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."


Monday, December 30, 2002



I was making one of my weekend visits to Wisnu at Panti Bambu. Having parked by the side of the quiet tree-lined road next to the institution, I called in at the office and was greeted with a friendly smile by the girl on duty. This was Milah, petite, pretty and not long out of her teens. She had been sitting reading a newspaper and looked very relaxed in her T-shirt and jeans. She collected a key from a decrepit filing cabinet and we set off across the sunny, open courtyards. It was lunch time, and some of the shambling, grey-looking residents had been released out of doors to eat their meagre meals of rice, vegetables and soya cake. I noticed that the work of carrying and cleaning-up was being done by trusted inmates rather than by staff. Wisnu had been transferred to a different building, a structure with very large barred windows. Through these bars I could see Wisnu standing idly among a group of men. Outside this cell, in the open courtyard, stood a handsome, grinning boy, aged about twelve. Unlike Wisnu, this boy looked completely normal, except that he had a metal chain attached to his ankle and he was completely naked.

"Can I take Wisnu to the park at Taman Mini?" I asked Milah, as she released Wisnu from his room. Taman Mini was only a short car journey distant, but I had my doubts that a trip to this famous ‘Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature Park’, would be allowed.

"If you like," she said, without a moment’s hesitation.

Wisnu gave me a shy smile and took my hand. I noted that his legs and arms seemed to have attracted scabies.

"Who’s the naked child with the chain?" I asked.

"Jan," said Milah. "He was found in the street. We’re trying to find his parents."

"Why the chain?"

"He’s a little backward. He might try to run away."

I could have spent some time in a pointless argument about the nakedness and the chain, but I knew that Milah, as a lowly local government official, was not in a position to change procedures; and in any case I wanted to stay in her good books.

"Can I also take Jan to Taman Mini?" I asked.

"If you like," said Milah with a beautiful smile.

"Can a member of staff come with me?"

"That’s not necessary."

"I think someone should come with me."

"No, it’s OK."

Perhaps Milah was the only person on duty and could not leave her post. Panti Bambu was certainly relaxed in the way that it was run. I cannot imagine a British institution allowing a ‘foreigner’ to take two young inmates unaccompanied to a recreation park.

After Milah had found a crumpled T-shirt and some frayed shorts for Jan, my driver drove Wisnu, Jan and I to the 120 hectare Taman Mini Indonesia Indah. Neither child made any attempt to run away.

The park was the brainchild of the president’s wife, Ibu Tien Suharto, and is intended to show off the different styles of architecture found in Indonesia. I remembered that on a previous visit I had seen a Balinese temple, a prahu-shaped building of the type found in Torajaland, and a house with scary woodcarvings from Irian Jaya. On this particular day we concentrated on the food outlets, the Children’s Palace, the carousels and other such amusements. Wisnu was puzzled by the trampolines but Jan had the skills required to bounce up and down. Neither child looked totally relaxed; the smiles were slightly strained, reminding me of the early days of Min, before he was reunited with his family.

"Where do you live?" I asked Jan, as we scoffed ice creams at an almost empty cafe.

"Far," he said.

"What’s your address?"

He shrugged.

"Which town?"

He frowned. Was he trying to deceive me or did he genuinely not know?

"How did you get lost?"

He said nothing. I wondered if he had been ill-treated at home and run away. As he tackled a burger and chips, he grinned a lot, but sometimes the grins were near to tears.

When we returned to Panti Bambu’s office, the young man on duty was sitting, feet up, reading a newspaper. There was no sign of the director. The inmates were all locked up in their gloomy cells. A board on one wall advertised the number of deaths each month.

"Three people died here last month?" I asked.

"Yes," said the young man, with the innocent expression of a schoolboy.

"What happened? Typhoid?"


Wisnu and Jan were returned to their cell.

Normally I don’t remember my dreams, but around this time I had one of those bad dreams that wake a person up. I could remember the scene. My driver, Mo, was at a street corner. He was being beaten up by a group of criminals.

Sometime in May, Anne and Bob, the parents of Pauline, invited me to dinner at their home in Menteng.

"How’s life treating you?" Bob asked me, as we tucked into boeuf bourguignon, at a table lit by candles. "Still enjoying Jakarta?"

"Yes indeed. In spite of the traffic. I still love my walks in the countryside. And most of the people seem much happier that the British."

"What about your waifs and strays?" said Anne. "Min and the others."

"I enjoy their company," I explained. "I’ve been able to meet lots of ordinary Indonesians because of them."

"They’re nice people, the Indonesians," said Bob. "I mean the ordinary people. Not the elite or the crooks or street toughs."

"They’re always hospitable," I said. "Always polite, always putting you at your ease. They’re not all like that, but most of them are."

"It’s the Buddhist culture," said Anne. "It has an influence even today."

"I see you’ve got some Buddhist art here." I had noticed a gold-lacquered statue of Buddha at one end of the room. It was next to a Bronzini print showing a naked Venus and Cupid.

"You can be a Christian and a Buddhist at the same time," said Anne.

"Buddhism isn’t really a religion, is it?" I said.

"It doesn’t necessarily deny the existence of God," said Anne. "God is ultimate Reality, something that can’t be fully understood by our tiny minds."

"You mean God doesn’t have a personality, like a human being?" I said. "He’s not an old man who gets angry and who insists on his pound of flesh?"

"Something like that," said Anne. "Something we certainly can’t understand or describe."

"Why do babies get battered?" asked Pauline quietly. "I mean, if there is a God or some Buddhist Ultimate Reality or Karma, why does a baby have to suffer?"

"Some Christians might say it’s because we have free will," said Bob. "Babies get battered because God has given free will to the parents." Bob’s slight smile suggested this was said partly in jest. "Or maybe it’s because God is spirit and can’t intervene unless people work with him?" Bob sounded more convinced by this latter line of thought.

"The Buddhists say the baby may have done something wrong in a previous life," said Anne.

"I think we just don’t know," said Pauline, sounding fierce. "We don’t know the answers to these kinds of questions."

"I think you’re right," said Bob, very calmly. "Even the atheist can’t explain why things have come into existence out of nothingness. They may one day explain how, but not why. Why should a molecule of oxygen come about? Why should molecules be able to make copies of themselves? Why should cells come into existence and why should they be able to reproduce? Do molecules have free will? Why should Claudia Schiffer exist?"

"The point is," said Anne, "that Buddhists and Christians have a similar view on what we should do to get out of our troubles."

"Are you sure?" said Pauline. "Religions and sects disagree about loads of things. Was Jesus fully human or fully divine or what? Did Buddha believe in angels? I pay attention during religious education classes."

"But there is some agreement about the path we’re supposed to follow," insisted Anne.

"So what does Buddhism say?" I asked.

"Help people who suffer," said Anne, putting down her glass of wine, sitting back, and looking serious. "Helping people brings lasting happiness. We’re all brothers. And sisters. We shouldn’t separate ourselves from our fellow creatures or from God or Ultimate Reality. We reap what we sow. The more we give the more we get. And so on." She took a deep breath.

"Sounds like Christianity," I said. "It’s a pity the world is full of warring religious sects."

"One of the problems with sects," said Bob, "is that they get it wrong about what it’s most important to believe."

"Meaning?" I said.

"Sect number one says you’re only saved if you believe its self-righteous priests have a monopoly of the truth about such things as worship and diet. Sect number two says you’re only good if you attend its particular boring church or temple."

"Strong stuff, Bob," I said.

"Sect number three," continued Bob, "says you only get to heaven if you believe certain controversial facts about the life of its favourite prophets." He looked pleased with himself. He had got some things off his chest.

"Imagine," said Pauline, eyes brightening, "if the churches said that being a Christian, and joining the church, means the following." She paused.

"Go on," said Anne.

"Being a Christian," said Pauline, "means giving away your wealth to the poor, always turning the other cheek and being patient, kind and non-critical of other people, and always giving up time to things like helping the underdog. That would be it."

"Where did you get that from Pauline?" asked Bob.

