When I first met Octo Mote in the summer of 2004, he was dressed in the typical garb of a pizza delivery boy — a blue Domino’s polo, khaki shorts, a baseball cap and white tennis shoes all arranged neatly on his small frame. His diminutive stature and cropped, receding hair made him seem paternal, but his eyes shone with a brilliant, youthful luster. His round, childlike face eased into a smile as I climbed into the passenger seat of his green Toyota Tercel, but the grin betrayed nothing. Octo was deft at separating his private life from his job.
From the intersection of York Street and Wall, we drove out of downtown New Haven and parked at the Domino’s franchise. Octo stepped out of the car and attached the ubiquitous plastic Domino’s light to the roof of the car. He walked into the restaurant and looked at the computer monitor behind the counter for his first stop of the evening. A row of pies, oozing with melted mozzarella and pepperoni, sat waiting to be loaded into his heat-retaining delivery bags.
None of his coworkers knew about his past life or his second job. Octo had spent his morning and early afternoon hours in his office at 340 Edwards St., where he worked as a visiting fellow in Yale’s Genocide Studies Department. In his austere office, framed by an angled ceiling and bare windows, Octo kept in touch with political and religious leaders from West Papua through daily phone calls and e-mails. His true line of work, he told me, was to push for the eventual self-determination of West Papua, the western portion of New Guinea and easternmost territory of Indonesia.
The windows of his second floor office overlooked a sandy lot where construction was in progress. The view isn’t majestic, but Octo loved it anyway. In fact, he appreciated any kind of peaceful moment. On his bookshelf, Octo had placed photos of his Indonesian wife and his three children. His kids appeared in both West Papuan tribal dress and contemporary Indonesian apparel. Octo was adamant about his kids retaining their cultural heritage.
Every year he makes several trips to New York City and Washington, D.C., where he lectures on Papuan rights and lobbies for more governmental attention to be directed to the human rights abuses being suffered by the West Papuan people. Unlike most visiting fellows at Yale, Octo has no other home to return to, so he stays in New Haven. A former journalist for Indonesia’s largest daily, Kompas, and one of the facilitators of the 1999 National Dialogue that brought one hundred pro-West Papuan independence representatives to Jakarta, Octo decided to flee to the United States in late July of 1999 when the Indonesian Immigration Department banned him and four fellow leaders of the National Dialogue from traveling. After leaving the country, Octo applied for asylum, and his family soon joined him in the States. Though he hoped to focus solely on research and advocacy, he has no other choice but to work at Domino’s to help pay the rent.
Behind the counter at Domino’s, Octo scanned the screen above our heads for his first delivery stop. We had our destination: Revere Street, New Haven. We set out with pizza in the back seat, and after a 15-minute drive, we finally reached a narrow cul-de-sac flanked by tall, unadorned homes with stoops inviting summer loiterers. Before the car came to a stop, four children made their way toward us. As Octo opened the back door to grab the pizza, three girls and a small boy began to chatter. “Is that pizza for me?” the girl in the black shirt asked. “Hi, pizza man,” said the smallest girl. The third chimed in, “It smells g-o-o-o-d.” Octo disappeared for a minute, and when he returned, he reported, “He doesn’t give a tip. He doesn’t give any tip at all.” I asked him if he’s been there before. “Yeah, I’ve been. Most of the people that we deliver are the same people. Sometimes are new but most of them, yes. So when we drive, we know where we go that we might get tips.” Octo laughed.
We would drive for nearly five hours by the time we were done, passing manicured parks, towering rocks defaced with graffiti, apartment buildings, condominium communities, large homes with sweeping lawns and decaying neighborhoods cast gray by the foggy summer drizzle. Octo’s route covered New Haven, East Haven, Fair Haven, Branford and North Branford. It was beginning to rain, and as the drops fell lightly against the windshield, I asked if the driving exhausted him. Octo smiled. “Yeah. Physically, yes. But, the only things that help me a lot is that I like driving. I enjoy driving. I enjoy to meet with the people, to see different personalities, to see a lot of how Americans treat very low-class workers like myself.”
