The Birth of a Dream

The Birth of a Dream is an account written by Dr John Cooke, documenting the the founding of Bali Children’s Project along with co-founder Joyce Scott.

“In an oft-repeated ritual, the last thing recalled before being swallowed by the all-enveloping tropical night is the incessant drumming of heavy rain. It cannons off the tiles and gurgles along the bamboo gutters, where its soothing music merges imperceptibly with the more distant voice of the stream that tumbles down the gully beside the house to the accompaniment of a multitude of amorous frogs – or could they be toads perhaps? Before a decision can be reached on this important matter, sleep will supervene, carrying me off once more to a blessed Nirvana of rich Balinese dreams.

A distant insomniac rooster, unduly anxious to welcome in a new day, intrudes briefly on my slumbers; just long enough to let me share the enchanted vision of sinuous rice terraces cascading in profusion down to the distant Java Sea by the light of the full moon. The mysterious bulk of the mountains hang as a dark backdrop to the scene, the fine detail of their forested flanks lost in shadow. An occasional firefly still flashes hopefully above the sawa in search of a mate. The insect voices that clamoured so loudly for attention at nightfall are now muted, only the echoes of their urgent song remaining, as if tangled among the myriad silhouetted palm fronds hanging limp in the still night air. The nocturnal transition from torrential rain to brilliant moonlight occurs with the same imperceptible rapidity with which the white-bellied swiftlets soaring in profusion at dusk are seemingly transmuted into bats, even as one watches.

This is Sanda, our sanctuary high in Bali’s untouristed mountains, lying within the ancient kingdom of Gobleg – surely a name that would have delighted Tolkien. We settled here, by happy accident rather than by design, after a passion for natural history and archaeology had led us along many winding forest trails to remote backwaters, to communities in which many farmers were still unable to speak Bahasa Indonesia — the national lingua franca — but only the more difficult local Balinese language.

The disparity between the Bali portrayed in lavish hotel brochures and the realities of life for most of the rural population is palpable. Here there are no pristine white coral beaches, only hour upon hour of back-breaking toil in the oozing mud of the rice terraces, interspersed from time to time with colourful, complex rituals to ensure the gods look favourably on the endless cycle of labour. It was up here in the mountains, nurtured by dramatic scenery and the irrepressible smiles of our neighbours, rice farming families for whom the tourist boom has brought little material benefit, that the seeds of the Bali Children’s Project were first sown.

We knew from experience that in times of economic hardship, it would invariably be the girls who would be withdrawn from school first to labour in the fields. Yet we felt sure that the key to breaking this cycle of agricultural poverty lay in education, for without education the future held no vision beyond motherhood and farming; no dreams of college, university and a possible profession. It would take a sudden epiphany to make us try and do something about it.

We were sitting with our dear friend Nyoman on a narrow wooden bench in front of the warung run by his wife, Ketut, in the village of Tamblingan. It stands close beside the road, stocked with all manner of simple merchandise the neighbourhood might call for. It also provides a meeting place where the affairs of the world might be discussed at length and placed in proper perspective. Here on the very crest of Bali’s volcanic mountain spine, swirling mists keep the temperature in check and frequently conceal the adjacent fields of rich blue Hydrangeas that form a major contribution to the local economy, being in high demand for temple offerings.

Today, however, the sun is shining and our conversation is correspondingly bright, covering many topics, including education. Commenting on the insatiable thirst for learning among poor families in his community, Nyoman illustrates his point by telling us of two little girls he knows. “Each day,” he says, “they must walk for well over an hour to get to school,” adding simply “They go without breakfast and without shoes.” Clearly there was more to the story than he first told us. Our curiosity aroused, we asked for more information, and whether it might be possible to visit them.

“It’s quite a long hike to get to where they live, and the path is very muddy – but if you really want to go I could take you there tomorrow.”
“Why not now?” we demanded impatiently, and with only token resistance Nyoman agreed.

It was, as predicted, a challenge to negotiate the winding forest trails. From time to time we passed by rudimentary thatched sheds hidden in the undergrowth, some housing cows, others improbably housing families. At last Nyoman turned off the trail and followed a narrow path towards what appeared to be yet another dilapidated cowshed. A pathetic row of washing, the merest rags, hinted that the occupants might not only be cows.

The world we entered at that moment was worse and more disturbing than anything we had previously seen in Bali — or could possibly have imagined. Peering inside we were just able to make out two small figures huddled together in the darkness. Softly, Nyoman spoke to them in Balinese, seeking to reassure them. Their fear was palpable.
As we waited quietly outside Nyoman explained that we were the first westerners they had encountered, and that with our bleached faces, to them we were indistinguishable from certain demons known locally to inhabit the forest. Between Nyoman’s quiet, repeated reassurances, their story began to emerge.

Their mother had died some years earlier, and they lived alone with their father. A simple labourer earning perhaps $50 a year at most, he owned no land of his own and hence was obliged to work in other people’s fields. He often had to travel far to find work, and was sometimes forced to leave his children alone for days on end.

“They must leave to walk to school before daybreak,” Nyoman explained, “and generally there is nothing to eat.”
“Don’t they get anything to eat at school?” we immediately asked.
“They have no money to buy food.” Nyoman explained. “If they are lucky, they will get a bowl of rice when they get home at night.”

We were speechless.

