Andrē, between the heights of the heavens and the depths of the earth

Jean Couteau is a French intellectual who has been part of the Indonesian cultural landscape for decades. This article appeared in mid-December 2021 in the Indonesian newspaper Kompas where Jean writes a weekly column. He is a longtime friend of André Graff.


I saw you approach, small and emaciated, the covid checkpoint, then disappear towards the Lion Air check-in counter in the middle of the crowd. “What’s gotten into you, I say to myself about you, my friend, going back and forth between Indonesia and Europe. You’re getting older, your health could be better. But I’m sure that as long as you breathe, you’ll always come back, here in Indonesia. I know why you are once again going to Europe, Switzerland and France. You are going to tour your unfailing supporters, you are going to contact two or three sympathetic patrons whose names you have noted in your little address book. What are you going to talk to them about? Water, water that there is not in the villages of the island of Sumba, and also the water that you provided for them, in dozens of places on the island, during over 17 very active years. Thanks to you and this water, the villagers can now drink clean water and wash themselves. And I have just accompanied you to the airport as part of your mission: to help the poor of one of the most isolated islands of this great archipelago country that is Indonesia.

Were you really entrusted with this mission? Solve the water problems of an island of misery? That no ! You gave yourself this burden to bear. And this in the context of a most atypical life. In the past, before you started making your wells – 42 in total – you were a hot-air balloon pilot, you took tourists to see the world from above, in the swings of your balloon, above the highest mountain in France, Mont Blanc, at the meeting point of France, Switzerland and Italy. And that’s where it all gets weird, yet true, André. After having searched for the celestial heights in a balloon, now what you explore in your wells, for the little people of the villages and their water needs, are the depths of the earth. The balloon symbolized of course the dream, the refusal of the ordinary, the desire for a world to you, to you alone. Dug wells, on the contrary, symbolize earth and water, the need to accept reality in the name of solidarity, the movement towards the other. The two contradictory aspects of your personality, the dreamer and the doer, united in your person, André Graff, the skinny little man I was talking about above.

But why are you going back to Europe now, when covid 19 is surging again? Why aren’t you in the bosom of the earth fetching water for those little people you love so much? Could it be precisely because of your realistic side? For 17 years you have built dozens of water access systems. They all still work to this day thanks to your care on site. But you have seen, at the same time, foreign NGOs also building all sorts of water systems, without any technical supervision. However, after two or three years, the taps and pipes disappear, the pumps break down, etc. NGOs build, but then they disappear. Maybe they spend more time in Bali than on the ground in Sumba?

You have seen these failures with your own eyes and you know their causes: NGOs tend to be ignorant of local conditions and the people of the villages do not have the cultural capital nor the know-how which allows them to manage the systems themselves. of access to water built for them. They let the equipment deteriorate and simply wait for time to pass until new NGOs and their help arrive.

But you wouldn’t be called André if you couldn’t reconcile dream and reality. You understood what was happening, and you set up training modules for the maintenance of water systems adapted to the level of knowledge of the local populations. This training that you offer is based on the concrete: how to install pipes and pumps, how to dig safe wells, steps, etc.

It’s this training program that was in the big suitcase that I saw you take to Switzerland and France earlier. In your future interviews with your generous donors, you will certainly begin as follows: “In this remote island live men and women without water, our human brothers seized each year by the curse of the kalango *, dehydration, madness of the gods ….etc.

“I know, André, that in two or three months you will be back. For sure. I have no doubt about it. You are going to set up your water training system. You will succeed in doing it, as you succeeded in making your wells which now benefit tens of thousands of inhabitants, these men and women who are for you the children you never dreamed of having, between the heights of the heavens and the depths of the earth.

*kalango: or heat madness is a seasonal disease caused by intense heat in certain tropical and equatorial areas. In Sumba, the sick are accompanied by a ritual based on mangrove mud baths to prevent them from putting themselves in danger.

Written by Jean Couteau

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