"We made it up in our religious education class. Nothing about virgin births or baptism by immersion or eating fish."

"Yes, it would make people much nicer," said Bob. "The emphasis on kindness. Nothing sectarian."

"It would empty the churches," said Anne.

"Why?" said Pauline, making an unhappy face.

"My Buddhist teacher says it takes thousands of lifetimes to get rid of the ego," said Anne. "Can you imagine the people at the local church giving away all their wealth? Or giving up judging other people? Millions of lifetimes."

"We have one Egyptian boy," said Pauline, "who didn’t want the bit about always turning the other cheek. I don't think he understands that Islam encourages forgiveness."

"OK," said Bob, "why not make it that being a Christian, Buddhist or Moslem means being neighbourly, sharing with people, and always being patient, kind and forgiving."

"It would mean," said Anne, "that there would be far fewer Christians, Buddhists and Moslems. How many people do you know who’re always patient and kind?"

"Our teacher," said Pauline, "believes that there is some kind of God or Force and that you need to be tuned into it before you can really achieve anything, such as helping the poor. He also said we sometimes need to have suffered a bit before we can understand things."

"That sounds very wise," said Bob.

"But I still have a problem with battered babies," said Pauline.

"Hindus and Buddhists," said Anne, "believe that in this world you can’t have good without also having evil, just as you can’t have light without dark, or up without down."

"The Taoists," said Bob, "believe that all our actions contain some negative yin and some positive yang. If you have a positive, it has to be balanced by a negative. Think of your algebra. Zero equals plus one minus one."

"Yin and yang," said Anne, "are the passive and the active. Not quite the same as evil and good. Yin and yang each contain an element of the other."

All our actions contain some negative yin and some positive yang. I thought of my actions in trying to help certain sick children. Maybe Bob had a point.

"How does this tie in with battered babies?" asked Pauline.

"If a baby is crying," said Bob, "the parent should accept that that’s what babies sometimes do. Everything is a balance between yin and yang. When parents produce a baby they have to accept the positive and negative aspects."

"The parent who batters the baby," said Pauline, "is trying to totally eliminate the negative aspect?"

"The negative aspect, as they see it," said Bob. "The point is that we should avoid going to extremes."

"So everything is a mixture of yin and yang," said Pauline, her eyes sparkling. "It’s certainly true that boys are a mixture of yin and yang."

"And with boys we shouldn’t go to extremes," said Anne quietly.

"But in nirvana or heaven," said Pauline, "you don’t get yin and yang, or good and evil. So why have evil here in this world?"

"Hindus believe that from time to time God gives birth to the world," said Anne. "God, the One, becomes the Many. Then, after a long period of time, all the individual beings go back to being One again. It’s an ongoing process. It’s even possible that there is no such thing as past and present and that God exists as One and Many all at the same time."

"But why?" asked Pauline.

Anne was silent.

"If we are part of God," I volunteered, "then we are responsible for what happens. We can’t blame a distant Old Man up in the skies."

"But are we all part of God, or only some of us?" asked Pauline.

"Perhaps the Zen Buddhists have the answer," said Bob, who was eyeing the chocolate pudding being brought in by the house boy. "Maybe enlightenment comes only from each individual’s own personal experience of life."

"I think," said Pauline, "that the reason so many of the Indonesians are happy is because they act like religious people are supposed to act. They’re neighbourly, they share things, they don’t criticise and they don’t worry about tomorrow."

"They just get on with cultivating their gardens and don’t worry about theology," I volunteered.

"Mind you," said Anne, "our maid tells me that things are changing in the kampungs. She says there are too many people and there’s too big a gap between the rich and the poor. They’re all becoming less neighbourly."

"The balance between the yin and the yang has been upset," said Pauline.

Bob got up to change the music that had been playing on the music-centre, and Anne changed the subject of conversation to Walton and Ravel.

It was the end of the school day and Mo was waiting for me beside my vehicle, which was parked under some trees. He struggled to stand up. His face was cut and bruised.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Mr Kent, I got beaten up," he said.


"Near where I live. In my kampung in Cipete."

"Who did it?"

"Some toughs were causing problems for my friend. I went to help him. They kicked me."

"What had your friend done?"

"I don’t know."



"Have you been to the police?"

"Nobody goes to the police. I’ve a relation in the army. He’ll kill the guys who did it, if he finds them."

"Have you been to the doctor?"

"No, Mr Kent."

"Well we must go there now."

After Mo had been patched up I remembered my dream.

I had just left Min’s house and was being driven homewards along North Jakarta’s Teluk Gong Boulevard.

"Lots of discos and motels here," I commented to Mo, who was still subdued after his beating-up.

"Part of this area is a red light district," said Mo, quietly.

"What sort?"

"Many hundreds of gambling dens and brothels," said Mo.

"Aren’t these illegal?" I asked.

"Yes, Mr Kent."

"So who runs these places?"

"Gangsters from different parts of Indonesia."

Mo went on to explain that the local red light district was controlled by the Mandars and Makassars from Sulawesi and the Bantens from West Java. Allegedly the Mandars were backed by certain top policemen and local government officials, while backing for the Banten gang came allegedly from a different set of policemen and some officers from the army’s special forces. The Makassars occasionally got raided by the police because they had no links to top people.

"It can sometimes be dangerous," said Mo. "If the Bandars and the Banten go to war, then the police may get involved, some on the Bandar side and some on the Banten side."

"And what about the people who attacked you?" I asked.

"They’ve disappeared," said Mo. "They must be hiding."


Sunday, December 29, 2002

49. OYA


"We’ve found Raj’s family," said Panti Bambu’s director, referring to the handsome boy who, on the last occasion I had met him, had had a metal chain attached to his ankle. The director was sitting at his desk drinking tea and he was looking like a big affable police sergeant. "The parents will be coming tomorrow at noon to collect him."

"Good news," I said. "Where do they live?"

"Many miles West of Jakarta," he replied.

"How did Raj get lost and travel all the way to the big city?"

"We don’t know."

"And what about Wisnu? He’s been here at least two months."

"As soon as it can be arranged, we’ll send him to Malang, the hill town in East Java," said the director, looking down at his desk which was empty of paperwork. "There’s a place there run by a Dutch professor."

"When will it be arranged?"

"I’ve already been in touch with Malang."

"There should be a separate building here for the children," I said. "They’d be safer separated from the adults. What would it cost?"

"Twenty million rupiahs, which is five thousand dollars," suggested the director, without any suggestion of wild enthusiasm.

"That’s very little. Surely one of the expat women’s organisations could give you that."

"Where would we put the building?"

"There’s lots of empty space around here for a small building. Would you build it if I gave you the money?"

"It would be difficult. The buildings here were designed for adults."

No doubt the construction of an extra building, financed by foreigners, would have come up against masses of red tape and bureaucracy.

Wisnu and Raj, barefoot and wearing ragged clothes several sizes too big, were brought into the office. I wondered what had happened to the sets of brand new clothes I had supplied. Raj had a nasty bruise on his face and Wisnu had developed some kind of skin disease on his limbs.

"Do the inmates get medical attention here?" I asked the director.

"There’s a medical room," he replied.

I had seen this room. It was not equipped with much in the way of medical equipment. On the shelves there had been one or two plastic bottles which might or might not have contained pills.

"Do the patients get modern antibiotics and a proper doctor?" I asked.

"The authorities give us about 25 pence per person per day. That has to cover food, clothing, medicine and everything else." He gave me a hard look.

I took the two boys for the usual walk down the country road which runs West of Panti Bambu. We came to a doctor’s surgery in a bungalow which lay just beyond a small mosque and a big church. On a whim, I decided to get a medical checkup for both Wisnu and Jan. After a long wait in the reception area, I was told by the young female receptionist that the doctor was an hour late.

"He’ll be asleep," she said.

"Can you phone him?" I asked.

She phoned, and twenty minutes later, a young man appeared. He wore a pained expression on his thin face.

"Who are these children?" he snapped.

