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Collective labor of love for literacy

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, July 16, 2018  /  09:31 am
Collective labor of love for literacy

Yays, neighs to reading: A volunteer of the Pustaka Bergerak initiative uses his horse to distribute books for children in a remote area near Mount Slamet in Central Java. (Pustaka Bergerak/File)

The mobile library initiative known as Pustaka Bergerak does not only aim at boosting literacy, but also at catalyzing social interaction and solidarity through books.

Indonesia is ready to celebrate its 73rd Independence Day on Aug. 17. On this date, the national grassroots literacy movement, Pustaka Bergerak, will have established more than 17,000 branches across the nation’s 33 provinces.

Established in 2014 by cultural essayist Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka, Pustaka Bergerak distributes books across the corners of the country to boost literacy. 

Nirwan said the books were donated by Indonesians, whether they be professionals or students, from across the archipelago and abroad. The books vary from those offering practical knowledge, literature, as well as scientific reference.

Access to books and distribution is crucial for Indonesia, which is ranked 60 out of 61 countries in terms of reading interests based on a 2016 survey by Central Connecticut State University in the United States. 

Nirwan said he believed low levels of literacy was caused by the difficulties faced by Indonesians — especially among those who live in the Eastern part of the nation — in accessing books. Pustaka Bergerak seeks to address this issue.

Thanks to the movement’s dedicated volunteers, who comprise more than 10,000 locals, Pustaka Bergerak has fostered reading habits among Indonesians, especially children and teenagers, by developing fun activities around books.

The movement utilizes the power of social media through a Facebook group that connects the tens of thousands of volunteers across all corners of Indonesia. 

In certain remote areas yet to be reached by the internet, volunteers use creative methods to attract participants, such as using vegetable carts to carry books, Nirwan said.

“Volunteers at each branch also like to host literacy activities, such as storytelling sessions. Some also build makeshift libraries,” Nirwan told The Jakarta Post in a recent interview.

According to Nirwan, these activities provide locals with fun events where they can channel their creativity, both as volunteers or participants, making them highly enthusiastic about joining the programs. 

For example, Ridwan Sururi is a volunteer who operates in the area of Purbalingga, Central Java and he rides a horse or motorcycle to carry books to schools and Islamic boarding schools to host storytelling or environmental activities.

“I hold these activities from Monday to Friday, with different elementary and junior high schools taking their turn, involving 50 to 100 students per activity,” he told the Post over the phone.

“I get a lot of books on environmental issues from various organizations. I use the books to make the children aware about the importance of preserving our Earth while taking care of its cleanliness to avoid environmental destruction. Sometimes, I will also take them to the forest surrounding our villages to plant trees,” he added.

Ridwan, who on the weekends works as a horse-riding instructor for tourists visiting his village, said the activities garnered a response so enthusiastic from the students that more schools from started to ask him to organize such activities for their students as well.

Nirwan said literacy-based activities like the ones held by Ridwan could also help to foster social solidarity and trust among people.

“For instance, when an Acehnese person sends a book to a Papuan, this makes them feel close to one another [despite the geographical boundaries]. Frequently, we also have Muslim children who deliver books to churches,” Nirwan said.

“I believe these interactions can be an effective way to counter religious radicalism. Through these activities, we can boost social trust while reducing racial and religious-based prejudices,” he added.

Pustaka Bergerak’s success has also been made possible after the movement received support a number of organizations. 

For example, the movement has been receiving support from state-owned postal company PT Pos Indonesia, which allows volunteers to distribute books across Indonesia for free once a month. 

With Pos’ support, volunteers have distributed 140 tons of books since May 2017.

The movement does not only attract support from government companies but also private ones, such as private lender Bank Danamon, which requests employees working in provincial branches to donate books to the nearest Pustaka Bergerak branch office.

According to Nirwan, the movement’s success showcases a global trend where the development of information technology has helped the grass roots, where citizens proactively identify and solve their social problems, while simultaneously helping the movement flourish.

“Our success demonstrates that once residents feel there are people out there who care for them, they become creative and proactive, contributing to the cause. The bottom-up approach, where locals become the main subject of the movement, is the key to our success,” he said.