Ignorance Is Not Bliss


I didn’t cry right away.

My expectations for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2017 were low. It would be my sixth year attending this epic literary event in the town in Bali where I live. Perhaps it was due to the volatile shaking of Mt. Agung threatening to erupt just fifteen miles away. Perhaps it was because my friend and fellow writer, Carol died two months ago. Her wry humor and cynical critiques wouldn’t be part of my Festival experience this year. Whatever the reason, I approached the first day’s events with little more than casual interest.

As always happens, two minutes into the program I was hooked. An Indonesian woman, Nh. Dini, now in her 80’s, but with more attitude and spunk than anyone half her age, traced her colorful life from flight attendant to environmentalist to her courageous and ongoing battle against gender discrimination. When told that her bold opinions might get her arrested, she shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t care,” she said.

Ms. Dini was followed by anthropologist, Nigel Barley, who mixed fact and fantasy to write, Snow Over Surabaya, a historical novel about Surabaya Sue, best remembered for her work as a radio broadcaster for the Indonesian Republic during the struggle for independence. Sue was somewhat of an embarrassment to the Indonesians, it seems, with her love of attention and her unorthodox lifestyle.

The discussions had me entranced, but not tearful.

After Nigel, a panel of expatriate authors pondered how we relate to the places we leave behind when we relocate and re-imagine our lives. Their thought-provoking questions echoed my own as they talked about the widening gaps in frame of reference the longer we’re away from our places of origin.

It was approaching 1:00 p.m. Although still dry-eyed, my stomach growled ominously. A break for lunch does not exist at the Festival, but the food court wafted mouth-watering aromas across a section of parking lot where tables topped with red and white checked cloths waited for the catch-when-catch-can, hungry crowd.

These food vendors knew how to entice. Their exotic dishes rendered to perfection sat on display. I drooled over them all and finally pounced on terong ayam, a spicy dish of chopped chilies (lots and lots of chopped chilies) with bits of chicken and other vegetables. At another booth I added a springroll with tamarind sauce and stuffed tofu, then grabbed a latte to make sure I stayed alert for what was still ahead.

Tummy full and happy, I rushed to the next venue and settled in for charismatic Robert Dessaix as he bantered with the moderator over The Pleasures of Leisure, his devilishly humorous take on a stressed-out, overworked world. He asked us to consider how taking leisure seriously could give us back our freedom and deepen our experience as humans. I thought of my daughters, the toll of working too long, too hard, and their complaint that there’s not enough time to create the kind of lives they really want. I thought of myself doing the same until age 62 when I finally quit the rat-race and embraced my current life of focused idleness.

Over four days, I attended nineteen panels, two book launches, and one documentary film. The experience of this Festival, as one friend put it, is like gulping intellectual stimulation from a fire hose. Concerns from every corner of the globe, political, environmental, ethical, social, literary, journalistic and more, are raised, debated, and explored by the people who are living the issues.

For the first three days I was entertained, shocked, and enlightened. But day four infused me with agitated inspiration. Each presenter was more passionate about their work, and more driven to make positive change than the one before.

And then Nila Tanzil took the mic. The tears began. I can’t even write this without crying.

A forty-something fire-ball, Nila looked seventeen. Her corporate career was humming along, propelling her to the top of her game when she heard a statistic: her country of Indonesia had the second lowest literacy rate in the world. She was horrified.

The fact that Indonesia consists of 17,000 islands, and villagers in remote areas have limited electricity, or none, and no running water, suggests that education and books are not uppermost in their minds. Nila went to those villages and asked children what they wanted to be when they grew up. They had two answers: teacher, and priest. Those were the only occupations besides farmer or fisherman that existed for them.

Determined to make a difference, Nila personally funded a library in one of those remote areas. She was told by the villagers that they wouldn’t go into official buildings. They felt they had to bathe, put on their best clothes, and wear shoes to enter such important places. Adding a library to a school wasn’t the answer either. Schools were often a distance away and school libraries usually consisted of textbooks. They were synonymous with pekerja rumah, aka homework; not where kids tended to hang out.

