JOHN FAWCETT: A vision of love for Bali
After a life-threatening medical accident forced him to take early retirement at the age of 49, John Fawcett relocated to Bali in 1983 with one single vision: to sit under a coconut tree, do nothing and wait for a coconut to hit him on the head and fi nish him off.
That vision never happened.
As the warmth of the Balinese people and the beauty of the island’s culture renewed his life hopes, Fawcett, instead, began to renew others’ hopes and uplift their lives through his humanitarian work, initiating a cleft lip and palate program in 1989 and a mobile clinic for cataract surgery in 1991.
In 2000, Fawcett founded the John Fawcett Foundation, which was previously known as Yayasan Kemanusiaan Indonesia (YKI).
Around 30,000 incidents of blindness in Bali are caused by cataracts. Since 2010, his programs have also reached other provinces around the archipelago, including Lombok, Kupang, East Java (Surabaya), Sumatra (Bengkulu) and Kalimantan (Banjarmasin).
From 1991, the foundation has conducted a total of 33,000 cataract surgeries, free-of-charge, while last year alone saw 3,643 cataract operations.
Now aged 80, Fawcett’s work for the poor is continued by his 34 loyal Balinese staff, who he regards as his own family, and 16 dedicated Indonesian ophthalmologists.
Fawcett talked to Bali Daily’s Agnes Winarti recently about his humanitarian work and his love for the island of Bali.
Question: What happened in 1981 that drove you to start humanitarian work?
Answer: In 1981, I had a serious medical accident in a big hospital in Australia. They gave me an injection and it stopped my heart and everything. It was wrongly given. It was a mistake, a medical accident. Then, they got me back going again, but I lost my memory. I had to be in the hospital for two years and 10 months. After that, they said: ‘You have to retire, you can’t work again.’ So, I said: ‘I’m gonna go back to Bali and sit under a coconut tree and do nothing. Just go to Bali, sleep, and maybe wait for a coconut to hit me on the head and fi nish it off.” I was 49 when the accident happened.
I came here and started to do nothing. A friend, Ida Bagus Mantra, [the former Bali governor] said: ‘I’m happy to have you here to stay, but please help us.’ So we started to do things together. He pushed me. He was an incredible man.
I’m not interested in dogs, cats, and animals, but I love human beings, because they are the most exciting to have around you. In Bali, the culture creates very beautiful people with special qualities. When I go to villages that are very poor and they are eating, they will push half of their plates to you. You never get that in Australia. People here will share even though they have little.
You have fi ve senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight. You can do without four of the senses, but if you can’t see, you’re in trouble. Sight is the one thing you can’t really afford to lose. It is like a human right. I had also lost sight in one eye in the accident. I had surgery with lasers and it was fi xed. That made me think how eyes are really important.
What drives you to continue this work until today?
Because there’s more to do. For me, I want to step back and sit again under the coconut tree, like when I came here and leave it for them to do. Don’t try to hang around too long, because this has to be done by young Indonesians.
What’s your most memorable experience with the people whose lives you’ve changed?
The children are the most memorable. We had a little girl coming here with her uncle. She was very dirty, long black hair, and had two cataracts. We operated on her and when we took the pads off and she could see; the experience of seeing her looking around for the fi rst time, that’s the best part. Before, she did not go to school because of her blindness, now, the local teacher coaches her, and in June she goes to school. That’s the best story. When you can change someone’s life, that’s the reward, it makes you sleep well at night. Happy thoughts.
At 80, what other deeds you hope to pursue?
Just more continuous work. I’m so lucky to have 34 hand-picked [staff ] who are happy to work in this sort of thing. They’re all like family, not staff. We live like a family. I think one of the nicest things for me is being in this culture. The Balinese have a family culture. We have lost it in Australia. But here, everyone is together and looking after each other. Don’t lose that. That is precious.
Have you ever felt tired in your work?
Yes. Every night. Before I go to sleep, I think I’m going to stay in bed tomorrow until 11 o’clock. Not getting up. But then six o’clock comes, and I think, wow another day, that’s good. Every day is another challenge. I do get tired every night, but after nine hours of sleep, the battery is fully charged again.
In your opinion, what’s the island’s biggest problem? And how should the locals deal with it?
What Bali has to do is to balance its progress. I think Bali is better today than in 1983. Children don’t just die of appendicitis. Dreadful things happened at that time, but don’t happen now. There’s communication, better education; it’s still not perfect, but it’s making progress. So, we are moving forward, and we are better today than we were in 1983. Still there are poor people, I’d love the see the balance between the haves and the have-nots. You can’t stop the progress, you must control and balance it.
Any particular parts of Bali that touch your heart the most?
I can tell you the part that I don’t like. Many years ago, Mantra said to me during our breakfast: ‘What we gonna do with Kuta? We got problems in Kuta.’ I said: ‘Look, we just get a bulldozer and push it all into the sea and start again.’ He said: ‘Don’t say that.’ And I said: ‘Yeah that’s gonna make a big mess in the sea.’
Kuta is losing the very quality of what people come here for. They come here for the culture, the trees and coconuts. You can’t fi nd a coconut tree in Kuta. I never want to go to Kuta or Legian. The best parts of Bali to me is toward the east, up to the mountains, Karangasem. That’s the best, very beautiful.