Mosquito repellent still coats my nostrils, my boots are caked in a thick layer of mud, but my clothes are finally starting to feel dry. I’ve just completed a week with SurfAid’s amazing Katuerukat programme team in the Mentawai. The trip officially began with a managers planning meeting in Medan where I met up with my traveling companions: Frans – our Mentawai Programme Manager; and Lenny – SurfAid Indonesia’s Finance Manager.

SurfAid’s Katuerukat programme (“prosperity” in local language) operates in the Mentawai Islands, in Indonesia’s far west, off the coast of Sumatra. The area is plagued with high poverty rates and low health indicators that are exacerbated by isolation, and further compounded by natural disasters. In 2010 a devastating tsunami killed 509 people – the worst affected area was on the island of South Pagai where approximately 2,900 people (14 communities) had to be permanently relocated inland to an area lacking basic resources and with very little infrastructure.

SurfAid has been working with these communities since 2010 and has helped establish community health posts and access to clean water and sanitation. Our recent efforts focus on increasing economic security through agriculture, alongside food security and continued health efforts. I came for a firsthand monitoring visit, to see the impact of our work.

Community Development work never ends, but for SurfAid’s Katuerukat team, this goes to another level – as they work and live alongside the community. The community members will come by the SurfAid residence (Posko in the local language) at all hours of the day or night. Sometimes they want to talk about their crops, or a recent training session, the weather, or anything else that’s important in their day. The SurfAid staff are respected by the community and are treated as genuine neighbours.

The SurfAid field team live and work out of the SurfAid field house (Posko), which creates a unique dynamic. When I commented on this, they said, “We are all living and working here, far away from our families, friends and loved ones, so we are each other’s family.” Not only do staff live and work amongst the community, every day is filled with travel on treacherous roads, through torrential rain and unrelenting heat, often without access to water or power, without phone/internet, doing valuable work where it is truly needed. I am in awe.

After reading and editing so many Katuerukat programme reports, this opportunity to tour and meet the local community members was a powerful reminder of the importance of our work. Even though a decade has passed since the brutal tsunami hit their coast, it was still fresh for many in our communities. People shared how they lost almost everything, including many lives. It is a tribute to the Katuerukat team and all the other SurfAid staff over the years, to see the community’s appreciation for SurfAid’s support as they continue to adjust to their forced relocation in the jungle.

With the support of SurfAid’s Katuerukat team, these resilient communities have established new lives. These former-fisherfolk are learning to farm and are successfully forming business groups and cooperatives that support each other through community savings groups. They have established functioning Community Health Posts (Posyandu), and are taking on roles as Community Health Volunteers (Kaders) to help lead their communities’ efforts towards better health and wellbeing.

Examples of significantly improved livelihoods abound, young mothers are leading a number of community savings groups, managing funds, budgets and repayments, supported by SurfAid’s economic development training. There is an increase in access to education, which is an unintentional, but very positive development. In one hamlet called Muntei Kecil, the community’s longest-serving Kader, Ibu Ristiani and her husband, Bapak Nahoor, took a short break from SurfAid’s training session to bid farewell to their son who was leaving the island to study in North Sumatra.

Another enthusiastic young man – Fabel – works in SurfAid’s Demonstration Farm, learning and implementing sustainable agriculture techniques. His goal is to provide increased income for his family, allowing his younger siblings the opportunity to go to school. As we speak, Fabel’s quick smile flashes often underneath his bright eyes, sparkling with eagerness to learn and pride in his position as one of SurfAid’s Champion Youth Farmers. The crops are visibly flourishing under his care and the tutelage of the Katuerukat team, including the experienced ‘Bang’ Buteli.

As I made my way home, I struck up a conversation with an operator of a nearby surf resort. He’s been in the Mentawai since 2003 and was very impressed with SurfAid’s impact over the years. He’s witnessed our disaster response work, malaria programmes, and our current approach, and appreciates our long-term commitment to the region.

I’m humbled and inspired by the fun, effective and committed family of team Katuerukat. I’m grateful for the whole team showing me pieces of the work they do, diligently supporting our communities (especially Frans for navigating the dangerous roads safely, through rain, mud, stones and storms!). I have a newfound appreciation for how many hours it takes them to find sufficient internet signal to send even one report, one photo, one email!

As we continue into the 20th year since SurfAid first began working in the Mentawai, there is still much to achieve. With our awesome team and our dedicated SurfAid supporters, I know we can do it. A special thanks to our major programme partners MFAT, Vibrant Village Foundation, Symphasis and Footprints for investing in our communities.

Semangat! (roughly similar to ‘Go Team’!)

Owen Morris

Program Support Manager