Excerpt from a letter recently written 

Shadow Puppetry seems to be a lost art from in Indonesia. Like the wandering amhares of Ethiopia, puppeteers have been relegated to entertaining tourists in either upscale venues or small box theaters off a main mercantile drag redeveloped to match the needs of a posh European crowd.

In a passage about Jakarta in the early 70s in Confessions of an Economic Hitman, the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) now corporate economic analyst is brought to a back alley of the captical where a large crowd of men, women, and children await the performance of a well known shadow puppeteer from Ubud, Bali. This weather man, hidden behind a single white sheet lit by a candlelight, mans an arsenal of cast iron puppets and traditional bells that ring out link gongs yet have a varied resonance akin to a xylophone. His story begins with an act from the Vedas, a popular love story which is carved over the walls of Parnabar (sp) temple outside Yogy, the second largest city of Java. Yet it quickly turns political. Wielding characterized portrayals of local politicians, the performance depcits recent contracts between Indonesia and USA, where Nixon himself makes an appearance, knocking off politicians left and right till he finds the right man, played by a character who often assumes the vilinary role, accept his terms. The program ends with Nixon sitting on top of the world. The lively crown responds with jeers, cheers, and sidebar discussions about the current events. Shortly after the RPCV excuses himself to adjust his report on the nationals’ openness to development.

The show I observed was not in the streets. It was in a small art gallery within the compound of an upscale hostel. There was no raucous crowd, but 14 tourists – a German family of four with 2 children under 8, a Japanese couple, another American, two older European couples, and three Peace Corps Ethiopia volunteers. Two puppeteers with a handful of musicians recounted scenes from the same epic, interspersing plenty of fart jokes and occasional bits of English to maintain the audience’s attention. After thirty minutes of frantic mimicry, the show ended; the audience offered soft applause and all left.

Despite the abridged content and atmosphere, I can image the scene in urban Jakarta. It seems these “authentic” expressions of culture are disappearing. My generation will be the last – the bridge – between a world divided and globalization. Raised on tales of the Bush and the exotic Orient, we journey across the seas to find artificial displays of culture pre-programmed for our enjoyment taking place across the street from neon signs advertising Applebees, Outback, and 7-11.

7-11, as it turns out, is a very popular bar / hangout for the university students of Java. They arrive in packs of 3s and 4s on their mopeds around 7 or 8 o’clock; buy cigarettes, beers, or energy drinks; and loiter till midnight or later – this as a reaction to one of the most populous Muslim cities in the world.

My trip was bookended outside such a 7-11 on a garden patio table with a few Bintangs and Guinness Foreign Stout in 750 ml bottles and good friends. The second story where the bathrooms were located was being used as a haven from the humidity and a 24hr study hall for distressed studiers.

On the whole, the trip was well divided between cultural, heritage cites (temples, palaces, etc.) and beach hedonism like Kuta, Bali, which has been transformed to the Cancun of Australia. I would not recommend it but for SkyGarden, a seven story night club that services all forms of needed debauchery from dusk till dawn, and the nearby McDonalds that serves Pioneer Burgers with chili sauce instead of ketchup whenever needed.

Regarding budgetary issues – outside of some bad advice on how to island hop, especially considering two of the airports have recently moved – one slight moped accident with a corresponding trip to the emergency clinic for a few stitches in my right knee and payment for cosmetic repairs– and traveling with boys who suddenly wanted to indulge in unknown American culinary luxuries like Outback Steakhouse instead of frequenting the food carts that line the streets of every village each night (if only Ethiopia could have such Asian cuisine) – the country is very affordable.

(photos will be added once I get them from my travel partners’ cameras)

BFA pt 3: Deliveries

A few shots of the books arriving at their final homes:

Boys of all ages help transfer the books to storage.

Hopefully curiosity will continue to help fuel this project.  

The most fun was with the real community — the kids. 

Today many of the boxes sit in the school’s store room, filled with old resources & textbooks. It’ll be my job to make sure they find their way into the classrooms.

BFA pt 2: Mini-Libraries Training!

