Tuesday, December 31, 2002



It was a balmy Saturday morning in April, and I was exploring Bogor’s riverbank kampungs with Min and his big brother Wardi. The hilly city was like the brightly lit stage-set of a romantic operetta. The walls of the houses were a hundred shades of white and green and ochre. On a washing line the sun was illuminating a saffron-coloured shirt, a lavender skirt and violet stockings. The perfumed bougainvillea in the gardens was flashing pink. An aroma of musky sweat drifted from the armpits of passing schoolchildren. Big banana leaves swayed gently and darkly against the sky. A gong sounded softly, advertising a cart selling clove filled soup. Birds in high trees sang intoxicating songs and women from an Alma Tadema painting were bathing with their naked children in the brown river beneath the mighty volcano.

We followed one of the rivers until we came to an open space where a small fun fair had been assembled. The fun fair consisted of one carousel moved not by any motor but by muscle power. A brawny young teenager pushed and shoved while, small, ragged children whirled around, showing off sparkling eyes, bony knees and infectious Sundanese smiles. Jolly dangdut music quickened the pulse and incited some of the onlookers to dance.

"Hello mister!" said a small boy holding an ice lolly.

"Hello," I replied.

"Where are you from?"

"Bujumbura in Bongobongoland," I lied.

"Ah, yes," he said, looking puzzled.

Min climbed onto a seat on the carousel and like a happy six-year-old enjoyed ride after ride. It was good to see him happy.

When we eventually managed to drag Min away from the fun-fair, we all clambered aboard my vehicle and took the toll road back to Jakarta and Teluk Gong.

Outside Min’s house, I met Wardi’s wife for the first time. She was remarkably pretty in a Southern Italian way and I was reassured by her gentle, good-natured smile.

Min was not yet tired and insisted on going for a walk. As Min, Wardi and I strolled through the slums of Teluk Gong, over turd-filled ditches and past men in little shacks preparing sate and bakso, I decided to ask Wardi an important question.

"Who’s going to look after Min now you’re married?" I said.

"I’ll look after Min," said Wardi, in his usual serious-minded manner.

"Your wife doesn’t mind?"


"Does she like Min?"


"You also look after Min’s little brother?"


"Children don’t always stay with their parents, do they?"

"Sometimes Indonesian children stay with relatives and friends."

We stepped onto a tiny flat-bottomed ferryboat to take us across a black canal to where some rubbish-collectors had their shacks. It was there that we spotted Joko, the young boy who had once lived in a flooded hut and who had been orphaned by the death of his mother. I shook Joko’s hand and he gave me a warm smile of recognition. He told me he was now working with the rubbish-collectors. I was relieved to see that he was better clothed and better fed than previously, and that his skin looked normal, no longer having such a wrinkled appearance.

It was late afternoon, but Min wanted to continue his walk. We reached the home of the tiny twins, Sani and Indra, who were not looking so good. Their stomachs were still swollen, their ribs still stuck out, and their limbs still looked charcoal-stick fragile. I persuaded their mother to come with us immediately to the nearby Teluk Gong Hospital. Min insisted on joining the party and Wardi came too.

"TB," said Dr Andi, as we sat in his surgery. Young Dr Andi always struck me as someone intelligent and competent.

"The previous doctor said they’d got rid of their TB," I complained. "Do you think the doctor didn’t give them treatment for long enough?"

"TB can come back," said the doctor. "The twins live in an area of overcrowding and poor nutrition."

"This time, can you make sure they get cured?" I said.

"What does the father do?" asked Dr Andi.

"He’s a driver, and he has two wives," I explained.

"So he’s not rich."

"How do you become rich?" I asked.

"Join the army? Join the civil service? Work for the United Nations?"

The following Saturday morning, I paid a visit to Bogor Baru in order to check up on Andi and Asep. Andi still had his swollen belly, suggesting worms, but was bright eyed and now up to my waist in height.

I arrived outside the damp shack occupied by the family of Asep, the man who had had TB for too long. Asep’s pretty wife was standing at the door.

"Asep died," she said, smiling slightly.

I should have been getting used to deaths, but still felt a mixture of shock, anger and sadness. The anger was partly due to my failure to get Asep cured. TB, I was discovering, could be a doggedly hard disease to cure. I looked at Asep’s pretty children, two girls and a boy. They had put on a lot of weight compared to their former malnourished selves. I told the family that my driver would continue to come once a month to give them some money. That made me feel a little better.

