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Indonesian helps turns page for literacy with library

Kiswanti went to great lengths to get people to read in Indonesia, a nation addicted to social media but with a lackluster interest in books. For six years, as she cycled on bumpy village mud tracks in western Java as a door-to-door herbal medicine vendor, Kiswanti would carry a stack of books on the back of her bike to lend to children.

Her humble efforts have snowballed and her modest village is now home to a library, a rare sight even in Indonesia’s biggest cities. “Reading gives you knowledge and knowledge is power. Nobody, no matter how poor, should be deprived of reading,” Kiswanti, 46, told AFP. Kiswanti gave up her days as a “mobile librarian” in 2005 when a liver illness struck, confining her to her tiny concrete block house in Pemagarsari village, where narrow dirt trails lead off the main road.

As a neighbour kept the mobile library on its wheels, international and local donors caught wind of the initiative and fronted the cash to start the Lebakwangi Reading House, which now boasts a collection of 5,000 titles. “This library is a dream come true. I had to pinch myself many times to make sure it was real,” Kiswanti said in the library, set up in the house next to hers.

The library gets around 100 visitors a day, mostly students, and Kiswanti is plotting ways to expand her reach, already touting her library to teachers and students at schools in three villages. Indonesia has an impressive literacy rate for a developing nation – nine out of 10 adults can read, the World Bank reports – but books are considered luxury items for many of its 240 million people, half of whom live on less than $2 a day.

The country has a much richer tradition of oral story-telling, with age-old shadow puppet shows and plays still popular. Libraries are few and far between, and many are run by foundations, like the Yayasan Usaha Mulia which has two libraries, in west Java and central Kalimantan.

“There are also very few public libraries, and most stock encyclopaedias, not novels or books for pleasure reading,” the foundation’s executive director Noriyana Parabawati said. Indonesians, however, read volumes of text every day online – they make up the world’s third-largest Facebook community and fifth-largest on Twitter, and they are avid text and messaging users. Tom Ibnur, a lecturer at the Jakarta Institute for the Arts, said that social media, as well as TV, have “become something like a drug and encourage people to watch and listen more than they read”.

There is also a history of distrust in books in Indonesia, where the dictator Suharto used them as a vehicle for propaganda under his iron-fisted New Order regime. “One reason people don’t like to read is that they feel that books are force-feeding them information about the New Order. Other aspects of history, especially concerning important figures and heroes, have been deliberately removed,” Ibnur said.

But Kiswanti is still hopeful she can get her community to pick up books, and her spirit has rubbed off: 16 volunteers, mostly graduate housewives, help her run a pre-school in the same building that holds the library, teaching English and mathematics. The two-storey library houses children’s books, novels and non-fiction books, as well as self-help books, mostly in Indonesian. English titles include works by popular writers Paulo Coelho, Sidney Sheldon and Agatha Christie.

“What will make me happier now is Tintin in my library,” she said, her voice rising and eyes sparkling with excitement as she raved about the hugely popular Franco-Belgian comic series. Born to a trishaw rider father and herbal medicine vendor mother, Kiswanti was the eldest of five children was forced to drop out of school at the age of 12.

She spent her childhood removing peanut shells and picking fruit for a pittance, which she would spend immediately on books. As an adult, she washed and scrubbed expatriates’ homes in exchange for rare novels. Her passion for reading even prompted her to place an unusual precondition for her marriage to construction worker Ngatmin.

Ngatmin, 57, who now works as swimming pool maintenance worker, said he had to agree to let her buy as many books as she could afford. “It’s obvious my wife loves books more than me. She goes to bed with one and reads until she falls asleep,” he said. “But because I love her, I don’t mind being her second choice.”

Arlina Arshad, "Indonesian helps turns page for literacy with library," Business recorder. 2012-12-29.