 On the Saturday before Ethiopian Christmas, 39 teachers, 4 directors, and 3 cluster supervisors attended a one day training to discuss implementing a mini-library in their schools. Considering 52 were invited, it was a celebrated turn-out (our own librarian did not appear to open the needed facilities—we quickly shifted to an empty classroom with a comfortable capacity of 30-35 students).

The agenda, created with my counterpart, Temesgen Imana, looked to familiarize the participants with the books and begin a dialogue of possible uses in and out of the classroom. Limiting ourselves to a single day, the program was full, beginning at 8 (or 2) am and finishing at 5 (or 11) pm. It would include a review of reading-level assessment; practical demonstrations on reading groups, curriculum integration and textual supplementation; and small group discussions on how to build a chools’ reading community. Complete with two shaibuna breaks and a two hour lunch there would be little wiggle room.

And then no one arrived. 20 min pass – six teachers from 3 schools sign in. 40 min – another five. A little over an hour late we begin with the last of the 46 arriving, still grumbling about breakfast or waiting for a bajaj. With a little magic and some quick cuts we managed to find 2 hours of time (teachers arrived 30 min late from lunch) and add another period of discussion. T.I.A.

 It’s always fun to see how teachers resemble their students. Shy and awkward, loudmouthed and brash, or slouched and apathetic; they cheat during activities, wear their emotions and interest on their sleeve, and vie for favoritism. During our reading group activity, for example, teachers could not focus on group reading (reading one sentence/page and showing the picture) as long as the comprehension questions hung in the front of the class – instead they would flip through the pages searching for answers. Yet as they received their mini-library books, all chuckled at the goofy characters or awed at the beautiful painted pictures. The books, thankfully, were the highlight of the day.

My highlight, however, came during the presentations on classroom integration. After participating in lesson demonstrations for grade 2 and 8, groups were asked to match a mini-library book to a lesson within an Ethiopian textbook. The last group to present elected an older teacher whose participation had been sparse yet apt as their spokesman. He introduced a 2nd grade lesson on “animals that jump” and held an advanced book on flight. As I grimaced at the mismatched reading level, he calmly explained that by ignoring the text the pictures could be used as a great asset – visually defining/supplementing vocabulary units for all grade levels. Perfect. I thank his contribution and we end the session with, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

The project has been met with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. Continually directors offer logistical concerns while young teachers battle their enthusiasm to propose grand trainings and student programs. Schools have promised to build shelves in classrooms in exchange for the donation, and teachers have promised to dedicate time to develop reading programs.

This week I will distribute the the books to the schools. From there, “god knows”.

Frankenstein & Musolini

Frankenstein. Musolini. Ash. All three men appreciate the brutal power of a horde, an angry mob. Hunkering in the language office listening to the financial officer row with 50 angry teachers who have amassed outside the window and doorway an hour after the training had completed, I inch closer to this appreciation.

The argument stems over the change in per diem for a training. Last year, teachers were rewarded 167 birr a day. Now, a training yields 50 birr as a lunch allowance (prorated by salary, averaging 30 birr a person) with no travel compensation. To adjust, our office recommended “extending” the training by two days to make it fair – what was scheduled for one day becomes three so each teacher would earn 90 birr, approximately 20 birr over their daily salary.

Outrage. Profanities. Fists and tears. And so I sit and wait, hoping to draw out further conflict. In part I understand. Trainings have been used as a means of earning money; with horrible attendance, NGOs, MoE Contractors and CPD courses continued to increase the per diem to entice teachers to attend. Rates then reached an absurd high, where a three day training would yield 420 birr, almost a month’s salary for a beginning teacher. This year with reductions in IQPEP (USAID) and GEQUIP (WorldBank) funding per diem rates have been normalized and awardings reduced to Ministry trainings only.

To reconcile the teacher’s expectations, programs and trainers add days to the attendance pages and collect extra signatures to provide inflated cash allotments. During the final planning for my training, “It is known,” replaces any explanation, and I am reminded that there are many things within Ethiopia I still do not understand. So now I have something to add under “forged mother’s signature while at school”.

Yet these confused and belligerent men continue to throw biting words, even accusing my colleagues and I of withholding 35% of their per diem for personal gain; then, one by one, each man reluctantly signs to storm home as the soft haze of dusk blankets the campus and all falls silent.