Nila wanted books to be accessible after school, on weekends, whenever children had time to read. She approached individuals in the village and gained their cooperation. Her first libraries occupied a corner of someone’s home or shop and contained about 200 books. Every few months the books were rotated providing a fresh supply of reading material.

At some point she quit her corporate job and formed Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Garden) a non-profit that has, to date, established 63 libraries on 15 islands in Eastern Indonesia with more on the way.

I’d just sat through hours of talks about things that won’t change in Indonesia, or the world, unless people change. And people won’t change unless they have knowledge. Knowledge is obtained by access to information through reading, yet vast areas of the country still have no books.

What Nila is doing will alter the face of Indonesia. It may not be this year, or next year, but it will happen. The need for more books, and more libraries, in more villages is beyond imagining.

I found Nila afterwards, thanked her, and told her I wasn’t a professional fund raiser and I wasn’t rich, but what she was doing resonated deeply in me and I wanted to help.

This blog post is my first step. Below are links to the Taman Bacaan Pelangi website, Nila’s TED Talk, and her personal website. There are clips to watch of the kids she’s helping. Her voluntourism company, TravelSparks, invites travelers to spend a bit of their vacation volunteering at one or more of the libraries. She’ll arrange everything.

You can’t come to Indonesia without feeling something. For me, it was love at first sight. But the problems are glaring and the elite have intentionally kept the masses uneducated. I believe that time is ending because people like Nila see a different future. I’m crying again.

Take a look at the links. If you feel inspired to contribute something, a bookshelf, books, cash, please DO IT. I’ve never felt compelled to help like this before and I hope to learn how to do it better. But for now, thank you for reading.

NILA’S FESTIVAL VIDEO     (Yes, I cried through this, too!)





12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JayJay
    Oct 31, 2017 @ 21:35:55

    Thank you Sheri. As a volunteer, I only managed two sessions this year – both wonderful – but I could hear snatches of Nila’s presentation from where I was based. I intend to follow up and this post is perfect to fill in my gaps. I want to try and link up a young Balinese friend who is doing similar work with children in Karangasem through her grassroots Yayasan. Tika and her husband Gusti support 26 children and their families (some currently in evacuation camps) and also dream of libraries but school supplies, uniforms and fees come first. I only am just surfacing (it was full on) but have Nila’s handouts to get started. And yes, we all missed Carol this year. Thank you again.

    Liked by 1 person


    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Nov 01, 2017 @ 06:29:59

      Thanks for reading and responding, Judi! The future is always with the children, isn’t it? I’m so happy to hear that your friends, Tika and Gusti, are similarly inspired to help in Karangasem. I’ve been crushed by the overwhelming lack of educational opportunities here in Bali and can only imagine how dire the situation is in the more remote islands. I’m beyond thrilled to be able to link up with Nila’s project and help in whatever small way I can hoping that it will snowball into something much bigger as more people become informed. Thanks for volunteering again this year at the Writers Festival! It remains one of the highlights of my year!



  2. Pat Malcolm
    Oct 31, 2017 @ 21:49:24

    I’m happy to hear about the library movement! Books are so much more than literacy, and can indeed change lives. You may be interested to know about Little Free Libraries herein the US. People build small boxes with doors on the outside and a couple of shelves inside, set them on a post in front of their home or business or school and fill them with an assortment of books for adults and children. Anyone can remove a book to borrow or keep, and replace it with another in exchange…or not! There is a website at little free library.org with pictures of sample boxes. While they may be purchased at the site, it is not necessary to be part of the movement. Anyone may build and maintain a little free library. Perhaps these could be a helpful part of the literacy movement in Indonesia!

    Liked by 1 person


    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Nov 01, 2017 @ 06:56:31

      Hi Pat, Thanks so much for taking time to read and comment on the article. I am familiar with Little Free Libraries. Such a creative idea! In the U.S. so many families have an abundance of books that can be recycled when children move on to the next level of reading interest. I remember boxing up dozens of my own girls’ books and donating them to Goodwill. My little granddaughter was given 50 books…FIFTY!…by a friend and she’s only 18 months old!!! That’s 1/4 of the total number of books in Nila’s first library, and that served an entire village.

