Arumy and I: an entrepreneurial dream for Plumbangan village

By Yuen Sin

It was through this Medium collection that I got to know Arumy Marzudhy, funnily enough. She had been in Hong Kong for more than a decade, working as a domestic helper to supplement her family income; I was then a student in London, volunteering for Lensational by interviewing our students and writing about their dreams.

Lensational student (right) Arumy Marzhudy, 28, with Yuen Sin, 24, at the launch of Arumy’s collection of short stories, Second Home, at Plumbangan village in East Java, Indonesia

When our paths first crossed online, I was struck by the glint of resilience that I sensed in Arumy’s words. Being a domestic worker isn’t my dream, but I had no choice,” she wrote in one of her contributions last year. She has faced her fair share of obstacles in life, but she chooses not to dwell on the past. “Don’t just dream about the future, we have to make things happen,” she told me.

This April, we both took a step at making things happen. After returning to Singapore last year, I met up with her in her hometown: the placid village of Plumbangan, in Blitar, East Java.

Arumy has big dreams for Plumbangan — and I can see why. Nestled up in the hills of East Java, amidst an eddy of rice paddy fields and flanked by the towering volcanic Gunung Kelud mountain in the distance, it could prove to be an attractive location for a homestay accommodation, offering visitors an authentic glimpse into the Javanese way of life, far from the commercialisation and frantic buzz of tourist touts in the neighbouring Yogyakarta or Bali.

A pedicab driver crossing the bridge over a stream near Plumbangan; Arumy walking home past the paddy rice fields in the village

When she first arrived in Hong Kong in 2005, at the age of 17, she was afraid of the new environment.

“Before I started taking photography classes and being involved in other activities like writing, studying at the Open University, and learning taekwondo, I was very shy and had no confidence. But now I can talk to people from all over the world, with different backgrounds. I’m not scared anymore,” said Arumy.

A coffee factory and plantation in the city of Blitar, an hour’s motorbike ride away from Plumbangan; local produce at the market near the village

Besides being a potential source of reliable income for Arumy and her family , the homestay business will have positive trickle-down effects in the village, where there is currently not much to go around. She will be able to assist the village chief with his plans to develop the village for eco-tourism and sightseeing in the surrounding area of Blitar; purchase local produce and meals from neighbours growing rice and running small warung cafes in the area; and provide the elderly pedicab drivers with more business.

“Life is hard for them,” she mulled. “Now that everyone’s standard of living has improved a bit, everyone uses motorbikes to get around instead, and sometimes they make very little money.”

Villagers putting grains of rice out to dry in the village; a woman selling coconuts, bananas and other produce at the market

I was not Arumy’s first foreign visitor. Previously, she had also hosted two other journalists from Hong Kong: Vicky Kung from WeCare, as well as independent filmmaker Sam Keung. As I mapped out plans with her for her village, coming up with even more possibilities like a guided tour in English of the local market, or eco-rafting journeys down a surrounding stream, I saw that what she had shared with me was indeed true: somehow, over those years in Hong Kong, she had slipped out of her shell, and found her place with friends and stories from encounters with different people.

Arumy with Hong Kong independent filmmaker Sam Keung

It brought back memories of my own. I grew up with a domestic helper in my family, and she was like a second mother to me. Auntie Moe Moe, as I called her, was intelligent, adaptable, and wanted more than anything to earn enough money in Singapore so that she could go back to Myanmar and help others who were less privileged than her. Both Arumy and Auntie Moe Moe were talented, confident women, who probably were more skilled at navigating the world than I was. But by virtue of the inequality in the places and societies that we were born into, they have to work much harder, and wait much longer to see their dreams fulfilled.

It reminded me of a quote that I had seen on an organisation in Singapore that Lensational will be partnering for a series of photography workshops with migrant domestic workers: “Talent is universal, opportunity is not.”

Arumy has set up a small library outside her home in Plumbangan filled with books in Bahasa Indonesia, English and even Mandarin. Some of them were donated by visitors. Once her homestay gets up and running, said Arumy, she also hopes to start a centre for the village children offering extra-curricular activities like dancing, taekwondo or book and reading clubs. “In Hong Kong, the children are very busy attending all kinds of enrichment classes. It’s good for their learning and development, because these activities stimulate the brain. I hope I can do the same for the kids in the village : besides going to school, there really aren’t any other activities available for them to take part in.”

Just like how the Singapore-based organisation Aidha integrates self-development and motivational coaching courses into their financial literacy and entrepreneurship curriculum, I also thought about how Lensational can support our students’ journeys towards economic empowerment.

More often than not, our students are brimming with ideas and visions for their future: through photography, they can take a first step at articulating their plans, and gain the confidence to pursue them. As volunteers, we also work with our students by encouraging and believing in their visions, on top of providing practical advice when it came to business development. In the future, I will be working with Arumy to come up with digital marketing strategies for her homestay business by making use of online platforms. Photography, and her English writing skills will also be important in showing people how much her village has to offer. She still plans to return to Hong Kong to work for one or two years, where she will save up money for the business and other plans that she has in Indonesia.

In this way, being a domestic worker is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end, a journey of re-discovering oneself, re-mapping one’s path. To re-imagine migration, we need to change how we view (and treat) migrant workers in our midst.

Last Monday, Arumy accompanied me all the way to the Surabaya International Airport despite my protestations that it would take her eight hours to go there and back, and that I could manage the journey on my own. “But you are my guest,” she insisted. “When you are here in my country, I am responsible for you.”

I smiled and waved at her outside the airport.

“All the best in Hong Kong, Arumy — I will bring visitors to your homestay next time.”

Arumy Marzudhy is 28 years old and had been working in Hong Kong for the past decade. She is originally from Blitar city, the hometown of the first Indonesian president. She wishes to finish her degree in mass communications with the Open University of Indonesia, and set up her homestay business when she returns to Indonesia. Her photography portfolio is available here, and purchases of photos will serve as additional income for her.

Yuen Sin, 24, recently graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science with a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration. She is now working as a reporter in Singapore, and is also a marketing and communications manager for Lensational.

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