The Water Bearer…Miracle Worker… of Flores

Gilles Raymond

Gilles Raymond

The Ngada people in central Flores (eastern Indonesia) have decided they are not going to wait for a handout from the government or big business. They are just going to figure out for themselves how to provide the basics such as water, food and shelter.


And after that, they are going to figure out a way to build their way out of poverty and for good measure why not create an innovative way to clean up the environment and make money at it too.

They call themselves Project Otonomie, and they are led by an unassuming French Canadian named Gilles Raymond and village leaders from Ngada.

I met Gilles online because I saw a photo of one of the converted motorbikes the project uses for their recycling program….and lusted after one for our Klungkung based recycling effort.

But for Gilles, before recycling came the need for water. Many villages lack a water supply which means villagers were forced to walk several kilometers each day for a mere bucket full of water. Gilles and the village elders decided to try to remedy this by building a pipeline from the village to a mountain spring many kilometers away.

Before Project Otonomie villagers (mainly women) walked for hours every day to obtain water.

Before Project Otonomie villagers (mainly women) walked for hours every day to obtain water.

Great idea, right? But how do you organize to decide the route, find the manpower, raise the money for the pipeline, maintain it and then decide how to use the water supply once it arrives. Those are the complex questions that had stymied this and other villages from obtaining the water they needed. In other places in the world, such as California, these are the same kinds of questions that have led to decades of water wars.

But for Gilles, figuring out these challenges are his idea of a good time. Previously, he had honed his community development skills in remote areas of Quebec province. He flew east looking for a new challenge, and found it in Flores.


He criss-crossed the region building support from village leaders and farmers, and eventually built his first long water pipeline while his kids were in elementary school. Today there are many pipelines and many villages that have water. The key to his success is determination and a self-help philosophy that’s about getting things done instead of waiting for someone else or the government to do it for you. And most importantly it’s about the value of gaining the support and respect of the entire village over many hours and weeks of talks with the people he’s working with.

Nearly 15 years later, Gille’s boys are leading the water project, and dozens of villages throughout the region now have water. He has given himself the humble title of Water Bearer. Gotta love this guy.

But he didn’t stop with water. Poverty is endemic to this region.   So Gilles called the village leaders together and they developed a program called Loans for Dignity in which farmers are loaned money from outside partners to clear and cultivate a hectare of land for ginger production. Gilles has recruited partners from Canada, America and other parts of the world. The local Catholic Diocese serves as the banker and auditor. There were 13 families who pioneered the project.

Ginger seedlings

Ginger seedlings

Gilles reported:“In terms of income for those 13 families (who usually have an income averaging between Rp. 800,000 and Rp. 900,000 per year / or $ 800 to $ 900 annually), they obtained from their ginger harvest of roughly double that) to put on top of their usual annual income. Yes, our philosophy of the ‘’small steps that change life’’ gives concrete results. Suffice to say that some of those families are now planning to renovate their house, to build sanitation facilities or enjoy the fact that they are now able to afford the cost of electricity and even to buy a washing machine. However, more than all, the thought of the day concerns the ability to pay the secondary school fees or the access of a child to technical school and even, in some cases, to be able to come to terms with the cost of sending one of their children to University.”


The cost of becoming a partner is roughly $2,200. You can make a huge difference by contributing to this cause. (Our foundation, Ahimsa In Action, is a partner).


And finally, Gilles has helped organize Trash Banks in which local villages collect and recycle plastic, metal, etc. and in turn receive the proceeds of selling these products. The program has been so successful that Gilles tells the story of a film director arriving at one village to do a story about the program only to find the streets clean and free of plastic and other trash (a rare occurrence in Indonesia). Seeing that the director was disappointed that the streets were clean, a village boy offered to go to the trash bank, and find some recycled plastic that could be strewn around for the cameras. Gilles politely declined the offer.

By now Gilles has probably done much more….but I’m exhausted. If you’d like to learn more about Project Otonomie please or email him at

Gilles describing the Water Bearer Program and More

Mass Cremation in Bali

Balinese people aren’t stressed about much, but the one thing that can create overwhelming tension is the inability to afford to cremate your parents and family.  In the past, cremations have financially ruined poor and middle class families alike who by tradition must provide a suitable cremation ceremony for their loved ones which can cost thousands of dollars.  When you are a farmer earning hundreds of dollars a year…it could have meant selling your land or not putting your kids in school.

Our friends Greg, Esther and Alex with Darmawan's father waiting while the ceremonies go on.

Our friends Greg, Esther and Alex with Darmawan’s father waiting while the ceremonies go on.


Fortunately, many Balinese villages have adopted the practice of mass cremations where all of the people who die over a five-year or so period are cremated at the same time.  This mass cremation helps because it allows richer families to subsidize poor ones and permits every family to perform their sacred obligations to their loved ones.

We were invited by our friend Darmawan to the village of Tangkas in the Klungkung Regency to participate in its mass cremation of 95 villagers who had died over the past five years.

Sarcophagus containing the bodies from one banjar in the village

Sarcophagus containing the bodies from one banjar in the village


It was a very long but fascinating day.  Darmawan’s family had lost a young nephew who had died from drinking too much Arrak (palm brandy) five years ago.  His body had been buried for the past five years.  His remains were dug up just before the ceremony and placed in a white cloth for the ceremony.

offerings around the sarcophagus

offerings around the sarcophagus

Cremation represents two important actions. First, it is a physical act in which the five elements of the universe contained in a human body are released by cremation to return to the earth.

The fire begins

The fire begins

More importantly, cremation releases a person’s soul from his body to be returned to the circle of life and death (reincarnation) or to be released from the cycle by seeing the face of God (moksha).  In Balinese tradition, the ritual mechanism for doing this is through a water blessing.  Every person who was cremated was accompanied throughout the cremation ceremony by a woman of his family.


In our friend’s case this was Puspa, Darmawan’s wife.  She rose at 8am to prepare the water offering from holy water provided by the priest. Just before the cremation, the priest sprinkled holy water from her offering onto the body of her nephew.  After the embers died down at 10pm that night, she carried the ashes to the river for the soul’s final journey back to the spirit world.