Tied through heartstrings: 3 Years in Borneo

Volunteer Coordinator Kari Malen discusses reforestation plans with project staff. Photo by Jessica De Jarnette.

I often joke that American citizens should have to spend time abroad – preferably in the developing world – before being given the right to vote. But, I am only half joking.

I started my affair with ASRI as a volunteer three years ago, with a desire to get more experience in forest restoration and to visit an exotic place called Borneo – but not be a tourist. And, well, I am still here. My role has shifted a bit but my desire to help has only grown. For some of my friends and family it is hard to understand why I would choose to live in a rural village, in a remote corner of the world, to plant trees – for free! But, if you have been fortunate enough to have an experience like volunteering with ASRI or a similar organization – I bet you understand. It is hard to put those feelings into words, but I can try to give you a sense of it.

Sharing food at a reforestation day. Photo by Lauren Tobias.

Life is simply more direct here...you see the trees that your walls are made of, you meet the chicken that becomes your dinner, you engage with people who have nothing but are willing to share with you their everything. And you enter into conversations with patients about whether it is worth selling the farm - literally - to send a family member to get medical care that we can't provide at our clinic. And sometimes it's not. You are faced up front and personal with realities of life that are easy to ignore in the first world where we live life behind closed doors yet have access to everything instantly. The differences - and settling into them - is both challenging and fascinating at the same time.

The experience at ASRI is multi-dimensional and enriching. Life in the village is a stretch, as there are many creature comforts of home that just aren't available. The medical cases at the clinic are often like case studies doctors read about in texts but rarely actually see, coupled with having only a few tests available on-site, making the approach to diagnosis a different kind of puzzle. Often simple treatments can provide such tangible relief from suffering. All of this makes a day’s work truly satisfying.

Getting into the Bornean rainforest is like entering an ecologist's dreamland. The diversity of habitats that can be seen supporting an abundance of plants, insects, mammals, you name it – many of which we know little about - is remarkable.

A seedling and blackened treestump. Photo by Kinari Webb.

You could go for a walk in these woods and not see the same trees species twice. And when you go to move the dead branches off the spot you want to sit – and one of them unfolds its wings and flies away – you stand there awestruck.

The reforestation work is both inspiring and frustrating, as you watch illegal logging trucks drive by and in the same instant see how eagerly the planted seedlings want to grow in this humid environment. And then you meet a logger, who becomes your friend, and you realize that if he had another option for income he would eagerly quit logging. But until then he can't because he must have income.

Some days we meet and work with local villagers towards alternative livelihoods - such as organic farming and animal husbandry programs - so they can have the security that they will be able to feed their family next month. And then, we get to watch their surprise when digesting the concept that they can pay for health care with things like cow manure. Topped off by the unexpected visits from organic farming teams proudly bringing produce to share – in thanks – with the clinic, it all just feels so real and so right.

An organic farmer - "graduate" of ASRI's training program - shares his sweet corn. Photo by Michelle Bussard.

And then there is the volunteer family. The people willing to donate their time, energy and skills to programs like ASRI are my heroes. Not only are they genuine people who truly want to help, but they bring with them passion, empathy and a bigger picture of the planet, asking nothing in return for their efforts. But in reality they do get something back. They are forever changed.

I have not only experienced these changes first hand, but have been privileged to work with a number of volunteers and witness how this experience affects them. First, I must note that those willing to dedicate their time and energy in a foreign land are truly a special breed. It is not for everyone. But for those who do fit, they are my favorite kind of human. And living ASRI through their eyes is one of my favorite aspects of this job.

A small part of the family: Volunteers Terry O'Connor and Thomas Lazzarini with Organic Farming Coordinator Ngalim. Photo by Christina Fitch.

Different reactions come from the experience: some people realize just how fortunate they are to have been born where they were born, others make commitments to change the way they live their daily lives, others devote themselves to global change, and some stay tied through heartstrings to Health In Harmony's mission. I think I fall into that last category, or maybe all of them.

Health In Harmony's mission sings to my heart. The program is making life better for villagers around Gunung Palung National Park as well as the wildlife that reside within its borders. The program is further enriching the lives of all who are involved in it, including me.The possibility of change and those moments when you see it actually working are what keep you coming back for more. And this explains why 3 years later, I find myself still in Borneo.

Soon I too will return to the States to make memories with my family and friends there. The long awaited homecoming is in the planning and it is a bit bittersweet as I leave this home and family but I know it is time to see loved ones and share my stories.

The question now, how can we spread this innovative approach and heal people and environments in other places?

Me with a successful reforestation plot.

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About Kari Malen | View all posts by Kari Malen

Kari is the International Program Development Director at Health In Harmony, and is based in Taos, NM.