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Receiving and learning from others

Fanette Billot

Coach Source of Life and Country Coordinator

LPC Cilincing, Jakarta


“So, how was it?”

This question always comes back as I meet my family and friends after 20 months abroad, in Indonesia. How to summarize almost two years of your life ?

I could talk about everything that is astonishing in Indonesia. I could make my audience laugh with some funny anecdotes on daily life situations, which have left me puzzled. At nightfall, there is always a light on, under the porch, to prevent any ghost from entering the house. Once a ghost is glimpsed, no one would dare set foot in that room again. Dreams and their significations are also taken very seriously. If your subconscious is warning about some misfortune, beware, stay home! Indonesians are very superstitious.

I could also mention the Indonesian warmness and hospitality, and especially when you are a white person. They will point at you with surprise and admiration, they will question you about your home country, the aim of your presence here and especially, your marital status. They will stop you to take selfies and a pregnant woman might even grab and touch your arm, hoping her baby would have your skin color.

However, it is difficult to remember these first moments of surprise, wonder, discomfort and uneasiness. I just got used to it. I started to understand their norms, beliefs and even some words. Nonetheless, I have to admit that my white privilege remained stupefying during my whole stay!

I could also make my public shed a tear and feel a bit of compassion. Yes, I could relate the poor conditions in which the youth we are accompanying are living in. Mountains of trash, tiny houses made out of cardboard where 7 to 8 people live, the black river crossing the village, the floods up to the thighs, chicken eating plastic, rats weaving in and out of the small pathways,…

In addition, it would pass myself off as a courageous person, who would have changed her life and accepted to live under these circumstances to accompany young adults in their search for a decent job, and maybe even going out of poverty… A heroine?

Nevertheless, I was facing these conditions every day. In the end, I felt like living in a village rather than in a slum. I wouldn’t notice the trash anymore, I would find some appeal to the little streets where sometimes we could glimpse at some greenery, I wouldn’t even hear the call for prayer anymore and mainly, I would recognize every smiling face on my way. This volunteering life in an indonesian slum, Kampung Sawah, became my daily routine. And I have never felt like a heroine.

Alright, but then, how was it ?

First, I think I should come back to the reasons for my departure. Why would I leave France, my family and friends, and the promise of a great job, to live in a slum area of an Asian country where I’ve never set foot before? It sounds completely absurd, I do realize it. And sometimes, I still wonder what I was looking for.

I had just lived an interesting professional experience, for a cause which is dear to my heart, but I was so far from the field that I couldn’t see the impact of my job. It was frustrating. I needed to feel useful and to do something meaningful. Furthermore, I always had this yearning to do some social work. I had even promised myself, when I was a little girl, that I would go abroad for a humanitarian mission some day.

Why not in France ? Why going overseas when France also has its share of misery and of people in need of support ? I do not know and today, I wish to get more involved for my own country. However, being abroad has always attracted me and this was not my first expatriation. Besides, it was on my bucket list to live in Asia. So I thought, it was time for me to take the plunge.

Okay, I’m coming to it, my feedback!

Landing in a new adventure is always complicated and I wasn’t fully at ease. My departure had been quite sudden and I didn’t get completely used to the idea that I was already on the field. Some people were preparing their mission for months, when I had learned my departure date three weeks before. I was clearly not ready for it.

I can still remember my discomfort the first time I discovered my neighborhood. I arrived in the middle of the night, surrounded by an oppressive heat and humidity. There was trash everywhere. Everything seemed to be dirty and I even saw a rat… Finally discovering what would be my room for the next upcoming months, the walls, which used to be white, were grey and dirty. When I eventually calmed down - “what am I doing here?” - and fell asleep, I woke up, panicked, at 4:30am because of the call for prayers, whose sound, for my unused ears, was incredibly loud.

Yet, quite quickly, I recreated my own comfort zone. I painted my room and I bonded with these persons who would be part of my life for the next few months: my “co-catalysts”.

And, I met the youth. They are young adults, from 17 to 24 years old, who live in the slum. I started as a coach and I took over a joyful team. I realized that many things seemed obvious to me and yet, made no sense to them. I noticed all the things we are learning through our education, in school and through our family. Being on time for instance, apologizing when we are not, washing our hands, throwing trash in a bin rather than on the floor, not to scream. Some things which seem quite basic, and some more complicated concepts: critical thinking, logical reasoning and the organization of thoughts.

