Ronny Heyboer: A man on a mission

facing a difficult choice

Peter Campbell speaks to Ronny Heyboer about his experiences as a missionary in the jungles of Borneo.

“Many of these girls are taken when they are 12 and are sold off to old men as wives. By the time they are 20 many of them have had as many as 6 kids, and they look old, very old. They have absolutely no understanding of love.”

Ronny Heyboer went out to Borneo 14 years ago, with no idea where it was or what he was going to do when he got there. He now houses over 250 children, all abandoned by their tribes, and has 5 school buildings, and aims to eventually accommodate 2000 on his site of 500 acres.

Borneo is the world’s 3rd largest island (Greenland and New Guinea are larger) and is politically divided between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Within the island itself, there exist over 400 Dayaks (meaning ‘peoples’ or ‘tribes’), each with their own languages, customs, history, and leaders. The tribes become progressively more primitive the further inland one travels as you get further from the roads and infrastructure of the coastal areas.

Heyboer had no reason to go to Borneo. Having been educated in Holland, he had a well-paid job in the Australian government, a wife and a large house. When his wife died in a car crash at the age of 31, Heyboer was left with unanswered questions. “It made me realise that life can be very short indeed. I came to the understanding that… if we all did something to make the world a better place, it would be significantly better.”

After two years’ college, Heyboer went to Borneo with the intention of spreading the Christian message, but soon came to realise that it wouldn’t be that easy. “You couldn’t just go in and talk about Christ. You needed to address their problems as well. Many of them are dying of hunger and starvation, with no medical aid.”

With the proper medical kit, Heyboer started to bring kids that had been abandoned out of the tribes. “It is not uncommon for both parents of a child to die of Typhoid or of some other disease. When that happens, the child is left to fend for themselves. No-one takes responsibility for them.” As a result, many of the children die of malnutrition or disease.

He tells the touching story of the first child he rescued, called Ezra, who had been abandoned to fend for himself. “When we found him he was skin over bone. The tribal leader told us we could take him. We said if we took him it would be for good ? that we would not patch up the child and then send him back.”

When Ezra was taken home he was so weak and undernourished that he was not able to eat anything substantial. Instead, Heyboer and his new wife had to feed Ezra a tiny bit at a time. “When doctors examined him, they said just one more week in the jungle and he would have died.”

Ezra, one of 259 other children who Heyboer has taken out of the jungle in certain circumstances, now calls Ronny and his wife ‘Mummy and Daddy’. With that many children, 150 of whom actually live in Heyboer’s own house, “there is never a dull moment.”

One of the many obstacles and dangers that Heyboer faces in the inner tribes is that of cannibalism. “They believe that if you kill an enemy and drink his blood and eat his flesh, then it gives you Sakti, whereby you gain the powers of your enemy. After a tribal fight, [you see] children walking round with a head in each hand, grinning. People don’t believe me when I tell them.”

The witchdoctors, too, wield enormous power within tribal communities. “I have seen women throwing their new-born babies to the crocodiles because the witchdoctor has told them to, in order to appease the crocodile spirit.”

The influence that belief in spirits has over the everyday lives of the people is quite phenomenal. “You find that satisfying the spirits is the people’s sole aim of every day. They will leave a food offering at the base of a tree to appease the tree spirit while their children are starving to death. But you can’t remove the food, mind; they will cut off your head for that.”

Spirits aside, there are many customs that Heyboer has now gotten used to. He bathes with the locals and has eaten the same food. “I found a rat’s head on my plate looking up at me. I pushed it to the side and prayed that I would be able to keep the rest of the food down!”

One of Heyboer’s lowest points came when he spent time in prison. A woman had jumped out in front of his car and been killed. The tribal laws of the area in which it had happened stated that whoever lived should pay the penalty, which at the time was 5 years in prison. Had it been in another tribal area, Heyboer could have been beheaded, even though the accident was not his fault.

“I will not go into details, but it was horrid. I just cried and cried for the first three days, but then I thought “I have to get on with this, I may be here for five years.” I was in a cell with lots of others, and all the officers wanted to know who I was, because I was white. I was allowed a bible, food, and visitors.”

“Every few minutes, ten kids would turn up demanding to see their dad. The officers couldn’t believe it. When they were gone, half an hour later, another ten kids would turn up.” This continued until all 200 children had been to visit their father in jail. “After a few days, the chief of police, a friend of mine, heard about me. He came and told me that he would get me out in a few days. Three days later I was allowed to go.” Heyboer had been inside a total of eight days. He told me very firmly that he would never want to go back.

The island holds many hazards for any large-scale project that is going on. Heyboer told of one time when a plague of grasshoppers descended on their corner of the island and ate all of the crops. “The plague ate everything on the island, except the 500 acres that our project is on. We became the talk of the town.”

What saddens Heyboer the most is the attitudes he sees of those outside of Borneo. “So many people are unhappy with everything. If they only knew how two thirds of the world live.”

Has his venture been successful? “People often ask me what difference we make. I say just look at the kids. My wife and I are just ordinary ? there are thousands of organisations like us. If we all pitch in, then we can make a real difference to the world.”

One comment

  1. I am from Malaysia and East Malaysia is located on Borneo island. In our work among the unreached people in Malaysia, we found that the greatest mission lies with reaching the next generation i.e. the children. We had seen many came to liberty and freedom in God. Our greatest obstacles are finances, workers and an adult’s understanding of the importance of reaching the children. I pray that this story may change many of these wrong mindsets.

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