With a great heave, a young man pushes the ancient, three-wheeled rickshaw down a ramp and it splutters to a start. The driver, Sutino “Kinong” Hadi, laughs as he putters his tiny Bemo in a loop outside a preschool in Tanah Abang, in central Jakarta. It’s all the signal the children need; around 20 flood out to envelope the car, pulling at hangings, clambering into the front seat. It’s an exciting time: their library has arrived.
Kinong is one of thousands of Indonesians who have opened their own library in their own communities. Estimates suggest there are thousands of such libraries in Indonesia, started by ordinary people with great initiative to address the lack of books in their area and funded by occasional donations.
There is the Perahu Pustaka, a library boat that sails around West Sulawesi. There are libraries on the back of vegetable carts, shelves lugged around by horses in Serang and in West Papua. Across Banten, a 200-strong motorbike gang called the Komunitas Motor Literasi (Moli), brings books to homes from a box attached to their vehicles, delivered with the ease of a takeaway.
All of them are run by inventive, ambitious, ordinary people much like Kinong, 59, who left school before he turned 10. Since 2013, he has parked his Bemo near schools in Tanah Abang, and let kids settle in to enjoy a book. He only sometimes allows them to take it home, with a stern promise to return it. “I’ve lost a lot of books that way,” he laughs.
With 17,000 islands and a geography that almost spans the distance from London to Tehran, Indonesia has struggled to promote reading across the country. For every 100 students, just one quarter leave school meeting minimum standards of literacy and numeracy. Only 30% of villages have a library; some of the smallest only stock copies of the Quran. The government has attempted several initiatives, including a rule that children must read a book that isn’t a textbook at school for 15 minutes each morning; and on the 17th day of each month, individuals can post books, wherever they want in the country, for free.
But the persistent myth that Indonesians aren’t interested in reading still pervades; last September, Jakarta governor, Anies Baswedan, told the Jakarta Post: “We are challenged to improve our reading interest, particularly in an era where people are far more interested in reading WhatsApp [chats] than in reading books … People nowadays prefer to skim rather than read.”