In the 1950s, the Baha’i Faith arrived in the Mentawai Islands, a group of 70 islands off the coast of Indonesia.
Many Mentawai communities embraced Baha’u’llah’s teachings, such as the fundamentally noble character of the human being, the oneness of humankind, and the importance of education in releasing the vast potentialities latent in the human mind and soul:
Beseech ye the one true God to grant that ye may taste the savor of such deeds as are performed in His path, and partake of the sweetness of such humility and submissiveness as are shown for His sake. Forget your own selves, and turn your eyes towards your neighbor. Bend your energies to whatever may foster the education of men. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 9.
In the following years, providing access to education became a priority. Schools, open to all children, were established in villages throughout the islands. By 1963, at the First Baha’i World Congress, held in London, a young man from Mentawai addressed the audience of more than 6,000 people from more than 40 nations. The young man, who had participated in the educational programs offered by the Baha’i community, spoke about the developments in his homeland.
Subsequent decades brought challenges for the Baha’is of Indonesia until 2014, when the Faith was recognized by the Ministry of Religion as an independent faith. Yet throughout this time, the Baha’i community of Indonesia gradually contributed to education in the islands.
In commemoration of the bicentenary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the Baha’i community of Indonesia, together with a Baha’i-inspired organization in the Mentawai Islands, organized a conference on the role of spiritual education in building peaceful and prosperous communities. The event was held in Tuapeijat on 16 April 2018.
The non-governmental organization, called Unity in Diversity Foundation, or Yayasan Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (YBTI) in Indonesian, promotes the establishment of locally-owned and operated schools in the remote communities that make up the Mentawai Islands and provides vocational training for teachers.
“If we look around us, we can see many economic, political, and social conflicts,” said Mr. Nikanor Saguruk, Deputy Head of the local parliament, in his opening remarks to the seminar. “But today we are very grateful to YBTI for the opportunity to discuss in this seminar how unity, tolerance, and oneness – the keys to a prosperous nation–can be achieved through education.”
The conference was attended by a number of government officials, including Dr. Muharram Marzuki, Head of the Center of Research and Development at Indonesia’s Ministry of Religion. Teachers from five schools established by YBTI also participated and performed a traditional Mentawai dance to open the event.
In her remarks to the conference, Mrs. Seminar Siritoitet, Representative of the Regent of the District of Mentawai Islands, recalled the lack of schools available for Mentawai children in the past and the efforts of the Baha’i community there over many decades to improve the educational situation in collaboration with others.
Pastor Panulis Saguntung, in his keynote address, also recalled this long-standing history. He shared his childhood memories of attending a school in a remote Mentawai village in the 1960s that was run by two teachers, one a Christian and the other a Baha’i. The teachers, he explained, worked together and held classes in the village church since there was no school building.
One of the members of the board of YBTI, Dr. Manoochehr Tahmasebian, explained in a presentation how the organization’s approach to education and building unity is inspired by principles drawn from the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Fundamental among these, he stated, was the importance of spiritual education that encourages the development of the qualities needed to build peace and social harmony. The goal of such education is not to provide religious instruction or to convert students to a particular faith. Rather, YBTI aims to assist young people from various backgrounds to learn to promote unity in diversity and to contribute to the progress of their society.
YBTI’s endeavors are part of broader, but still nascent, efforts by Baha’is in the Mentawai Islands to contribute to the field of education. The Baha’is there continue to extend and strengthen an educational process that helps people to build capacity to be of service in their communities, for example through offering opportunities for the moral and spiritual education of children and youth.
Meanwhile, YBTI’s schools are currently focusing on strengthening various aspects of their functioning such as the quality of academic and moral instruction, explained Dr. Tahmasebian. They are also learning about how to foster a greater sense of community ownership for the schools. This is done through regular visits by teachers to parents to converse about the progress of their children. The schools also aim to provide spaces for parents to study and discuss education-related concepts to help reinforce the work done in the classroom to develop the intellectual and spiritual capabilities of the next generation.