Lian Gogali, Dreams Out of the Ashes of Conflict
*Dewi magazine, July 2014
The beginning of Lian Gogali's mission in life came from a conflict and a question.
The 35-year-old Poso native was conducting research in refugee camps for her thesis entitled "Political Memory of Women and Children in the Poso Conflict" based on the religious conflict that affected the Central Sulawesi region from the late 1990s to mid 2000s. It was at a refugee camp in Silanca, a subdistrict near Poso, that she met a woman who ignited her sense of purpose.
"This grandmother I interviewed asked me, 'After you write about us, what will happen to us?' It was like a punch in the face. I couldn't answer her. I felt like I was one of those people who used the Poso conflict to my own personal gain. But the people who told their tragic stories for my thesis do not get anything. I felt like I exploited them," she said. It was that question that made her return to Poso. To repay the debt of the unanswered question.
It was Lian's parents who sowed the seeds of social consciousness and instilled the importance of education in her. "My father taught me that life is a place of learning, not a place to follow what someone else has done. My mother, a kindergarten teacher, is very patient, sincere and humble. For example, when she plants something, flowers or rice, it is never for herself or her children. When it is time to harvest, everyone can come and harvest what she planted. It is a pleasure to share what we have sown with others."
In 2009, based on her thesis, Lian established the Institut Mosintuwu, a grassroots community movement in Poso. The name "Mosintuwu" means togetherness and comes from the Pamona dialect, one of the Poso tribes. She began the school with no funding, armed with only an idea. The vision for Mosintuwu is to empower the women's struggle for sovereignty over their economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights. The aim is to build a grassroots peace movement through four key areas: education, advocacy and movement through organizations, economic community development and access to media. The Education section includes the Women's School and Project Sophia, a mobile library for children that also started in 2009 and was named after Lian's 6-year-old daughter.
But the year she began the school was also the year of personal upheaval. She was left unable to walk after a motorcycle accident crushed her leg and now limps with the help of a cane. When Lian decided not to marry the father of her child and remain a single mother, she was ostracized by her family, her church and community.
"While I was in hospital [recovering from her accident], I also had to care for my one-year-old daughter by myself," she said. Throughout her ordeal, Lian stuck to her guns and tells women facing a similar situation that "to be a single mother is not a sin, it is a choice. We have the same rights as everyone else."
As the third child in a family of four children, Lian grew up in her parents's village in the district of Morowali, Central Sulawesi. And that is where her heart remains, in the small village communities. She recalls how her father, a pastor, would go from village to village to organize communities to talk about religion about politics and communal life.
"I learned about organizing and how to have dialogues and debates from him," she said.
Like her father, Lian went from home to home, village to village to find her students but soon realized markets were the place to be. "Markets become a place to congregate. In Poso the fish are mainly produced by the Muslims and vegetables are mainly produced by the Christians. So when there is a conflict, the fish and vegetables have religious affiliations. Women were the first to break through this barrier so that fish and vegetables became a shared need," she said.
She began an informal school with only five women on her terrace in her small town of Tentena. Over the years, the school has grown to reach 42 villages and the second batch of students graduated in Aug 2013. The school is not a physical building for Lian's goal was for women to be able to learn anywhere, in backyard gardens or by the lakeside. The teachers and women are mobile and able to move from village to village for the weekly classes.
"We do this so the women have the opportunity to leave their villages. Some have never left their villages before. We have one grandmother who never left her village until her 40s. And it was only through the school that they're able to see other villages. And that is important to build a woman of character and have self-confidence," said Lian.
The Women's School's curriculum covers six topics it covers include gender and domestic violence; women in culture; economic management, peace and socioeconomic, cultural and civil political rights. The year-long program is comprised of women from the ages of 25 to 50s from various villages and living below the poverty line. Most have only completed primary school and some are illiterate.
Lian wanted the school to provide a place for women from different faiths to have an open discussion and debate about religion, which was the basis of the Poso conflict.
"The curriculum provides the opportunity for the religions to know each other. All this time Christians had a negative view of Muslims and vice versa because there was no room for clarification and communication. It is about creating understanding and this is something that is not covered in the curriculum of Indonesian schools," she said.
Her choice to be a single mother to Sophia also challenged the villagers's traditional norms and perspectives and affected their perception of the work she was doing. "That was my first challenge when starting the Women's School. How to get people to trust me, a single mother?" she said.
But Lian strongly believed education can help women transcend such issues and place them in a stronger position where they can assert their rights. "There are a lot of women who decided to live alone. But they cannot stand up for their own rights. So they decide to follow the social norms. When they do so, they cannot determine how they live. The Women's School opens a place for women to talk about how to take charge of their own lives."
Lian understands that politics affect the women of the villages and that they need to consolidate their strengths and be a part of the decision making process alongside their men. Her goal was to set up a Women's Congress. In March 2014, a congress of involving 500 women from different villages was established.
"I think in a social system that is this complicated it is hard to be on your own. You need to hold hands and unite. And you can only do that at the grassroots level because what is important is the women is their livelihood, not politics. For them, what is important is to be recognized by their community, for their voices are heard and to uphold their rights," she said.
Her hope and mission is that one day Poso women will connect with other women around the world in conflict areas to brainstorm ways to help their communities achieve peace and elevate women's voices in the household and political arena.
"This idea can be replicated anywhere even if the context is different but the concept has to start at the grassroots level. It can be started without any funds, like the way I did, because it is not based on programs designed by NGOs. It can start simply with a small community," she said.
Lian is still, to a great extent, an unsung hero. Though over the years, her work has begun to obtain international recognition. In 2012, she won the Coexist Prize, worth $100,000, awarded by the NGO Coexist Foundation to individuals who has made an exceptional contribution to building bridges between people of different faiths. The following year, she was selected as an Ashoka Fellow to be part of Ashoka, one of the largest networks of social entrepreneurs worldwide. She is using the funding to develop eco-tourism in the Poso region and under her economic development plans for the institute, will also open a chocolate factory in the region which is renowned for its cocoa.
As for her personal dreams, Lian hopes to return to university to do women's studies and empowerment. "Especially to give Sophia room to grow and education that makes her smarter and frees her," she added."I am a big dreamer. I have hopes and dreams because if you have dreams without hope, it is useless. I have big dreams and big hopes and faith in the universe to make my dreams come true," said Lian. "So that is why I am now living my dreams and am very happy."