Like many Australians my age, I first encountered Bahasa Indonesia in a high school language class.
The islands of Indonesia seemed very far away from our small country town, and the following year I switched to German class.
Fast-forward 13 years and I found myself in Bali – again, like many Australians my age.
By this stage I’d travelled in other parts of Asia, but Indonesia just hadn’t been on my radar until a friend convinced me to take a trip.
So when I arrived on the tiny island of Bali, I was surprised to discover a feeling of connection. The words spoken around me triggered distant memories, and suddenly I wanted to know more about this place.
Back in Melbourne a few weeks later, I signed up for Bahasa lessons with the Australian Indonesian Association of Victoria. I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of a journey that would change the course of my life.
Between classes I set a goal of learning three new words each day, and was surprised at how quickly my vocabulary grew. Inspired, I made a decision: I would be back in Indonesia before the end of the year.
And this time it would be more than a holiday – I wanted to really get to know the country.
Soon after, I applied for a volunteer position with the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program (now part of Australian Volunteers for International Development). I was offered an assignment in the province of Aceh, and a few months later I resigned from my job and boarded a plane.
My year in Aceh was one of the best I’ve had. Based in an Indonesian government agency, I worked on a project that supported rural women to form farming cooperatives.
As the only foreigner in the office I had plenty of opportunities to practice my Bahasa, and made many wonderful friendships. I learnt a great deal about Indonesian culture and society, and was overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity I was shown.
I also learnt to surf, trekked through the jungle, explored ‘secret’ caves, mountain-biked down muddy hillsides, and snorkelled alongside turtles and tropical fish. Aceh is a beautiful place!
It’s often said that the best way to learn a language is by being immersed in it, and my time in Aceh certainly proved that for me; but to kick things along, I also spent a couple of weeks at a language school in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta.
Yogyakarta is a hub for Bahasa Indonesia learners, offering numerous private language schools for learners of all levels.
The schools are excellent value for money, with highly trained teachers who can tailor their methods to suit your needs and interests. They’re also great fun, and I still keep in touch with several of my teachers.
When my year as an AYAD finished, I knew I wouldn’t be leaving Indonesia for good: it’s a fascinating and diverse country, and I was hooked.
In 2012 I began studying a Master of Journalism and International Relations at Monash University. I was thrilled to learn I could do a journalism internship in Jakarta as part of the degree, through the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies(ACICIS).
ACICIS offers several study programs in Indonesia, from semester-long language programs to two-month internships in the journalism, business and development sectors.
With twenty or so students from around Australia, I spent the first two weeks of the ACICIS Journalism Professional Practicum in an intensive language and academic program.
For the remaining six weeks I interned at the ABC bureau in Jakarta, where I shadowed the Indonesia correspondent and produced stories for radio and television. This experience gave a major boost to my journalism portfolio, and gave me a unique insight into the world of foreign correspondence.
I’ve since been back to Indonesia to study language and research a radio documentary.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had so many opportunities to get to know Indonesia, and my experiences living, studying, travelling and working there continue to enrich my personal and professional life every day.
A great benefit of programs like ACICIS and AVID is that they give Australians a deeper understanding of our nearest neighbour, beyond the political soundbites and newspaper headlines.
They are the platforms where people-to-people relationships can truly flourish, and in times of diplomatic tension these relationships are more important than ever.
For many of my fellow ACICIS students the journalism internship was their first visit to Indonesia, and I know many will return; some already have. That’s just how it is with Indonesia: once you’ve made a connection, it’s part of you for life.
There are so many ways to learn Bahasa, from free online programs and conversation groups, to formal classes and exchange programs. If you’re thinking about taking that step, I can only say ayo – let’s go!
Anna Strempel has a background in environmental sustainability, community development and social research. She has lived, studied and worked in Indonesia several times, including as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development in Aceh; as an intern at ABC Jakarta through the ACICIS Journalism Professional Practicum; as a Hamer Scholar studying language in Yogyakarta; and as a recipient of the Australian National University Indonesia Project's Research Travel Grant. Anna now works in the multicultural youth sector, and produces radio documentaries in her spare time.
December 5 is International Volunteer Day, when we recognise and highlight the contributions of volunteers in the service of others.
Through a partnership with the UN Volunteers programme, OCHA counts among its ranks volunteers who are making significant contributions to humanitarian response in countries from Colombia to Zimbabwe.
James St. John Cox
I have been volunteering in one capacity or another for four years now. I started in the Maldives, offering my professional experience with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to help with setting up a local television and radio station. I then joined the Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) programme and was assigned to the School for Broadcast Media in Indonesia. Working with teams of hungry young journalists taught me the meaning behind jargon like ‘capacity building’ and ‘knowledge transfer’, because I saw the results in action.
As my AYAD assignment came to a close, I interviewed for a UNV posting with OCHA Indonesia as a Reporting Officer. While I had no humanitarian experience to speak of at that stage, I certainly had the training and experience needed as a writer, and was quickly able to adapt to the unfamiliar language of the United Nations, thanks to the support of my Head of Office, my Indonesian colleagues, and from members of the reporting unit in Geneva and New York, who made themselves available to me as I found my feet.
OCHA has always made me feel that every opportunity to enhance my knowledge and experience was available to me, and with the encouragement of my colleagues, I have participated in UN training courses in Sweden, Iceland, Thailand and Indonesia.
After only seven months with OCHA, I applied for the Emergency Response Roster (ERR), which supplies staff for immediate deployment to emergencies. I became the first UN Volunteer ever selected for the roster. It was a great honour to be sent on a six-week surge deployment to Sudan in 2011; I hope this has set a precedent for future OCHA UNVs to join the roster.
I am now a Humanitarian Reports Officer with OCHA’s regional office in the Asia-Pacific, where I have the exciting opportunity to gather information and tell stories about 36 nations and territories to a global audience.