In 1986, Octo graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the Catholic University of Parahyangan Bandung in West Java, Indonesia. He turned down a teaching position and spent two years searching for a job, eventually landing a position selling West Papuan handicrafts to hotels and stores. Things changed in 1988, when Octo found work at the Kompas in Jakarta. It was at Kompas that Octo met his wife Bertha through a colleague, and they moved to a prosperous suburb of Jakarta until the end of 1997. In December of that year, Octo took the six-hour flight to West Papua, and by January he was writing again. Less than a year and a half later, Octo found himself on a plane to the States, fleeing the Indonesian government.
Neither his coworkers nor his customers knew where Octo was from or why he was living in the States. When Octo returns home, sometimes as late as 1 a.m., he’s often already half-asleep. When asked if he was looking for other jobs, he replied, “Every day, every day.” He depends on tips to supplement his low pay. Some people are more generous than others. Some give nothing. Octo guessed that he earns about $10 per hour, including tips.
I n Jakarta, Octo never left home without escorts. He joined an influential political group called the Council of 100 in 1998 to help facilitate a dialogue between pro-independence West Papuans and the Indonesian government at a time of extreme national volatility. For over 50 years, West Papua had been a colony of Indonesia, subject to decades of abuses ranging from socioeconomic discrimination to extrajudicial killings. An independence movement in the 1960s failed when the Indonesian government manipulated the election by coercing over a thousand West Papuan representatives to vote overwhelmingly for continued Indonesian rule, but agitation for independence continued. The Council, too, proved ultimately ineffectual. At the climactic moment, when the hundred activists appeared before the Indonesian president and delivered a statement of independence, they were met with silence. After a long pause, the president offered, “The aspirations you have expressed are important, but founding a country isn’t easy; let’s contemplate those aspirations again. Go home, and take my greetings to the Papuan people.” Fifty years of foreign rule had won.
The demoralizing effect of months of ultimately fruitless work meant only one thing to Octo — more work. But in June of 1999, Octo received a note from his friend that the Indonesian government had placed a travel ban on him and four other prominent colleagues. Though the government never confirmed the ban, word spread that Octo’s life was in danger. Two months prior, Octo’s next-door neighbor, a relative and fellow journalist who had earned his master’s degree from the University of Chicago, was wounded by a bomb that had been planted in his mailbox. He was pronounced dead while under police custody. Suspecting that he had been the intended target, Octo led a peaceful protest march on the day of his relative’s burial, shutting down Jakarta for a day. “Before he was killed, he told me, ‘You know, you have to watch out, people are looking for you. They ask me, are you working with Octovianus Mote, and I say, ‘Yes, I am.'” Octo visited the U.S. Embassy, where he learned of a loophole that would save him. Months before, Octo had received a visitor’s grant from the United States, which he had postponed to focus on the National Dialogue. He had a way out. Octo packed his bags and left the country. His family stayed behind.
He first came to Yale in 2002 after having met Ben Kiernan, a Yale history professor who was visiting Cornell, where Octo was doing research on West Papua. After moving to Yale, Octo continued his work, focusing on human rights abuses. He chats by phone and e-mail with church leaders in West Papua to keep himself updated on recent developments in Indonesia. But in the car, he is just as eager to talk about New Haven as he is about his native island. It takes significant prodding to get him to open up about his childhood.
“When I was in the boarding house, I saw a lot of political and human rights violations, about how our government, military, they kill people and they just leave the dead bodies,” he said. “You know, that’s really happening in front of my eyes. For the first time in my life, I find out that Indonesia is colonial. It was when I was in high school that I saw the attitudes, how the Indonesian officers treat Papuans.” He wheeled his head, looking for Tavern Lane in the dimly lit neighborhood. “I saw that, and my friends in the boarding house, [their] parents who also get killed because of their activism. That’s a fact of my life. [As a child in the Highlands] I don’t have any problem with the Indonesians. My close friends are Indonesian, we play together. There’s no problem at all. But when I was in the university in Jawa, if we are playing soccer in remote area, all people get out from their house and look at us, as foreigners! They call us, ‘Mister, Mister!’ so I feel like I am foreigner!” Octo trailed off. “Tavern Road,” he muttered under his breath, reading a sign scarcely illuminated by the car’s headlights. “There must be Lane somewhere, looking for a Tavern Lane.” He finally picked up his cell phone and called the customer. I heard a man’s voice on the other line. “Yeah, I’ll be there,” Octo assured him, and he hung up. “There’s no Lane here.” It is Tavern Road, after all. “That’s really tragic.”