I waited at Bogor’s Menteng Hospital for six-year-old Mukmin and his family, but they did not turn up. I did not have the family’s address and so could not send my driver to fetch them. I tried to calculate how long Mukmin had been taking his TB medicine. Was it about four months since I had first come across the little boy in hospital with typhoid? That was not long enough to be cured. There was a slight chance that Mukmin was getting TB pills from his local puskesmas or clinic. I never saw Mukmin again.

That afternoon, I needed cheering up and decided to call in on some old friends. I walked alongside a brown canal in which naked urchins were leaping about with all the vigour of porpoises at play. Near Bogor’s Jalan Pledang I entered the little brick-built home of elf-like Dede and his gypsy-faced older sister Rama. A slightly-weary looking Rama, carrying her baby in her arms, gave me a smile of greeting. As she had been feeding her offspring, her blouse was undone, and she retreated quickly to a back room.

A grinning Dede invited me to have a seat and introduced me to his ten year-old friend who was seated on the concrete floor, next to his battered school satchel. The friend was called Herry, a slim sparkling-eyed boy, tall for his age, and wearing a school uniform several sizes too small.

"Herry is near the top of his class," said Dede, causing Herry to smile blushingly.

"You have to pay for school, don’t you." I said.

"We have to pay for the school and the books and outings," said Dede.

"And you only go to school for half the day," I said. "I think that’s good, because it means you don’t get over-tired, and you have half the day to play football or whatever."

I was allowed to look at some of Herry’s text books and exercise books. Herry’s writing was supremely neat and his teachers had awarded him high marks. The text books seemed to be of the old-fashioned rote-learning type. I agreed to Dede’s suggestion that we take a look at Herry’s primary school, located only a short distance away.

The school was a simple wood and brick construction built on three sides of a small concrete playground. We were the only people there and found all the doors unlocked. There was graffiti on some outer walls and inside the small classrooms I noted writing carved on desk tops. The walls were bare and the ceilings were stained where rain water had seeped through. What a contrast with my own school’s air-conditioned classrooms which were packed full of computers, colourful posters and shelf loads of books. I hoped Herry would not become one of the majority of teenagers who eventually give up their schooling because of a lack of money or an uninspiring curriculum.

Having bidden farewell to Dede and friend, I walked along the banks of the River Cisadane until I came to the home of Melati, Dian, Tikus and the fruit bat. In the front room, Tikus was seated on the settee with a furry pet rabbit on his lap.

"Mr Kent," said Tikus, "do you want to come to the market? I need to buy some trainers and school shirt and shorts."

"How is your sister Dian?" I asked, changing the subject.

"She’s better now," said Tikus, stroking the rabbit. "She and Melati are out. Do you want to come to the market?"

"How much are trainers?" I asked, fearing that I might be trapped into helping him pay the bill.

"Very expensive," said Tikus.

"Then you don’t need them," I said. "Do you really need new shirt and shorts?"

Tikus stopped stroking the rabbit, lifted it up by its ears and placed it on the floor. He pointed to his shorts on which someone, presumably using white correction-fluid, had written some letters and symbols. "Kids at the school," said Tikus, by way of explanation.

Tikus and I ended up in a department store near the train station. I waited at the cash desk while Tikus browsed the clothing section. When Tikus returned he was carrying a pair of fashionable jeans.

"No," I said, noticing for the first time that Tikus was sporting an earring on his left ear. "You came here to buy school clothing."

Tikus frowned deeply and looked petulant. I handed him a sum of money sufficient to buy a school shirt, made my excuses, shook hands and headed for the exit.

And what about Wisnu, the child living at Dr Joseph’s expensive clinic? The tall, attractive and well-connected mother of one of my students had told me about Wisma Delman, an orphanage highly recommended by various expat women’s organisations. I was invited to pay a visit to this home to see if it would suit Wisnu.

When I entered Wisma Delman, hand in hand with Wisnu, I could tell that the place had rich and generous benefactors. Two shiny station-wagons stood in the driveway and there was a large swimming pool in the garden.

We were shown round Wisma Delman by its owner, Ibu Tini, a lady in her middle years, who looked as if she had been dressed by Harrods. The bunk beds in the sunny bedrooms appeared brand new and the furnishings in the lounge looked comfortable enough for a grand hotel. The adults and children we came across in the gardens were smiling and looked well fed and well clothed.

"You know that Wisnu is fairly backward?" I said to Ibu Tini.

"We have one other child who’s backward. He’s no problem." She smiled in a businesslike way.

"Other orphanages won’t take backward children, so I’m relieved you’re taking Wisnu."

"He’s a nice looking child. He can’t speak?"

"No. And you’ll see he sometimes moves his head to one side, onto his shoulder. He’s not a normal child." I didn’t want to emphasise Wisnu’s disabilities too strongly in case Ibu Tini decided not to take him, but I was a bit worried that the only staff I could see were awfully young-looking girls.