I was also expecting to face hardened youth. When we see in which conditions they live, I imagined that they must have grown up faster than their age, full of resentment and with a strong will to change their life. It is not what I have seen in Indonesia. Poverty there takes the shape of smiles, resilience and joy. It is deeply moving, when some of them lose everything because of flooding, and yet they still manage to come to the center, with a big smile. Certainly, they will be less focused on the teaching that day, but they came to forget what’s going on at home and also, because that’s just part of life. And that day, we are the ones learning.

Most of them do have the motivation to change their life but it does not happen with hardship. It is a gradual path where they transform themselves, step by step. They each have their own rhythm. It is amazing to witness them gaining self confidence and getting ready to defy fate.

They are also confronted with everything they need to sacrifice in order to be professional : not always being here for your family and friends, working hard, having less free time for hobbies. Sometimes, they are not ready for it. They don’t have the maturity required for such a change. Then, it is up to us, catalysts, to take a step back and realize that we can’t help everyone, but only the ones who are ready. We need to be humble and find the courage to admit we are not saving anyone. We are only supporting an existing determination. Slums, marginalized neighborhoods, ghettos are full of audacious and talented people, decided to change their life and to take part in their country’s development.

The surrounding community or the watchful eye

Joy and resilience, they are also perceived in the surrounding local community. In the women managing the warungs, in the children playing in the streets, in the men peacefully smoking, watching time passing by. In the steady brouhaha of the slum, we can hear the laughs and the bustling conversations.

The community is also full of kindness towards us. Through a smile or a call out “hey bule, mau ke mana?”, they watch over us, take an interest in what we’re doing, letting us know what’s happening in the neighbourhood. Warn us, sometimes. Take selfies with us, often.

After a long day in front of the computer, trying to fix some Excel formulas or drafting emails, strolling in the area is exactly what you need to get all your energy back ! With a huge smile on your face, you then remember the purpose of this mission. It is not only to accompany the youth into finding a decent job. It is also about getting to know the community, its culture and way of living. And to get inspired by it.

We seek to understand better the community and the youth, by living like them. We go grocery shopping in the local market, we are living without AC and most of all, we are living in the slum, among them. A modest lifestyle to focus on what is essential.

Our co-catalysts, a precious support

Another LP4Y innovation is to live with your fellow volunteers or “co-catalysts” in our jargon. Imagine, a shared house with volunteers having the same will to give to the less fortunate. It is an assured great atmosphere and a precious support in a challenging and intense mission. Who could better understand your joyful moments and your difficulties than the ones living the same experience?

During our training before the departure, we were gathered with volunteers going for other missions, with other organizations. Some of them would be alone on the field. Knowing I would be surrounded by other volunteers and accompanied was very reassuring before the departure and has been a true comfort during the mission.

In Indonesia, we have quite an advantage ! Indonesians speaking poorly English, we need a facilitator between us, foreigners, and the local community : a “Community Mobilizer”. Even though I have learned some Indonesian words, it is not enough to actually discuss with local authorities and to present our project. It is thus an incredible opportunity to work and live with local people. Thanks to them, I have learned a lot about Indonesia and the multitude of cultures we can discover there.

Multiculturalism in the working environment is not always easy. Like with the youth, some expectations were so obvious to me that I wouldn’t clearly explain them. It led to a few misunderstandings! With a bit of patience and open mindedness, we could rapidly find ways to better understand each other.

Through the youth, the community and the co-catalysts, the mission is a wonderful human experience. A path sprinkled with beautiful encounters and friendships.

In a nutshell…

We go on these humanitarian missions to give and share. We don’t expect how much we will be receiving and learning from the others. Patience, active listening, joy in the little things, resilience, the power of positivity. In difficult circumstances, we also learn a lot about ourselves, our weaknesses and strengths.

From this journey, I also hold LP4Y values and spirit which I wish to keep on growing in my daily life. Of course, kindness, attentiveness and positivity but also daring. Daring to ask for help, to dream, to have ambition and to be yourself.



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