After we parked, Octo sauntered up the sloping lawn alongside the massive two-story home. Octo soon returned, reporting a $2 tip, a disappointing haul. “Sometimes you get a lucky day, sometimes not,” he said, lackadaisical.
As the sun set, we began our search for the next house. Octo had been talking about his uncle for a few minutes, describing how his father’s brother spoke out against Indonesian rule in the 1960s. “Independence, it’s nothing new,” he said. “After the people ask for independence in [the Council of 100], the government accuse me that I’m the mastermind. So then they blacklist me, to ban me from leaving the country. But luckily, the name that they use in the ban list, they spelled incorrectly. They put one ‘T,’ double ‘T,’ on my family name. So M-o-t-t-e, which is wrong, because I never use that! Just with one ‘T.’ So when I check in [at the airport], over when I came here, that name is not match with the name on the list, so that is why I can leave.” When news of Octo’s disappearance became public, the Indonesian media described it as an escape, and the police worked to have him arrested and sent back to West Papua.
Octo said he never feared arrest. He refused to admit that he was a political leader or even an activist. Political leaders, he believed, had an agenda, and activists were people who marched through the streets creating mass public disturbances. Octo’s way of effacing himself from the political landscape was difficult to understand. He came from a line of men who frequently spoke out against the Indonesian government. When Octo interviewed for his job with Kompas, he told the editor that he would work only in West Papua or in Jakarta so that he could write about his people. “They [Indonesia] call me a political leader, but I am not! I am just a common journalist!”
Life in New Haven provided Octo and his family with much welcome anonymity. When they lived at first in an apartment building on Whalley Avenue, the Motes lived mostly unnoticed. Though they initially found their neighborhood unsafe, they could not afford much else. “It’s really hard because on one hand you want to help your people, and on the other hand you need to make money.” Though Octo wished he could spend his time focusing on research and advocacy work, the lifestyle is hardly sustainable on a small income. There is the rising cost of gas, the monthly phone bills that often soar to $300 because of calls to West Papua, a private education for each of the Mote children, and the basic costs of feeding and clothing a family of five. Luckily, Octo mentioned, his wife is skilled at handling a tight budget.
Octo was initially wary of his future wife, Bertha, who is Indonesian by ethnicity and the daughter of a professor. “Even before we get engaged, I mentioned to her that I will do this work [writing about West Papuans].” His marriage proposal came with a disclaimer. “I warned that if she married for my position, she should consider other friends. We might have to flee, I might go to prison. I gave her one month to think again, if she was ready to leave all behind.” One month passed, and Bertha did not change her mind. The couple married in 1991 and remained in Jakarta until December 1997, when Octo was relocated to West Papua. They flew six hours to Octo’s native land, where they stayed until July 1999, when Octo fled alone to the U.S. Bertha and the Motes’ three children joined him three months later. For Octo, politics and family never mixed: “I never talk anything political to my wife and my kids. I let them experience life, and then they decide themselves. In family, we just talk about family things, nothing to do with my own struggle. That kind of more personal.”
The rain started to fall harder, the large drops beating loudly as we drove back to Domino’s. Back at the counter, I watched as Octo affixed address labels to cardboard boxes waiting to be filled with melting pies. “How do you see yourself?” I asked. Without taking his eyes off the labels, he said, “It’s difficult to say. I’m devoted to human rights, but I’m not an activist. I don’t have experience yelling and protesting in the streets.” Octo’s experience yelling and protesting was limited to three protests, including the one staged in 1999 upon the death of his relative next door. He was loathe to call himself an activist. “Whatever decision the Papuans want to make, it’s up to the Papuans. I don’t have a political agenda. On the one hand, West Papuan unity, independence. On the other hand, I am critical. If you want independence, this is what you need to do. Every night, West Papuans protected my house and followed me to my office. West Papuans see me as giving them a voice … I don’t know how to see myself.” He turned and walked out the front door. We went in search of Saltonstall Parkway.
