Between the Lines


Jeanine Pfeiffer

The semi-retired, military-issue engine was so funky, once the pilots got it going they didn’t dare turn it off. We boarded the plane in a haze of propwash, the flight attendants frantically waving us up the stairs through a demonic blast of propeller heat and diesel fumes. During the hour or so we miraculously remained in the air between Kupang and Waikabubak, I indulged in trifurcated thinking, cycling between terror (fearing a plane crash), fantasy (keeping the engine going by the power of my intense stares), and logic (remembering airplanes can fly with only one functioning engine).

Eventually we landed on the tiny airstrip with a mild thump. My relief was mitigated: in a week, we would have to fly back. On the same airplane. Welcome to Sumba island.

I was consulting for a cashew-growing aid project for select villages in the Indonesian provinces of West and East Nusa Tenggara, spanning the seductively named islands of Lombok, Sumbawa, Sumba, Timor, and Flores. Cashew (Anacardiumoccidentale), native to Brazil, is in the same botanical family as mangoes. The kidney-shaped cashew nuts form at the base of succulent pink-red fruits, and are covered with a double-shelled, acidic, allergenic, seed coat. Pigs like the fruits, which have a mild turpentine undertone.

Eastern Indonesia is my most beloved arm of the seventeen-thousandfive- hundred island archipelago, because the tawny, gently undulating slopes speckled with palms and evergreen forests and fringed by aqua-turquoisebluegreen- marine waters most closely resemble the only place on earth I can truly call home: Mendocino County, along the northern California coast. Indonesia’s eastern islands are united by uniformly dry climates, deeply traditional rural communities, and general neglect by the federal government. By promoting smallholder cashew orchards, the project aimed to increase cash income for subsistence farmers, who desperately needed to pay for childhood education, medical bills, and improved housing. The project financed water supply facilities, either by drilling new wells or piping water into settlements from nearby streams and springs.

On paper, the project looked terrific.

On the ground, it was (predictably) a different story.

This particular aid project was run by some of the slimiest and most pernicious chicken-shit government officials I’ve ever met – which, given my previous postings to the notoriously corrupt regimes of Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Nepal – says quite a bit. The federal project head in Jakarta was siphoning off project funds to a personal bank account, while staff in outlying regions copied his example. In general, everyone completed less than half of what they were supposed to do, then gave up when the money ran out.

Aid work can be incredibly depressing: a constant déjà-vu of unlearned, and therefore endlessly repeated, lessons. Being an aid consultant on multimillion dollar projects means being stuck on a decaying merry-go-round, rising and falling on predictable bureaucratic cycles instead of gaily painted horses. Most of the recommendations spelled out in the hundreds of pages of project planning documents prepared by the donor agency were ignored. I guessed (correctly) that none of the officials had bothered to read the documentation in its entirety, the dense English proving too challenging. Especially for those whose command of English was either nothing, or next to nothing.

The worst of the managerial bunch was a shrill-voiced propinsi pipsqueak who groveled in the presence of his superiors and cock-strutted in their absence. Based in the provincial capital of Kupang, East Timor – a city with frequent frontier-style clashes between police and transient residents working for oil companies, served by prostitutes who went on strike when too many customers developed a pattern of not paying – Pipsqueak oversaw aid projects for the entire East Nusa Tenggara province.

Beady eyes and oily skin occupied a dull khaki uniform that was exchanged in the field for cowboy-style shirts unbuttoned to expose a soft and flabby chest, a pair of pristine denim jeans evidencing his allergy to any productive, soil-based activity, and snakeskin boots, raising his four-footsomething frame a few irrelevant centimeters. My Indonesian Daddy, if he were present, would call him thus: “tikusdengansuarabesar yang hampirmakanberas habis” – a mouse with a loud squeak who eats up almost all the rice.

I recoiled from Pipsqueak on first sight, making a point to avoid direct contact. I am a non-violent person. I was raised as a Mennonite, one of the “historic peace churches,” the sister religion of the Quakers and the Amish. But in the case of Pipsqueak, each slimy encounter heightened my desire to dispatch with him – rapidly and painfully. In retrospect I should have hired one of those sunglass-wearing, thick-necked, knuckle-cracking, “eliminator” types. Because I underestimated him.

On Timor and Sumba islands, Pipsqueak arranged for elaborate welcoming displays. The moment our caravan of official vehicles was spotted, young men galloping on horseback rode up to greet us with a dramatic flourish, instructing us to disembark and enter the village on foot. As we strode down the dusty path, groups of comely dancing girls, swaying in formation, advanced to meet us. Entering the village, once there was a small crowd of community members gathered around, the lead dancer would drape a brilliantly colored scarf over my shoulder, and everyone would clap. We were made to feel like dignitaries who had achieved great things for the people: something I intuitively knew was not the case.

Instead of being charmed, I was concerned. The scarves gifted to me by the dancing girls were obviously urban and store-bought: the neon colors in the patterns bore no resemblance to the traditional homespun, plant-dyed motifs of local weavers.Where did the money come from for these gifts? Who bought them and then brought them into the village? What was Pipsqueak trying to hide? And which project components were foregone, with efforts wasted on this smokeand- mirrors nonsense?