"I’m told you haven’t been able to find his family?" said Ibu Tini.

"His photo’s been in Pos Kota a few times, but we only got one phone call and the address given, in Tanjung Priok, turned out to be wrong."

"You didn’t like the clinic he was in? Too expensive?"

"Much too expensive. Can I contribute to Wisnu’s upkeep here?"

"You can give us a donation. And you’ll need to sign a document handing Wisnu over to us. He’ll become our responsibility."

I paid, signed and handed over a confused-looking Wisnu.

Thirty six hours after I had handed over responsibility for Wisnu to Wisma Delman there was a phone call from Ibu Tini, the lady in charge.

"Wisnu’s gone missing," she announced.

"I’ll come round straight away," I said.

I arrived at the entrance hall of the institution in an angry mood and immediately made clear my feelings to the ibu. "I’ve looked after Wisnu for many months but the moment you take charge of him you lose him. How could he walk out without anyone seeing him?"

"He’s a very difficult child. He’s messy when he eats and he’s not used to washing himself." She sounded pleased to be rid of the child.

"Have you looked for him?"

"I asked my staff to have a look."

"And they didn’t find him?"


"Are you still looking?"

"We’ve already looked." The atmosphere was not tranquil.

I asked Mo, my driver, to walk along the street in one direction while I headed in the opposite direction. When I returned to Wisma Delman, Wisnu was standing next to Mo.

"He was found by a family living just a few meters away. He hadn’t gone far," said Mo.

"I don’t think we should have him back," said Ibu Tini, looking cross. "You were very critical of us."

"He’s not my child," I said sternly. "I signed a document giving you full responsibility. You can’t leave him out in the street."

"You were angry with us," said Ibu Tini.

"It’s the child who’s important. Not me," I pointed out.

"He needs help when he washes. He drops food on the floor."

"He’s backward. Look, this place was recommended by expat women’s organisations that help finance you. What are they going to think if you put him out in the street?"

Wisnu was returned to Wisma Delman, for the time being.

A few days later, a letter arrived from Wisma Delman. It informed me that Wisnu had had to have stitches at a hospital after cutting himself in an accident to his arm. It stated that I must pay Wisma Delman something over one million rupiahs, the cost of the hospital treatment. It said that Wisnu had been removed from the home and put into a government institution called Panti Bambu. My letter of reply explained that I refused to pay Wisma Delman a single cent.

That evening I set off to find young Wisnu. Panti Bambu turned out to be a series of low-rise buildings located in the semi-rural Cipinang district of Jakarta, near the ‘Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature Park’. The director of Panti Bambu, a stout and avuncular gentleman with a large Toyota and nice gold watch, gave me a tour of the complex. We crossed a sunny courtyard with an expensive looking fountain and came to a shed-like building with barred windows and a smell of urine and worse. There was Wisnu in a room crowded with bare beds and men who looked like petty-criminals or tramps. Wisnu looked sad and agitated, but a grin came to his face when he was allowed out. He took my hand and I could see that the small cut on his arm, sustained at Wisma Delman, was almost healed.

"This place has far too many people," said the director. "It has many times the number of people it was built for."

"Wisnu seems to be the only child," I said.

"This place is supposed to be for adults. There are no homes for mentally backward children. If the police find a mentally backward street child, and they want to put him inside, it’s either here or the prison."

"The prison is worse?" I said.

"What do you think?"

"Would I be allowed to take Wisnu out of here and put him in a private institution?"

"Wisnu was brought here by Ibu Tini, from Wisma Delman. Only she or the child’s parents could move him somewhere else."

"Would I be allowed to take Wisnu for walks in the local streets?"

"Of course you can."

We passed more buildings packed full of gaunt looking men and women. I couldn’t imagine that a prison could be much worse. The main impression was of cages, stained walls, diseased skin and depressed eyes. I wondered how many of these people had TB, typhoid or AIDS.

I took Wisnu for a walk down a narrow little road bordered by trees and damp looking shanty houses. Eventually we reached an area of housing inhabited by top people from government departments and the army. The mansions were grand, the limousines luxurious and the gardens gorgeous.

When I returned Wisnu to Panti Bambu’s office I had another chat with the director.

"I’ll put the boy’s photo in the newspaper once more," I said.

"And we’ll make inquiries," said the director. "It’s part of our regular work to find these people’s families. We have a good success rate."

"Is there any non-government institution that could take Wisnu? If we can’t find his family?"

"There’s a place in Malang, run by a Dutch professor. I’m planning to send him there."

"Please get him in there as quickly as possible."



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