I have neglected my letter writing and my only excuse is that Oxfam expect their money’s worth and work us quite hard. Quite right I hear you say as my costs are being paid by donations from the great British public. So, if you are a donor to Oxfam thank you. Oxfam is doing a great job out here and your money is being well spent.
My local parish magazine in Frittenden likes me to do a bulletin every now and again and it’s a copy of that which is attached. It’s a bit of a cheat I know but an easy way for me to give some idea of life out here.
I was only in the UK for 2 weeks after Vanuatu so not much time for anything other than a few pints of Guinness.
Enjoy the summer, John Ramsey
PS. Just to show its not all hard work, I also attach a photo relaxing with some of my Oxfam colleagues. Just in case you wondered, I am the one at the back!
GOODBYE VANUATU, HELLO INDONESIA
I count myself fortunate that VSO gave me the opportunity to live and work in Vanuatu, a country that I probably would never otherwise have visited. Situated in the South Pacific some 1500 miles north east of Australia, it is everything one imagines tropical islands to be. Beautiful palm fringed sandy beaches, warm coral filled seas with myriad colourful fish, jungle, volcanoes and most importantly, wonderful warm and friendly people always with a smile on their face. So it was with mixed feelings that I left. Sad to be leaving but looking forward to the next challenge.
I left Vanuatu on January 19th flying into Brisbane and immediately headed north to Mooloolaba where I met up with an ex work colleague who, with his wife, had sold up everything in the UK and were now spending their time sailing around the world. I only meant to stay a couple of days but the opportunity to sail up the coast to Noosa and Frazer Island was too good to miss so I stayed with them for a week. That meant missing out on Sydney and instead heading straight to Melbourne to meet up with my old rugby playing mates most of whom I hadn’t seen for 25+ years. We had a good time and a few beers were sunk whilst exchanging old rugby reminiscences. You’ve probably heard the expression “the older we get, the better we were” and I guess that applied to us.
I got back to the UK at the end of January and joined Oxfam on Feb 19th as Finance Manager on the Aceh & Nias Tsunami/Earthquake Response Project. It’s situated in the northwest of Sumatra and is the westernmost part of Indonesia. So here I am now in the town of Banda Aceh and although much larger, it reminds me a lot of Akkaraipattu where I lived in Sri Lanka. Perhaps I feel comfortable in Asia with the noise and bustle, the dirt and rubbish, the smells, the call to prayer etc. Indonesia has a majority Muslim population and in Aceh Province, Sharia law was introduced in 2004 although in a fairly relaxed manner compared to some of the hard line countries. Headscarves are mandatory but women can move around freely without a male chaperone; girls wear jeans and ride scooters; it’s even possible to get a beer in the two Chinese restaurants. But alcohol has to be taken discreetly. The Sharia police will break up parties and arrest perpetrators if there is evidence of hard-core boozing. Drugs are a complete no no. There are currently 2 Brits and a Canadian (not aid workers) in the local jail for smoking pot on the beach and Indonesian prisons you don’t want to be in. If we go swimming at the local beach we have to wear t-shirt and trousers. Fortunately the small island of Pulau Weh is only 40 minutes away by fast ferry. There are no Sharia police on the island so we can get over there at weekends and relax with a beer or two quite openly. The diving and snorkelling is great too with fantastic coral.
Aceh Province has suffered greatly over the years. It had managed to remain independent of colonial rule until the Dutch declared war in 1871 which continued for the next 35 years until the last sultan surrendered. In 1953, the Indonesian government incorporated Aceh into the province of North Sumatra angering the Muslims who did not want to be joined with the Christian Bataks so declared Aceh an independent Islamic republic. The ensuing conflict against the Indonesian military lasted until 1959 when the government granted Aceh a high degree of autonomy in religious, cultural and educational matters although keeping a tight grip on Aceh’s natural gas reserves and siphoning off the profits. By 1976 the local Islamic parties had had enough and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was formed and began fighting for independence. During the next 30 years the local population suffered from both sides. Army atrocities and human rights abuses were countered by GAM intimidating villages into giving the rebels support. Then came Boxing Day 2004. This area was the epicentre of the earthquake which triggered the tsunami and so suffered a double punch. First the earthquake which toppled most buildings above 2 stories then 20 minutes later the 15m wave which killed 180,000 in the province and 61,000 in the town of Banda Aceh alone. Some 200,000 homes were destroyed and 500,000 left homeless. Some good did come out of the disaster as the government and the rebels signed a peace accord in August 2005 which, unlike in Sri Lanka, is still holding. In fact, in the recent elections, several former rebels were elected to the provincial parliament and one appointed Governor.
The disaster devastation is not now immediately apparent. Most of the debris has been cleared away and often the only visible sign of the tsunami is the concrete foundation slabs showing where houses and other buildings used to be or an old wrecked bridge standing alongside the new one that has replaced it. I’m not up to date with tsunami recovery progress in Sri Lanka but I guess it suffers from the same frustrations as here. One problem we, and the other agencies have is spending the money, as things don’t progress as fast as we would like. This is mainly logistical in that supplies and materials have to come a long way and it’s often difficult to get the quality needed. There is also a shortage of skilled labour. One of our housing projects recently came to a standstill over the issue of timber to be used. Oxfam insist on using timber from properly certified sustainable sources (which in this case meant importing from Australia) whereas the local community want to supply the timber giving them income but which of course they can’t get certified as it would be illegal logging. So a bit of a moral dilemma that hasn’t been resolved yet. But there are still 70000 people in temporary transitional accommodation awaiting permanent houses.
One benefit of the presence of international aid agencies is the money they pump into the community that acts as a catalyst for the regeneration of the local economy (Oxfam employs some 600 local staff here). So much so that Banda Aceh is now a bit of a boomtown. From what I have seen so far, I believe Oxfam has done, and is doing a fantastic job and more about that in a future letter. But with so much devastation it would be unrealistic to expect everything to be fixed in a couple of years.