Sun, 26 Jan 2003

Radio drama aims to bring the peace to Indonesia

Fitri Wulandari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Mak (mother) Halimah, an Acehnese woman, had just finished her morning prayers when her nose picked up a foul smell drifting into her house along with the morning mist.

Wanting to find the source of the smell, Mak Halimah walked to the door and opened it.

"Astagfirullah (May God forgive me) ... Muti, Rozak, come here!" Mak Halimah's panicked voice filled her house, calling her daughter Muti and her son Rozak.

To their horror, they saw five dead rats hanging in front of their house, which also served as a small warung, and piles of rotting garbage.

The dead rat incident immediately caused a buzz in Menteng Pangkalan, where Mak Halimah and her family lived.

"It must be those investors who did it. They want to drive us out of here," Tante (aunt) Giok, Halimah's neighbor who is of Chinese descent, said.

The incident turned the once peaceful Menteng Pangkalan into an area of mistrust and suspicion.

The presence of the investors, who wanted to build an office center in the area, had turned the residents against each other.

However, this was not a real event. The conflict in Menteng Pangkalan was a radio soap opera produced by the Indonesia representative of the Brussels-based European Center for Common Ground.

The radio drama is part of the efforts by Common Ground Indonesia to educate the public about how to resolve community conflicts through dialog rather than violence.

It was not the first radio drama produced for the social development campaign. However, Menteng Pangkalan was the first radio drama about conflict resolution to be broadcast in the form of a soap opera.

People might still remember the radio drama Butir-butir Pasir di Laut (Grains of Sands) about a family with their share of problems. The show was a big hit in the '80s, when it was produced to support the government's family planning campaign.

Launched recently, Menteng Pangkalan has been broadcast nationwide over 160 private radio stations since the third week of January. The program is scheduled to run for two years with a total of 312 episodes, with each episode 24 minutes long.

At present, 36 episodes have been completed.

Set in the imaginary community of Menteng Pangkalan, a multicultural neighborhood close to the plush Menteng area in Central Jakarta. The residents of the community are of different ethnic, social and economic backgrounds who struggle to live together the best they can.

The story revolves around their struggle against greedy investors who want to take their land.

The main characters are drawn from Indonesia's varied ethnic groups. There is Muti and her mother Mak Halimah, who fled the troubled Aceh province. Najib, a kind-hearted Madurese ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver; a Sundanese warung owner, Entin; Ismail, an evil landlord and a native Jakartan. And Audi and Maya, a Christian and a Muslim girl who fled the religious conflict in Maluku.

The theater group Sanggar Bunga Rampe is acting out the drama.

Vanessa Johanson, the director of Common Ground Indonesia, said a radio drama would be more successful in attracting the attention of people to the peaceful conflict resolution campaign. This is particularly true because their target audience is people between the ages of 15 and 25.

"If we used only slogans, it would be to dull for them," Johanson said.

"We don't expect people to change immediately, but to get people to look at the characters, identify themselves with the characters and hopefully to get examples on how to solve conflict," she said.

However, there are some doubts about just how effective the program will be, considering that radio dramas have lost much of their popularity as TV has taken over.

Komaruddin Hidayat, a Muslim scholar at Paramadina University, however, said radio remained an effective tool for educating the public, particularly because of the mobility of radios.

"Radio, undoubtedly, still provides more information to the public compares to other forms of media," Komaruddin said.

Johanson said that unlike television, radio could reach even the most remote areas.

As a radio soap opera Menteng Pangkalan is refreshing, with Sanggar Bunga Rampe able to bring the characters to life.

The dialog is alive, down to earth and witty. And at times, the characters make jokes about ethnic stereotypes.

For example, Entin, who is jealous of Mak Halimah because she has more customers at her food stall than her, begins to spread rumors that Mak Halimah puts marijuana in her food to hook her customers. Marijuana has long been rumored to be an ingredient in Acehnese cooking.

"No wonder my wife is always restless if she does not eat fried noodles at Mak Halimah's stall," Togar, of Batak descent, says.

Before making the program, Common Ground undertook six months of research on multiculturalism in several areas of the country, mostly conflict-torn zones like Aceh and Maluku.

A group of experts, including social psychologists, politicians and journalist, were also involved in the making of the program. Among those take part were journalist-writer Arswendo Atmowiloto, activist Chusnul Mariyah, psychologist Sartono Mukadis and journalist Kaboel Budiono.

Although it is too early to assess the response of listeners, Johanson said the pilot received a good response.

She also said radio dramas meant to promote peaceful conflict resolution had been a success in conflict-torn countries such as Burundi, Congo and Sierra Leone.