Thomas Brown is a student from the University of Adelaide who undertook a community development placement in Indonesia last year. In this article he shares his impressions from a field placement in a rural village in Java.


Last year I spent five months on a student exchange in Indonesia. Most of my friends and relatives still don’t really know what I got up to over there, aside from taking photos of sunsets. I undertook the Development Studies Immersion Program through Australian Consortium for In Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). This program involved two months of intensive Indonesian language study and development workshops, a two month community development placement, and a research essay.

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For my field placement I took part in the KKN-PPM program*, through my host university, Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), in Yogyakarta. The program has become a rite of passage for the majority of Indonesian university students, which mostly amounts to a community service placement in a low socio-economic village. The philosophy behind the program is that university students are a privileged minority in Indonesia and thus need to give back to the community using the skills acquired during their degree. I was placed in a group with six Indonesian students from the faculties of Geophysics, Geography and Medicine, under the supervision of a professor from UGM. We were tasked with coming up with projects that met the needs of the community, and then help each other implement these projects.

Our group was placed in the coastal community of Pantai Baru, in the Bantul regency of Yogyakarta province. The population worked mainly in agriculture, raising a variety of crops including peanuts, chillies and rice, as well as animal husbandry. Sand was mined from the nearby Progo river, and there was a large network of shrimp farms dotting the coastline. Tourism also formed a significant portion of the local economy, with day-trippers from Yogyakarta coming to sample the fresh fish, to ride ATVs and to make use of their new selfie stick.

One of our main priorities for the village was improving the prevention of the spread of Leptospirosis, a bacterial communicable disease transferred from animals to humans. The surrounding area had seen an outbreak of the disease beginning in 2009, and although the disease can be treated with a simple course of antibiotics, the community and local health services were caught unprepared. As a result, they were experiencing a high rate of deaths from the disease due to a lack of effective diagnosis and treatment. This became the topic of my research essay, on emerging diseases in Indonesia, with a focus on Leptospirosis in the Bantul regency.

In our preliminary meetings with the community, I quickly discovered that an understanding of development theory was not a skill in great demand in this community development setting. Although it helped me better understand elements of what was going on around me, what was really in demand were practical skills. While my counterparts from the medical, geography and geophysics departments quickly set to work running clinics, health education, mapping and soil testing for earthquake vulnerability, I was at a bit of a loss. My academic background was in International Relations, Economics and Mathematics, all hopelessly academic and useless for this level of development. Luckily, I was able to draw on my digital media skills as a hobbyist photographer, and focused on helping to promote the tourism industry in the community.

In my time in the village I developed a website, designed a promotional calendar, and organised an exhibition of the photos in the community. I also taught English in the local masjid, and created a series of stickers to encourage good sanitary habits to prevent the spread of disease. Aside from these individual projects, all group members helped each other with their projects so there was something to do every day.

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During my time in the village, I wasn’t really confident I was learning anything. There was very little structure, little supervision and most importantly, no authority figure to go to with the numerous questions, doubts and observations that arose every day. It was disorganised, it was unfamiliar.  The experience seemed to raise more questions than it answered: about development, about Indonesia.

I tried to make the most of my time, and there were definite takeaways in my understanding of Indonesia. Firstly, it was a great chance to make close friends with Indonesian students, removing the temptation of hanging out with expats for comfort’s sake. Living with a group of students from different parts of Indonesia, different levels of adhesion to faith and perspectives was invaluable in shaping my understanding of contemporary Indonesia. It was also a privilege to integrate into the lifestyle of a Javanese village. The mix of modern and traditional dynamics of village life was another huge insight.

It wasn’t until months later when sitting in development classes back in Australia that I realised how unique the insights into community development were. They weren’t neat but complex and often contradictory. But I realised that these nuances are things you just can’t grasp on paper, much as you might try. They are an inevitable part of any implementation of development.

This experiential learning was the main takeaway from this community development placement. I’m confident these experiences will help me in the future, whether to do with Indonesia or development more broadly.

Read more about ACICIS study programs in Indonesia.

Read about life in a village in Indonesia’s remote East.

For more information about Thomas, check out his personal website.

*Kuliah Kerja Nyata, Pembelajaran Pemberdayaan Masyarakat, Student Community Service – Community Empowered Learning.

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Tom Brown

Thomas Brown is studying a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in Economics and International Relations & Politics, combined with a Bachelor of Mathematics and Computer Science. He is studying in Indonesia as a New Colombo Plan Scholar 2015, and is currently based at Universitas Katolik Parahyangan in Bandung conducting research on asylum seekers and refugees in West Java.

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