The older boy, short and chubby, seemed the leader of the group. He smiled and waved at me, “Selamat Pagi Bu,” good morning mam. “Selamat Pagi, Apa Kabar,” good morning, how are you? I replied. “I am good,” he replied. “What’s your name,” I asked. “Yogi,” he replied. He sauntered over to me, three younger children in tow. Their smiles never leaving their faces. The older boy took my right hand, and bowing slightly touched the back of my hand to his forehead. The younger children followed suit, some with their forehead, some with the tip of their nose, then ran off with great excitement and keenness to continue playing.


Wherever I go on the Island of Sumatra, I notice the Indonesian people are very hard workers, given the opportunity.  They rely on fishing as their livelihood and have chickens running around their yards.  These people are very poor. 

Small fish are left to dry in the sun

They believe that the best solutions to breaking intergenerational poverty lies with the next generation.  Having education and healthcare, as well as excellent infrastructure, is a major factor in alleviating poverty.  The brightest students of Southeast Asia leave home to pursue higher education, commonly in the United States, UK, Australia, or the Netherlands. The government spends huge amounts on scholarships for Indonesians to study abroad. Soon this will be changing, with the Indonesian government opening up access to the local higher education sector, through partnerships with private Indonesian institutions, so students won’t need to leave home to get a world-class education. Thus far, the University of Cambridge, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Queensland have expressed interest in operating in Indonesia. The regulations also encompass a mandatory partnership with local private universities. In addition, the only majors they are allowed to offer are in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Having met a number of Asian students in Australia, achieving masters and doctorates in these disciplines, and hearing about their lifestyle back home, having come from such poor backgrounds, I was keen to learn more about their country and see their living conditions firsthand in Indonesia. Most students go back to their countries, offering their skills to improve productivity and economic growth, providing their families with a better life. An example of this was a young man I met.

Madi grew up in the backwaters of Sumatra. His family’s house was built on stilts to prevent flooding, as it was on the river’s edge, with the wild Sumatran jungle as the backdrop. His father fished every day to provide food for the family, as well as working on plantations to earn a little money. They had no electricity or a flushing toilet. Madi was the oldest of six children, and always harbored curiosity for the unknown as he said.  He felt a sense of satisfaction on discovering anything new and vowed to one day find a job that would allow him to keep learning and help his family.

Highly polluted waters
Houses are built on stilts along the waters edge

These children are also subject to work in agriculture, which exposes them to extreme heat, pesticides, and organic dust. Long hours, working with dangerous tools and machinery. These plantations are generally located near villages. Poor quality and low availability of schools and low regard for education in rural areas contribute to a steady supply of child labourers in the plantations.

“I worked hard at school, studying at night by candle light,” he said, “but it paid off. I received my first scholarship in secondary school.”

As the oldest of six children, Madi felt extremely lucky to be able to help relieve a bit of his parents’ financial burden with the scholarship. Through the company that he received his award from, he could get a university scholarship, he, of course, was extremely keen and decided to apply. This would pay for him to study at an agricultural institute, and also allow Madi to gain a full-time job with the company. He felt truly blessed. Though the families are poor, they will make every attempt to send their children to school and university. Fathers working in the plantations and mothers selling fresh produce.

Sitting quietly amongst shabby shacks, dirt, chickens, and cats, in the village, I watch Yogi and a group of younger children hanging on a branch, bending it to the ground, so a little girl could grab the end. “Lihat Bu,” look mam, yelled Yogi. The branch catapults into the air with the little girl hanging on. Letting go, she falls to the ground laughing, amazingly no broken bones, ready to try again. Having such excitement and eagerness for more, I find these children quite adventurous. They then run off giggling to play “let’s pretend.” Yogi, with a big grin across his face, holds up his shoe, “pretend mobile,” to do a “let’s pretend selfie.” The rest of the children quickly stand behind him, looking up at the pretend mobile, grinning with excitement to have their “selfie photo” taken, even though the mobile is not real. A simple pretend game that brings so much joy to these jungle children. Yogi being the leader of the group and quite adventurous, was good at creating something out of nothing. I hoped he would become another Madi someday. Before I left to continue exploring the area, I yelled out to them, “Selamat Tinggal”, goodbye. The children rushed over to me to perform Salim. “Nice meeting you,” I said. “Nice meeting you, too,” they replied. Then off they ran, waving back at me.

