JP/Jerry AdigunaIn the Qaryah Thayyibah Learning Community (KBTQ) in Kalibening, Salatiga, Central Java, everyone is said to be simultaneously teaching and learning the subjects they choose.
“Chaos is guaranteed,” the community’s initiator, activist Ahmad Bahruddin, said, grinning, when he described the community he founded a little less than a decade ago.
For most people living in a country where homework and national exams often spell anxiety for both students and their parents, his learning community concept may sound like utter chaos, especially if they further discover that the concept was formed “by accident, not by design”.
Yet chaotic and accidental forces can bring about pleasant surprises.
According to Bahruddin, he first became concerned about the schooling system when his eldest child graduated from elementary school and had to move out of the village to go to junior high school.
At first, he was grateful, yet the long-haired man who was involved in mass movements during the downfall of former president Soeharto’s dictatorial New Order was also worried about his child having to move from the village to the nearby town in a matter of days.
As he was the head of the neighborhood unit, Bahruddin invited around 30 of his neighbors to talk about the children who were about to face the same decision to leave the village.
“Most of [the neighbors] were complaining about the high fees. That was in 2003, so there was no BOS [School Operational Assistance fund] yet, my child then still had to pay Rp 750,000 [US$79.5] for the first contribution. That was quite expensive for people in the village,” he said in an interview with The Jakarta Post and Sinar Harapan last Sunday in Jakarta.
Agitated by the high cost, he made a decision to “nggawe dhewe” — A Javanese phrase that roughly translates as “just do it yourself”.
The learning community had been the latest of Bahruddin’s ideas in community organization, after the Qaryah Thayyibah Farmer Communities Union (SPPQT), which engages in various activities including initiating and managing alternative energy sources.
Using already available resources from those activities, such as an Internet connection and fellow activists who graduated from various disciplines including law and education, he began working on the concept, and while some frowned on the idea of creating their own school, he managed to find 12 initial participants.
At first, the KBTQ ran under the guidance of Salatiga’s SMP 10 junior high school and followed the formal school’s teaching system, but Bahruddin and his friends found that the “guidance” was too stifling and the system only lasted one and a half years.
The learning community then requested the education agency change their status from an open school to a nonformal school to increase their system’s flexibility, but according to him, the learning community is actually inclined towards the informal.
Bahruddin himself declines to refer to the KBTQ as a school. The community, he said, centers on the learners and not the teachers.
“The most important thing is that it is community-based, and it will contribute to the realization of a learning society, [for example] how a farmer deals with the problems he or she faces. He or she will also learn microbiology and so on. That is the sort of education we have in mind,” he said.
According to the Maarif Institute, which recently awarded him the Maarif Award for his humanitarian work, there are currently around 45 participants in the KBQT. The participants pay Rp 25,000 a month to cover costs such as the Internet connection.
The Institute’s research named 19-year old Fina Afidatussofa as one of the community’s noted participants. She has written several books and even opened a publishing company with three of her friends. One of the books she co-wrote was titled Lebih Asyik Tanpa UAN (It’s Nicer without Final National Exams).
Bahruddin himself was born into an environment that encouraged learning and reading. His father was the leader of Kalibening’s Hidayatul Mubtadiin pesantren. The village itself is strongly influenced by the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one of the largest Islamic organizations in the country.
Bahruddin began studying Tarbiyah, or Islamic education, in IAIN Walisongo — now known as STAIN Salatiga — in 1986. During his university days, he was actively involved in NU’s youth wing, GP Ansor, as well as the Salatiga Indonesian Islamic Students Movement (PMII).
While writing his final paper, he became acquainted with activist George Aditjondro, who introduced him to works such as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.
Bahruddin also maintains a relationship with the Forum Gedhangan — a forum initiated by prominent religious figure Mahfudz Ridwan that promotes interfaith and inter-ethnic tolerance — was generally involved with various movements against the New Order.
He once dipped his toe in party politics, joining the National Awakening Party (PKB), and even became a candidate for the legislature even though he says he knew he would never win.
Although some of his fellow activists became more involved in movements in the cities, Bahruddin was more concerned with the struggles of the farmers in Kalibening.
At first, he established a bureau to research pesantren activities affecting the community. However, he found the bureau too elitist for his taste and proceeded to form farmers’ groups instead.
In 1989, he participated in transformative-research methodology training initiated by the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) and became acquainted with various figures such as scholars Moeslim Abdurrahman and Masri Singarimbun, the Maarif report said.
Bahruddin became even more involved in the farmers’ community after the training, and eventually the farmers’ groups transformed into a large umbrella organization; the SPPQT, which currently has over 16,000 members from various regions including Semarang and Boyolali, Central Java, Maarif’s research said.
The union became fertile ground for innovations, such as renewable energy initiatives and Internet resource centers for farmers, but it also faced problems from time to time. Several farmers, for instance, once protested the existence of pig farmers in Getasan, Semarang.
Bahruddin said that he understood the Muslims’ reluctance to live near pigs, which are considered unclean. Yet forbidding the farming of pigs was somehow puzzling to him.
“That’s discriminating against pigs as well. They are also God’s creatures, and even God didn’t forbid them from living in certain areas,” he said, laughing.
He then suggested that the waste from the pig farm be managed properly using a biodigester and transformed into alternative energy. “The waste can even be sold, as long as [the packaging] announces that it is derived from pigs,” he said.
Bahruddin said that despite the possibility of having more problems as the organization grows bigger, he still believed in the principle of the more the merrier, especially in mass movements.
“Villages are the solution to the nation’s problems,” Bahruddin was quoted as saying in the Maarif report.
That statement is of course debatable, but villages certainly seemed like home to this easygoing man.