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Indonesian priest spreads literacy among rural folk

Father Babun's reading park in a remote village has sparked a literacy movement in a backward province

Indonesian priest spreads literacy among rural folk

Children at the reading park started by Father Wilfridus Babun in 2011 on Indonesia's Flores island. (Photo supplied)

Good intentions, no matter how small, must be turned into something concrete, says Father Wilfridus Babun. So, opening a reading park in a remote village in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province was what he did in 2011 when he saw the children there did little else but play after school hours.

“A lot of their time can actually be employed for useful things, such as reading books. However, it is impossible when no books are available,” he said.

The Divine Word priest was concerned that the lack of reading was contributing to the remote area’s poor ranking on the national human development index — East Nusa Tenggara stands third from the bottom among Indonesia’s 34 provinces.

“Transformation will not come from the sky but from every small effort we dare to make,” the 55-year-old priest told UCA News. 

He started by providing the children with whatever books he had, including on philosophy and theology, which he had studied in college.

Over time, people heard of the unique reading park for children operating from a local resident’s house and terrace and began visiting it. Many started donating their books.

The books that we provide are not only for schoolchildren. There are also books about agriculture, plant cultivation, livestock and other things

The priest, who at that time worked at his congregation’s communication commission, regularly visited the park located an hour’s ride from Ruteng town, where he lived. “I would carry books on my motorbike,” he recalled.

What really excites Father Babun now is that the place is always crowded with readers belonging to all age groups. “The books that we provide are not only for schoolchildren. There are also books about agriculture, plant cultivation, livestock and other things. The park is a place for them to gain new knowledge,” he said.

The reading park, known as Kompak Le Nuk, is located in Dadar village, a hilly tract in West Manggarai district on the Catholic-majority island of Flores.

The initiative drew the attention of government authorities in Jakarta. In 2017, while on his way back from a pastoral assignment, Father Babun received a call from the presidential palace inviting him to a special audience with President Joko Widodo.

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“I was really shocked when told that what I was doing had reached them,” he said. The meeting with the president in the state palace, where among the 40 literacy activists he was the only one with a religious background, provided him with further motivation.

The president seemed impressed by his efforts for people on the margins and the support grew further. Every month he received hundreds of books and he began expanding to other villages.

“Currently, there are at least 23 literacy activists in other villages in Flores who house our books,” Father Babun said.

According to Kasmir Tamsi, 50, the staff member who manages the park, they are in the process of exploring cooperation with the National Library for developing a digital library.

“We are the only reading park to be chosen from the western Flores region for this collaboration,” he said while revealing that they may soon have a building of their own, equipped with computers and internet.

“Books will be accessible digitally, so we will no longer be a conventional library,” Tamsi added.

They were also cooperating with the local government to transform the park into a hub for activities to help farming communities in the area. “We hope that the park will be able to bring them prosperity,” he said.

I have collected around 200 books. I want this movement to continue to expand

Father Babun said he was grateful for such breakthroughs, though he was always confident that the small initiative would bear fruit. More importantly, awareness regarding the importance of literacy had led the East Nusa Tenggara provincial government to ratify a regional regulation on literacy last February.

He hoped this will lead to concrete steps being taken to “bring results at the grassroots level.”

The priest, who moved to Sumba island to the south of Flores a couple of months ago to lead Divine Word’s St. Arnold Education Foundation, said he will be starting a new reading park there.

“I have collected around 200 books. I want this movement to continue to expand,” he said.

Father Babun continues to believe that promoting literacy among rural people is an important part of his pastoral vocation. Why should public libraries be only for people in the cities?

“This has been best exemplified by European missionaries who worked here in the past. They would provide books and magazines so that people could read. They believed that literacy was important,” he said.

He wants all pastoral caretakers today to follow the example of the European missionaries.

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