Happiness is simple. The cellphone is fake… but the smile… is real

The older people are respected through performing Salim, which is like a handshake, touching the back of the hand to the forehead. When shaking hands with an older person, such as parents, grandparents, and teachers, the younger children are expected to touch the back of the older person’s palm with the tip of their nose or forehead, showing respect from the young to the elderly. This is similar to hand-kissing, except only the tip of their nose or forehead touches the hand, not the lips. This is seen in the villages and amongst families.  


On the main beaches littered with rubbish, children find coconuts to roll into the surf, over and over again, never getting bored with their simple game. Families fill the beaches with their picnic dinners, waiting for the sunset, a local tradition to end every day. A simple outing, yet so enjoyable and so much excitement.  Food trollies set up along the beach and BBQs burning, oblivious to all the litter.


As I continue to explore the village, the jungle of Sumatra closes in on me with stifling humidity and heat.  Wiping the perspiration from my face, I continue to walk down the dusty road enjoying the simplicity of my surrounds. I notice how content these people are with how little they have. Poor yet happy, always smiling, waving and saying Hello. Such a humbling experience.  

When greeting or introducing yourself, smiling, shaking hands (Salam), and a slight nod is a kind gesture. A medium to a soft handshake is adequate since gripping too hard can be considered rude or aggressive. It would be considered polite to follow this form of salutation. Generally, in Salam, the equivalent of the handshake is to proffer both hands and gently touch your counterpart’s extended hands, before finally bringing one’s hands back to the chest to demonstrate that you welcome from the heart. Politeness, as well as respect, modesty, and loyalty, is prevalent in the culture. Indonesians believe smiling initiates contact, so it’s recommended to smile back in return. Smiling, toward strangers that you interact with, or someone you have eye contact with, is considered polite, being a social icebreaker and to show that you are approachable. Probably that is why Indonesians are rated the most smiling people in the world.

Content with life itself, they survive poverty, sickness, floods, landslides and deadly roads due to poor maintenance.  When the floods come, the roads break up and leave gaping holes in the road, which are difficult to pass through especially when they are full of water and you don’t know how deep they are.  Traffic is slow due to the condition of the roads, and there are many large trucks, cars and motorbikes over taking on solid white lines, blind rises, blind corners with oncoming traffic. There doesn’t seem to be any road rules. Everyone takes a chance. Some motorbikes are laden with baskets of produce, some have an entire family on, some with helmets and some without.

When the main rivers flood, water flows into the plantations bringing fish with it. Local Indonesians find places to fish wherever there is water, in wide, deep dug canals along the side of the roads, which help to prevent flooding across the roads, and along river banks. Children and adults are quite content with fishing rods, some sticks with fishing line and bait, to catch fish for dinner. Mothers sit on a blanket waiting patiently, who knows what they catch in these waters. I guess the Indonesians are quite resilient, you have to be, living in these conditions. Yet they are happy with the little they have. Again, smiling, waving and saying Hello. I guess innocence is bliss in a way.

Simple games and things Indonesian jungle children do. So little in life, and yet always happy and never complaining. This is a humbling experience about life for me, making me feel guilty in a way.  

As for Madi, having studied in the Netherlands, he hopes to expand his knowledge further in the field of science, continuing his studies at the master’s level, and then working towards his Doctorate. Having had access to a good education, and earning a good salary, Madi is now able to give his family a better life and access to good healthcare, building a new house for his parents’, where they can have electricity, a flushing toilet, and a television. This is proof that access to education and healthcare, and good infrastructure are major factors in alleviating poverty. Madi tells me that when he goes home, he still studies by candle light, of course, until the new house is completed. Such high achievements for a young man from the backwaters of Sumatra. Since meeting Madi, I have come to learn of many young Indonesians who have achieved university degrees, masters, and doctorates. Studying in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, proving how extremely bright and determined they can be, these young people have come from such poor, disadvantaged backgrounds, and yet they still can achieve so much. This is a sheer determination for education and a better life.

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