Sharing Light in Dark Places

October 2021

I gripped tightly the door handle as my Indonesian friend’s Toyota bounced us across a severely pot-holed road in the mountains on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. We had passed numerous ominous longsor (landslides). Still, after several hours of jostling along the road, my driver and occupants frequently burst into spontaneous song, so anything other than a brave cheery smile would have been out of place, so I just joined in.

Where were we off to, and what was the mission today?  I really wasn’t sure.

 We entered a distant kampung (village) and soon were welcomed into a simple home we had driven several hours to reach. It was a typical basic structure of bare cement block, with an unfinished wooden door and galvanized tin roof. The three of us sat down on the immaculately swept floor, and I was the only one that awkwardly crossed his legs. Before us sat our hosts; two mature women, along with their three nervous grandchildren eyeing the visitors shyly behind a bedroom curtain. There was a palpable heaviness to these women, and with furrowed brows and wiped tears, they told a sad, sad story. They shared how early one morning their husbands were working their generational family rice farms  and had been brutally murdered by a random, senseless act of violence. In all my chaplain training and experience, I found my heart at a loss how to break this wall of tears.  

But we came with presents to give. We opened the brown cardboard boxes to reveal the Kulumi Mini, a small bright yellow audio device. My friend slowly and methodically turned the machine on, patiently demonstrating its multi-purpose functions. Then he turned on the LED light that warmly flooded the darkened room in the late afternoon. He explained how it could be recharged via a USB charger, or its built-in solar panel under the tropical sun and another function of the device is a power bank to recharge their own local phones. I glanced at the ceiling and the walls and saw no light fixtures or electrical plugs and realised how valuable just the LED feature would be in that home. The demo continued, and the stored, recorded audio material came to life through the Kulumi Mini’s built-in speaker. No one spoke, or even moved…they just listened transfixed.

Then as if this had not created enough of a stir, the room’s anticipation increased further; the second unboxing revealed a soft, white toy sheep. Its little ears and black eyes pointed towards the eager children, and I saw their keen eyes meet that of the toy sheep. It was at that moment, I began to feel less of an intrusion. With a long gentle squeeze of the sheep’s nose, a tiny red LED light flickered to life and, from within the belly of the little sheep, emitted children’s audio stories in their local language. It was then as if the palpable mood of the room changed. The women’s huge wet tears had been replaced by hopeful smiles, and I wondered if these ladies had ever smiled once since the news of their terrible loss?

These were gifts for them. Unusual, unique gifts that had traveled far from a factory in China just for them that day. The young children were delighted and soon eagerly asked questions about pressing the sheep’s feet to adjust the volume or move between the audio files. We drank local sweet coffee together, and they thanked us for the gifts when we departed.

Near the equator, the night comes quickly, about the same time every day, unlike my seasonal nighttimes back home in Europe. I glanced up to the night sky, transfixed by the view of the Milky-way, how dark the night, and how it is best viewed from the Southern Hemisphere. On our drive home that night, no music played, and the conversation in the car was silent, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my friends might have been thinking. I reflected on my world’s luxury of limitless electricity, ample lumination, and choice of audio inputs.

My thoughts drifted to our gifts left behind in a small farmer’s home of two widows and their grandchildren. I imagined their Kulumi Minis perhaps lighting the way to the washroom out-house for nighttime bathing or hung overhead illuminating the wood fire cooking stew or rice. Maybe the young grandchildren were curled up on a mattress on the floor listening to stories of hope, and I wished them sweet dreams as they drifted off to sleep with their new cuddly companions. Tonight, two poor widows and three grandchildren had a couple of Kulumi Minis and Sheep to bring a small flicker of light, hope, and comfort to their lives.  

Outside our car windscreen, in the dark night the pot-holes looked even bigger and deeper than I remembered. Yet, somehow…that didn’t seem to matter anymore. 

By Clive Gray