"From Panti Bambu."

"I’m the doctor for patients there," he said. "There’s no need to come here."

"You get paid to be their doctor?"


I reckoned he must be like the doctor at Wisma Utara where Min had once stayed. "I thought I’d bring the kids here so as to speed up treatment," I said.

Some antiseptic was applied to Raj’s face and I was told I should buy some soap for Wisnu.

"Don’t come back here," said the doctor, glaring.

I imagined that the poor stressed doctor could do little for the patients at Panti Bambu if that institution was only given twenty five pence per day per inmate. And possibly he feared that I might bring scores of diseased old men to his bungalow.

Next evening I called in to see Wisnu.

Raj was still there, all dressed up, and trying not to weep.

"What happened with Raj?" I asked the young man in the office. "His parents were supposed to have taken him home."

"Parents didn’t turn up. Maybe tomorrow." The young man looked sympathetically at Raj.

Raj looked at me and tried to grin, but his eyes were moist.

I took Wisnu and Raj for a walk down the road and bought them some chocolate biscuits. Raj did not seem hungry.

I took a magnificent toy car, big as a desk, to Panti Bambu. I had been given it by a colleague whose children had grown out of it.

"This is for Wisnu and any other kids to play with," I said to the director, as my driver and I deposited the car on the floor of the office. "Can you make sure it’s not stolen?"

"Nice car," he said.

"It’s only for the kids here."

"I’ll lock it in my office."

"But make sure the children get to play with it," I said, remembering toys I had taken to Wisma Utara which had been locked away and never used.

"How’s Raj?" I asked.

"His parents collected him," said the director.

"Thank goodness. Were they pleased to see him?"

"They cried."

Thank God for that.

The following afternoon I accompanied Min and his mum on a walk through the crowded slums that bordered their home. We were on our way to see a little girl called Oya, whom I had been told had some illness which had given her a head that was too large.

Min was hyper. He squealed with joy and darted about, looking into people’s houses through their open doors. Sometimes he would stride into a house, uninvited, sit down on the floor in front of a TV set, and then have to be pulled out when I got bored hanging around. He would try talking to small children. Charmed by his childish ways, these little people would grin, take his hand, and dance with him down the street, making lots of noise. People seemed tolerant of Min. At least, they were tolerant while I was around.

"Haven’t seen much of Wardi recently," I said to Wati, as we led Min along a particularly narrow lane between wooden shacks, like rabbit hutches. "He was looking stressed last time I saw him. Is he OK?"

"Wardi’s wife’s gone back to her kampung. Six hours by bus," said Wati, sounding like someone describing a troublesome incident in a soap opera.

I wondered if Wardi’s wife was fed up with Min. I was worried because Min spent so much of his time with big brother Wardi, who seemed the best in the family at looking after him.

"How long has she been away?" I asked.

"She’s been gone several weeks," said Wati.

"When’s she coming back?"

"Don’t know."

"Why’s she gone?"

"Wanted to see her parents."

I supposed it was natural for a young girl to miss her mum and dad. I hoped she was coming back.

Looking to my left I glimpsed, through the open doorway of a one-room wooden house, a toddler lying on a bed.

"This is Oya," said Wati.

Oya had an enormous head, much too big for her skinny body. Her very young mother, who wore a miniskirt, tight blouse and lots of make-up, was busy sorting clothes. The room was too small for us all to enter. I poked my head into the room and introduced myself.

"Has the child been to a hospital?" I asked the mum.

"Not recently," she said, with an expression which seemed friendly and very relaxed.

"Would you like her to see a doctor?" I asked.

Oya’s mum agreed to accompany her child and my driver to the St Francis Hospital the following morning.

At the weekend I motored over to St Francis Hospital to meet a Dr Alex who had by then examined the little girl. I wanted to hear from him the deatils of Oya’s illness.

"It’s Hydrocephalus. Water on the brain," said Dr Alex. "An abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid within the ventricles."

"Hence the massive head." I said. I had no idea what ventricles were.

"And symptoms such as headache, vomiting, lethargy and loss of memory."

"So what’s to be done?" I asked.

"The treatment is to implant something that diverts fluid from the brain into the abdominal cavity. There’s a tube and a valve and a catheter."

"Is it necessary to have the surgery?"

"In this case, yes."

"Is it expensive?"


"Does the mother want the child to have the operation?"

"She does."

"OK," I said, "if you’re sure it’s necessary."

Min was having one of his depressed days. He didn’t want to talk.

"It’s day about with Min," said Wardi, as we sat in the front room of their little brick house.

"One day happy, one day sad."

"What about some music?" I said.

Wardi turned on the radio and found a music channel. Min began to smile just a little. Then he stood up and swayed to the music. He still looked as if he might have a migraine.

"And how are you?" I asked Wardi. "Missing your wife?"

"She’s back." He gave a big smile.

"I’m pleased."

"How’s the little girl with the big head?"

"Oya’s in hospital for her operation," I said. "Do you know the mother?"

"I’ve seen her around," said Wardi, frowning.

"What about the father?"

"Oya’s mother has a new boyfriend."

Naively, I hadn’t thought enough about possible complications. What sort of person was the mother? Would the new boyfriend want to look after Oya? Would there be any complications from the surgery? Would the mother keep in touch with the hospital as the years went by? Should we have gone ahead with the operation?

After leaving Min, I went to see Dr Handoko at the Kuningan Medical Centre.

"You know there is no cure for Hydrocephalus," said Dr Handoko. "These people usually die young."

"What about surgery?"

"It’s not a cure, but it should prolong the life of the patient a bit and it should reduce the suffering. I know one gentleman with Hydrocephalus who’s now in his thirties."

"Is the implant necessary?"

"If the symptoms are serious, such as enlarged ventricles, the patient must be treated. Otherwise there will be a further deterioration."

"What are the complications?"

"Same as with any surgery. Infection, malfunction of the implant and so on."

I went to see Oya at the St Francis Hospital. She had had her operation and was attached to tubes. There was no sign of the mother. A woman, who was one of Oya’s neighbours, was sitting at the bedside.

"How’s Oya?" I asked the nurse.

"Fine. Had her operation."

"The head still seems large," I said.

"Yes. The operation reduces pressure on the brain but it’s not a cure. There is no cure."

"I see." I supposed Dr Alex hadn’t promised any miracles. He probably hadn’t told me enough.

"The mother," whispered the nurse, "has not been in here once. A lot of the time the child has been on her own. Not been in even once."

Fergus, Carmen and I were meeting for an evening drink at the Gamesman’s Bar, a haunt of expats who like to play pool, watch football and baseball on small TV screens, and eat chips. It wasn’t really my sort of place, but Fergus and Carmen liked it because their squash-playing friends frequented the place.

"The army seems to be causing Suharto some worries," said Carmen with a giggle. She had been reading about President Suharto in the bar’s copy of The Jakarta Post.

"How so?" asked Fergus, as he put down his rum and coke and adjusted his dark glasses.

"You’ve heard of Wahid?" said Carmen.

"The moderate Moslem cleric who runs the biggest Moslem group," I volunteered.

"Suharto sees Wahid as a rival," said Carmen, "but certain generals, such as Sudrajat, are said to be sympathetic to Wahid."

"But Wahid is a Moslem figure and Sudrajat is a nationalist," I said.

"Sudrajat does not want the right wing Moslem faction to gain in power," explained Carmen, "and Wahid is very liberal and moderate."

"What about Megawati?" asked Fergus, referring to the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.

"It’s interesting that she was able to become leader of the PDI party," I commented.

"Now there’s the thing," said Carmen gleefully. "Suharto fears Megawati, but certain generals seemingly helped her take over the PDI."

"Which generals?" I asked.

"Gumelar and Hendropriyono," said Carmen.

"Are you sure?" asked Fergus. "Why would generals want to back Megawati? Isn’t she a radical?"

"If some generals are backing Megawati," said Carmen, "they must reckon she’s sympathetic to the army! And Megawati is a nationalist."

