Bongkar Pasang

Bongkar pasang: Indonesian. To dismantle and reassemble (e.g. an engine)

A rusty motorbike with its engine removed.

It’s like taking apart a bike…

One of my side projects is rebuilding an old motorbike with my kids. It has a lot in common with my work at the Indonesian literacy non-profit, and I think with most work trying to make the world better:

  • It’s meaningful, interesting and satisfying… and the reality of actually doing it is about one part magical moment, three parts pleasure and nine parts grueling perseverance. Delayed-delayed gratification is the name of the game;
  • You have to start without really knowing what you’re doing;
  • You’re reminded that taking things apart is a lot easier than putting them back together (this is true of handlebars, brake systems, reading curricula, teacher training events and accounting systems);
  • There are things that are better left unfixed in the short run – they’re fragile but working, and there are bigger fish to fry;
  • You’ll discover that Part A must be fixed, but that it depends on Part B, which depends on other parts, and you’ll need to get to the bottom turtle / shave a few yaks in order to get Part A working;
  • Small things take on new importance as you learn the little details of the technology – the specialised adaptations that are crucial to making it work well. You may have watched Smarter Everyday’s (brilliant) video with the transparent carburetor, but they didn’t tell you about emulsion holes. You understand that the wheel spins on the axle, but had no idea about the various spacers and sleeves that would make it easy to remove the rear wheel without removing everything else. You know what it takes to teach a child to read, but not what it takes to train hundreds* of teachers who don’t read that much themselves to teach reading in classrooms without books…
  • You find that no matter how well you read the manual, sometimes the parts simply don’t slot back together. New parts don’t quite fit with old, bits need to be hammered or cut off, there’s a knack and a feel to almost everything, and only eventually (bongkar pasang, bongkar pasang) does it all make sense;
  • You enter a new world with new people, new vocabulary, and a different set of interests and concerns;
  • It costs more than you expect…
  • … but you’ll get help from surprising sources along the way (allies will be important);
  • You’ll develop a new appreciation for the ecosystem – from the factory to the user to the networks of providers of fuel, tyres, repairs and spares – that makes the thing possible – and affordable – at scale (and the flipside: you’ll start to sense the scale that makes the ecosystem viable);
  • You come to recognise good design – a newer bike where the designers have made something simpler, or an ingenious (and perhaps expensive) refinement, or a well-designed set of instructions (for mechanics or teachers) – when you see it;
  • You hope your kids will be proud of what you’ve achieved.

The Way Forward

Bongkar pasang is very often the path to making things better. You need to get your hands dirty in order to understand things. You’ll need to take things apart (which sometimes calls for surprising amounts of oil, blow-torches, specialist tools that you didn’t know existed and professional advice) and (try to) put it together several times in order to understand what you’re even trying to do, let alone making things better. You’ll need to keep coming back and doing the next thing.

And when you’re done? You’ll find another bike.

*And hopefully, eventually, thousands

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