Pigs and Chocolate
Chris Curtis - June 9, 2010
He ducks his head under a branch and follows the farmer through the bushes. The vegetation soon cuts them off from the sight of those on the terraces above but I have already seen Colin Barlow at work. While other members of the party engage with members of the Kelompok, Colin discusses crop yields and methods of grafting, the incidence of pests and plant nutrition. I am in awe of his energy and expertise and do my best to absorb and record the scene.
We have been visiting the local farming and school groups on behalf of NTA (Nusa Tenggara Association) for the past few days. This is just the beginning of a busy four week tour that Colin and his equally energetic wife Maria undertake twice a year. Their objective: to assist the people of Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia’s most southerly province and one of the poorest. We are on the island of Flores, the Portuguese name is entirely appropriate for a place so verdant and lush. At the other end of the island, researchers have discovered the remains of an earlier type of human being but where we are the modern farmers struggle with the vagaries of the climate and the dry nature of the landscape.
Looking over the steep green hills I have already learnt that all of the “jungle” that I see is more likely someone’s garden than the wild growth that it appears. Colin explained that every plant is carefully chosen and placed to give just the right amount of shade to its neighbour plant. At ground level, farmers who can afford pigs or goats, select them with equal care to suit the local conditions. It is a hard life but for those willing to learn progress is possible. Already new crop varieties and stock have been trialled, crop yields improved and the personal lives of hundreds advanced by ready access to water. Many of the farmers can now send their children to the local school without relying on “scholarships” to provide school uniforms. And when they get to school the children will often be able to read books in a library set up and maintained by the efforts of NTA and its supporters, while sitting at desks and chairs that would also not exist without NTA assistance.
Colin reappears from among the foliage and we take part in a ceremonial planting of young cocoa trees for the production of chocolate. Each new tree is faithfully marked as “Kim’s tree”, “Colin’s tree” or “Chris’s Tree”. I hope that “Chris’s tree” is productive and disease free, and with the training provided by the field officers from the YPMF, the Indonesian acronym for The Flores Community Development Foundation working with NTA support, the chances of success are high. We climb back up the terraces to the road level where we sit for a while under a bamboo and plastic awning to enjoy the traditional hospitality. We decline the polite offering of Betel nut and cigarettes but readily accept the sweet tea, baked cassava and biscuits. Then it’s back into our vehicle and our small caravan moves on to the next objective, a rural primary school not far away.
The headmaster and teachers meet us, they are all members of the school kelompok and Colin knows them well. We exchange greetings and sit in a circle while Colin, Andre and Ruth discuss the library. The YPMF field officer, Pak Meki Non starts the discussion. They have received the books but unfortunately they are not yet correctly stored or catalogued. Would a designated teacher like to receive some training in library management? A schedule is agreed and we move outside to see the section of the school fence constructed a few years before. NTA provided the cement and wire and the kelompok organised the parents to do the construction work. The team decides that they have done a fine job. Cattle and goats are now restricted from the school play grounds. We return to the headmaster’s office where more tea and cakes await us but we eat and drink as quickly as politeness will allow before moving on to the next kelompok. This farm is much poorer but the kelompok is repaying its second rotating loan. They have twice received the equivalent of about A$120 and repaid it at the following harvest. They would like a new loan so that they can build a water tank. Colin notes their request and congratulates them on their progress. We drink more tea and enjoy some fried bananas, but we cannot delay, we have another dozen kelompoks on our list today and the same number tomorrow and for the next two weeks.
Two weeks on Flores and two weeks in West Timor and the neighbouring island of Semau. When four-wheeled vehicles are not available, we ride on the back of a hired motorcycle or ojek through winding avenues bordered by stone walls and living fences of Gamal trees. Plans are often thwarted by flight cancellations, unseasonal rain or delayed arrivals but the field trip is completed despite all difficulties because it must succeed. Everywhere the story is the same; farmers struggling to improve the lives of their families, parents cooperating to give their children a decent education. The Nusa Tenggara Association is changing people’s lives.