Going the extra mile

A visit to a school in Indonesia reveals that education is an investment that can never go wrong, especially when it concerns the future of the next generation.

PASSION, drive and ambition — who says the young don’t have it?

I met one such enterprising individual in Panji Irfan, the kepala sekolah (principal) of a lower secondary school in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Only 28, this graduate from Universitas Bandung belongs to the demographic cohort known as the Generation Y.

A zealous leader and a poet at heart, he waxes lyrical in his blog www.panjiirfan.wordpress.com.

On my part, it was a unique experience to visit a school in Kalimantan, which is as alien as Timbuktoo is to some people.

Nestled in an oil palm plantation called PT. Agro Indomas, a signboard proclaims its name for all to see: SMP Tunas Agro, Desa Terawan, Kalimantan Tengah.

SMP stands for Sekolah Menengah Pertama, Indonesian for junior high school.

Located 85km away from the nearest major town of Sampit, this school is funded in full by a private foundation, Yayasan Agro Harapan which was set up in 2008 by plantation company Good Hope Asia.

The school has an air-conditioned computer lab, two Science labs and a magnificent field. You have to see it to believe it!

The 14 teachers who serve here are all hired privately and paid for by the foundation.

Free accommodation and opportunities for training are provided to them.

As for the students, they get free uniforms, books, and transport (by bus). If they perform well, they stand a chance to win scholarships to further their studies.

Led by Pak Panji, I toured the whole school, gave a talk to a class of students, met some of the teachers and came away realising this: this school is thriving in a rural hinterland in Borneo simply because a private organisation had thought it fit to make education one of its primary corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Days of yore

My introduction to Kalimantan was made memorable by the fact that my flight from Jakarta to Sampit could not land at the airport due to bad weather and poor visibility.

The pilot flew us beyond the ominous fog to Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan instead. Sweeping tracts of wetlands and the sight of a long, snaking river greeted my eye as the plane began its descent.

Thankfully, clear skies allowed us to be flown back to Sampit the next morning.

On the Kalstar Aviation plane I boarded, an inflight magazine written in Bahasa Indonesia called Kota Kota offered me an enlightening glimpse into the history of Sampit.

This riverine town is also called Kota Tiga Satu (derived from the Cantonese word sam meaning ‘three’ and yit meaning ‘one’).

In the late 17th century, Chinese settlers capitalised trade in rattan, rubber and gambier. Some historical texts from the Majapahit era make references to Sampit as a stop-over junction in naval exploits.

One local name that caught my attention was that of the Dayak warrior-turned-journalist Tjilik Riwut.

He took on arms not only to protect his motherland against the Dutch (and then the Japanese), but also the pen to record Dayak culture, food and history.

Pak Panji showed me a copy of Tjilik’s commendable book, and the thick volume is a veritable record indeed!

In Tjilik’s time, Sampit was a rustic port. Today, the town is developing fast.

Rows of trucks form a queue on the road bank to procure government-subsidised diesel — a highly valued concession here.

Set up 17 years ago, PT. Agro Indomas is an oil palm estate which is a microcosm onto itself.

Akin to many similar properties here in Malaysia, well-maintained laterite roads bisect the estate, which is typically replete with staff and worker houses, bungalows, a clinic, school and a mill.

Meanwhile, parabola reception dishes, flat TVs, and Internet connection attest to some pretty top-notch living!

The estate even boasts not only a nine-hole golf course but a lovely club house!

Located a stone’s throw away is the largest lake in Kalimantan — Danau Sembuluh.

The company set up its first long house on the lake banks years ago.

Today, that very building has been upgraded to a training centre. Surrounded by lush forest greenery, the call of monkeys hail trainees who stay at this “eco resort”!

Raising young stars

While Pak Panji is blessed to be based on this estate, he works hard nonetheless.

His youth obviously does not detract from his ambition to take SMP Tunas Agro to great heights.

As it is, the school has already been accredited as “Excellent” in 2012 by the National School Accreditation Board of the province of Palangkaraya in Kaltel (Kalimantan Tengah). Numerous trophies line the shelves in the reception area.

I met 36-year-old Nopiar Rahman, an English language teacher.

Predictably enough, he confirmed that teaching English to rural kids is a huge challenge but he is neither giving up nor taking it easy.

“I teach them the simplest aspects of communication and get them to enjoy the language. I love it myself so I make my lessons as fun as possible.”

To its credit, the foundation has also built six kindergartens, with two more in the offing.

In addition, it also pays the salaries of four teachers who work in a government-run primary school in Rongkang, located in the periphery of another estate called PT. Agrobukit.

In visiting that school, I was humbled to meet teachers who took their jobs seriously and realised that the onus was on them to make village children realise the importance of a good education.

The word tunas means ‘bud’ and the act of education offers the best offshoots.

Asked why they loved being in SMP Tunas Agro, three enthusiastic students separately ticked off the following: caring teachers, a host of extra-curriculum activities and great infrastructure.

Their gratitude brings to mind what Henry David Thoreau once said: Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

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