Notes from the Field

Books Strengthen Education in Volatile West Sumatra

November 17, 2010

On a rainy day in October, I found myself in the hallways of a secondary school in Indonesia’s West Sumatra. The classrooms were filled with colorful decorations and the vibrant sound of children’s voices buzzed through the building. A loud school bell mixed with the call to prayer coming from the mosque on the school grounds.

Teachers select new textbooks from Books for Asia

Teachers in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, select from Books for Asia-donated textbooks.

I walked down hallways adorned with impressive student artwork guided by Stefany, a 19-year-old Indonesian student who had recently returned from a semester abroad in the United States where she attended a high school in Georgia. English tumbled from her mouth with confidence and accuracy. Her home town of Bukittinggi, a city of approximately 91,000 people, is located 90km outside of West Sumatra’s capital city of Padang. In this city built on meters of ash and debris left from years of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, I witnessed the unique role of the Books for Asia program.

West Sumatra is a volatile and seismic area, home to thousands who have endured years of natural disasters. An earthquake in 2009, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, left over 1,000 people dead and destroyed the homes and livelihoods of an estimated 250,000 families. While the initial disaster response provided food, temporary shelter, and medical clinics, the focus of long-term assistance continues to be on education, such as rebuilding schools to be more earthquake resistant and providing teachers with better training and support. Data from the provincial government indicates that the 2009 earthquake damaged 1,845 schools and left more than 240,000 students without access to safe and properly-equipped schools.

One of the organizations that responded to the 2009 disaster was Yayasan SDM-Ranah Minang (YSDM-RM), a local non-profit organization that works to improve the quality of education in the volatile region of West Sumatra. Books for Asia partnered with the organization to strengthen their ongoing efforts to improve teaching and learning. With the local Department of Education, YSDM-RM identified schools that would most benefit from English-language books. These included schools that had been damaged by the earthquake, as well as their neighbors, in order to ensure equity in development assistance.

In early October 2010, representatives from 75 schools, including principals, administrators and teachers, filled the Bung Hatta Public Library in Bukittinggi to receive 4,000 new math, science, and language arts books, donated by the American publisher Pearson Education. Over 600 stacks of boxes organized by district and school filled the room. The hour was filled with energy and excitement as teachers inspected the books and carried them to their waiting vehicles outside.

Teachers sort through Books for Asia textbooks

Over 600 stacks of books donated by Books for Asia were organized by district and school to be distributed to 75 schools throughout West Sumatra.

Sadly, in the weeks following our visit, on October 25, West Sumatra was again ravaged by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake that caused a deadly tsunami off the coast. With more than 300 killed and thousands displaced, emergency response efforts in the remote affected areas continue. Yet, despite the disaster, students and teachers have continued attending school in West Sumatra, showing the same commitment and resilience that was seen in 2009, when 80 percent of schools returned to normal functioning just one week after the earthquake.

When social structure and communities are broken down by displacement and chaos, education remains an avenue through which stability can be maintained. While many students in these remote areas struggle to learn English, they seem to realize, as I witnessed on my trip, that English-language skills give them access to some of the world’s best educational resources and allow them to compete with their peers in more developed parts of the country.

Thanks in part to her advanced English skills and her strong education, Stefany plans to attend the University of Indonesia and study economics when she finishes high school. She is part of the rising generation of West Sumatran children and young adults that have benefited not only from immediate humanitarian assistance, but from a long-term commitment to education. These children are the key to future stability in a region that will forever be prone to volatility and natural disasters. It is through education that we can ensure they do not get left behind.

The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program has distributed over 2.3 million books and journals to public and private institutions across Indonesia, and is seeking a continued partnership with YSDM-RM, to help strengthen educational levels in disaster-affected areas of West Sumatra.

Amanda Stek is a communications consultant in The Asia Foundation’s Jakarta office. She accompanied Books for Asia’s Indonesia Coordinator, Aryasatyani Dewi, to a book handover ceremony in West Sumatra in October 2010. She can be reached at info@asiafound.org.

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One comment on this post:

  1. Rhazaly Noentil:

    I am impressed. Only thru education can the youth of Asia progress and be amongst the best in the world. I salute those who have contributed to this mission. Cheers!

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