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Joining the fanfare: a visit to the RW Siaga Plus+ program

Indonesia, July 25, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Abbey Jones/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Children march and sing as part of a recent day of activities for Mercy Corps' RW Siaga Plus+ program, which focuses on improving sanitary conditions in urban Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Abbey Jones/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Abbey Jones/Mercy Corps  </span>
    An especially well-presented and appetizing platter of tempeh pudding for the Mercy Corps-sponsored healthy cooking competition. Photo: Abbey Jones/Mercy Corps

I found myself being swept along with the wave of elementary students marching in the streets. Although at first I didn’t know the words to the song they were singing, I soon learned and sang along. We were singing the praises of the RW Siaga Plus+ program, a program focused on improving the sanitary conditions of urban Jakarta, while marching to a healthy lifestyle competition.

While hanging out with the children before the competition, I was amazed to hear them brag about their lifestyle changes as many American children brag about a new pair of shoes or video game on the playground. They all told me about how, because of the RW Siaga Plus+ program, they all wash their hands before eating and after going to the bathroom and always go to the bathroom in the toilet. In some of Jakarta's poorest neighborhoods — where water and sanitary facilities are scarce — this is quite an accomplishment and commitment.

An 11-year old girl named Mega translated between me and her friends. Although my Indonesian is at the vocabulary level of an elementary school-aged child, my pronunciation leaves something to be desired. Fortunately, Mega understood my accent so that I could communicate with all the children.

“He wants to show you how to wash your hands,” Mega said, pointing to a boy wearing a black T-shirt from my native state of South Dakota.

I followed Mega and the boy to a hand-washing station installed by the RW Siaga Plus+ program, where the boy took a bright orange piece of soap and began scrubbing away. I carefully followed his instruction.

I’m glad I did, because like the children, I know I should always wash my hands before meals and soon I was to judge a cooking competition. The program promoted this cooking competition to increase the community’s use of tempe and fish, both of which are high in protein and low in fat. These foods are “positive deviant” foods, which mean some families who have children with healthy weights feed their children these foods. Tempeh and fish are affordable, easy available throughout the city and simple to prepare.

During the competition I tasted a variety of delicious foods such as tempeh pizza, tempeh pudding and fish curry. The competitors garnished their foods so beautifully I felt as if I was on the Food Network instead of in an urban Jakarta neighborhood. The competition aimed to inspire community members to cook tempeh and fish in creative ways, and I believe the competition achieved its goals.

“The competition inspired us to think creatively about foods that are cheap and easy to make,” Ibu Iih from the winning team said. “Usually we think of pizza as an expensive western food, but the competition made us realize that we can cook our own, healthy version for our families.”

After the competition, I handed out the trophies to the winners and danced to dangdut (music combining Indonesian traditional rhythms with other world and modern beats). The competition illustrated the success and pride communities achieve when they are encouraged to make a change for themselves, and I felt happy to just be there watching.