From Baltimore to Bojonegoro: Five Lessons Learned
Monday, March 24, 2014 - 14:42


From Baltimore to Bojonegoro: Five Lessons Learned

A guest blog by Sakina Girnary, Makesi Paul and Yunuscan Sevimli

When our flights were finally confirmed, we weren't quite sure what to expect from two weeks in Indonesia. As three engineering students from Johns Hopkins University, our Global Engineering Innovation program had partnered with an international non-profit organisation based in Indonesia - Kopernik - and was planning to send us to villages 13 time zones away. As any college student would, we had jumped on the idea.

Our task was to interview local residents of Bojonegoro and Tuban, in East Java, Indonesia, to gather information about their daily lives and prototype engineering solutions to increase the efficiency of their agricultural processes. We would be guided by Kopernik staff along the way. Along with a few logistic details, this roughly sums up how much we knew going in. Of the multitude of things we learned along the way, five stand out most clearly:

1. You’re welcome

Coming from a big city in the United States, we’re used to a fast-paced life where people find themselves to be so busy, busy, busy that sometimes even your friends have a hard time penciling you into their schedules. The phrase ‘time is money’ is thrown around enough to make you feel that every moment you are not swamped with something, there’s something more you should be doing.

While this fast-paced life has its perks, in Bojonegoro and Tuban, we appreciated a different kind of lifestyle. The air was so much calmer there, even the stresses and worries that followed us to Indonesia couldn’t find us in these villages. People were easy-going and always welcoming. They sat with us, talked to us, laughed with us, fed us and then sometimes even followed us when we went to the next interviewees house! They, too, had long, busy days, some waking up as early as 4am, but they somehow managed to find time to talk to us and make us feel more than welcome, and not as though we are talking in the presence of a ticking clock.

2. Bamboo framework is harder to make than it looks

One of the greatest things about building in Bojonegoro was that bamboo was free! We could literally go into someone’s backyard and chop down a couple of trees to get ahold of some. And we did. We got the inspiration to build our prototype from bamboo from all the work we saw on the streets - restaurants and shops were ingeniously made out of this abundant material. Not only was the architecture beautiful and evenly made, but it was perfectly stable and looked as though it was relatively simple to emulate.

Unfortunately, once we started building, we quickly learned how hard it actually is to work with bamboo and gave much credit to the locals who worked brilliantly with the inconsistent trunk sizes, weight and quality of bamboo. What we thought would take us a few hours to put together ended up taking days!

3. Gambling with fish

You know you’re nearing the Tuban fish auction from miles away due to the smell, but nothing prepares you for the burst of colours you see when you actually get there! The hustle and bustle of the place is too exciting; as you walk through the auction, you’ll see fishermen mending nets, builders painting ships, women sorting fish - all the while, fish guts and heads are being sprawled on the floor beneath you. People from all over the village come to the auction to buy their fish. Fishermen pile their varied catch into colourful buckets, from which the buyers choose. Once they pick a bucket, they are committed to buying the contents within it - not knowing exactly what that is! The buyers have to pour out the contents and sort the fish by type and size and pay according to that. Larger, more profitable fish cost more while the smaller fish cost less, which means the whole process of buying fish is a gamble - you never know what you’re going to get!

4. Pest Control

When we visited many places in Bojonegoro, we found that a lot of families relied solely on farming to get by. They would often wake up before daybreak and some of them worked at other farms to bring in additional income. Farming was all they knew and the only way they could feed themselves and their families. What was unfortunate and sometimes tragic is that pests would eat the crops and ultimately decrease their revenue for the year. One farmer explained that there were two main types of pests: those that eat the crops themselves and others that would devastate the entire harvest by eating the root of the plants. They went on to mention that pesticides were becoming more expensive and would ultimately damage the soil. Many farmers have reported losing one of their two harvests for the year, meaning they would lose the money that they had initially invested in the farm. As an added challenge, they have to pay for basic needs like water, because their ‘improved water source’ is not drinkable.

Overall, pest control is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed urgently so that the farmers can have a more reliable harvest.

5. “Welcome to East Java. Now forget everything you know about Bali.”

East Java was very different from Bali, where we initially landed to meet the Kopernik team. The most prominent difference: Bali is predominantly Hindu while East Java is Muslim. Not only did the Muslims in East Java practice a different religion, they also spoke a different language, Javanese. In Bali we saw offerings everywhere around us, which consisted of square-shaped bamboo trays filled with flowers and incense. Karma was a huge part of their everyday lives in that it shaped the way they treated others - for this reason crime was relatively low.

In East Java we heard the adhaan, or call to prayer, five times a day. Due to the large number of mosques located near each other, the adhaan would sometimes clash in sound, but then other times the prayers would synchronise so beautifully the entire village echoed in the sweet melody. Most of the women wore colourful head scarves and every Friday was a holiday, so the villagers could attend juma’a (afternoon prayers) and the kids could go to madrasa, the Islamic equivalent of Sunday school, a traditional ritual for Christian youth. In both Bali and East Java, religion played a large part in their culture. It was more than a practice, it was a way of life.

Learning from experience

We were chosen for this project because we had previous international experience. This statement almost sounds funny now given how little we knew about Indonesia and how much we learned in only two weeks. We are proud to have accomplished everything we set out to do in a very unfamiliar setting but none would have been possible without the help of the Kopernik team who were always there for us as navigators, translators, guides and friends. We left Indonesia noting how lucky we were to have been there and to have made new friends, and appreciating how much more there is still to learn.