Posted by: joan49 | August 16, 2011

Island Encounter #1

Hi, everyone, welcome to my new blog!

My last update ended with me getting ready to check out the Mentawai Islands, an island chain off the coast of West Sumatra, Indonesia, that was hit last October by a 7.7 earthquake and then a tsunami.  A lot has happened since then since then so here is an overview.

Mentawai Islands Topographic Map     

The earthquake and tsunami hit the Mentawais on October 25, 2010, killing more than 500 people and completely destroying entire villages.  Historically hunter-gatherer tribes, the people there have been struggling to rebuild their lives from literally nothing ever since.  I just moved there in April, but the longer I’m there, the more I have realized that the needs there go way beyond simple disaster relief.  Geographically, the Mentawais are only about 100 km from the coast of West Sumatra but are surrounded by coral reefs and high waves, which make for good surfing but hard boat landings.  The waves create a geographic barrier which has been and remains one of the biggest challenges for bringing relief and development to the islands.  Medical facilities are practically nonexistent with only one government clinic available for the two most southern islands, and no doctors are regularly staffed there. Schools are scarce as well with elementary schools spaced so far apart children often have to walk 2 hours one direction to go to school.  This has led to 10, 11, and 12 yr olds in the first grade since they were finally old enough to walk the distance to school, and these schools only go through the 3rd grade.There is also only one high school for the 2 most southern islands, which means many kids have to spend the night in dorms – but the dorms are unsupervised which has led to a high rate of teenage pregnancy, and as you can imagine most families therefore refuse to send, especially their daughters, to high school.  Naturally, this has led to low literacy rates and given rise to discrimination by West Sumatrans who consider Mentawains backwards and primitive.  Religious differences have also contributed to this tension since West Sumatra is strongly Muslim, while the Mentawais are strongly Christian and always have been since they were first converted from being animists back in the 1930s, though many areas still practice animisim. Relations between Mentawai and West Sumatra have always been strained but things got even worse when the locals were stripped of their own land rights when the value of their timber was discovered and exploited by logging companies back in the 70s.


Tsunami survivors and destroyed houses


Destroyed village   

The geographic isolation of the Mentawais hasn’t just kept boats from landing, it has given rise to a culture and language completely different from anywhere else in Indonesia.  Many of the plant and animal species there are endemic to Mentawai as well.  The world’s smallest monkey, in case you were wondering, which can sit in the palm of your hand, can only be found on Siberut, the most northern island in the chain…For all the above reasons, Mentawai is hardly considered a choice spot to live, so the government officials sent there are the ones who are the most corrupt or who really screwed up in their jobs, so are being sent to Mentawai as punishment.  A high-ranking government official of Mentawai was overheard at a wedding in Sumatra saying loudly that it would be better to just wait for another tsunami to wipe out all human life on the islands rather than spend the resources to rebuild or relocate the communities…This is the kind of advocacy the Mentawais have gotten, and you start to get a picture of communities and people who have been severely neglected and incapacitated for years even before the tsunami hit, in fact you could say the devastation from the tsunami gave a physical face to the devastation and hardship that has gone on as a result of human rights violations and neglect for the last 100 years since Mentawai first began to be governed by West Sumatra.

As you all know, my focus is medical, and with no doctors currently on the islands I’ll be busy treating patients, but more importantly I’ll be helping build a medical program by capacity training local and national healthcare workers plus helping coordinate the various other short and long-term medical programs currently being attempted by both government and non-government organizations.  I’ll also be working with another local NGO called Cipta Fondasi Komunitas (CFK) that focuses on community development such as teaching farming, providing education, and capacity building to develop livelihoods.  Right now most of the people are living in crowded IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps with no water outside of rainwater collected in barrels or tarps – because the government says these are temporary homes only so there is no point in trying to dig wells or provide other sources of water. Yet realistically we already know these will probably be their “temporary” homes for at least the next 4-5 years, way too long to be relying on rain water or water collected from puddles in the road…