"They say that in the army there’s a Green Faction," said Fergus. "They want to promote Moslems rather than Christians. And there’s a Red and White Faction that’s nationalist and secular."

"Suharto seems to be having problems with the Red and White lot," said Carmen, looking serious. "Things could get difficult if the army becomes seriously divided."


Saturday, December 28, 2002



During the sunny summer holidays, my elderly, former-neighbour, Mr Samsu, invited me round for afternoon tea; we sat on the verandah which overlooks his garden; a huge pile of books lay on a small table next to Samsu’s rattan chair.

"This is a very pleasant house," I said.

"It’s quite an ordinary bungalow," said Samsu, whose hair seemed whiter than ever. "It’s Dutch-style. A bit colonial, with the red tiled roof and the cheap-looking Doric columns that are meant to be classical or neo-classical. Inside it sometimes feels a bit too enclosed."

"It doesn’t feel enclosed when you’re on the verandah," I said.

"Indonesians like a house to have a feeling of openness."

"Do you lock your doors?"

"Nowadays, I lock my study. I don’t want my computer stolen."

"You have some fine trees," I said, as I cast my eyes over the garden. "What’s the one with the yellow-white flowers?"

"We call it Cempaka Kuning. It’s like the Magnolia. You’ll see them used for floral decorations here and in Bali."

"It’s good to see there are still some trees left in Indonesia."

"Who should we blame for the cutting down of so many trees?" asked Samsu, with a mischievous grin. "Is it the greedy logging companies? Or is it you people in the West who want paper for packaging, palm oil for cooking and plywood for building?"

"Both are to blame, but what I read was that more than half of all the logging here is illegal. Officials are bribed to turn a blind eye."

"But why is there bribery?" said Samsu, suddenly looking less relaxed. "Why does a teacher ask for a bribe to let children attend school? My father was a civil servant in the days of the Dutch. The Dutch kept wages so low that government people simply had to supplement their wages with gifts."

"The Dutch are long gone," I said gently. I decided not to ask if his father had taken bribes.

"The problem is human nature."

A maid, a barefoot, angelic little girl, appeared with a silver tray bearing a teapot and cups.

"What have you been reading?" I asked, after Samsu had poured the green tea.

"Chapter 76 of the Koran. ‘Good people feed the needy, the orphan and the prisoner, because they love God.’ That’s why they get to heaven."

"What does the Koran say about heaven?"

"It is a garden where people are served by youths who are eternally young, youths like pearls."

"Is that what you’ve got here? A garden where you are served by beautiful youths?"

"No. Here it’s too hot and you can see young Azis is asleep over there." Samsu pointed to his young house-boy who was snoozing on a mat in a shaded corner of the garden. "He’s probably far away, in Central Java."

"My maid said something odd to me. She said that on Saturday she visited relations in East Java. But she was here in Jakarta, at my house."

"An out-of-body experience," said Samsu.


"Be careful when you wake someone. They may be out of their body. Wake them gently, so they have time to return."

"Are you joking?"

"No. Your maid probably believes that while she was asleep she did in fact visit East Java."

"Sounds weird."

"Not at all. There are lots of recorded cases, even in the West. If you phoned up your maid’s relations, they might confirm that they had indeed been visited." Samsu looked straight-faced as he said this.

"I’ve often had a sense of deja vu."

"Perhaps you visited a place in your dreams and then later went there while awake."

"Who knows."

"We Indonesians have no great difficulty with spiritual things. To us, consciousness can exist without the brain."

"Sounds unscientific."

"In the West, scientists like Professor Eccles have suggested that consciousness is not produced by the brain. Sir John Eccles is a Nobel Prize winner. An Australian."

"Not produced by the brain?"

"That’s right. You know your famous Englishman, Alfred Russel Wallace?"

"He came to Indonesia in the 1850’s," I said. I had read parts of Wallace’s Malay Archipelago. "He thought up the theory of evolution, at the same time as Darwin."

"Wallace was cleverer than Darwin. Professor Eccles reminds us that Wallace believed the human mind could only have come about with the help of some kind of God. Eccles believes in random genetic mutations and natural selection, but he believes God has some influence over what happens."

"How does the mind exist without a brain?"

"We have a brain existing in the physical world," said Samsu, pointing to his head, "and a mind existing in a different spiritual world."

"The mind is non-physical?"

"Not necessarily. Our mind may be made up of some kind of energy. It’s possible that energy can move from the spiritual world to the physical world."

"Sounds a bit beyond me," I confessed. "Do you believe in a spirit world?"

"Of course. You know it is not only human beings who have consciousness. Some researchers have found that plants can be conscious beings. Tomatoes can feel pain. Have you heard of David Bohm, who was a Professor at Birkbeck College?"

"I’m afraid not."

"I’ll lend you some books on Bohm. He was a physicist who believed that all physical matter is alive. We are all part of one whole."

"So a tree has a spirit? And maybe a mountain?"

"Man certainly has a spirit," said Samsu, sounding authoritative. "Didn’t Jesus talk about good and bad spirits? When somebody died, isn’t Jesus supposed to have returned their spirit to their body, so that they came back to life? Didn’t Jesus say that, to God, all people live? After death, the spirit goes on living. John’s gospel says it is the spirit that gives life, not the flesh."

"Yes." I sipped my strong tea and tried to take in what Samsu was saying.

To my delight, the little maid reappeared, this time with plates of banana fritters and little cakes that looked like green Turkish delight. As the maid offered me a cake, I noted her small, delicate hands and her wonderful light brown skin.

"Thank you Kuntil," said Samsu, as the girl, walking like an Italian model, returned indoors.

The green cake had a taste of coconut milk and sugar.

"Coconut is good at killing off bugs," said Samsu. "It keeps you healthy."

"You were telling me about spirits," I reminded my host.

"Indonesians often talk to their dead relatives," said Samsu. "In North Africa, dead holy men, called marabouts, are consulted by Moslems."

"Does it worry you, as a Moslem, that some Christians say that the only way into heaven is through belief in Jesus?"

"It doesn’t worry me. Jesus said: ‘My teaching is not mine.’ Jesus said his teaching came not from Jesus but from God. There is only one God. It is God’s teachings that matter. If you carry out God’s teachings, you get into heaven. ‘Good people feed the needy, the orphan and the prisoner, because of love of God.’"

"Love, yes," I said.

"And don’t forget," said Samsu, picking up his Koran, "in the Koran, chapter 3, it mentions ‘the Messiah, Jesus, who is honoured in this world and the next, and who is one of those people who is near to God.’ So Moslems do believe in Jesus. Christians are not seen as nonbelievers, according to verse 55."

"What about the idea of Jesus dying for our sins?"

"Jesus said, in your bible, ‘I came into the world for the one purpose of bearing witness to the truth.’ And what is the truth? A lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to get into heaven. Jesus said that he must love God and love his neighbour."

"Moslems and Christians agree about that," I said. "Same message."

"And who is your neighbour? Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the man who risked his life to help someone of a different race. The Samaritan would go to heaven, even though he wasn’t a Jew, or a Christian."

"What about the idea of dying for our sins? What do you think it means?"

"Jesus taught about how to get rid of our sins," said Samsu smiling. "But our sins don’t automatically disappear because of Jesus’s birth and life and death. According to Jesus we have to be salted with fire. We have to struggle and suffer. Jesus says we have to repent of our sins. We have to bear good fruit. We have to forgive others."

"I’m not keen on the suffering bit. Wasn’t the idea of a bloody sacrifice to the gods very important in primitive religions?"

"Some early Hindus and Persians believed that the Gods could only survive if we provided them with food. In some countries, children were sacrificed to the gods."

"So, what do you think?"

"More advanced thinkers began to see that God, who is perfect, doesn’t need us to feed him. In Hosea, in your Old Testament, God says ‘I want love and not sacrifice.’ In other words, understanding of God has evolved through time."

"The Christian Gospels seem to give conflicting statements?"

