“Don’t you find it odd,” she continued, “that when you’re a kid, everyone, all the world, encourages you to follow your dreams. But when you’re older, somehow they act offended if you even try.” — Ethan Hawke, The Hottest State
For many of us, having a dream comes easily. A ‘dream’ is something that we are encouraged to have in school, aspire for and sometimes indulge in (“go and pursue your ‘dream’ but come back later when you are a bit wiser and get a proper job”).
The idea of the individual pursuing a dream is such a familiar part of our mental outlook on life that it is at times either taken for granted or becomes devoid of meaning, and therefore played for clichés.
But there are those who live without knowing what dreams are. To them, the word is as abstract and foreign as the promise it holds.
One of them is Ibu Tini.
Ibu Tini is a woman who joined Nusantara Development Initiative’s (NDI) Mothers of Light or Ibu Rumah Terang program in the village of Tanjung Sari, West Lampung. When we first met Ibu Tini, she came across as lacking in confidence — she did not attend the first village meeting with NDI because having not finished elementary school, she felt that she was not ‘worthy’ to be considered for the program. We only heard about Ibu Tini’s interest from others because she was too shy to introduce herself to us, and only joined the program after much gentle coaxing and personal approach on our part.
On the first day of our training program, we sat down with all of the Mothers of Light women to do our first module on Intrinsic Motivation. We always start our Mothers of Light program with this module, because we want to encourage our women entrepreneurs to think of a personal goal or ambition that they can meaningfully work towards by participating in the program.
We began by asking the women what motivates them in life and what dreams they have for themselves and their families. As many of them only have a basic level of literacy, we asked them to choose picture cards which we have prepared beforehand and which most closely represent their dreams.
One by one, each woman came forward to share their goals and dreams. Soon it was Ibu Tini’s turn. She was clearly uncomfortable and at a loss as to what to say. Stuttering, she hesitantly told the class of the desire she has for her son — for him to go to school to get a good education and not to fall ill.
She stopped there. Unlike others, she did not share her own dream.
“Ibu, what dream do you have for yourself?” we asked
Her hands tightly gripped the picture chart which we earlier put together, visibly fighting back emotions. Then her eyes started to well up.
“I am confused. I do not know. No one has ever asked me. I do not even know that I can have a dream.”
The sight of her tears shocked her peers, who all the while knew her as a strong woman with a hard shell. “Ibu Tini never cries,” they told us later.
Her words took all of us by surprise. That moment, we saw for ourselves how profoundly poverty impacts a person. Much more than just a reflection of one’s economic status, poverty can go much deeper by denying and robbing a person of her sense of self and purpose.
This realization made us more determined to teach our Mothers of Light. It is never just about solar lamps. Or marketing. Or bookkeeping skills. More importantly, we are teaching them about hopes and dreams, about making room for their own self even amidst life’s hardship.
To Ibu Tini, for as long as she could remember, day-to-day survival was everything — it was how she lived. That day, she returned home bearing a new question in mind: “What is my dream?”. She went home with the realization that she, too, has a right to dream.
In the next 10 days, everyone was fully immersed in the Mothers of Light program. Most of the women lucky enough to receive basic education were able to read and write with ease. But for Ibu Tini, every day was a struggle. She fumbled through the reading material, cautiously writing letter by letter, and spoke slowly (but with conviction) word for word.
Every day, 15 minutes before class, she would awkwardly stand on the yard outside the classroom and waited for the rest of us. Every day, she flipped through her training handbook while waiting for the other women to arrive. Every day, she gave 1,000 Rupiah (10 cents) to ‘bribe’ her 4 year-old son not to cry and sit quietly with her in our class.
Sure, it would be easier for us to focus on women who are more experienced because they have more potential to succeed. But there was something about Ibu Tini, growing little by little every day, which made us say to ourselves, “We will never give up on you”.
And give up she did not. At the end of the training session, of all the women entrepreneurs, Ibu Tini was the first one to successfully sell several lamps. She was the first to visit neighboring villages to introduce the solar lamps, the day right after we completed the Mother of Light training program.
She told us her dream on our last day in the village: she wanted to have real windows for her house, ones that are made of glass, complete with pretty curtains. We continued to chat for a while next to her wooden window frame. It was a simple dream. But as we left the village, we realized that it must have taken plenty of courage for her to share with others what her dream is; for the first time in her life.