PAPUA, Indonesia — In Papua, Indonesia, where indigenous people have been marginalized in their own land, learning to tell stories is one way to strengthen the voice of the people.
That’s why Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) offered a storytelling workshops for 15 people selected by Papuan partner organizations last year.
Through telling stories, written or verbal, storytellers can understand themselves and others better and they can teach their readers by writing about their experiences and observations, workshop coordinators told the participants. Workshop coordinators were MCC workers Danielle and Brandon Donelson-Sims of Columbus, Ohio, and MCC Indonesia staff member Tiya Sumihe.
As stories spread, within and outside of Papua, the voices of indigenous people gain power, helping people to understand their culture, the issues they face and the injustices and conflict they experience.
One of the people who took the storytelling class was Ira Sianturi, a pharmacist at a Papuan hospital, who is very familiar with the growing problem of HIV and AIDS in Papua, Indonesia. Although Sianturi is not indigenous, she works with indigenous people by volunteering with Jayapura Support Group, an MCC partner that supports people living with HIV and AIDS and helps to educate people about the disease.
After Sianturi took the storytelling workshop, she wrote the following story about her work with the support group. Sumihe translated the story, and MCC edited it for a western audience.
“When Fika went to the hospital to have her baby, she went through an HIV screening. Fika was HIV positive. The hospital recommended a Cesarean section to reduce the chances of transmitting HIV to the baby. (Fika’s last name is not being used to protect her privacy.)
“For six weeks after she was born, baby Ania was given anti-retroviral medicine to protect her from the virus she may have contracted, in spite of the precautions, during delivery or through breastfeeding. Then Fika had to bring Ania to me at the hospital pharmacy for medicine every two weeks for one year. As a volunteer for Jayapura Support Group, I wanted to help her.
“At first, it was very hard for me to approach her. There was a big wall between us. She did not want to talk about her HIV status or about her husband’s status. I tried to break the wall between us by holding Ania, not only because I wanted to get her mother’s attention, but also because that little girl always smiled. I liked to hold her.
“From the attention I gave to Ania, her mother began to open up. Fika began to talk about Ania and her other three children. Suddenly, we could laugh together about little things. Ania was getting bigger, healthy and so cute.
“When Fika sent me a text message asking for information, I knew there was no longer a wall between us.
“I introduced Fika to other women with children who had completed the medication program and did not develop HIV. I wanted Fika to see that the program has results, and a true hope is there. One year is not a short time to give the medicine to Ania. Fika needs a friend who knows her status and still accepts her.
“After a single year in the support group, no one thought Fika would become brave enough to tell her husband about her status and to ask him to have an antibody test, but she did.
“Although Fika’s husband's test result was negative, I saw he was not upset with her. They learned from the hospital HIV counselor that by staying on medicine and using protection, one partner can avoid giving it to the other. After they left, I even texted Fika to ask, and she said her husband could accept her
“A few times after that I saw Fika and her husband walking together in Jayapura, holding hands like a couple falling in love. Once, I surprised them and they shyly let go their hands.
“The relationship I have with Fika and her husband is not just as a patient-nurse, but also as brothers and sisters. I like this relationship.
“After a year, their little girl with round eyes and curly hair had an antibody test. The result: HIV negative. Ania is the tenth child who made it through the hospital’s Mother to Child Transmission program without becoming HIV positive.
“I hope there will be more success stories and that all women will go through HIV screening before they deliver their babies. As the Jayapura Support Group logo states, “From Fear to Hope.”
“Is HIV scary? Of course, but everything is possible. Ania proved it.