Friday, 10 December 2010

Can Do Spirit

Recently I was a jury for Danamon Award, an award that recognises the spirit of can-do amongst ordinary individuals who, despite their physical, economic and social inhibitions, emerge as heroes in their community and able to make a difference to themselves and to others.

When things go wrong and don’t go the way we want them to, often people would find it easier to lay the blame on other things, whether other people, their parents, the government, their situation, fate or even God. So once in a while, it’s heartening to meet a bunch of people who, despite their personal challenges, do not waste time to bemoan their sorry lot in life or wait for others to lend them a hand, but actually look around and see what they could do to improve their lives and that of others.

And the men and women selected for the award are indeed extraordinary in many ways, not least because they themselves, in a society that normally measures success through material gain and achievement in status, are simple individuals with minimal education and financial means and some even with physical disabilities.

These are individuals who one would usually regard as disempowered, vulnerable and dependent on others. And yet their courage, motivation and concern for the well being of others on the contrary leave us, more fortunate members of society,, at awe and ashamed that we ourselves couldn’t contribute more with the means that we have.

There is one Masril Koto, a farmer, hailing from Agam, West Sumatra. Clad in simple farmer’s clothes and wearing sandals, Masril has an infectious laugh and a sophisticated sense of humour. When asked about his educational background, he said he had achieved S3, which stands (not for PhD, as it normally stands for) but SD, SMP and SMA (elementary, junior high and senior high school.)

Small farmers like Masril, often find it difficult to get a loan from a bank to buy fertilizers and other farming needs. According to Masril, not many formal banks wanted to deal with them because they had no collaterals or bank guarantees. They were not desirable as customers or trustworthy.

But Masril was not put off. After lengthy discussions with his fellow farmers, Masril was given the task to find out all he could about banks. Not to access the credit. But to actually set up a bank.

As it turned out, Masril was quite the banker. And, according to him, after understanding the principles of banking, which is collecting funds and then lending them out as credits, (which he learnt by visiting banks and reading their brochures) setting up a bank was not that difficult. As the bank would be owned by the farmers, to give credit to farmers and run by their children, they could more or less create their own rules according to their own needs without too much paperwork and bureaucracy.

Masril’s first step was to raise the funds by selling shares at rp100 000 each to the farmers in the area. His power of persuasion was admirable. The first bank set up (which is in effect a micro-lending body for farmers), managed to gather 15million rupiah in funds. Farmers could borrow from as little as rp100 thousand (9 dollars) which they need to pay back after a given time.

Since the first bank in 2006, there are now over 300 micro-banks in the region with funds amounting to some 90 billion rupiah, with credits used for anything from developing the farms to financing the farmer’s children school fees. According to Masril, there are very few cases of non-payment. Farmers who are tardy in paying back the loan are reminded first verbally, then in writing, and if still recalcitrant, would have their names called out during Friday prayers in the mosque. That always worked to get them to pay back their debts.

He also takes pride in the fact that he was actually invited to discuss his idea with the Minister of Agriculture, who visited his bank when it was first set up, and who decided to adopt the scheme to help thousands of farmers on a nationwide scale.

These days Masril no longer has the time to attend to his farm. Instead he is busy thinking up of ways to expand the micro-banking further to set up insurance and pension funds for farmers as well as a loan scheme to encourage organic farming, as well as setting up the farmer’s banks around the west Sumatra region and training the farmers how to set up the banks themselves.

Still, wherever he goes, the 36 year old farmer wears his faded black farmer’s clothes and dons his rubber sandals. And yet beneath this modest appearance and deceptively simple demeanour, lie an indomitable spirit and a belief that anyone with better means would do well to emulate – the belief that nothing is impossible as long as you’re willing to learn how to do it.

The Award also recognizes the achievement of Kiswanti, a woman from Bogor, who was born to a family so poor that her parents could not keep her in school beyond sixth grade, and yet it did not prevent her from pursuing her passion for reading and to share her love of books with others. Like many poor women in Indonesia, hers is a familiar story of a lifetime of menial labour, selling ‘jamu’ and becoming housemaids.

Except in her case, every penny she earned, she saved up to buy books until, now in her forties, she has an impressive collection of books that she lends out for free to children in her area, from her house that she had turned into a simple library, encouraging literacy not only among the children, but also the adults.

And when I meet people like Masril and Kiswanti, doers who do not rely on the charity of others or expect a handout from the government, despite the country’s never-ending setbacks, I could only have optimism for our future.

(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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