Aceh’s Feel-Good Storyteller
On Wednesday, Aceh was again struck by a major earthquake. The 8.5-magnitude earthquake reminded us of the terrifying tsunami that hit the region in December 2004. Hundreds of thousands of people died and countless children lost parents and siblings.
One month after the tsunami, storyteller Mochamad Ariyo Faridh Zidni flew to Aceh. Like many others, he had donated food, blankets and clothes to the disaster-stricken people before. But for him it wasn’t enough.
“I was so tired of watching people’s suffering on TV without actually doing something myself,” he said.
That’s why when his friends from Komunitas 1001buku (1001 Books Community) asked him to help them entertain traumatized Acehnese children, Ariyo, who was then a librarian in Jakarta, immediately requested two weeks’ leave to go to Aceh.
In the disaster area, Ariyo and his friends lived in makeshift shelters with the refugees and worked to assist the youngest victims in Aceh.
“It’s normal for children to be traumatized after going through such a terrible disaster and losing their parents and loved ones,” he said. “Unlike adults, who can communicate their anger and sadness, children often stay silent, carrying their wounds forever with them.”
Ariyo and his friends gathered these children and told them funny stories.
“We encouraged them to interact with each other in these sessions and worked to gain their trust,” the 32-year-old said.
Once the children opened up, the volunteers encouraged them to draw pictures.
“From these pictures, we could identify the children’s deepest traumas and fears,” he said.
Some of them felt guilty, believing their parents and siblings died because of their own bad deeds. Some of the children also developed a fear of the ocean.
“We explained that disasters are not God’s punishment on the people,” he said. “We helped them overcome their fears by teaching them how tsunamis happen, how to recognize the signs and how to survive them.”
Ariyo used rabbit hand puppets to tell his stories, and the children began referring to him as “Brother Rabbit.”
Ariyo returned to Jakarta after his two weeks of leave. But his heart was still with the refugees in Aceh.
He was ecstatic when he received a letter from Aceh the following month, a note that would change his life.
Heri, a 5-year-old boy in Aceh, wrote just one sentence in the neatly folded letter.
“He wrote in a painstaking scribble, ‘Brother Rabbit, please don’t forget to feed the rabbits,’ ” Ariyo said. “It was simple, yet it showed that he remembered the stories and they left a huge impact on him.”
Ariyo decided to quit his job. He flew back to Aceh and, for several months after the disaster, continued to help the children there cope with their trauma. Ariyo ultimately decided to volunteer to help relieve the trauma of little children in other disaster areas.
With his friends, Ariyo helped the children of Pangandaran, West Java, which suffered a tsunami in July 2006; Padang, West Sumatra, which experienced an earthquake in September 2009; and near Mount Merapi in Central Java, where that volcano erupted in October 2010. They told stories that helped the children understand their situations and maintain a positive attitude toward their futures.
“For children, stories are not merely a pastime,” he said. “It captures their imagination and boosts their will to survive. It helps them to cope with the tribulations of life and maintain a positive outlook.”
Ariyo himself grew up with the tales he loves. Raised in a close-knit family, Ariyo’s parents and grandparents told him and his siblings stories.
“They told us stories whenever they had time, during breakfast, lunch, dinner and bedtime,” he said. “They told us everything from folktales, our family’s history and daily events in creative and interesting ways.
“We became very close because of the stories,” he said. “We [children] always told them [parents] what was happening at school and about our problems. We didn’t run out to our peers or get in trouble.”
The stories, Ariyo explained, helped build his moral character. One particular story that sticks in Ariyo’s mind is an ancient folktale his grandmother, who lived in Yogyakarta, told him.
“We always visited her during our school holidays,” he said. “Whenever we came over, we slept in her bed. She always had such fantastic stories to share.”
One thing his grandma always did was check her grandchildren’s fingernails before they went to sleep.
“She wasn’t angry when she found out that we had dirty and long fingernails,” said Ariyo. “Instead she told us this interesting story.”
Ariyo’s grandma explained that if they clipped their fingernails and buried them in the yard, the fingernails would rise up to become fireflies at midnight.
“The fireflies would then light up the darkest places on Earth and lead lost travelers to safety,” Ariyo said. “The story captured our imaginations so much that we regularly clipped our fingernails. We believed we were actually doing a good deed for others.”
Enchanted with stories and legends, Ariyo studied at the Faculty of Letters at the University of Indonesia. One of his favorite subjects was, naturally, children’s stories. As an extracurricular activity, the lecturers took students to read stories to children in hospitals.
“At first, I was nervous and didn’t know what to do,” said Ariyo. “But I was so surprised and happy to see their genuinely warm welcome.”
During these visits, Ariyo and his friends told popular stories to terminally-ill children in the hospitals. Sometimes, they sang along to the guitar and made origami shapes to accompany the stories.
“I was touched to see how excited they became when listening to our stories,” he said. “Their eyes lit up and they giggled freely, as if they were not ill at all.”
Ariyo became “addicted” to telling stories. He and his friends established Kelompok Pencinta Bacaan Anak (Association of Lovers of Children’s Stories) on campus. Members of the association regularly visited children in hospitals and entertained them.
Ariyo then began working with Komunitas 1001buku, which collected books and distributed them to disadvantaged children in remote areas of Indonesia.
After he quit his job as a librarian following the 2004 tsunami, he decided to become a freelance library development specialist.
“Being a freelancer gives me the freedom to help more people with my [storytelling] skills,” he said.
As a library development specialist, Ariyo continued to work with governmental and nongovernmental organizations to establish libraries and provide books to children in remote areas.
“Most people say that Indonesian children have little interest in reading,” he said. “But this is not true. They love to read. It’s just that they have minimal access to good reading materials. Ideally, good public libraries should be available in every neighborhood and accessible to all.”
In 2008, Ariyo teamed up with Roosie Setiawan, a top executive at a pharmaceutical company in Jakarta, to establish “Reading Bugs Indonesia,” whose mission is “spreading the reading virus” to Indonesian children.
“We encourage parents and teachers to read aloud stories to little children,” he said. “It will help to develop the children’s imaginations and curiosity, as well as encourage them to read books themselves.”
The community organizes free storytelling workshops for university students, teachers and working professionals in Jakarta.
Reading Bugs Indonesia has also translated Jim Trelease’s book “The Read-Aloud Handbook” and Mem Fox’s “Reading Magic” into Indonesian and distributed them for free during workshops.
Last December, Ariyo established the Ayo Dongeng (Let’s Tell Stories) community. The community, which currently consists of 20 volunteers, regularly hosts storytelling events for children at schools and malls in Jakarta.
“I hope more storytellers will be born from these communities,” Ariyo said. “And more parents will read to their children.
“Telling stories helps babies to bond with their parents before they’re even born,” he added. “It also helps to develop their brain cells and language skills early in life.”
But do people still find time to read to their children these days?
“We do,” Ariyo said.
Both Ariyo and his wife take turns reading to their 1-month-old son Arkashadan Mahesakha Aryanta.
“We’ve read him stories since he was still in the womb,” he said. “Although he could not possibly understand the stories then, plenty of research shows that babies can hear and identify voices during the last trimester of pregnancy.”
Ariyo is holding a storytelling workshop tomorrow at the library of Gedung Pendidikan Nasional in Senayan, South Jakarta. You can contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.