After a long interval, two little faces appeared in the doorway, studying us intently. Very slowly, very cautiously, with patient encouragement from Nyoman, the two small sisters emerged into the light. They were both tiny and manifestly undernourished. It was hard to imagine from her size that the older sister, Iluh, might be eight years old.

We sat motionless as the drama unfolded. It was only with difficulty that they were persuaded to approach us – and still further encouragement was needed before they would sit near us. As the slow minutes passed and their confidence grew, they gradually edged closer – then closer still. Suddenly we each found ourselves with little arms reaching around us. It was an embrace like no other, and we found ourselves instantly in love as our eyes filled with tears.

For quite some time we had nursed a growing desire to give back to the people of Bali some tangible mark of recognition for the pleasure and delight with which we had been blessed through their friendship. In this moment of sheer joy in a forest clearing everything fell into place for us. Our immediate impulse was to adopt Iluh and Kadek and for a brief, ill-considered moment we even entertained visions of bringing them to live with us in California. But then wiser council prevailed. It would not be just wrong, we realized, but almost criminally irresponsible to remove a child from a culture as rich and all-pervasive as their Balinese society. Far better to improve their lot within the world they knew.

Within days arrangements had been completed for them to become, with some support from us, a part of Nyoman’s family — a solution to which their father gave his blessing. Two days later, after buying them new sarongs, the sisters had their first lesson in traditional Balinese dance, a fitting introduction to their new life.

Over the years that followed we watched with pride the growth and development of out two new daughters, Kadek the more artistic and Iluh clearly academic — it was not long before she had taken over management of the warung. It was many years before we learned that that the girls had promised their mother on her deathbed that whatever the sacrifice, they would continue to go to school and pursue an education. The wisdom underlying this promise would be manifested when Iluh graduated top of her high school class, fluent in several languages.

Spurred by our first meeting with Iluh and Kadek, it took little imagination to realize that we had glimpsed only the tip of what must be a widespread phenomenon in rural Bali, and we soon found ourselves starting to support other children in need of help to stay in school. Our own severely limited resources were not sufficient to go far, for money has never been a priority in our otherwise rich lives, and soon our friends found themselves being importuned to help. We knew that by becoming a registered tax-exempt charity, friends and acquaintances could more readily be parted from their disposable income.

However, being formally registered with the US Internal Revenue Service as a ‘501 c3’ non-profit in California may lend a necessary air of respectability to the enterprise, but is of limited consequence when it comes to practical issues deep in the Balinese countryside. The Children’s Project had not been in existence long before we began to meet other people with similar good intentions. From them we heard a growing litany of horror stories, of funds donated for education being diverted to provide motorcycles and televisions for a growing circle of extended family members. Indeed, several informants, even those married to Balinese partners, assured us that the task was hopeless, and that they had reluctantly been forced to abandon their own plans.

 

By good fortune rather than good management, the Children’s Project had hit upon a protocol that worked. Unquestionably this was due to the exceptional qualities of our first Balinese assistants, whose dedication and enthusiasm laid the foundation for future success. Foremost was Ketut Resni, the first girl in her village to go to high school, who worked with Yudi. Yudi, who was functionally blind throughout childhood (until his parents had saved enough money after twenty years for surgery) taught himself English and computers. Together they provided ideal role models for the children we supported, visiting each child monthly to distribute the funds needed for continuing education. By monitoring closely the needs of each child, and making necessary payments either to the child or directly to the school, donations were applied where needed.

Even so, vigilance is always needed. We chanced to meet the headmaster of a rural school some years ago, and made enquiries about the needs of his pupils. He was most anxious to solicit our help. Upon closer enquiry, it transpired that what he was really seeking was not help for the school. “I need a new roof for my house” he admitted under further questioning.

We have come a long way since that time. We still sponsor individual children, and with the  help of partners, are currently supporting over two hundred, some going on to high school and even university. However, our programs now extend far beyond individual sponsorship. We soon discovered that if girls in particular were ever to have a vision of the future that went beyond rice farming and motherhood, the seeds had to be sown long before the age at which our sponsorship for school was needed. It was in recognition of this need that the Children’s Project began creating village kindergartens and pre-schools. To date we have over a dozen of them, with more on the horizon, each serving some 30-40 children — and sometimes significantly more — each day.

Concerned at the erosion of traditional Balinese music and dance through the impact of television, BCP has created two children’s gamelan orchestras, and provided help to teachers. Responding to urgent contemporary needs, BCP has initiated an HIV/AIDS awareness and sex education project that has been invited to schools in all eight Balinese regencies.

Like many non-profits, The Bali Children’s Project runs a volunteer program, and this too has evolved over the years. We have been fortunate in having the benefit of some remarkable, dedicated individuals, but we have also learned that some applicants come with their own private agendas that do not fully accord with BCP interests. Today we are more discriminating in whom we accept, placing well-qualified individuals, who are willing to commit to at least two months, in village schools, where they teach English and exercise any other special skills, particularly computers and teacher training.

And what of Iluh and Kadek, who were the catalysts in the creation of BCP? Following training at a high-end spa training school, Kadek now dreams of opening her own establishment. Iluh, happily married, is enrolled in university to learn how best to teach teachers. In a fitting closure to the story, Iluh is now the BCP Regional Manager serving the scattered mountain communities among which she grew up, and her father has come to live beside her in the compound she shares with her husband’s family. Truly, nothing good happens without first dreaming.”

John Cooke