It was arguably the most touching birthday party Kadek Purnami had ever had.
She struggled to fight her tears back as she looked at a group of around 50 children sitting before her. The children were dressed in worn-out clothes and most of them apparently hadn’t taken a bath for quite some time. Water is a precious commodity in that village and taking a bath regularly is a luxury most of the villagers cannot afford.
Standing next to Purnami was Pande Putu Setiawan, the founder of Anak Alam Community (www.anakalam.org). The children obviously adored this tall, dark-skinned young man. When Pande asked them about their day at school, the children answered spiritedly.
Pande turned to a little girl in the corner and asked her whether she would continue going to school. The girl, who was carrying her kid brother on her waist, had just finished her elementary education. In an almost inaudible voice, the girls answered.
“I want to enroll in the junior high school, but I don’t think it will be possible. My father will not allow me to [continue going to school],” she said as she tried to comfort her kid-brother.
At that point, Purnami couldn’t hold her tears. She turned her face away in a vain attempt to hide the tears.
Celebrating one’s birthday is supposed to be joyful affair. Yet, this year the native of Padangtegal, Ubud, wanted to celebrate her 29th birthday in a different, more meaningful way. She asked her friends to donate books, foods and used clothes for Anak Alam Community. Purnami admires the works that Pande has done for the children through his Anak Alam Community.
“He is so passionate about helping the kids and I want to do my share,” Purnami said.
On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, Purnami and his friends embarked on a trip from Ubud, that would eventually bring them face with face with the less celebrated reality of Bali, a reality comprises of poverty and suffering.
Upon reaching Kintamani, a tourist destination popular for its scenic view, they descended to Lake Batur, the giant caldera of a mighty volcano in ancient times. The villages surrounding the lake are populated by the descendants of proud warriors, whose rebellious nature was the source of constant headaches for the occupying troops of the might Majapahit empire in the 14th century.
The decent road ends in Songan, but their trip didn’t end in that village, where Pande was born and his father is a well-known and well-respected public medical officer.
The small group passed Songan, criss-crossed patches of cultivated land where the locals grow shallots and other seasonal plants, their primary source of income.
The road became narrower and steeper but Pande, standing on the open back of mini-truck, insisted that they must see the children.
“I have told the children we will be here. It is very difficult to bring them together because most of the time they will be scattered outside the village, helping their parents tend the farm or collecting firewood,” Pande said.
The group finally arrived at Blandingan, a small village perched on the northern rim of Lake Batur. Pande called Blandingan “one of the most underdeveloped villages in Batur”, Brick houses are a rare sight, most of the houses have woven bamboo walls, dirt floors and thatched roofs.
“There are around 300 households in this village, most of them shallot farmers,” an old man with untrimmed moustache and dirty clothes said, also the secretary to the village chief.
The awaiting children gathered at the village hall and took turns performing before their guests. Some recited poems, a little girl sung a popular love song, others performed a play.
“They are talented, hard-working children. The main problem is they don’t have access to education, the only thing that would enable them to break free from the bounds of poverty,” Pande said.
“There are around 3,000 children in villages spread along the rim of Lake Batur. So far, we have only managed to reach 200 children in Blandingan,” he sighed.
Pande, who holds a master degree, has traveled abroad and published a literary trilogy, believes that bringing education to these children is the only way to give them a better future.
One year ago he founded the Anak Alam Community, an organization of concerned individuals, who have put together various educational programs for the Blandingan children, from an English course to a photography workshop. Anak Alam now runs a small children library in Songan and is preparing to launch a computer course.
“All those programs were made possible by donations from generous individuals and institutions across the island. Several people have came here, spent two weeks with the children, teaching them the skills they use in their profession and in turn learning from the children about the various aspects of this beautiful place,” Pande said.
Now, concerned young men in Sumbawa, Riau and Semarang have established their own Anak Alam Community.
A thin curtain of mist descended upon Blandingan when the group prepared to leave. The children shouted and yelled when the car roared. In unison they screamed “I love you”. Purnami silently waved at them.
“This is the most meaningful birthday I have ever had. I will be back,” she said.