When I reflect on my three months in Indonesia, unexpectedly cut down from the six I had planned due to the pandemic, my fondest memories are all somehow related to my internship with an environmental advocacy NGO: Greeneration Foundation. Studying international relations in Bandung as a 2020 New Colombo Plan Scholar through the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), I embraced the opportunity to undertake a part-time internship alongside my studies. Being the raging environmentalist I am, Greeneration Foundation was a natural choice for providing an internship that aligned with my values. Therefore, I liaised with the ACICIS team and, before long, my GoJek driver was guiding me through Bandung’s alluring alleyways into Greeneration Foundation’s cosy office for my interview, where I successfully convinced my to-be supervisor that an Iranian-Australian youth with basically no Indonesian skills at the time would be a great fit for his organisation.
The following week I returned for my initial shift, when I started work on my first major task: helping the communications team prepare formal proposals for project funding from the US Embassy in Jakarta, Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, and UNDP – yikes! I didn’t know much about grants applications or Indonesian work culture at all; yet I was nonetheless shocked how much I immediately felt at home after my first day in the office. The Greeneration team seemed more like family than professional colleagues, and I quickly gained a strong understanding about their range of projects – including an annual circular economy forum with civil society, business and government stakeholders, as well as their grassroots activities in promoting eco-consciousness, sustainable waste management, and plastic non-reliance in communities across Indonesia. Occasionally we’d share meals together and, often, I would grab some enak warung from the baik hati Ibu across the road after my shifts.
Interning in-country really broadened my horizons and, in hindsight, my in-country experience wouldn’t have been anywhere near as enriching without the local connections I made through my internship. My co-workers always treated me with nothing but respect and kindness, even after asking the all-too-common question of what my religion is: one that to this day remains unrecognised by the Indonesian Government despite widespread Baha’i communities across the archipelago. While I would arrange some semi-formal English capacity building sessions for my colleagues on Fridays, I made it clear that I was there to learn from them; I didn’t have the mindset of trying to ‘teach’ them anything. By having welcomed me into their organisation as a foreign intern, we collectively undertook a process of mutual learning in which we all enhanced our intercultural understanding and bilingual communication through advocating for a common cause and passion: sustainability.
That’s not to say it was all easy; many challenges emerged which took me out of my comfort zone. Given the notorious but oddly charming ‘jam karet’ (literally, ‘rubber time’), I would find myself – normally not the most punctual individual at all by Australian standards – sometimes waiting for my teammates to arrive. Moreover, given my extremely limited Indonesian, I had to be proactive in ensuring my contributions were beneficial to the overall success of the team and organisation. There were times I felt my teammates were perhaps only agreeing with my opinions and suggestions to save ‘face’, not because they genuinely believed my ideas were perfect and could not be critiqued. However, this was a different culture and, with reminders like the omnipresent call to prayer and importance of wearing pants everywhere despite the humid weather, I realised I was a guest in their country and in no place to impose my values or beliefs on my hosts – I had to embrace the differences in work expectations and organisational culture.
But the most memorable highlight of my journey was undertaking a daytrip visit to a local village outside Bandung in rural West Java. As my supervisor explained to me, in the past, authorities would dump large quantities of unprocessed rubbish on the village’s overshadowing landscape, which eventually accumulated into a massive mountain of trash. Over the years, toxins incrementally increased in this suffocated mess until, one day, the whole thing exploded and submerged the underlying village – unfortunately killing approximately 200 people. Through the aid of Greeneration Foundation’s advocacy, this terrible tragedy evoked some long overdue changes in strengthening Indonesia’s waste management regulations and, as such, Greeneration Foundation organises an annual memorial for the local community on the date of the explosion. Visiting this village and its resilient, persevering residents was inspiring. The locals shared with me some delicious Sundanese treats and traditional artwork. Several years after the incident, the village was clearly recovering and the remaining rubbish had been cleared. The community had come together to reduce their waste by adopting plastic substitutes, such as leaves and bamboo, and had by now developed a voice to resist their continued exploitation. In this way, Greeneration Foundation educates and empowers communities to ensure that disastrous mistakes are not repeated.
While I ultimately interned in-country for only around two months, the experience was invaluable. It built my confidence, language abilities, and knowledge of development at the grassroots. It provided me with the vision to see how something I am so passionate about, sustainability, is advocated for in a different society and through culturally appropriate means and channels. It enhanced my networks, gave me new perspectives and, most importantly, was so much fun! While online internships with Indonesian organisations can be meaningful, they pale in comparison to being on the ground. Hence, for whoever has the chance, do not hesitate to undertake an internship in Indonesia once borders reopen and the world is better vaccinated. While things won’t be the same as pre-pandemic, the exigency for Australia-Indonesia engagement is more pertinent than ever – particularly in environmental advocacy given all those non-reusable masks and plastic-engulfed, lockdown-induced food deliveries.