Smile, always, no matter what

To reach Jono, a village in Sigi area, west of Palu, we drive for 45 minutes. As we approach the village, the damage caused by the 28 September 2018 earthquake become more and more evident: the road is cracked and torn apart and parts of it that were flat before are now bumpy.

To reach Jono, a village in Sigi area, west of Palu, we drive for 45 minutes. As we approach the village, the damage caused by the 28 September 2018 earthquake become more and more evident: the road is cracked and torn apart and parts of it that were flat before are now bumpy. Jono is a small, rural village, lost in the middle of large rice fields. “People don’t know this place. Many mistake it with the other Jono, Jono Oge, the bigger one that was severely affected by liquefaction,” says Belcion, who is 52 years old. He welcomes us and apologizes for his “broken” English: “You know, high school was long, long time ago,” he says, smiling ear to ear. But then he stops and he says quietly: “Sometimes I feel too bad to smile, you know, for all what happened. But then I remember the principle I love the most in life: smile, always, no matter what.”

Belcion and his wife Olfin were born here. They met each other here and got married 17 years ago. When the earth started shaking on 28 September, they were at home, drinking coffee and resting after an intense day in the fields. “We tried to run out, but the earth was shaking so violently that we fell several times,” said Belcion. “When we finally reached the door, we heard our neighbour screaming. She was trapped inside her house. I didn’t think twice and I went there to help her. The entire village was shocked, people were in the street, crying and asking for help. We ran up to the hill and, within a few hours, we built temporary shelters with wood and leaves and what we could find on the ground.”

Some people are still living there, two months after the disaster, but Belcion and Olfin decided to come back to their village: “We were born here, we met here. We want to rebuild our life here,” said Belcion. They have built a tiny makeshift shelter a few metres from what is left of their previous house. “The house is still standing, but is severely damaged and has huge cracks inside,” said Belcion. “We don’t feel safe there anymore. But, sometimes, when it is raining a lot, we are forced to sleep there because the roof of our shelter is leaky and water comes in.” The couple share one mattress with their three children. “Since the disaster, I have been working hard to rebuild my house,” he said. “It is too small now and I need to work hard. Christmas is approaching and I want my family to have a place they can call home, where we can all celebrate Christmas together.”

While we are talking, Olfin takes two big coconuts and offer them to us. I stare at this huge coconut in front of me, wondering how should I open and drink it, when I see Olfin talking to my translator. She disappears for a few seconds and comes back with a glass and a spoon. “I can see she is not a coconut expert,” she says with a smile. “Let me help her out a little.”

I really don’t know how it happened, but what started as a “formal” interview, a post-distribution monitoring exercise to find out if people were happy with the items Medair and our local partner, MAP Indonesia, had distributed a few days before, suddenly became an in-depth conversation of what matters the most in life: the importance of human relations and the power of solidarity. “We are just tools in the hands of God, an extension of God’s kindness. And we need to extend this kindness to other people in need. This is why I would never refuse to help a neighbour who needs it,” Belcion tells me. “Here in Jono, we help each other. Muslims and Christians live in harmony and share the little we have. It is this solidarity that keeps us going during hard times.”

Since the earthquake seriously damaged the fields and destroyed the irrigation system, Belcion is not able to farm anymore. He is now focusing on rebuilding his house, but he hopes to be able to go back to his activities soon. “When something like this happens, the first thing you think about are your loved ones. For two days after the disaster, I had no news of my older daughter who lives farther up in Donggala – a coastal area that was severely affected by the tsunami. “Communications were down, the roads were blocked. Not knowing if your loved ones are safe is…simply terrible,” said Belcion. “Luckily, she is fine. We all are. Now we need to move forward. Rebuild our house, rebuild our lives. If we don’t work, we don’t have the money to buy anything, not even the most essential everyday items,” he adds.

When I ask the family if they are happy with what Medair and our partner distributed, they can’t stop thanking us for our generosity. “Everything was useful, so useful. Especially the bucket. You know, before the earthquake, we had water at our house. Now we need to go to the well and fetch water every morning,” explains Belcion. “We love it. It’s our little morning exercise. At least we will be in good shape,” continues Olfin, looking at her husband with a complicit, beautiful smile. “Your wife is so beautiful when she smiles,” I say. Belcion agrees: “Isn’t she? Just like when we first met, almost 20 years ago,”he replies.

Our time together is over, so I say goodbye and get into the car that will take me back to Palu. On the way back, I can’t stop thinking about what this couple just reminded me: that kindness and solidarity are all that matter. That our loved ones are our strength, always. And what the power of a smile can do, even when life gets extremely difficult.

In accordance with the Government of Indonesia’s requirements, Medair in Indonesia is working through local partners. In Central Sulawesi, Medair has established relationships with three locally registered NGOs: Yayasan Menara Agung Pengharapan (MAP); Yayasan Bumi Tangguh (YBT); and Cipta Fondasi Komunitas (CFK).

As part of the initial emergency response phase, Medair – through its local partners MAP and YBT – is distributing emergency shelter and basic household items and hygiene kits to the affected population. This initial response phase will serve 6,425 households (22,488 beneficiaries) in the affected areas of Palu, Sigi, and Donggala. Medair serves as the lead in coordinating and managing the project, providing technical advice and on-the-job training to local partners, ensuring quality distributions, monitoring/evaluation, and programme support.

Medair is currently exploring the possibility of starting a cash-for-work programme in the months to come, in line with government guidelines and in partnership with a local organisation.