Lights from heaven

By Elizabeth Stevens
Tasma, Siar, and Rus’ida, members of the women’s group Majelis Ta’lim Nurul Jannah, under a sign that designates a community gathering place at the end of the evacuation route. “We are doing this work passionately,” says Tasma Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

After an earthquake devastated their town, a group of women has taken the lead in reducing future risks. And as they work together on behalf of their neighbors, their own trauma eases.

The coastal village of Lende Tovea is located at the epicenter of the earthquake that struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in September 2018. It was a town of 468 homes, until 187 came crashing down that day. Seven people died.

“We still have fear in our hearts,” says Tasma, a woman who lives here. (Like many people in this region, she goes by one name only.)

Nearly all of Indonesia is located within the Ring of Fire—the most seismically active area of the world—so earthquakes will always be a hazard on this island, but that doesn’t mean people have to accept a future of helpless terror. In Lende Tovea, Oxfam and a local partner organization are working hand in hand with a group of women who are taking matters into their own hands. Building on a government initiative to create “resilient villages,” the women are looking for ways to keep families safe during emergencies, and to recover from them when they’re over. They have created a map of the village to clarify where it’s dangerous to go during disasters like earthquakes, and established an evacuation route to guide people to a gathering place out in the open. They are hosting workshops on trauma recovery, where survivors—including children—have a chance to express their feelings through music and art. They have their sights set on the issue of economic recovery: how to help people who lose their livelihoods get back on their feet. And they are keeping a close eye on the village government.

“We are starting to watch what the village government is doing. How they spend the budget.” says Tasma, who is a member of the group. “We want to be sure development is contributing to resilience.” 

The head of the village, Rahman Lukuaci, respects and relies on their input. “We take advice from the women,” he says. “When we are developing a regulation, the first stage is to present it to this group. Once they clear it, we bring it to a higher level.” The women weigh in on everything from the budget to celebrations and sporting events. “They are really helping us develop the village. We are working together,” says Lukuaci.

Oxfam and our partner helped bring the group together—part of our effort to strengthen women’s leadership in emergencies—and we have provided funds to support their projects.

We also provided emergency aid to the village immediately after the quake: latrines—with solar lamps to help make them safe to use at night—a tank and pump to supply clean drinking water, and hygiene kits that included items like soap to help families protect their health.

“We were really satisfied with their work,” says Tasma. “They were very fast.”

Supporting front-line responders

Fast action in the wake of disasters can save lives, which is one of the many reasons Oxfam is trying to help local and national organizations and governments become expert first responders. Rather than jump in and lead the way ourselves, we are looking for ways to help people closer to the front lines of emergencies take charge and carry out effective programs. In Indonesia, we are working with the Humanitarian Knowledge Hub, known as JMK, which is a diverse consortium of Indonesian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It includes groups that specialize in water and sanitation, restoring livelihoods after disasters, protecting children, women’s rights, disability inclusion, and more, and its members are scattered across the Indonesian archipelago. In this emergency, the government of Indonesia restricted the access of international aid providers in an effort to ensure that Indonesian groups had a chance to take the lead. With its strong partnership with JMK in place, Oxfam was well positioned to provide support from the sidelines, and we welcomed the challenge of the new paradigm.

“International aid providers have an important role to play in providing resources—including funds, training, and technical support—that can strengthen local and national groups,” says Dino Argianto, Oxfam’s head of humanitarian programs in Indonesia. “But the leadership in emergencies should come from within the country. Domestic groups and governments have the proximity and the knowledge of the cultures, languages, and geography they need to be effective; our job is to be sure they also have specialized knowledge about humanitarian response.”

As for the women of Lende Tovea, they welcome both foreign and domestic aid workers in emergencies, but they caution that there should always be a local group in the mix, because, says Tasma, “they have more information.”

Laughter and comradery

While the women are looking for ways to help other people recover from the trauma the earthquake delivered to their village that day, they have to face their own, as well. “We handle the fear by making jokes,” says Tasma, “and by working together.”

Just being a member of the group has helped build their confidence, says Siar, a group member who lost her home to the quake. “Now we can go to the beach and have fun.”

They have a name for themselves: Majelis Ta’lim Nurul Jannah, which means “the lights from Heaven.”

“It’s because doing this work will make us full of light,” says Rus’ida, another member of the group. “It will make us more bright and beautiful.” They all laugh when she says it, and bright and beautiful is exactly how they look.

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