Keeping my thoughts to myself, at each site I spent half a day interviewing local farmers while Pipsqueak and crew disappeared to gorge themselves on treats the community had prepared for the visitors (but could scarcely afford), or nap in the shade. In between field visits, Pipsqueak ostentatiously swung suitcases of cash as he clambered in and out of government-issued jeeps. At each dingy hotel with cardboard walls he subjected our field team to Christian radio shows blaring from his room while counting out stacks of bills, his countenance glistening.

Despite the enormous sums of money that exchanged hands during our multi-island tour, my interviews revealed consistent reports of wells never dug, seedsmisdelivered, farmers overcharged for fertilizer, diseased trees infecting entire orchards, and widespread dysfunctional project performance. Initially I felt astonishment, rapidly followed by anger, at Pipsqueak’s blatant disregard for the donor agency and the recipient village communities. I remember muttering repeatedly to myself, does he really think I’m that stupid?!, although in retrospect, he did distribute his bullshit rather evenhandedly.

One harrowing evening in the southern end of Sumba island ended with my carload being stranded after dark. This was an absolute no-no on field visits, especially those hosted by United Nations agencies: for safety reasons, we made sure to return to our hotels shortly after sunset. Pipsqueak had commandeered the best of our two government vehicles, after both suffered flat tires. While waiting in a small town pit stop for our second (or was it our third?) flat tire to be repaired by a kindly mechanic, I discovered that villagers in this district routinely peppered the roads with nails and tacks in anticipation of visiting officials.

Aha. Clever farmers.

Inwardly thinking congratulatory thoughts towards the local populace for inventing an ingenious way of fighting back at ongoing corruption, I was disgusted by the fact that our government hosts had not briefed us or made contingency plans, or bothered to make sure everyone made it back safely. By the time my carload finally returned to our hotel and encountered Pipsqueak and his cronies smugly lounging on sofas in the lobby, I treated him to one of the most acerbic tongue-lashings I’d ever bestowed on anyone in my fifteen years of living and working in Indonesia.

Of course it made no difference.

I was an outsider, a woman. I didn’t control the purse strings, and I had no power to fire him. But after that everyone knew exactly where I stood. If Pipsqueak and his cronies were on the gutter-slime end of the human continuum, the farmers I met on Sumba island occupied the other end of the spectrum. Generous to a fault, each community hosted me and my entourage with the gracious gentility practiced by people for whom guile is a foreign concept, selfishness an alien species.

One young farmer in particular haunts my memory. Tall and thin, with deep-set eyes and a shock of wavy hair, he wore fraying clothes and simple rubber flip-flops. After our group interviews were completed, he approached me carrying a length of cloth clutched to his chest.

As I watched him draw near, my heart sank. I hadn’t brought much money with me to the field, and I had no means of replenishing my cash supply until we flew to another island with working ATMs.

Mau beli– would you like to buy this?” He gently petitioned me.

Terimakasih– thank you, but no,” I said, regretfully. After all the woven cloths gifted to me in each village, I really didn’t need any more. The farmer and his friend stretched out the cloth between them: it was several meters long, made of soft, locally-grown cotton dyed into deep blue-andblack stripes, alternating with a geometric pattern in the traditional hues of red, black, and tumeric-yellow.

Lihat, ‘bu– look at it,” he pleaded.

Bagussekali– it’s really well made,” I affirmed, stroking the gorgeously woven cotton with both hands. But it was too much cloth for too much money: one million rupiah, which would have wiped me out monetarily for the foreseeable future. I had no idea what I would do with such a long stretch of cloth if I took it home. So I smiled again and declined the offer. The farmer didn’t give up. There was too much at stake. Although he didn’t ask me again directly, he hovered close by, holding the cloth, telling me how his wife had spent over a month to weave it on her loom.

He must have shadowed me for hours.

Finally I relented – when was I ever going to be in this corner of the world again? And it was only a hundred dollars. I could make it work. After I handed over the money, that farmer’s face transformed into such pure, relieved happiness that he glowed. I have a group photo where a bunch of us climbed onto the top of a wall circling one of the recently installed wells. The farmer’s face has a megawatt smile, shining with gratitude into the camera.

Months afterward, gazing at the photo, I kicked myself mentally: I had been thoroughly appraised of the almost desperate financial situations of farmers participating in the project, as the maize and cotton crops that were to provide transitional funds while farmers were waiting for the cashew trees to grow up had failed. The proceeds from those crops didn’t provide even one-fourth of the monetary returns projected by program staff.

People were literally living hand to mouth, in a parched land with no alternative employment options. This farmer was doing everything he could to ensure his family’s survival until the monsoon rains started. I felt shamed by my earlier parsimoniousness. There are times when being a tightwad is a ludicrous choice. Ultimately my purchase of that cloth cost me so little, compared to the potential cost to his family if I had not relented.

The cloth has an honored place in my home: carefully folded over the sofa, it serves as a warm bedcover for visiting guests.I keep it in a prominent place as a reminder of how I can always crack myheart open, a little deeper, a little wider. I can just say yes.

Jeanine Pfeiffer is an ethnoecologist focusing on biocultural diversity: the connections between nature and culture. After working in over thirty countries, she settled in Northern California, where she serves as a scientific advisor for local government and teaches environmental science classes for San José State University. More at