"We have the same problem," said Samsu, grinning. "Does the Koran say that God is the only power and controls man like a robot? Or does the Koran say that man has free will? Common sense tells us that we have free will. Is the Koran something perfect, like God? The Mutazilites didn’t believe that the Koran was eternal. The Imamites believe in 12 imams. Is love of the imams necessary for salvation, as some Moslems believe? Is Ali, the first imam, a divine being? You see, religions become complicated. Yet the basic message of the Koran is simple. Love God and your neighbour."

A visitor arrived, a slender old man with a friendly smile and a well-worn suit. He took a seat at our table and was introduced to me as Dr Petrus, a former university lecturer.

"Petrus believes that Jesus died on the cross," said Samsu, as he poured more tea. "He’s a true Christian."

"Of course he was crucified," said Petrus, as he put lots of sugar into his tea. "Why? Because he annoyed so many people. He annoyed the warlike, because he wouldn’t rebel against the Romans. He annoyed the respectable people because he made friends with outcasts, the handicapped and prostitutes. He annoyed the Pharisees because he said the path into heaven was by loving your neighbour, rather than keeping the Sabbath or avoiding certain foods."

"Human sacrifice?" asked Samsu, as he turned to his university friend. "When is a sacrifice good?"

"When it’s voluntary self-sacrifice and when it produces a good result," replied Petrus. "Like giving your place on the lifeboat to a woman and her child. Like going as a doctor to an area infested with cholera and malaria."

"Jesus?" asked Samsu.

"John’s gospel," said Petrus. "‘I lay down my life so that I can take it up again. No one took it from me, but I lay it down of my own free will.’ So it was voluntary. Jesus knew that people tended to kill God’s prophets. Didn’t people try to kill Mohammed? And good results? People learned that ‘he who loses his life, for the sake of others, will save it.’ Mark’s gospel."

I was always amazed by certain people’s knowledge of the Bible and the Koran, although I suspected that Samsu and Petrus were not your average beings.

I made one of my infrequent trips to see Oya, who was lying on her back in her one room shack in Kapuk. Her head seemed as big as ever and she had a cough.

"Oya should go back to the hospital for a check-up," I said to her mum. "She seems to have a fever."

"She’s got a cold," said her mum. "Lots of people have flu."

"We’d better go to the hospital. OK?"


We argued and argued until at last she agreed that Oya could go to the clinic at the end of the road. We waited ages for a girl, who had agreed to come with us, to strip off and change into her best clothes. I averted my eyes and stood in the rain outside.

At the clinic, the doctor told us we had to go to the hospital. The mother refused. We got back into my vehicle.

"To the St Francis Hospital," I said to the driver, in English. Oya’s mum said nothing as we battled through the traffic.

"It’s pneumonia," said the hospital doctor. "Oya will have to be admitted to the hospital."

"No," said Oya’s mum. Oya was weeping.

"What will happen if the child goes home?" I asked the doctor.

"She’ll probably die."

I had a long argument with Oya’s mum. I said Oya could not go back home in my vehicle. Mum got some medicine from the hospital pharmacy and took Oya home by bus.

Red and white flags decorated every street. Indonesia was fifty years old, at least if you count 1945 as the beginning of independence. The sky was blue and I felt in a reasonably cheerful mood as I called in at Panti Bambu to visit Wisnu. The big toy car had disappeared, mysteriously.

"How’s Wisnu?" I asked the director.

"Gone to Malang. The place run by the Dutch professor. It’s a good place."

"I’m pleased," I said.

There was a phonecall from Wardi to tell me that Oya, the little girl with the big head, had died. Maybe her spirit had decided that life in her body had become just too difficult. I felt more than sad when I thought about her suffering. And I felt some guilt about having got involved so unsuccessfully. Then I tried simply not to think about it.


Friday, December 27, 2002


I was invited to a reception that the Saudi Arabian Embassy was holding in one of the biggest five star hotels in Jakarta. At the entrance to the grand ballroom, I shook hands with a tall smiling gentleman in Arab robes, whom I presumed was the father of one of my pupils.

"Your son is a good student," I said.

The man raised his eyes heavenwards. He could see that I was lying. He knew his son was potentially bright but not exactly a scholar.

I ambled over to one part of the room where there were a number of young ladies. I seemed to be attracting a lot of attention: some women were staring in my direction and smiling. As I am sometimes a little bit slow on the uptake, it took me some minutes to realise that in Saudi Arabia they do things differently. The women mainly stand at one end of the room and the gentlemen at the other. As discreetly as I could, I edged over to the correct section of the assembly.

On a table of great length I could see a whole roast lamb, dishes of leg of lamb with yoghurt, cracked wheat with yoghurt, cucumber salad, and pastries with honey, but no alcohol. I picked up some lamb and a fruit juice and approached an elderly and kindly-looking Indonesian whom I took to be the Minister of Social Welfare.

"Do you know a place called Panti Bambu?" I asked him in English. "It may have links to your ministry."

The old gentleman gave me a puzzled look. I proceeded to tell him a little about the place where Wisnu had lived.

"Panti Bambu?" he said, blank faced.

"You are the Minister of Social Welfare?"

"I am the Chairman of the Council of Ulema," he said, quietly and politely. He was referring to the body made up of influential religious figures who are experts on Islamic law and dogma.

I accidentally dropped a piece of gravy-covered meat onto the expensive carpet. Neither of us could think of anything further to say.

Having escaped to the food table and picked up some more lamb, I managed to get talking to a small, nattily dressed, middle aged Australian, who seemed to fizz with happiness .He was the local boss of some UN agency.

"Any famous people here?" I asked him.

"That looks like the president’s eldest daughter, Tutut, over there in the middle," he said, nodding in the direction of a young woman who sparkled like a star at a Hollywood premiere.

"Beautifully dressed in an Islamic sort of way."

"Friendly smile," I said, "She looks younger than her age."

"She’s in the toll road business, and said to be close to certain generals, like Hartono."

"Useful. What about Tutut’s brother, Bangbang?" I asked.

"I don’t see him here. They say he keeps in with General Sudrajat."

"You have inside information?" I was wondering if the Australian had links to the security services.

"I simply read the press. I get most of my information from a publication called Inside Indonesia. The Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek are also useful." He beamed.

"I recognise the soberly dressed woman on our right," I said. "She’s smiling at us."

"I think it’s Megawati, daughter of Sukarno."

"And now leader of the PDI party," I said. "She has a motherly smile."

"The military reckons that if there were free and fair elections she’d get sixty-per-cent of the vote. And the PDI is not a Moslem party. It’s a secular party, a mixture of nationalists, Moslems and Christians."

"I hear she has some friends in the military."

"Gumelar and Hendropriyono are said to have helped Megawati become boss of the main opposition party, the PDI."

"So the army’s not united?" I asked.

"Ten to twenty years ago, it was Christians who had a lot of the top posts in the armed forces, people like Sudomo, and Benny Murdani. Then Murdani criticised certain particularly corrupt people around Suharto and it looked as if the army was no longer automatically on Suharto’s side. Murdani ceased to be the Armed Forces boss and Suharto, in more recent times, has been promoting people like Feisal Tanjung and Hartono, who are Moslems."

"So is the army now more Islamic?"

"No, it’s more complicated than that," said the Australian, grinning merrily. "It’s difficult to tell whether General X is part of the Moslem faction or part of the Nationalist faction. General X might ally with General Y because both have the same religion but more importantly because both are from the same region of Indonesia and both have the same business interests. It’s more about money and power than belief in God. I don’t think the generals are necessarily particularly religious. A Christian officer might crack down on Christians in Timor and a Moslem officer might crack down on Moslems in Aceh."

"Who are the up-and-coming generals?"

"Suharto tends to give top posts to relatives or people who’ve been his personal guards. There’s General Prabowo who’s married to one of Suharto’s daughters. There’s Prabowo’s ally, Sjafrie, who was trained by the Americans, allegedly about the tactics of terror. There’s one top general who allegedly wants to use militias made up of preman, that’s street thugs, to keep law and order. A lot of the generals are rumoured to have links with preman."

