Science - January 13, 2005

'At least it's something'

Every evening starting at seven o'clock, Imam Suharto and eight other Indonesian MSc students can be found repairing bicycles in the entrance hall of the student flat De Bornsesteeg. The money they receive is destined for the tsunami victims in the coastal areas of Indonesia's northern Aceh province on the island of Sumatra.

The Indonesian students, who are all members of the Indonesian Students Association in Wageningen (and some of them are from Sumatra itself), are very moved by what's happened in South-East Asia, and although far away, they felt the need to show their solidarity with the unfortunate people back home. Suharto (a MAKS MSc student): 'We are used to natural disasters in Indonesia, especially earthquakes, but this tsunami is of a different order. The sea destroyed Aceh, one of the most prosperous parts of my country.'

The Indonesian students first learnt of the terrible news through the internet. The following day, the Indonesian Students Association immediately held a prayer meeting and collected among themselves about four hundred euros.

Suharto shows a list of all the repairs they have made so far: the names of students who have brought their bike are carefully listed as well as their donations. Already on 1 January, four students from China, Nepal and Indonesia tried the bicycle repair-service. The following day, students from every country imaginable including Bolivia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Belgium, Iran and Somalia, came with their old bikes. The Indonesian students manage to fix about seven bikes every evening. They ask three euros for each repair. But many students are happy to make a bigger donation for the victims in Indonesia, some giving as much as thirty euros. The bicycle repairmen make about seventy euros each night, and are happy with the amount.

Suharto: 'I'm good at repairing with bikes because in Indonesia (Bali) I used to cycle to school every day, and also did my own repairs when I had a flat tyre or other problems. Here in Wageningen we fix tyres, replace wheels, open locks, repair brakes, you name it. There are only a few things we cannot fix. I do not have experience with the old Dutch bikes without handbrakes (back-pedalling brakes) for example. And Axa locks are a real problem. Yesterday someone asked me to break this type of lock, but this is impossible.'
The students are quite wary about how to spend the money they receive. In Indonesia the chances that money for a good cause will eventually disappear are considerable, whether it is given to an NGO or a local government. We have had bad experiences with the Red Cross and to give it to a local administration may also not be wise. After long discussions we decided to give it to the television company SCTV that is operating nationwide and also has a department in Aceh. The advantage is that this television station shows on TV how they spend each donation, so the process is more transparent.'

Suharto notes that the Indonesian government is happy to receive any help from abroad to recover from the disaster. He finds it difficult to believe that the government from India can refuse help from abroad. 'It will take a lot of time to build up these coastal areas again. Aceh was a big tourist destination and a very fertile area for agriculture. And the loss is not only material. I hope a lot of support will be given to the people who lost their relatives. They really need psychological help them cope with their loss.' /HB