This post is written by a guest writer, Sherria Ayuandini. It’s an unabridged account of her experience participating in the International Summer School on Pluralism and Development in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, followed directly by her involvement in a field research where she experienced living for a couple of days with a poor family in a small rural area near Jakarta.
What would be THE litmus test that you just experienced something quite remarkable? Easy. You simply can’t stop blabbering about the incident to the other people around you. Family and friends, colleagues and acquaintances, even strangers and bystanders don’t get to be spared of the story. You can be even more sure of it as you didn’t yet stop yourself even when you received that special look from your friends. A look that if put into verbal expression would fall somewhere along the line of “Puh-leez, enough already!” or “Kill me! Kill me now!”
I lost count of how many times my friends bestowed me of such look that early August, or they, in return, of how many times I went on and on and on about this awesome one month Yogyakartan experience. I grew to be very good at finding whatever obscure connections there was between everything my friends and I talked about with what I then succinctly referred to as “Summer School”. “I don’t feel like having pizza” could be easily followed by me saying “Speaking of pizza, at Summer School…” or “speaking of not feeling like having something, at Summer School…” or simply “yeah, okay, at Summer School…” Seriously, try me. I can connect ANYTHING to Summer School. Even the “don’t” part of the sentence. Well… scrap that; especially the “don’t” part of the sentence…
So to say that I was a bit hung up on the experience of Summer School would be an understatement. Hung over would be a better phrase, I suppose. And it didn’t help my case the fact that merely 3 days after setting foot back in Jakarta again, I had to go back to work immediately. It was this research project that I was on board on as one of the researchers. The project started with a 2 day worth of a workshop, spread over 3 days in total. The set-up of the workshop jogged a very recent, very fond memory of mine. Any takers on what memory? Yeap… if you happened to be part of my circle of friends, insert special look right aboooouuuut…. now.
I was sitting on the right hand side of a U-shape class set-up, half expecting that at any point then someone would walk into the room, sit next to me and asked whether or not I have read the readers intended for the day. But of course, there was no reader and there was no one to ask that question. Instead, there were unfamiliar faces, holding out hands to shake and cards to keep. Here we go again…
And instead of a screen and a projector, there were flipcharts and whiteboard. On the latter three very simple questions were posed: What are the differences between… (1) interview and conversation, (2) visiting and living with and (3) finding out and learning. I smiled as I noticed the questions. “This should be fun,” I thought.
Right then and there the lady that was the head of the research opened the workshop. She next continued on explaining what the intention of the research was all about. To boil it down to one simple sentence: we were to live with the poorest of the poor in a chosen village, learning how they live as some sort of a reality check process. The very first question popped into my mind: whose reality? which was followed closely by the next one: who is checking who? But I kept my mouth shut and paid attention to what the lady was saying next. “We’re using an Anthropological approach,” she said. My heart leaped. Home… finally… “So it is important that we all understand what an Anthropological approach is.” I nodded. Very important of course. So I guess that’s what the workshop is for. Let’s start the lecture! She then pointed to the three questions on the whiteboard. “Let’s divide everybody to three groups. And each can discuss the differences in practice of one of these pairs. We’ll reconvene again in 20 minutes.” I nodded again. Discuss practi… wait what? I did a double take. Did she just say practice?
My group mates were already assembling at that time. And the discussion followed suit. All along the process I couldn’t stop smiling. Such a stark difference! Just a short 3 days ago, in a class set-up uncannily similar, I would have entertained the approach of Anthropology, shall that issue ever come up, from a very different angle. There will be ideas to look at, concepts to delve into, theories to consider and thinkers to heed. But there that day, there were ‘only’ a bunch of practitioners, drawing from past experiences, and knowledge of course, to provide a practical outlook at the questions at hand. To have an opportunity to experience both explorations! I considered myself blessed. My group mates, on the other hand, considered me distracted. “You really like smiling, don’t you?” inquired one of them. I laughed. “Life has been good,” I retorted.
So that was how it went for the rest of the day: me going back and forth from practicality to a more fundamental concept in my head, sometimes, even out loud. At one time when we were discussing the differences between finding out and learning, I pointed out how we as researchers need to be careful. I mentioned that learning would entail us seeing ourselves as the point of reference hence putting the Other as a utility for our growth. As soon as that sentence was out of my mouth, silence enveloped the room. Blank faces greeted me. I thought, “Ah well… at least it’s better than the ‘puh-leez’ look.” So I inhaled and tried again, “we should remember that we are not there so that we can personally increase our knowledge or come in contact with something new, but we’re there simply to experience their life first hand. It is new to us, but for them, it’s just regular life. We should remember that.” Ahhs and ohhs filled the room. Then people started to talk about attitude and behavior in encountering something that is different than what we are used to. I reprimanded myself silently, “Language Sherria Ayuandini! Fit it with the context already!”
But isn’t that what pluralism is all about? It’s about language. It’s about engagement and reciprocity, hence the use of language to create such arbitration. And for me, that’s what Summer School has really taught me: to be aware of the language you use. You can understand pluralism from many angles, as a theoretical construct, as practical implication, as you sit in the classroom or a reality on the field. But unless we start to realize that the language that we use sometimes separate us from one another, pluralism would remain an ideal. Language is the bridge that we all have been looking for, the one that would connect two differences and create an engagement.
So, when I finally set my backpack down on the plywood floor of my host family’s house in the village by the end of that first week away from Summer School, I was ready to let go of my language and immerse myself in the ones the villagers are accustomed to. Language in all kind of sense, verbally as strings of words and sentences, as well as everything else: gesture, posture, expression or impression—the whole nine yards: the entire experience. A woman singing and dancing seductively while at the same time being handed out money bill by bill embodied respect and independence. Babysitting and cooking traditional cakes to be sold at the local market constituted holiday and spare time. And fitting in? Burnt fingers from packaging snacks and a sore arm from heaving a bucket full of water to use at the outside semi open latrine. Pluralism indeed…
Now, what to take from all of this? Well… it has always been the duality of theory and practice that was seen as the biggest challenge for Summer School. Then, why not allow the participants to experience both, to be conversant in both languages? Let the practitioners study a more conceptual idea of what pluralism is in the classroom and at the same time, let the academicians learn how the concept plays in reality by actually going to the field. Both would undoubtedly feel uncomfortable: the first restless from sitting too long, the second awkward from the close encounter. But the discomfort would allow them to experience the language of the other, with a lowercase ‘o’ this time. And as they start to speak each other’s language, that’s when the first stake of the bridge is planted. The rest… are just stones falling into places.
An edited version of this article will be featured in one of Hivos’ publications. Hivos is the Dutch donor agency that sponsored Sherria’s participation in the summer school.