Benny Mawel, Jayapura – Abraham Hubi, thinks he's a very lucky boy to be studying at St. Antony of Padua, a Franciscan-run school in Sentani not far from Papua's provincial capital Jayapura.
The ninth grader who comes from a small, remote village in the hills says it is nothing short of a miracle considering he was still unable to read or write after going through elementary school.
That was why he didn't mind having to do another preparatory year before finally attending the Catholic-run junior high school, which he said offers him his only realistic chance of a better future.
"After leaving elementary school I could only pronounce words and letters. But now I can read and write," he said.
Illiteracy is a major problem in Papua, with many children unable to read or write despite having finished elementary school. There are many reasons for this, but the most serious are a shortage of teachers and school facilities.
The shortages come as a surprise to many observers considering Papua – besides its natural wealth – has received billions of dollars over the years from central government to help support its special autonomy status.
Local authorities in Papua say they have tried to improve education through programs such as building schools in remote areas. However, critics say they were not supported by sufficient numbers of teachers.
Many Papuan children live in remote villages, however, the good schools are located in cities, said Gabriel Payong, 28, the principal at St. Anthony's school.
He said the best solution for these Papuan students, particularly at elementary and secondary levels, is boarding.
St. Anthony's offers boarding which enables students to focus more on their studies, according to Payong. "This kind of school is useful for children from villages, who are economically poor but have the will to learn," he said.
He also said boarding school helps make Papuan children responsible people, through the rules and regulations they live by. "Here students can study, become involved involve in every day things, and we can monitor their progress," he said.
Make use of autonomy fund
After his inauguration at the state palace in Jakarta on Sept. 5 – together with other newly elected governors – Papua Governor Lukas Enembe said that over next five years he and his deputy, Klemen Tinal, would focus on improving education in the province.
He said he would introduce better educational infrastructure in districts and municipalities, as well as offer more scholarships to native Papuans to pursue further studies.
"There are many Papuan children who don't get a proper education," Enembe said. He said this was the root cause of poverty in Papua, making it the poorest province in Indonesia.
According to the Central Statistics Agency a high proportion of the 26 million Indonesians officially listed as poor live in Papua. "In the next five years, we expect to see more people being educated," said Enembe.
According to Professor Baltazar Kabuaya from Cendrawaih University, in Jayapura, local government efforts to improve education and other services will likely succeed if there is strong leadership and a will to better manage natural resources and the special autonomous region fund.
Since Papua was given special autonomy status in 2001 in part to help build the province economically, central government has provided more than US$3 billion in additional funding, and plans to provide more in the years before the special status expires in 2025.
The province is home to 3.6 million people, of whom 61.3 percent are Protestant, 21 percent Catholic, and 17.4 percent Muslim.
Kabuaya said the autonomy fund is a large amount when taking the size of the province's population into account so there should not be any excuses for not providing better education for Papuans. "Otherwise, Papua will be back to square one, after special autonomy status runs out," he said.
This year the provincial government in cooperation with the Ministry of Education is offering scholarships to more than 1,000 native Papuans to pursue higher education at various universities.
All are expected to graduate in teaching and to be placed in secondary and tertiary education.
Ferige Uaga, 28, a medical student in Jayapura, said he appreciated Governor Enembe's good intentions regarding the scholarships, but said they do not go far enough.
Scholarships should not only be given to those pursuing a career in education, but also in other fields. "Offering scholarships must be objective, and also free from nepotism," she said
Benyamin Lagowan, 28, another medical student, said more people are desperately needed in the health sector so more scholarships in this field should also be a priority.
"Many clinics don't have doctors, so it makes sense the government should support those wanting to become doctors," he said, adding that schools will certainly need health workers too to ensure students are healthy.