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| Saturday, 19 August 2017 |
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Bags of Books on the Move in Papua
Thursday, 27 July, 2017 | 15:00 WIB
Bags of Books on the Move in Papua

TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - AGUS Mandowen spends his afternoons in the villages of Manokwari, West Papua, bringing along a large noken (Papuan traditional woven bag) filled with 20 to 30 books. He goes to several different villages, but always at the same time, after school hours.

If the area is close to where he lives, Agus would travel on foot. But to get to the more remote places, he would borrow a two-wheeler from a friend. "It can take two hours to get to Bakaro (village) from the city," he said.

The 24-year-old has volunteered for the Noken Pustaka Papua (Papuan Noken Library) since December 2015. The community gives children in Manokwari access to books by providing mobile libraries in villages surrounding the city.

At the time, Agus was working as a security guard at a school. The movement's founder, Misbah Surbakti, came to the school with books for the children. "I saw how excited they were because books are hard to get here. That motivated me," Agus said.

He immediately asked if he could volunteer for the movement. Agus, who is a weightlifting athlete, can only devote two days each week because he has to train the rest of the week. After graduating from high school, he decided to not continue studies and focus on his training.

In the early days of volunteering, Agus was not expecting the work to be difficult. First, he had to find out where the children would gather in each village, to let them know he had books for them. "But the first few times I came, they ran away. I don't know if they were afraid of me or of the books," he said, laughing.

But now the children, usually five to ten at a time, will approach him to read the books he is carrying. Apart from carrying a large noken, Agus also helps some of the children who still find it difficult to read. West Papua's literacy rate is still low, and a number of primary and middle school children are not yet fluent readers, he explained.

Agus hopes that with his help, Papuan children will develop a reading habit. "I want them to like books," he said. He believes that children can learn much from books. "We can't just learn in class. There's no limit to learning outside of school."

THE Noken Pustaka Papua was established in December 2015 by Misbah Surbakti, a middle school teacher at the SMP 19 (state middle school) in Manokwari. The North Sumatran native has taught in West Papua for 20 years. As a teacher, he saw that many middle school students still had poor reading competency. He thought the main cause was the lack of reading materials in the school.

But over the past few years, the number of students with below-average reading skills seemed to be growing. "Instead of blaming others, I decided to ask my colleagues to bring their own books to school," said Misbah.

He and his colleagues brought used books that belonged to their children and asked other parents to do the same. The books were kept at the school library. But Misbah noticed that not much was changing. Very few students made use of the library, nor borrowed books to bring home.

In early 2015, Misbah was sent to a middle school in the Banjarnegara Regency, Central Java, on a teaching assignment. He was amazed by the book collection and the library's atmosphere. "It was casual, colorful, there were places to sit and soft music was playing in the background," he said.

He discussed the situation at his school in Papua with a librarian in Banjarnegara and received several tips on how to improve the reading habit. When he returned to Manokwari, he asked his friend, Ali Sunarko, who was once a school librarian, to start a literacy movement in the regency, and not only at his school.

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