"What part does the underworld play?" I asked.

"Who runs things in Indonesia? I was told, in one city, that it was the local mafia boss who was in charge. Of course these things get exaggerated."

"What about Jakarta?"

"In my part of Jakarta, things like parking and gambling are supposedly controlled by a gang of Ambonese Christians. They even have influence in the shopping malls. Dangerous people some of these Ambonese. A gangster from East Timor is said to run Tanah Abang market."

"Why does the military put up with criminals?"

"Imagine a city where the mayor is a military man, let’s say an Ambonese Christian, well connected to generals and businessmen in Jakarta. He may use local Christian gangs to help him stay in power and bring in the money, or at least that’s how his opponents see it."

"Useful connections," I commented.

"The mayor will make sure the jobs go to his family and friends."

"So it’s like politics in Britain," I said jokingly.

"Godfathers sometimes have links to the police, politicians and certain freemasons," said the Australian, eyes twinkling.

"What about these youth organisations like Yorris’s Pemuda Pancasila?"

"Some are good. Some bad. One of these groups reportedly makes its money from protection rackets, gambling, prostitution. And it’s used by very powerful people to do their dirty work."

"Such as?"

"A number of the demonstrations you see on the TV news are not the work of ordinary citizens. They’re the work of criminal gangs, paid for by sections of the elite."


"The danger is that when the president retires there could be a civil war among all the competing criminal factions, or even military factions." The Australian had put on his serious face as he related this.

"What about military discipline?"

"There was a gambling place near us being protected by a soldier. A policeman had an argument with the manager. The soldier and the policeman came to blows. Next day a group of soldiers came to the police station to beat up the police."

"I’d still think it’s safer here than in Detroit or even London," I said.

"In a sense, the criminals here are kept under control. You’re right. The streets are safe."

"That’s what it’s all about surely?"

"Empires don’t last for ever though," said the Australian. Do you know this quotation? ‘There has been a gradual weakening of civil liberties, an increase in the power of the army, and an acceptance of corruption among public servants. Vast fortunes have been made by a small group who use their wealth to control the Senate.’"

"The Senate?" I queried.

"That was someone writing about the Roman Empire, but it could apply to Indonesia or even the USA."

I was walking alongside the railway track, near Batutulis in Bogor. The sky was a perfect blue and the shacks and gardens on either side of the line were alive with noisy cockerels and happy children.

"Hello, mister," said a schoolboy, in white shirt and red shorts, who had walked up behind me from the direction of a mosque. "Where are you going?"

"Just out for a walk," I said. "Is the track safe?"

"Safe, mister. Not the roads though. My little sister had an accident." The boy looked worried.

"What happened?"

"Hit by a car. Broke her leg."

"Did the car stop?"


"Is she in hospital?"

"She’s gone to the dukun."

"She’d be better at the hospital. The dukun’s a faith healer, isn’t he?"

"Like a doctor. Do you want to meet my sister, and the dukun?"

"OK. Is it far?" I thought it would be interesting to see if the dukun really was helping the little sister; and if he was not, then perhaps I could offer to take the girl to a proper hospital.

"Not far. Up in the hills."

"Fifteen minutes by car?"

"Fifteen minutes."

"We’d better consult your mother. What’s your name?"


Mother, an apparently shy woman, didn’t want to come with us and so Mono and I set off up into the hills with my driver. The track became twisting, steep and potholed and the vegetation turned to something close to jungle.

"You said fifteen minutes," I complained to Mono. "It’s been almost an hour so far."

"Nearly there," he said.

The dukun’s house, when we got there, was a plain Dutch-style bungalow in a tiny village. Mono led me through the front room, where one or two youths lounged on ancient armchairs, and on into a dingy bedroom where the boy’s young sister lay on a mattress, next to an older female companion. The sister looked as if she wasn’t enjoying her experience.

The dukun entered the room and we were introduced. He was a giant of a man, aged around fifty; he wore baggy trousers and looked as if he could have been a retired boxer; his face had a solemn, battered appearance.

"How’s the patient?" I asked.

"Almost better," said the dukun. He took the girl’s hand and she stood up. I was impressed. But I was still a little worried in case the bones had not been set completely correctly, or in case there was any infection.

"Shouldn’t she have an x-ray in the hospital?" I said to the girl’s companion, whom I took to be a relative. "I’ll pay for hospital treatment."

"No, thank you," she replied quietly but firmly.

"How can you treat patients without antibiotics and x-rays?" I said to the dukun. I tried to sound friendly.

"My father taught me how to set bones," he said solemnly.

"Can you cure fevers?" I asked.

"I deal with bones."

"In Britain, where I come from, we tend to use x-rays when a leg gets broken."

"Hmm," said the dukun.

I felt I had been undiplomatic and decided to say something more friendly. "My driver told me about a dukun who lives near me in Jakarta, in Rempoa. I think I’ll go and see him sometime. His name’s Ariri. Do you know him?"

"No," said the dukun.

"I get sinus problems sometimes. And a stiff neck. I’m told he massages people’s feet."

The giant dukun said nothing. This seemed to be an indication that it was time to shake the man’s hand, make my departure and return Mono to his home.

When I got back to Jakarta, I decided, on an impulse, to pay a visit to Ariri, my local dukun.

I have always been a little bit wary of the paranormal; I have tended to take the attitude that it is probably better not to dabble in such things, unless you can be sure that you are dealing with good, as opposed to evil, forces. I had once read about experiments carried out at the University of Manitoba in the 1950s. According to a report in a learned journal, a Hungarian healer had succeeded in bringing about a faster than average cure of some sick mice. He had also managed to get some plants to grow faster than normal. I did not rule out the possibility that certain dukuns could on occasions have a beneficial effect on people’s health.

At a dinner party in London, given by an Italian Countess, I had been introduced to a numerologist, an elderly gentleman of dandified appearance. This numerologist, who had apparently given consultations to Winston Churchill, had promised, in return for being given my date of birth, to give me some free advice. He said that after doing some mathematical calculations at home he would send me information about my role in life. I hesitated at first; but then decided that the man sounded as if he was on the side of the angels, so to speak.

A few days later a small envelope arrived and inside was a much folded piece of blue paper on which were written three sentences. The numerologist had written that I was a negotiator, that I should do more to avoid false pride and the things of the flesh, and that I should get more exercise.

He seemed remarkably accurate about the false pride; I wasn’t so sure about the things of the flesh.

The foot-massaging dukun, Ariri, lived in a relatively poor kampung, in a small bungalow filled with children. He was comfortably built, bright eyed, and easy to talk to. I felt reassured. After seating me on a wooden chair, he began some foot reflexology, squeezing each of my toes in turn and pressing hard against various other parts of the foot. In a mixture of Indonesian and English, we got chatting about dukuns.

"How did you learn to be a dukun?" I asked.

"My father taught me," he said, with a big smile.

"I’ve heard there are both good and bad dukuns ," I said, perhaps unwisely. "Are there any bad dukuns?"

"Lots of bad ones," he admitted. "Be very careful."

I had heard of dukuns who were incompetent and who had failed to get people better; I had been told that when a patient had diarrhoea, a dukun might spray water at the patient with his mouth; sometimes a dukun would burn a piece of mystical writing over a glass of water and then get the patient to take a drink; dukuns often acted as midwifes and in the past this had sometimes meant dirty hands and dirty equipment.

"What do the bad ones do?" I asked.

"They harm people," said the dukun, without smiling. "Sometimes they kill people. Good dukuns can help people who’ve been affected by bad dukuns."

"What makes these things work?"

"A kind of energy."

"Do you believe in spirits?"


"Where do they come from?"

"Everything has a physical body and a spirit body. The same with plants and animals."



"How do you know there are spirits?"

"What makes something come alive? Where were you before you were born?"

"Don’t know."

"The spirit enters the body and leaves the body. Dukuns try to treat the spirit, not just the body. But now I am treating your body."

