Two years ago, we shared one of our most-watched videos ever: The Wait is Over. Seeing eight-year-old Halena’s reaction to the news she had a sponsor after an 18-month wait brought many of us to tears. Recently, we went back to lush, remote Sumba Island in Indonesia to learn more about its fascinating people and to catch up with Halena and her hardworking family.
28 Mar, 2017
The remote Indonesian island of Sumba feels like a lost world. A few flights a week carry passengers from the tourist magnet of Bali to this rugged enclave. Australian surfers deplane at the tiny airport and drive for hours to conquer waves legendary for their unique break.
The distinctiveness of Sumba, however, extends far beyond a wave break. Christianity is the dominant religion on this island in a country where 87 per cent of people practice Islam. Many Sumbanese blend Christianity with Marapu—an animistic religion practiced virtually nowhere else in the world. Relatives live in family compounds comprising several homes. Scattered among the compounds are monoliths containing ancestors’ remains. Striving to please these ancestors’ spirits keeps many Sumbanese in spiritual and economic bondage.
But this bondage is easy to miss when driving past shimmering rice terraces and misty hills to Waitabula village. Compassion’s presence here ensures that Sumbanese children will have more opportunities than their parents had. Kornelis Yelu Dama, coordinator of the church-run Compassion centre, grew up here. He knows the families in his community and sees the children’s needs. Crucial among these needs, Kornelis says, is education.
Many sponsored children’s parents are illiterate. Experts in subsistence farming, the Sumbanese used to place most educational emphasis on how to grow crops. Although most Sumbanese kids now complete primary school, most don’t receive the quality of education they deserve. It is common for children to show up at public school in neatly pressed uniforms, eager to learn, only to wait for a teacher who doesn’t come.
Secondary school poses a bigger problem for parents who struggle to grow enough food to sell for income. Unlike primary school, which is free, secondary school requires a tuition payment of 1.8 million rupiah, about US$137, each semester. Without secondary school, children lack the skills required for higher education or careers in agriculture and Indonesia’s tourism industry. Sponsorship through Compassion helps Sumbanese families afford these otherwise out-of-reach school fees. More important, however, the program provides additional education in a community with a substandard school system. Dedicated tutors meet with kids at Compassion centres up to four times a week after school to make sure they are progressing in their studies.
One Sumbanese child thriving with the help of sponsorship is 10-year-old Halena Asti Bora.
Halena holds a photo of her sponsor, Renee Sharp. Before Renee chose her, Halena was on Compassion’s list of children waiting longest for a sponsor. Halena was just eight at the time and recalls how the wait felt. “When other friends who had sponsors wrote the letters to their sponsors, that made my heart sad.” For 18 months, she longed to receive and write letters.
Her mum, Marta Para Bili, held steadfast to her belief that Halena would have a sponsor one day. “Wait, my child,” she would tell her daughter. “God will provide.” And He did.
Today, Halena keeps Renee’s photo in her bedroom in the house where she lives with her parents, five siblings, baby nephew and aunt. Halena’s homework desk, among the few pieces of furniture in the home, represents a new future for her family. Her mum finished only second grade; her dad never went to school. Halena attends school and is excelling.
Halena’s father, Fransiskus Umbu Fege, and mother, Marta, farm to provide food for their family. The land around their home produces chayote (a gourd), cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas and other produce. After keeping enough for her family, Marta usually has some left to sell at a market in a nearby town. “Life is hard,” Marta says, “but we know that we have to work hard every day.” In a typical month, Halena’s parents earn a combined income of 590,000 rupiah—about US$45.
Halena helps her mother cook sweet potatoes in the bamboo kitchen outside their home. Sweet potatoes are part of many meals. The family also boils, dries and mashes them into flour to make a thick stew. Marta and Fransiskus get up at 4:30 am daily to make porridge for the kids and fetch rainwater from the concrete cistern outside their home. Sumbanese families usually reserve meat for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.
At Halena’s public school, she earns above-average grades in math, science and language. Marta and Fransiskus dream of their daughter graduating from high school and going to college. “Seeing my children able to write and read,” says Marta, “that has made our hearts feel joy.” But Compassion’s church partners on Sumba know that the public school system doesn’t meet all of a child’s needs.
Halena expands her education at a Compassion child development centre run by a local church. Here, caring mentors teach core subjects and vocational skills such as cooking and mechanics. Halena also attends the church on Sundays and has even joined a Bible study to learn more about Jesus. This education opens countless opportunities for Halena that her parents never had. Franciskus says he has dreams “as high as the stars in the sky” for his children. With the encouragement of her parents and the support of Compassion and her sponsor, Halena won’t be limited by her island.
The Wait is Over: Watch the emotional moment when Halena, eight years old at the time, and her parents learn that she’d been sponsored.
Words by Willow Welter; photos by Chuck Bigger
A version of this article titled ‘A Rock on an Island’ originally appeared in the March 2017 edition of Compassion Magazine.