By the time we returned it was dark outside, and the neon lights of the small shops were the single source of illumination. Domino’s was nearly empty. One employee, who was labeling boxes, stopped and addressed Octo. “Hey, Octo! Did you do these tickets?” There was a misprint of addresses on one of the labels. Without waiting for a response, she teased, “Uh huh. And how’s tips tonight?” Bad, really bad, Octo replied. She let loose a piercing laugh. “Bad!” she said. “You gotta get some Branford, North Branford!” Octo smiled, picked up another stack of pizzas, and headed toward the door. In the car, we discussed Freeport McMoRan, the New Orleans-based mining multinational whose arrival in West Papua in the late 1960s led to the mass confiscation of land inhabited by the Amungme and Kamoro tribes and decades of environmental wreckage.
Soon we pulled into the lot of a small apartment complex, and after parking, Octo stepped out with cell phone in hand. “This one is tricky because the bell at the front door sometimes does not work, and there is no other way into the building. So I always have to call.” He disappeared for a few minutes, and I sat listening to the rain drum on the roof of the Tercel. The car was practically bare except for a gray plaid seat cushion for the driver, two cassette tapes, a map of New Haven wedged between the brake and the passenger seat and a few address labels on the dashboard. His wife had a van, Octo told me, a 1995 green Ford Ithaca the couple purchased for $3,000. Octo used to drive the van himself until he started working at Domino’s, when he realized that the compact Tercel would be more suitable for making quick deliveries.
It was past 9:30 p.m., and Octo returned to Domino’s for the final time. Tom, the owner, was debating whether he would let Octo go home early. An employee yelled, “Hey, Tom! Do you want to send Octo home?” Tom yelled back, “I was!” He joked with Octo, who informed him that there was little business at this hour the previous night. “You’re trying to influence me!” Tom said. Arms extended, Octo assured him, “This is your independent decision!” Chuckling, Tom dismissed Octo, and we climbed back into the car, which now had a lingering scent of cheese, dough and cardboard. In four hours, after seven deliveries, Octo earned $29 in tips. It was nothing in comparison to what he was earning in Jakarta, where he owned more than one home. But hopefully, it would be enough to pay the bills. Octo told me he was planning to move the following year to one of the neighboring suburbs, like Branford. He admitted that housing and schooling for his children would be a considerable expense.
Octo pulled up to the curb of Chapel Street, just a few feet from the corner of High. A young man interrupted us by approaching Octo’s window, asking for eighty cents. Before I could reach for my purse, Octo was already counting coins in his palm. He handed over the change and watched the man walked away. “You know, my mother taught me, ‘When you give, give.’ You know, that $1 or $2 tip, that’s really meaning for people in the lower-income job. For us, $1, $2, what is it?”
I met up with Octo again last month. It was the day before Easter, and we were accompanied by West Papuan minister Djoko Affandi, who was visiting for a week before heading to Geneva. Octo and Affandi were about to return to New York after having spent the last two days there visiting West Papuan human rights defender John Rumbiak, who had suffered a stroke three weeks prior. We drove to a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Whalley Avenue, which Octo assured me would be fairly empty and quiet. There, Octo told me that he is awaiting news of a possible grant that he would like to secure to further his research on West Papuan rights. His fellowship with the Genocide Studies Department has been renewed for a third year, and he hopes to remain in his office on Edwards Street. He hasn’t been delivering pizza for three weeks now, and though he enjoys the quiet of his Tercel, he hopes he doesn’t have to return to his job. Bertha now works at a local nursing home, the eldest daughter Karunia will graduate from middle school this spring, and the two youngest, Kanita and Prima, still attend private school. Octo is committed to both pursuing his research and being involved in his children’s lives. “Every time I’m at home, I try to do something for them,” he says. “I mean, I cook, prepare them the breakfast … you know, even I’m at home, I’m doing a lot of work, so you know I just try to, you know, whenever I have free time and go with them and [spend time].”
“What if you don’t receive funding?” I ask.
“Then back to the Domino’s!” he said, laughing. n