An Unforgettable Trip
Janet Penny Bennett, with comments from her granddaughter, Elizabeth Proctor - July 23, 2009
Our family has many reasons for my attachment to the NTA. In 1958 my husband, David Penny and I went to live in Medan, North Sumatra. In those heady days two young idealists went forth to help people whose history had left them a great deal less fortunate than we were. At the time it was not easy to tell whether we were achieving our goals; there were frustrations, set-backs and many rewarding hints that the work was worthwhile.
David was convinced that the most effective way to 'help' was to teach young Indonesians who would in turn teach farmers to help themselves to improve their economic conditions. He had also always believed that the best starting point in such teaching was to learn from those who had already dealt with the conditions at hand, that is, the farmers themselves, and build on their knowledge with ideas from elsewhere. His own contribution was to introduce some notions of farm management to Indonesian small-holder agriculture. He combined the job of establishing of a course in agricultural economics at the then new University of North Sumatra with doing research for his PhD. His thesis was that entering the wider market economy was the best way for farmers to improve their economic circumstances. To establish that, he studied a variety of farms along a continuum, from subsistence farming to commercial cash-producing food crops. At one end, the farmers made almost no cash inputs; at the other end, they purchased seeds, fertilizers, insecticides, etc. It is worth noting, that he later came to questions these assumptions.
Years later, when working at the ANU, David met Colin Barlow, and the two of them shared many ideas about economic development. At a time when the "trickle-down" theory of development was in vogue, these two questioned its efficacy for those lower down in the economic scale. It is clear that Colin, in establishing the NTA, has followed many of David's ideas. Because I know that the NTA operates with the greatest possible efficiency, I have been pleased to contribute to it over the years. I know that I'm not paying for beautiful printed brochures, for paid fund-raisers, or for foreign advisers to travel in first-class style to supervise the 'help'.
In January, Colin and Ria arranged a wonderful visit to West Timor, so my granddaughter Elizabeth and I were able to see for ourselves the work done by the NTA. [Here Elizabeth notes: As my mother's birthplace, Indonesia as a whole has always been of interest to me, and seeing the NTA's work gave me a great sense of connection to my grandfather David, whom I would have loved to meet.]
Pak Gershom met us at the airport, with his marvellous car. Soon we were taken in hand by his wife Ruth Rebo, Pak Andreas Nuwa and Pak Neander Beeh. They all made us very comfortable in our hotel, facing the sea, and drove us around for a look at Kupang.
On our first field trip, they took us to see two villages to the south of Kupang. The first was Tablolong, a village which has received assistance from NTA in several ways:
1) The fishermen of this coastal village have received assistance through a microcredit scheme to purchase their own boats and motors rather than hiring them from Chinese traders. This enables them to get full market prices for their catch.
2) The NTA has helped them to build a wall around the school grounds, establishing their rights to the land there.
3) They have been taught the farming of a type of seaweed, used in the production of cosmetics, paints and other products. It was this aspect that they showed us, explaining how they use nylon ropes, tying on 'starters' of the seaweed, and attaching the ubiquitous plastic water bottles, tops on, to use as floats for their ropes. Each farmer knows his own rope, and gathers in his crop when it has grown. It is dried on raised platforms made of branches, built there on the beach, and then sold to Javanese manufacturers.
The second village, Sumlili, was a few miles inland, where the main enterprise was livestock raising. Here again, microcredit was the way such large investments could be made by poor farmers. In this village they had suffered a serious setback a few years before. Someone had stolen their cattle, which had been allowed to roam freely. Since they had been bought with money from the cooperative microcredit scheme the money had to be repaid. It had taken nearly six years for them to repay the loan and purchase new stock, so the new cattle were carefully guarded. The very strong fences were testimony to their anxiety; further, they had to cut and bring enough grass to feed them heavy work. But their hospitality was outstanding, and the small house where they received us was beautifully furnished, with pink ruffled satin curtains against walls lined with stripped palm fronds and painted turquoise. We were offered tea and sweet cakes, and then shown the 15000L rain-water tank providing for several of the homes.
On our third day we were taken to visit a wet-rice village, Manusak, where the NTA has helped people settle this land, again with a cooperative microcredit scheme. They have been able to buy a mechanical hand-pushed plough, and with NTA help have built wells, pumps and piping. Again, we had a warm welcome, and especially enjoyed the children shy as well as bold ones as we distributed some wrapped candy and little koalas.
Further along the road we stopped at a furniture manufacturer's, where NTA had contracted them to build school desks and chairs. Ibu Ruth paid out the several million rupiahs, and they showed us the sturdy furniture.
Elizabeth was impressed by the clear contrast between NTA- and government-supplied furniture; none of the government supplies would last past 12 months, and were already peeling and cracking from the humidity. The 30 desks and matching chairs were a much needed addition to a school with five children for each desk that they already had.
Then Pak Gershom's car proceded very carefully over 12 km of rutted and muddy roads, to a remote school, in the village of Oenoni. The Government had decided to close this school, as it was in very bad repair leaking thatch roof, floors that were muddy in the rainy season, and furniture in bad shape. This would mean that the children would have to walk the 12 km to the nearest school, no doubt discouraging most of them! With a new tin roof, a cement floor, new tables and chairs, the school was saved, with the result that the Government decided to build a completely new, brick building. With a cupboard full of books and a well, also contributed by the NTA, the school was the pride of the village. We met the teacher, clearly a dedicated man. Elizabeth was very impressed: 'With between eighty and one hundred students attending Oenoni school in morning and afternoon shifts, this one teacher had to be one of the most tireless people I've ever met. He has probably worked harder than I ever will, yet seemed full of energy.'
Further on in Mio, we visited another more established school which had been helped by NTA. The teacher proudly showed us a water well, three classrooms of strong, long-lasting furniture and the crowning glory a wealth of books for all ages and subjects.
Our final destination for the day was So'e. It is a small town, but well set-out, and because it is 900m above sea level, it is cooler than most of West Timor. The hotel where we stayed has some very special garden statues and we were made comfortable and welcome.
The next day Pak Andreas presented us with a lecture, complete with power-point, explaining how micro-credit differs from grants, and how it can enable people to enter the market system and invest first their skill, ideas and time to build an economic base then later they can add some money, profit from the first endeavor, to their other assets, to make the base grow.
It came to be one of David Penny's strong beliefs that the 'trickle-down' theory of economic development was seriously flawed. It is clear that this cooperative micro-credit approach is more like a 'trickle-up' system. To round out our visit, I was proud to learn that Pak Andras had himself studied with David Penny, in Java in the 1970s.
It confirmed to me that the NTA is a true descendent of the work done by David, and of the life we shared in Indonesia from 1958-1962.
For Elizabeth, it was clear that 'the care and passion with which the NTA provides so many people with the means to improve their lives was inspiring and humbling. I saw a great connection between this and David Penny's work, as it was also shown to me in Sumatra, and also a huge commitment of love and respect for all residents of Nusa Tenggara from the project, which is the best possible foundation from which to change this world for the better.'