How We Learn to Wash our Hands

This is a post about water and sanitation in rural Indonesia and a collective attempt at making things better at one school. This is a continuation on my theme of finding and adapting existing solutions to common problems in my “neighborhood.” This is an essay about real people and the circumstances we find ourselves in. This is my story about how we learn to wash our hands.

Statistics rarely express the depth and nuance of a problem but they make for a decent starting point. Here’s one I’ve had on my mind for a while now: over 40% of Indonesians lack access to proper sanitation. That’s roughly the combined populations of France and the U.K.

I’m reminded of this statistic each time I see people defecate in the open. Some folks here use the river because they have no other means. When sewage escapes the river, when people use stagnant water, or fail to wash with soap, it often leads to preventable diseases like amoebas, tapeworms, E. coli, Typhoid fever or worse. Each year over 50,000 people die from diarrhea alone. This should be alarming.

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On Finding, Not Searching

For what seems like far too long, I had felt stuck in a puddle of ambiguity each time I asked myself: “What exactly are you doing, Matt?”

A professor was the first to tell me: “Peace Corps is great but it’s not real development work. And you will gain so much more from the experience than you can give back.” For over 50 years now, volunteers have formed their own interpretations on the agency’s goals and the meaning of service. At over a year in, my own views are still forming from my own niche, out here, in the developing world. But don’t go just yet! This isn’t a depressing post!

Last school year came to an unceremonious close. Against my better judgement, I tallied up my professional accomplishments from the previous two semesters only to find my impact lacking. I came to the conclusion that too many structural barriers had prevented me from achieving my goals, namely improving the numbers on our Project Framework in some meaningful way. Today, I don’t think this view is necessarily wrong but it’s not that simple either. We must embrace ambiguity if we wish to arrive at a point of view beyond it.

Volunteers perform myriad jobs under the banner of technical training and building friendship. I happen to believe the agency’s greatest strengths, at least here in Indonesia, all have to do with organizing at the community level. This thought came to me only after failing, in so many fantastic ways, to successfully challenge the status quo at school. The most valuable commodity I can offer is not so much technical but my will to put people, ideas, and resources together. Here I share a lesson my community taught me about organizing.

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Teach With Your Mouth Full

It’s an early Friday morning. I mandi, make breakfast, and start getting ready for school. I’m slurping coffee and the neighbors are blasting some god-awful dangdut like any other day. Pencils, notebooks, rain jacket, special teacher’s red pen, and Kindle – it all goes into the backpack, which goes into the bike basket. Then I grab my three loaves of sliced bread and two jars of peanut butter and strawberry jelly. NOW I’m ready to leave for school.

For better or for worse, in Indonesia, high school English Language lessons must adhere to a national curriculum. It’s called the “Genre Based Approach.” In short, teaching units are arranged into thematic categories such as “narrative story,” or “news item,” or “analytical exposition.” The intention is to teach each genre by analyzing sample texts for the function, organization, language features, and vocabulary. In the classroom, this approach suffers from a number of problems. The biggest challenge, you ask? It’s boring!

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