘gypsies’. Racism that’s why. You’ve heard it before but when Marion said it last night it somehow sounded more poetic, “all feel pain if ye tooth pains ya, we are no different.”

(To be clear; they own the land, over a thousand people live there but around two hundred are being threatened with eviction because of planning permission, even though all homes are mobile. It’s just an excuse to divide the community and at the end of day is an unjust racist programme. No realistic alternative is being provided).

Borneo: The Void

About a year ago this beaten road broke through tropical forest to lead to two villages and rice fields. Now it doesn’t lead anywhere. It abruptly ends, literally cut off to meet a sheer drop of about sixty metres. Lush green and dense forest encircles this harsh grey and black pit about the size of forty football fields. The depth will only be determined when the coal dries up. We watch the digging and the trucks as they carry off their bounty, in the distance we can see a massive stockpile of the black gold. To another side we can see new mountains of earth and rock, a bi-product from the relentless mining effort. I am told this is just a small example of what goes on all over Borneo. The disastrous scar that has been made to the land is almost forced to the back of discussion due to the immensity of everything; Borneo is massive, humidity is extreme, beauty is deepest green, migration that continues to bring Javanese people here is colonial. In an operation that has changed every dynamic of Borneo, from physical, to cultural, to mental. International companies can act with greater purpose than many governments, and machines are more like mechanical dinosaurs, while the people are hooked on the black gold as if it is heroin.

The family I am staying with migrated from East Java during Suharto’s infamous program of transmigrasi during the 1970s and 1980s. In this program entire villages moved to set up colonies in less populated areas of Indonesia with the promise of better and more sustainable livelihoods. We drive by villages and the father indicates that they are Balinese, central Javanese, or Sudanese. This family, like many others, found that the new pastures were not easily adaptable to any type of farming so forget industrial farming. The heavy rains carry nutrients from the soil and when the mines open they carry the water away. Unable to farm and with mining companies offering lucrative salaries getting involved is not only easy it is sensible for the immediate and short term future. The family has been able to build homes in Kalimantan and buy land in Java. Most of us would be jealous of their home in Kalimantan, in the garden coal rises from the earth and at least four tropical fruits grow for consumption, they also have a supply of fish and ducks to eat. But for some reason they want to return to Java, partly because they are farmers not miners, and also because they don’t like what is happening to Borneo.

The first time I visit this mining site I travel down a freshly laid road designed for hundred ton trucks and their two hundred ton payload. The next time I visit this road is being dug up, re-routed and fresh roads are being laid. I am told that such remapping is common; every week new roads come into being while others are closed and it isn’t expensive or time consuming because companies have all the resources and resolution they need, more than can be said of the Indonesian government. Once emptied the moon craters caused by mining are supposed to be returned to nature and safety but in reality many are left as they are: massive voids. Many others are turned into lakes; I must have driven past more than ten such creations. Either way Borneo’s notorious geography means that hazards are not only contained to the immediate vicinity or within the time of mining operations. I visited one village that within the past week had suffered a landslide that swallowed 300 homes into a river; the mine had long closed. It was another road that abruptly ended, this time a village street with family homes. This time the void was a mustard coloured river, due to sediment from mining, with the roofs of houses bopping up and down.

Some mines are illegal, some are legal, and some are legal but shouldn’t be by law. It’s hard to tell unless you know about such things and live in the community. Anyway who really cares? People need coal, the companies have the power, the government doesn’t protect, and international NGOs only want advertising opportunities. There is no real intention to stop the inevitable. Inevitability can be seen in satellite images revealing that basically the whole of Borneo is ripe for raping. The attraction of Borneo has long been transplanted from wildlife and tropical forests to mining for coal, diamonds and gold. The best the Orang-utans can to is scurry out of the way, which they do; driving down a mining road I saw one swiftly crossing, with their swagger it was quite surreal but even they seemed accustomed to crossing such voids, after all it is now their natural environment.

But what do I know? I know little of the environment and of mining. I listened to what people said and saw some sites. I think if the injustice cannot be seen in the mines themselves at least the sadness can be;