      Have you been to Indonesia? Until recently, children’s story books written in the Indonesian language didn’t even exist here. No one in Indonesia was writing them, the culture was not a reading culture and whatever may have been available for sale was beyond the means of the average family and still is. Only the wealthy in Jakarta or other centers of learning mostly on the island of Java, had access to such luxuries. Indonesia has been in catch-up mode with the West for the past 25 years. The explosion of growth and progress, if we can call it that, has been daunting even as I’ve watched it over the six years I’ve been living here. But educationally there’s a very long way to go. Thanks again for your response. If you can, please pass along the information. It isn’t just a matter of having fun stories to read. Indonesia’s political situation is precarious as the ultra conservative religious factions gain more and more of a foothold here. An uneducated populace plays directly into their hands.

      Thanks again!



  3. Gail Orgias
    Nov 01, 2017 @ 04:04:59

    Thank you for sharing your experiences once more. Have just returned from Niue Island- a small coral atoll on top of an extinct volcano – and one of the first things I noticed was that there was no Bookshop – no Library in the town centre!

    Perhaps this small island would benefit from such a project as Rainbow Reading Gardens.

    The population is small – only around 1200 people – most Niueans live in NZ and Australia – some 2500.

    The island grows only a few crops – recently hydroponics has provided more salad type food = most of their food comes from overseas. Tourism is limited because of the lack of infrastructure and although they would like more people to visit – its not easy to see that can happen. There is no insurance so when a cyclone hit the island – houses were evacuated and left or repaired simply. Medical care relies on one hospital and if serious – patients sent to NZ – at great cost and only 2 flight a week.

    It is difficult to predict the longterm outlook for the island – but in the meantime – agree with Nila Tanzil – these children need Books – TV presents a very limited experience.

    hope all is well with you

    kind regards



    Liked by 1 person


    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Nov 01, 2017 @ 07:08:34

      Thank you for sharing about the situation on Niue. Perhaps you’re the one to begin the library initiative for the Niueans! It sounds like you have been moved by the need that exists there. I must admit I had never heard of Niue and had to Google Map it to find its location north of New Zealand and east of the Fiji islands. Thank you for contributing to the expansion of my geographical understanding of this part of the world! I am frightfully ignorant in that regard but want to learn. Thanks again for your interest and the information you’ve shared. Best to you and whatever you choose to do to help further global literacy, Gail!



  4. Karin Grouf
    Nov 01, 2017 @ 15:03:51

    It’s amazing how just a drop in the bucket , fills it and makes it overflow.Wonderful sharing. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person


  5. writingforselfdiscovery
    Nov 01, 2017 @ 15:37:45

    Similar to the Butterfly Effect, isn’t it – a very small action can produce a very large result? I hope so! Thanks for reading, Karin.



  6. Jen Chambers
    Nov 04, 2017 @ 04:26:51

    So sorry I missed the festival this year. I followed it via the emails each day. Felt very moved by your article Sherry and Would like more info about the types of books needed, kid’s books, adult books, do they have to be in Indonesian? There are so many books that go into landfill here in the mountains and maybe there’s a way of getting them over there to help with the libraries. Anyway I’ll get in touch with Nila and hi from there. Big hugs to you and I love your website.
    Take care…Jen



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Nov 04, 2017 @ 07:21:36

      Thank you so much for reading about Nila and wanting to help! I’m sure that simple children’s books in English could be helpful for the older children who are learning the language. The problem with sending books from the U.S. is the cost of shipping them to Indonesia. It’s astronomical. But perhaps some of the money from the non-profit could pay for postage from the US. Good that you’re communicating with Nila directly. She has the answers!!! Thanks again, Jen!



  7. smartalextravels
    Nov 09, 2017 @ 23:54:58

    Thanks for the update on the URWF. This woman is so inspiring! A great cause and a definite game changer for Indonesia.I’ll log on to the sights and help out too. Alexsandra



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