These people have lost everything including their homes, and in some cases their families…but the most tragic thing of all that they’ve lost is their hope.  The earthquake hit Oct 25th around midnight, and then the tsunami hit less than 15 minutes later.  It hit the beach but also traveled up one of the rivers then circled back through the jungle. Right after the quake, people ran from their homes as they had been taught into what they thought was the safety of the jungle, instead they ran straight into the tsunami…we can only imagine the confusion and terror they experienced in the pitch black as their families were literally being ripped away from them, but it is a trauma and a memory they continue to live with daily. One man recounted to me how his neighbor’s wife ran from their home holding the hand of her 6 yr old son.  Scrambling through the jungle the 6 yr old tripped and fell slipping from his mother’s grip.  That’s when the water hit, and his mother never found him again losing him along with her husband who drowned refusing to give up looking for his son…a few months ago, after doing a health seminar for a group of women in one of the camps, the women continued asking me questions and asking my advice on various health issues.  Finally, one woman stood up with her tears in her eyes and asked me to give them advice on their lives …sheaid she had lost everything in the tsunami and had no idea what she was supposed to do now or how she was supposed to move forward…Other women started crying and nodding in agreement…


Washing Dishes with Puddle Water

Most of my work will be mostly coordinated through the local church, which is the most active social and political force in the community.  When the Mentawais where Christianized, the tribal heads became the heads of the church.  (To this day, the locals still call the head of the church “king” :), so for the first time in years I’ll be working openly as a Christian which is a nice change from the security restrictions I was under before. The needs there are overwhelming and the Mentawais are just a microcosm of injustice and poverty suffered the world over, but the potential for community-transformation and growth from capacity training at the grass roots level is tremendous.  We know this area is going to get hit again by earthquakes and possibly tsunamis again.  We want to empower these people to be able to rebuild their own lives and not have to wait for government hand-outs or outside assistance from other NGO’s – the fact is the Mentawais are stunningly beautiful, resource-rich islands just waiting for the locals to claim their rightful heritage and ownership of them….

Ok, I’m not sure how long a blog is supposed to be but I’m guessing this is long enough…But the Mentawais have to be one of the most beautiful and interesting places I’ve ever lived, the people are phenomenal, and basically I just couldn’t wait any longer to share with you how cool my life is…:)  It’ll be very interesting to see how the next few months develop, so thanks for reading and stay tuned for more…

Until next time,


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  1. Lovely hearing from you again Karen! Thank you for posting and look forward to hearing more from you. Take care. Erica

  2. Awesome story Karen and my family and I wish you great courage and success! I look forward to more posts from you!
    Keith Orchard

  3. I remember your dream when you started in Basic Health Assessment. I am so proud to follow your journey as you follow that dream. I am interested to learn if there are any families having members with any developmental or intellectual disabilities. How wonderful to be able to publically express your faith. May Christ’s peace sustain you.

  4. This is very interesting. What a job you have! But the same God that sent you there is always there beside you. I know that you know this or you would not be able to do the great work you are doing there. Sent with Christ’s love.

  5. Great blog, I’m looking forward to following your adventures. Your work sounds incredible! I’m proud of you. What an amazing place to be.

  6. Thanks Karen. And we’re back in Jakarta…when you need some good Japanese or Mexican meals!! Hope to see you soon!

  7. Wow. Is your address the same, or has it changed?

  8. Hi Karen
    Just wanted to tell you that I miss you and I hope you come back to bend soon so we can hang and have dinner.
    Please email me back. I still want to right you hand written letters.

  9. So glad to know what’s going on!! I finally emailed you recently, but really don’t know if I sent it to a good email address. Amazing and wonderful to know that you’re still there and still doing good work, although I had no doubt that you’d find a way. We’ll look forward to more of the story as it unfolds. Love ya! –marcy

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