Going the Distance for Love of Books

Jakarta Globe,  April 04, 2010

Hers is an inspiring story of a simple, everyday woman who dreamed about spreading the love for the written word in a country where access to books is not readily available.

At first glance, Kiswanti, 44, seems to be an unlikely champion of literacy. The wife of a construction worker and mother of two has worked, among other occupations, as a maid and a jamu (traditional herbal medicine) seller.

Born in Bantul, a small city in Central Java, Kiswanti’s circumstances made it impossible for her to pursue her education past elementary school. Her father was a becak (rickshaw) driver and her mother was a jamu seller.

Kiswanti was told that she couldn’t continue on to junior high school because her parents did not have the money to pay the school fees.

“I remember at the time, my father told me that he was sorry he couldn’t keep me in school,” she said.

While she managed to start junior high with the help of a former elementary school teacher, she eventually was forced to drop out when the help dried up.

Despite everything, however, Kiswanti retained her love for books, which started when a teacher introduced her to the joys of the school library when she was in third grade.

“I found out that reading books was so exciting,” Kiswanti said. “I could learn a lot of things from them.”

Being out of school did not stop her from reading. Her parents bought her books from time to time, anything from textbooks to novels.

Kiswanti said that as a child, she was partial to comic books, especially those by Kho Ping Hoo.

“I liked his comic books because they told lots of stories about Indonesian legends and myths,” she said.

Kiswanti’s father motivated her by telling her that she could still learn through reading, and his words rang true when Kiswanti ended up tutoring friends who were having trouble with their school subjects. In return, her friends sometimes gave her money, which she used to buy more books.

But the road to Kiswanti’s book dream was not an easy one. Hoping for a better life, she decided to look for a job in Jakarta in 1987. She ended up working as a maid for a Filipino family.

As books were always on Kiswanti’s mind, she surprised her employers when she asked to be paid in books instead of money.

“They were really nice. The wife took me to buy books every month,” she said.

Kiswanti worked for the family for three months before they moved back to the Philippines. In that time, she was able to accumulate 45 books. She then worked for a South Korean family for another three months before settling down to marry Ngatmin, a construction worker.

One condition of the marriage was that Ngatmin had to allow Kiswanti to continue buying as many books as she could afford.

By 1987, Kiswanti had collected about 1,500 books. It was at that point that she realized she had a dream that she wanted to fulfill: to start her very own library.

“I wanted to have my own library so that kids like me from less fortunate families could read for free and get smart,” she said.

She and her husband moved from Jakarta to Pemagarsari village in Bogor in 1994. There, they raised their two children, now 20 and 15.

In 1997, Kiswanti asked her husband if she could teach the neighborhood children after hearing a few of them use inappropriate language. She began telling them stories from the books that she had collected.

In the beginning, the neighbors were unsure what to think of Kiswanti and her mission. But she didn’t let that stop her. “I knew that what I was doing was right, so I didn’t give up,” she said.

The response from the community eventually improved.

In 2000, Kiswanti established a Sunday class for neighborhood children. Not content with this, she thought that she could do more.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, she dusted off an old bicycle in 2003 and started selling jamu, but with a bag full of books on the back of her bike for children. “I thought it was a brilliant idea,” she said.

Fore the next nine months, Kiswanti hopped on her bicycle every day and pedaled from village to village, some as far as 13 kilometers away. “The kids were so enthusiastic to see me,” she said.

Unfortunately, a liver-related disease put a stop to her mobile library of sorts.

She did not see it as the end of the road for her book-related dreams, though. She was still determined to open a library and this became reality in December 2004. With the help of donors and with money from her own pocket, she opened Warung Baca Lebak Wangi, also known as Warabal in Bogor, West Java.

She said that opening her own library has made her very happy. “All my hard work has paid off,” she said.

There are at least 7,450 books in Warabal, from children’s stories to school textbooks. Kiswanti still buys books with her own money, but she now regularly receives book donations from different organizations.

With the help of around 14 volunteers, mostly housewives in the neighborhood, Kiswanti holds private lessons for students on weekdays. They help students study everything from math to social science. On weekends, the library becomes a place for children to study English and learn traditional dances.

At the moment, 415 students join the daily programs at Warabal, according to Kiswanti. She estimated that around 5,000 library members, including adults, borrowed books.

Eleven-year-old Nur Hikmah Maulid Dea, who is in the fifth grade, said she liked going to Kiswanti’s library because of the many interesting books she could find.

“I really like this place,” she said. “There’s no other place like this where you can borrow books for free.”

Mudin Em is a librarian from Forum Indonesia Membaca (Indonesian Reading Forum), a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote reading among young people. She said Kiswanti was a truly inspiring figure whose life struggle should motivate more people to make positive changes in their communities.

“She is a feminist who made her dreams come true in her own way,” she said.

Kiswanti has received numerous awards for her efforts. The latest honor came in December, when she was named one of Indonesia’s most inspiring women by home product manufacturer Tupperware. The company also included Kiswanti’s story in its book, “Tupperware, She Can!” which was released last month.

Mudin said Kiswanti, by pursuing her dreams, had shown that everyone could learn from reading no matter their socioeconomic status.

“Kiswanti is telling us that everyone has the right to have access to books,” Mudin said. (Tasa Nugraza Barley)