He squeezed my big toe and I squealed.

"How does that help?" I asked. "It’s agony when you hit that spot."

"It helps the energy to flow."

My neck, shoulders and sinuses felt much better that evening. And I was pleased that I had met some dukuns whose views were not necessarily unreasonable.


Thursday, December 26, 2002



I drove up to the glass and concrete shopping mall and stepped out of my air-conditioned Mitsubishi. The rains were bucketing down and it was wonderfully steamy and hot. Three barefoot and bare-chested umbrella boys came charging through the puddles in my direction. All three arrived in front of me at the same time. How was I to choose which one to escort me the short distance to the front entrance to the mall? I picked the skinniest one as he seemed most in need of the few rupiahs I would pay him. And he had a cute face.

Once inside the air-conditioned building I began to feel distinctly cold. This seemed appropriate as a Christmas tree had been set up in the middle of the main hallway and Christmas carols were being broadcast from loudspeakers. The shops were crowded with rich but unhappy-looking Chinese Indonesians buying everything from Italian designer clothes to Japanese computer games. Most of the money, in this, the largest Moslem country in the world, seemed to be circulating within the capital city, among the small elite. Having bought some Christmas cards and some Scottish shortbread, I returned to my vehicle and drove to North Jakarta in order to see Min.

As there were floods in Min’s part of Teluk Gong, I had to find an ojek motorcycle to taxi me through the slums to Min’s house.

Min was in good humour but it was too wet to take him for a walk.

"When can we visit Iwan?" asked Min’s mum, who was busy patching up some well-worn items of clothing. Iwan was the boy who had had leprosy and who was now living with his granny in Min’s former house in South Jakarta. The house was still owned by Min’s family, even though they had moved to Teluk Gong.

"We can go now," I said. I was guiltily aware that I had not seen poor Iwan for many, many months, although my driver had continued to visit him monthly, to deliver a little of my money.

It was over an hour and a half before we reached Cipete, such was the volume of traffic. There were just too many five-car families.

Iwan was at home with his granny and limping like a ragged puppet whose strings had got twisted. Min and Iwan were pleased to see each other, both grinning shyly. I was not pleased to see that the walls of the front room had become grubby with finger marks and that on the kitchen floor there were dirty cloths, plates of abandoned food and broken pots. In the upstairs bedroom there was some pencilled graffiti on the walls and the curtains had been broken.

"You’re not keeping this place tidy," I complained to Iwan. "Look at the curtain rail."

"We haven’t got much money," said Iwan, looking at me with big dark eyes. "The kitchen pump needs repairing."

"But there’s no need for the graffiti," I said. I was perhaps forgetting that I had seen childish scribbles on the walls of many a front room in the poorer kampungs.

"It’s my friends from the rubbish tip," said Iwan.

"You must stop them," I insisted. "Remember this is Min’s house."

"Sorry, Mr Kent," said Iwan, looking down at the floor. Granny smiled an embarrassed smile.

"I’ll give you money for the pump. Can you find someone to paint the walls and sort the roof?"


"How much will it cost? Is one hundred thousand rupiahs enough?"

"Not enough, Mr Kent. Maybe three hundred thousand."

"OK. But make sure you get receipts." It was likely that Iwan would get some uncle or cousin to do the work, at an inflated price.

I had intended to be kind to poor limping Iwan, but the neglect of the house had brought out my grumpy side.

January 1996 brought the worst floods for twenty years. My home suffered only from a slightly leaking kitchen roof, but houses beside some of Jakarta’s rivers were flooded above roof height, forcing their occupants to flee to higher ground. I escaped from Jakarta by taking a holiday trip to a hotel at Carita Beach, near the tiny port of Anyer, on Java’s west coast.

The route to Anyer is the same as that to Merak, except that you turn south rather than north, as you approach the sea. Although the coast at Anyer is not as dramatic as that at Pelabuhan Ratu, it has the sort of sultry charm that you might expect to find on an Indian Ocean shore. As always, I hoped that there would be no ten meter high tsunami, as there had been back in 1883, when nearby Krakatau had erupted. That tidal wave had left many hundreds of dead bodies floating in the bay; many stories, or carita, had been told about these departed ones.

The hotel was supposed to be of international standard but could have done with some refurbishment; the air conditioner seemed full of dust. On the other hand, by the time I had unpacked, the rains had stopped and the sun was shining.

Beside the hotel’s sparkling little swimming pool, I spied a long-legged Caucasian girl in sleeveless T-shirt, white ankle socks, and short culottes. Her pantat moved alertly, as Nabokov would have said. I thought of the words of the numerologist, about things of the flesh, and decided to chat to the much older woman over at the pool-side bar. Her name turned out to be Disa. She was a small, cheery Australian, in her early fifties, and she reminded me of one of these salt-of-the-earth mothers you get in Australian soap operas. Disa was a keen amateur historian, had formerly had a job as a librarian and was a regular church attender. Her husband, who normally worked hard in some office in Jakarta, was busy on the golf course.

"Always nice smiling people, the locals," I said, after the friendly barman had delivered my Singapore Sling.

"Smiling but not necessarily always nice," said Disa, in a gentle tone of voice. The lines around her eyes became pronounced.

"How do you mean?"

"The smile you get here, and in Thailand, could be a sanuk, fun-smile. But it’s often a smile of submission. Or hidden aggression. There are two sides to the people. One moment the Indonesians are smiling. Next moment a mob is beating to death some poor thief. Or a gang of schoolboys is stabbing to death a boy from a rival school."

"I see what you mean," I said. "Captain Cook found the girls on the Pacific islands more than friendly. But there was the other side to it. Things started to get stolen. And Cook discovered that the islanders went in for human sacrifice."

"There are always two sides to people," said Disa, grinning. "You get the Australian whose happy and jolly one moment and the next moment he’s hunting down Aborigines."

"Cook came to Jakarta, didn’t he?" I said, wanting to stay on the subject of Indonesia.

"He anchored in Jakarta, where most of them got sick. They’d been healthy until then. Jakarta gave them dysentery and malaria. Doctors couldn’t do much for them." Disa sipped her beer.

"I met a dukun recently," I said, remembering my session of foot reflexology. " Do you think these people can really cure sickness?"

"I’m sure they can. President Suharto’s supposed to make great use of advice from dukuns."

"Is it working?"

"Dukuns have warned that Suharto’s fortunes are changing, for the worse," said Disa. "I read that in the local press."

"Dukuns seem to be taken quite seriously," I said, "The majority of Moslems, the traditional Moslems, reportedly use dukuns."

"Wahid’s apparently a great believer in dukuns. Have you heard of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama? It’s the world’s biggest Moslem organisation. It’s headed by Abdurrahman Wahid."

"Wahid is the man who helped set up Forum Demokrasi," I said. "An opponent of the government."

"He’s very moderate. Wants to be friends with everyone, including Israel. Bit of a character."

"And what about Suharto? What’s your verdict?"

"It’s a mixed verdict," said Disa, looking serious. "The institutions are all so corrupt, as my husband could tell you. The courts, the banks, the civil service, the military. On the other hand, Suharto’s brought stability and prosperity. To some. I certainly can’t complain about our villa in Pondok Indah. We’ve more rooms than we know what to do with."

"Whose missing out?" I asked. Thinking of the slum dwellers, I thought I already knew the answer

"A lot of poor Moslems feel the oil and timber money has gone to Chinese Indonesians and government people. Also the people in the outer islands feel they’ve been colonised by the Javanese, and bullied by ignorant soldiers."

"East Timor?" I suggested.

"Yes. Then there’s Irian Jaya, in New Guinea: lots of mineral wealth but most of it goes to the Jakarta people. West Kalimanatan in Borneo: the Dayaks feel they’ve been invaded by the migrants from Madura. The Christians in Maluku are fed up with the Moslems who’ve come in from Sulawesi and taken over government jobs, and the various rackets."

