How a boy inspired a global conscience (Sumatra)

By Jordaine Chattaway 

There is no fancy way to put it so I will just get to the point – travel changed my life.

Last year I travelled to North Sumatra to work and live in a small orphanage on the edge of Lake Toba in a remote village called Silamosik. The few weeks that we spent working with the staff and children was enough to alter my perspective forever. However the real shift happened on our way to the orphanage. A moment – and an image – that will forever both haunt and motivate me to try and make a difference.

Let me first introduce myself and the work I am currently doing and then I will fill you in on a very personal journey which has engulfed my life and thoughts over the past year. My name is Jordaine Chattaway and I am the current Mrs International Australia.

The children of Sumatra.
The children of Sumatra.

Mrs International was designed to “promote today’s married women, their accomplishments, and commitment to family and marriage”. I view it as a chance to build on the work I have already done through the Touch of Goodness Foundation (of which I am a National Ambassador) and network with like-minded women across the globe in an effort to expand my program – Touch of Global Goodness – which aims to help improve the lives of children across the globe, specifically those who live in orphanages.

This journey began with a small child, begging for money.

We were in for a four-hour drive through the jungle of North Sumatra, up the side of a volcano, around the edge of Lake Toba (which happens to be the largest volcanic lake in the world) in order to reach our destination and start our community work. But first, we had to get through the bumper-to-bumper traffic, which kept the capital city of Medan at a stand-still for most of the day. It was boiling. Not a single cloud to offer respite from the searing sun. We were only one day into our adventure and we were already feeling the heat.

We stopped (as did the hundreds of cars, bikes, motorbikes, vans and other vehicles) at a set of lights and I spotted a young boy sitting on a small median strip between the two halves of the busy road. As the cars halted the boy sprung into action, approaching window after window begging for money, food, water – or anything else that people may have to offer. When I say begging, it is an understatement. This was a Tuesday when he should have been at school or even starting at a trade (my guess would be that he was about 13-15 years old). Instead he stood dirty; clothes worn and literally torn all over and sweaty from the unforgiving heat. I will never forget the sheer desperation of his act. Hands pressed as if in prayer, he knocked and knocked and knocked. The pleasantries which you might expect if this happened in Australia or the United Kingdom, for example, were non-existent in this harsh city. The boy was ignored and told to move on by most of the people he approached.

I wanted to give to him. We all did. We were advised not to. Shocked and heartbroken I did something which now seems to make no sense. I photographed him so I could remember that feeling of being so close to something which was utterly wrong; having the means to make a difference; and driving away having done nothing.

That boy was and remains one of the driving forces behind my commitment to charity and volunteer work and my desire to ensure that the world sees what is often left unspoken of.

Jordaine meets the children of Sumatra.
Jordaine meets the children of Sumatra.

Through my photography and the work with the Touch of Goodness Foundation and the Touch of Global Goodness program my husband and I plan to do just that.

To think that over a month-long trip, our lives were changed within the first 24 hours.

That is the power that travel has. What followed just confirmed to us what needed to be done and where our focus and priorities had to change.

I cannot put into words the experience of driving through remote towns in North Sumatra where Westerners rarely ventured. Driving on local roads, we left behind all comfort, safety and familiarity the moment we left the ‘big city’. We drove past families as they went about their day-to-day business; children being driven to school on scooters holding the entire family of five like some insane circus act; the family of three which had crammed onto a smaller scooter with the mother and father at the head and tail of the scooter and their daughter – the only one not wearing a helmet – stuffed in the middle. We swerved out of the way of oncoming cars and buses which had overtaken on a corner and nearly wiped us off the road. We also swerved to avoid hitting young children who were left playing with empty bottles on the busy road. We watched a young man overtake us on a dirt-bike who was somehow balancing a coffin on the handlebars and a young father who was giving his son a lift to school on the back of his bike (the son just happened to be sitting on a stack of gas bottles).

A girl sandwiched atop a scooter.
A girl sandwiched atop a scooter.

You would think after the first few hours the shock would wear off. Some 1500 images later and I was still snapping my Nikon away because I knew I would forget how unbelievable these sights were.

The time at the orphanage itself was absolutely amazing. The children were so welcoming and despite what I had expected – some of the happiest children I’ve met. They were surrounded by rugged jungle and enormous mountains, untouched by man. The people who lived in this village had a humbling presence about them. They were content just to ‘be’. And we loved that about them.

One thing that stands out in my mind was the silence. When the children were all at school and the little ones were deep into their ‘nap time’ the world was silent and still. I sat for at least an hour one day on a swing, staring at monstrous mountains and thinking to myself – I have never been this peaceful in my life. It was in that moment that you start to realise that the ‘life’ we live and the ‘busyness’ we burden ourselves with is all really a veil that we are used to losing ourselves under. Even now I can think back to that moment and the peace that met me that day is still there.

Prior to travelling to Sumatra I had only been to Fiji and had travelled to most cities in Australia. It was my first cultural eye-opener and I will make sure it is not my last. I write this from a hotel in Manhattan, New York, where my husband and I have spent the last week. Tomorrow we are off to start exploring Canada and I have to be honest and say that while the shopping and sight-seeing is amazing in New York, Sumatra has given us a taste for the unknown. A desire to not only see the world’s cities and attractions, but to experience and have the guts to truly witness life beyond our safe borders. We are both looking forward to escaping the tall buildings and ‘too busy to stop’ people and see the nature and true beauty of our surroundings. To escape that veil which makes life a race and to pause and take in the magic that is around us.

Travel will always be exciting and exhausting no matter where you go. But I urge you to think outside the square and venture to places less known and frequented. Push your own boundaries. Meet the locals. Live the way the locals live. Explore the untouched … find your place where everything makes sense and you’re at peace. Find that place that makes you so thankful you have visited but so grateful for your home.

That was Sumatra for us. Our return to Australia was – to be honest – a relief in some ways, and depressing in others. The feeling of safety and assurance was met with almost exaggerated joy, but the knowledge of the simple, yet rich life that is out there echoed in my heart … and that boy. The ‘boy from Medan’.

It didn’t take long before we were back into the usual swing of things but he never left our hearts, nor did the children or the staff of the orphanage. We are certain we will travel back to Silamosik to see the children again and I can’t wait to see their smiling faces once more.

My husband and I pray for the ‘boy from Medan’ and I like to think that our paths will cross once more, and when they do, what follows will be very different.

The world is enormous. Explore it with a conscience. Find your place and who knows, it may change your life.

A boy enjoys a moment of contentment.
A boy enjoys a moment of contentment.
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2 thoughts on “How a boy inspired a global conscience (Sumatra)

  1. My Prayers for that little boy too Jordaine! I don’t think I would have been able to follow the others suggestions to ignore him. I’d have wanted to bundle him into the car and take him home I’m afraid.

    I always look at my beautiful smiling sons and grandsons, and thank God for what I have. Then I think of all the little ones out there with no-one, and lives in danger. I shed a quiet tear for them all then offer up a silent Prayer.

    No children should have to live the way those precious little children do, begging on streets or working and living off rubbish dumps. The list goes on.

    Children are a joy and should have happy lives, not tormented ones.

    1. Thanks Margaret for your kind and supportive words. You are right! It is heartbreaking to see children who have had their rights stripped from them and that is exactly what motivated us to create the Touch of Global Goodness program. Through the means that we have, we can help to change the lives of these children by showing them that not only are they loved, but that they have an immensely bright future!

      Thank you & God bless x

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