The true teacher of Papua


Frederick Sitaung

POB/DOB: Kampung Bengala, Rante Pao, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi Selatan, 1972.
Marital Status: Married (Spouse: Agustina Somolangi (34) with 2 Children: Elfan Sitaung (12), Aan Sitaung (9))
Education : Sekolah Pendidikan Guru (SPG) Rante Pao, Tana Toraja, 1992
Employment: Teacher and Head of Primary School SD Inpres Poepe, Merauke, Papua (1992-now)

“We here need teachers, not birds!” So goes the joke popular among people in Merauke, Papua, to mock teachers who frequently ran off from school to visit bars or night clubs mushroomed in the city. Stories of runaway teacher leaving students alone are common in the deep inland of Merauke.

When other teachers chose to escape, Frederick Sitaung (35) chose to stay as the only teacher in Poepe Village, Merauke, Papua. He endured from a week of no food, nearly arrowed by student’s parent to months of late salaries but did not falter.

“I will continue to teach in Poepe unless they transfer me or I retire,” said Frederick at the school he teaches in mid August 2007.

Frederick’s determination is no small feat considering Poepe is deep inland. To reach the village, you have to go by bike from Merauke to Okaba District for seven hours. Twice, the bike will need to be uploaded to a boat to cross River Kumbe and River Bian. From Okaba, the journey continues for another three hours using bike plus two hour pedalling boat.

Frederick Sitaung was born and raised in Rante Pau, Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. Upon graduating Rante Pau teaching school in 1992, he immigrated to Merauke as a teacher. That year, he was accepted as civil servant candidate with first posting to teach at Poepe, Okaba District.

Since then, Frederick has never moved to another teaching post. Most teachers do not last long in Poepe, on average one or two years. There have been seven teachers moved away from Poepe in the 15 years Frederick’s been teaching.

There are only Frederick and his senior, Papalangi (65) stayed in Poepe. Together, they were the ‘permanent’ teachers. In July 2007, Papalangi retired after 24 years of teaching. That means Frederick now is the only teacher and head master. He teaches 51 students from first grade to sixth.

Heavy task

To be a teacher in deep inland is not easy. Frederick has to work hard to find students in the forest at the start of each new school year. “After holiday, many students do not come back to school, they got carried away playing in the forest. You also have to look for new students. We have to be careful in explaining to parents to let their children go to school,” said Frederick who has never gone home to Rante Rau since working in Poepe.

Yearly exam is another difficult task. Frederick has to accompany the students to Welputi Village by pedalling for two days. “We bring provisions and pedal in turn. We sleep on river bank with lots of mosquitoes and crocodiles. So we take turn in guarding,” he said.

Classroom teaching is also difficult since many students skip schools. “They disappeared for two months so you have to repeat the study. If students do not pass, parents can be angry,” he added.

Many students collapsed in the classroom. They suffered hunger being left alone without food by their parents hunting in the forest. Frederick had the same incident.

It was rainy season 1993. Poepe land had narrowed and turned into swamp. Every parent had gone hunting in the forest. There were only Frederick, Papalangi and 20 students in the village.

“Parents have been gone for two weeks,” he said. His and Papalangi’s rice allotments have finished from giving them to the students. Meanwhile, assistance from Regency is hopeless. “At that time, it took two weeks to reach Poepe by River Buraka in Okaba,” he said.

Frederick and Papalangi resolved in eating leaves and fishes caught in the swamp. “Fortunately, a week later parents came home with hunting stock and flour.”

On top of hunger, Sitaung is filled with many experiences from learning to hunt crocodiles and antlers to survive, challenged by students to fight and nearly arrowed by parents.

“Sometimes, I don’t totally blame other teachers who ran away from their teaching duty. Government has little care, insufficient rice allotment and no school supervisor ever came.”

Real teacher

Not just teaching children at school, Frederick has become ‘teacher’ for people of Poepe. The last two years he was also the church minister since the last minister never came. He also founded Poepe church.

He often helped resolved conflict among people, even acted as a doctor when the only doctor went to town. “Before going, the doctor usually asked me to keep his medicines. So if anyone is ill, I can give them medication,” he said.

Since Jly 2007, the only doctor in Poepe, Andriana Wetino (32) was also transferred to the city. So the village has no doctor. Frederick’s got more work.

Even with this heavy task, local authority still looks at Frederick half-heartedly. When he asked for a new bike, he had to go back and forth seven times with his proposal. Finally, Frederick had to come to Merauke and argued his case before receiving his bike.

On the home front, Frederick has to take care of his wife Agustina Somolangi (34) who suffers kidney problem. One of his children has to rent a room in Okaba to continue his study in Junior High. Frederick has difficulty to cover all his living cost with only Rp 1.8 million salary a month. “This is my choice, I have to face it.”

Acknowledgement came from local communities. That keeps him strong. Head of Indigenous Organisation (Lembaga Masyarakat Adat) Marind-anim, Okaba District, Frederickus Mahuze said Frederick has done a lot for people in Marind.

“Many teachers from Marind could not do it, but Teacher Frederick who came far away from Sulawesi has served us for 15 years. He has done a lot for the future of Poepe’s children. Unfortunately, not many teachers are like him.”

Source: Ekspedisi Tanah Papua: Laporan Jurnalistik Kompas, Jakarta November 2008 (free translation)

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