Duo weaves matchmaking magic with ‘world of letters’

by Angela Jeffs

Dede Prabowo and Jim Wagner are telling stories about Alam Aksara, the organization that Prabowo started four years ago to find sponsors for Indonesian children who are unable to go to school.

“An Indonesian friend lives in Tokyo,” Wagner begins, explaining how Alam Aksara began work in the eastern Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggaea Timur. “Her aunt lives in Kupang in the western part of Timor island, and that aunt’s cousin is now one of our coordinators. It’s how we connect up and expand, through family and friends.”

Wagner continues: “When we first visited the school in Kupang, we wanted to take gifts. But candy seemed a pretty stupid idea. So one of our volunteers went to a local vendor making small lunch packets of cooked rice and asked for 60. The vendor’s eyes near fell out of her head. She kept going in and out of her kitchen, asking, ’60?’ She used up all her rice.”

Handing them out to the children, both men were touched to see that while some swiftly ate up their allowance, just as many packed the gifts away to take home and share. “We’re directing our efforts towards the disadvantaged of society,” Wagner explains.

Both he and Prabowo enjoyed a far more advantaged start in life.

“Growing up in California, I elected to study Japanese at Stanford University largely because the French and German courses were full. No, that’s a joke. I studied Japanese because I really wanted to.”

Wagner came to Keio University for two months as an exchange student in the summer of ’68, and spent his senior year at university studying the language intensively in Tokyo.

Eighteen years later, with a degree in classical Japanese literature and what he describes as “a varied career,” Wagner found himself working full-time in Tokyo for Newsweek Japan.

“I began as a lowly part-time accuracy checker checking translations and ended up as managing editor. It was a fascinating experience to be on the ground for the launch of such a publication in Japan, watch it develop and grow. My job? To hound contributors, grovel, shake my fist, beg for manuscripts.”

He’s joking again, of course.

The last three years he had his own column, This Week: an opinion piece on “What has not happened yet!”

Even though he’s stepped back from the frontline, he’s still an editorial adviser, meaning that he is on call if required. But he rather hopes not, because he’s on a new path. He would have been nicely prepared for a comfortable life, but the recent economic crash put an end to that. Not that he’s complaining.

“Now life is not about remuneration but doing something useful with its own reward. But I can’t claim that I started Alam Aksara. No, Dede did that.”

Prabowo, who is currently fully employed as a fund manager at a U.K.-based company in Tokyo, named the organization after two words in his language with Arabic and Sanskrit origins meaning “world of letters.”

“The idea (for Alam Aksara) began after my sister, who lives in the Jakarta suburb of Depok, told me about a medical student, whose mother was in her local community group. Unable to finish his degree without the family borrowing from loan sharks, I became his sponsor,” Prabowo says. “The amount was so small by our standards.”

Prabowo has lived in Japan for 15 years, Wagner for 35. Both men now have permanent residency and consider Tokyo home. But their paths were very different until they came together, finding academic as well as personal interests in common.

“I come from a middle-class family,” says Prabowo. “With five sisters and a mother who was headmistress of a middle school, I was really pushed to study and achieve. But in Indonesia, if opportunities like that do not come, life is very different. So many children have a willingness to study, but poverty holds them back.”

In 1988, in his fourth year at university in Bandung on the island of Java, Prabowo was awarded a scholarship by Japan Airlines to attend Sophia University in Tokyo for three months.

“It was summer and bubble time,” he recalls. “Japan was marvelous, a golden place to be. Back home, after I finished my degree in engineering, I studied Japanese and worked as a software engineer in Tokyo.”

When he met Wagner, he was astonished to discover that an American who’d never been to Indonesia was a fan of gamelan, the traditional musical ensembles of Java and Bali.

“I first heard gamelan music via a world music LP,” Wagner explains. “At grad school in Michigan, there was a gamelan group. That’s how I became interested in Indonesia, following the politics and the positive changes toward democracy that began to take place after President Suharto stepped down in 1998.”

Indonesia is so different, he says. With Indian, Arabic, Portuguese and Dutch influences, it resembles no other country in Asia. Japan has much in common with Korea and China, but Indonesia, with its thousands of islands, tribes and languages, can be baffling.

He and Prabowo look slightly embarrassed when they admit they have only 40 students and five graduates being sponsored to date. But Alam Aksara is in its infancy, and since they have not yet applied for NPO status (though this is in the offing), they are deliberately taking things slowly and carefully.

“We are looking at how other NPOs function,” Wagner explains. “We want the money that sponsors give to go to the students, not get swallowed up by bureaucracy and advertising.”

“We rely on volunteers to identify students worthy of support — “people we know, like my family,” adds Prabowo.

“For example, when my sister learns of a child in need, she interviews him or her and talks with the parents, then goes to the school and talks with teachers about grades and attitude. Willingness to study is all important — that and the will of the parents for their child.

“It’s like matchmaking,” Prabowo says with a smile. “Neighbors come, we talk, we put children and sponsors together. In the last couple of weeks we’ve had eight children in need, and through e-mailing friends and friends of friends have found support for them all. There is such goodwill that right now we have a waiting list of sponsors waiting to help.”

Only two students have dropped out, one who decided he liked soccer more than studying. He passed his sponsorship on to his more-than-eager sister. In the other case the parents lost control; the boy wanted to help his father now rather than later.

Generally, however, there are only success stories. Just recently, a volunteer identified a child breaking up rocks on the riverbank to sell to construction companies. He was a good kid, but his grades were lousy. Yet Alam Aksara decided to give him this last chance to pull himself out of that poverty trap. He is now in school.

“My dream is to follow such children through, see what happens, where they’ll go,” says Prabowo, who sponsors eight students, including one at university who is about to graduate.

“Me? About the same number of kids,” replies Wagner, running his finger down the list.

There are no rules about sponsoring, but Alam Aksara does not translate correspondence, promising only to pass on quarterly reports. Once NPO status is achieved, then the organizers can apply for grants to cover postage, copying and transportation fees for volunteers — costs currently absorbed by individual volunteers.

In December, Prabowo and Wagner plan to visit Indonesia’s West Papua Province, where a volunteer is starting work; also the island of Sumba to recruit a new coordinator.

“Our coordinator in Kupang laughed the other day when we asked if she had access to e-mail,” Wagner says. “Even flying to these locations is tough.”

Prabowo nods in agreement. “Indonesia is huge and scattered, with 240 million people. Did you know that even as things slowly improve, there is virtually no public lending in the whole of the country?”

Web site: alamaksara.org