Challenges In Paradise

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How far would you go to ride the wave of your dreams? This is a question I asked myself while on a 14 hour ferry from Padang, Sumatra to the Mentawai Islands, home to countless world class waves in West Indonesia. As a surfer, I’ve heard tales of the Mentawai for as long as I can remember. Back in 2010, I actually made it as far as Bali, Java and Sumbawa, but couldn’t quite afford to venture to the Mentawai Islands at the time… In the meantime, they haven’t stopped calling my name. With a goal set to make it back to the renowned and remote island chain, I’ve worked overtime, day in and day out for the past six years, to make this dream a reality.

I’m sure many surfers can relate to my story. While some may not even be able to identify where the Ments are on a map, we all know everything we need to about the islands’ selection of perfect waves. We dream about spots like Lances Right and Macaronis. Most often though I think as surfers, all we hear about this place are the heavenly barrels and tropical aqua waters. There’s never much talk about the people who live behind this amazing playground of waves.

Next I ask, how far would you go to have a healthy family? This is a more common question amongst parents living in the isolated Mentawai islands, and particularly in 14 displaced communities on the island of South Pagai, whose coastal villages were destroyed as a result of the massive tsunami in October, 2010. Like me, they have been working day in and day out for the past six years, yet they’ve been working simply to survive.

Relocated inland to an area that lacks basic resources, government support, healthcare and a means for livelihood generation, it is in these tsunami-affected communities that SurfAid’s Mother and Child Health Program takes place in the Mentawai.

And it is these same communities that have pulled me out of the incredible surf for a few days…

With nearly three years’ experience working as SurfAid’s grant writer, I’ve come to check out the programs I know so much about on paper, for the first time in person.

One of the things I write most often about is what sets SurfAid apart – the fact that we work in such isolated areas. Perhaps it’s one of those things I needed to experience to fully understand… For starters, we planned our entire visit around the overnight ferry as it runs just once a week. It let us off in the tiny port town of Sikakap. From the docks, we pushed our packed motorbikes onto narrow wooden boats that took us to the neighbouring island of South Pagai. The final stretch consisted of a rather bumpy 3 hour ride through muddy tracks to the villages. And that was a good day! Located high above sea level and deep in the lush jungle, these communities are truly remote.

My grants knowledge tells me that the 14 displaced communities make up a population of about 3,000 people, yet passing through I saw no more than a few people in each village. Even for our remote location it seemed rather quiet… Where was everybody?

I learned that poverty continues to force 85% of community members to return to their old coastal villages to fish, gather food and attempt to make a little income. Moms and dads walk up to 8 hours one way to get there, and leave their children in the care of grandmothers and siblings. What’s more, in doing so they are unnecessarily exposing themselves to another tsunami.

While SurfAid has been working with these communities for the past five years and has achieved fantastic results in the areas of clean water, sanitation, and mother and child health, it’s been a slower process in terms of improving nutrition and developing livelihoods. Traditionally, these people are fishermen and gatherers; not farmers. They don’t have any knowledge of nutrition, and the notion of growing and cultivating their own food is a foreign concept.

With SurfAid’s support, 78% of families have now planted their own vegetable gardens! I was lucky enough to attend a training for community health volunteers in the village of Eruparaboat, where a group of 10 mothers had dedicated their Saturday to come together and learn about that day’s topic: basic nutrition and the food pyramid. Taught by trained SurfAid staff and health staff, these women will then be able to share such newly acquired knowledge with their neighbours and at the community health post.

SurfAid recognises further potential benefits associated with the vegetable gardens and improved nutrition; including generating an agricultural-based income. In fact, our next step is to focus on training community groups in small business management. We believe that once the groups are profitable, more community members will naturally want to be involved. It is this inherent interest that leads to community ownership and is at the heart of what we do.

So, how far would you go to have a healthy family? My experience in the Mentawai has shown me that this question isn’t so simple for these isolated and impoverished tsunami-affected villages. It is apparent that community members in our 14 displaced communities are willing and able to go the distance to provide for their families. SurfAid’s efforts are empowering them through tools and training in order to establish good health and sustainable livelihoods right where they are; positive change that will create a better life for generations to come.

I feel grateful to be a part of such an amazing organisation working towards the day when the question about health and livelihoods isn’t so dire. As we ponder how far we’d go for a dream barrel in tropical paradise, SurfAid is working towards the day when the local’s question becomes one not of survival, but of enjoyment as well. After all, our surfing family travels across the world to come to this beautiful and coveted remote destination they call home.

Written and photographed by SurfAid grant writer, Lily Howard