"And in Bali," I said, feeling I should demonstrate some knowledge of the country, "some Hindus feel that the Javanese don’t always respect their shrines. And Moslems in Aceh feel their oil is being stolen and their people murdered by Javanese."

"Aceh used to be independent," said Disa, impressing me with her superior knowledge of History. "It was independent until 1903."

"Do you think there’s going to be big trouble in Indonesia? Like Yugoslavia?"

"Certain countries might like to see Indonesia broken up."

"Who would want that?

"Some of the generals are frightened that countries like America, Israel and Australia want to break Indonesia up. That would make it easier to control. Remember that Suharto’s getting old. After Suharto goes, it could be like it was here in the 1950’s."

"The 1950’s had some violence." I could vaguely remember being told of troubles in Ambon.

"There were revolts in Sumatra and elsewhere. The problem in the 1950’s was that the army was divided. Some soldiers sided with the rebels."

"Suharto sorted out the army?"

"In a sense."

The teenage girl who had been wearing the culottes was now attired in a light blue bikini and lying on a towel on the far side of the pool. I was momentarily distracted by the curves of her downy limbs. I tried to think of something to say to Disa, to prove that I had been listening to her.

"What was Suharto’s background?" I asked. I was sure Disa would know the answer.

"His mother was reportedly a peasant. There was a rumour that his father was Chinese, but that’s only a rumour. Young Suharto was brought up by a lot of different relatives. He joined the Dutch colonial army, then during the war he worked for the Japanese military, and then after the war he was part of the rebellion against the Dutch."

"Where do his rich Chinese Indonesian business partners come into this?"

"Bob Hasan and Uncle Liem? They were his partners. While he was in the army, Suharto went into business. He got into trouble for smuggling."

"Presumably Suharto also did some fighting?"

"He helped Sukarno put down a rebellion in South Sulawesi; He was part of Sukarno’s fight against Malaysia."

"He always manages a nice smile, Suharto."

"The smiling general." Disa finished her second beer.

"Is it modern history you’re interested in?" I asked.

"All history. I’ve been studying Java Man, also known as Homo Erectus, from Sangiran in Java." Disa bought us two colas.

"You can’t get much older than Java Man," I said naively.

"Java man’s about a million years old. The world’s at least 4,000 million years old. And so-called civilisation only began about five thousand years ago." She said it in a friendly way.

The girl on the towel was adjusting her blue bikini, but I was still taking in what was being said.

Disa enlightened me about the beginnings of civilisation. It seems that cities and writing probably began in Iraq with the Sumerians around 3000 BC. The Sumerian civilisation lasted about 1,500 years and it was apparently the Sumerians who came up with the first written stories of a flood, an ark, and a fall from innocence. The latter story involved a man called Enkidu, whose sin was sexual.

"When does Abraham come into all this?" I asked.

"If he existed, it was probably about 1800 BC."

"I suppose the problem with the Old Testament is that it was written down long after the events described."

"Our present version probably dates from around 600 BC," said Disa. "Not long ago. Some scholars think the idea of the Last Judgement, and heaven and hell, came from the Zoroastrians."

"Remind me about Zoroaster."

"The Iranian prophet who may have lived around 600 BC. He said that people have to choose between the Good Spirit and the Bad Spirit. Some Zoroastrians believed that a Saviour would come to save the world."

"What happened to Zoroastrianism?"

"Islam took over in Iran. Very few Zoroastrians are left."

"How come our Bible’s been so important throughout the world?"

"Maybe it’s brainwashing. Some of the Old Testament writers put the fear of God into the reader. The reader becomes frightened to think for herself. I don’t like the God who’s a tyrant."

"But you attend church."

"Some of the writers in the Bible see God as a good mate. Someone who loves everyone, even Australians. That’s my kind of God."

"There’s more than one point of view in the Bible?"

"In one book of the Bible it looks as if it’s only one particular tribe that gets to heaven. In another part of the Bible it’s clear that people like Samaritans get to heaven. People have their feet washed by God’s son."

"Competing views." I finished my cola.

"Here comes my daughter, looking hungry. Must go." Disa got up, smiled sweetly, took the hand of the teenage girl in the blue bikini, and departed.

I thought about the words of the numerologist and decided to walk along the beach, to get some exercise. The beach was a plane of misty sun, coconut palms, damp sand, steaming sea, distant islands and bathing children with sparkling skins.

When Ramadan came round again I made a point of visiting my former-neighbour, Samsu. Due to the heavy rain we sat in his dark and humid front room. Samsu drank nothing, but I was given a cup of tea.

"Tell me about your new paintings," I said, as I cast my eyes over a picture showing a group of Balinese women. "You seem to have added to your collection."

"They’re only cheap prints. The one you’re looking at is by the Dutchman, Willem Hofker. The girls look both beautiful and noble. It reminds me of a Tiepolo."

"Hofker only painted Balinese?"

"He found that some Moslems didn’t like being painted in a sensuous style, so he stuck with the Hindu Balinese."

"What about the big painting with the wonderful bright colours and the cartoon-like characters?

"That’s Bramantyo. His mother’s Scottish-Australian and his father’s a Javanese noble."

"And the portrait of the young man?"

"That’s by Auk Sonnega, another Dutchman. There’s something of the Art Deco about it. I find it has spiritual qualities. It’s more refined than a Matisse or a Modigliani."

"And the photo of the beautiful beach?"

"That’s East Timor."

"There’s still an awful lot of trouble in East Timor," I said, referring to the territory where a majority of the population was trying to break away from Indonesia. "Are you one of those people who blames foreigners for stirring up rebellion?"

"We should never have taken East Timor. It was never a Dutch colony."

"Why do people blame the Australians?"

"Scapegoats. The rich, right wing, Moslem elite can’t face up to their own mistakes. They blame Christians and the Pope. They can’t see why the Christian people of East Timor are angry with the Javanese."

"Who do you blame?"

"Indonesians are to blame for Indonesia’s problems," said Samsu, frowning. "We’ve been independent since 1949 and we still can’t get our civil servants to work properly."

"Police who have to be paid before they’ll come to investigate a burglary?"

"Soldiers who won’t stop riots because they’re too busy protecting gambling dens or collecting money from certain foreign sources. I went to a government building last week to get a license. It was mid-morning and the top people weren’t at their desks. There were some clerks there but they were sitting gossiping. The boss has more than one government job and he runs several private businesses."

"He must be a rich man."

"He’ll probably use the government cars for his various businesses. He’ll give jobs to his cousins, who probably won’t bother to turn up for work."

"No discipline," I commented. "Didn’t we have a conversation once before in which you blamed the Dutch for keeping the wages of civil servants too low, thus creating the need for bribes. You blamed the cutting down of Indonesia’s trees on the Americans’ need for toilet paper?"

Samsu smiled a great big smile. "I’ll agree that it’s a world-wide problem. Some of the problem is the foreigners. We all need a jihad."

"You’ve become a militant?"

"What the country needs is a jihad to change the minds of the government people. A non-violent jihad. A jihad against corrupt judges and soldiers."

"Make people good Moslems?"

"Honest, educated, tolerant Moslems. They will make this a happy, prosperous country like Switzerland. There’ll be no more manipulation by crooked businessmen or foreign powers. No more need to blame scapegoats."

"In the 19th Century," I volunteered, "Britain was full of riots and starving children. We had people like Florence Nightingale and Lord Shaftesbury struggling to put things right."

"We’ve got people like Y.B. Mangunwijaya, the pastor who fights poverty."

"You need more like him."

"You need someone to do something about your football hooligans," said Samsu with a giggle, "your Northern Irish and your British Broadcasting Corporation."

"What’s wrong with the BBC?" I asked, slightly surprised.

"I keep hoping it will tell us the truth about Indonesia, about the part played by the British in backing Suharto. But it doesn’t happen. I think it doesn’t want to endanger Britain’s trade. When I switch on the World Service, I seem to hear more Jewish voices than Moslem voices."

The rain suddenly stopped and there was a peaceful silence. My teacup was empty. It was time to let Samsu return to his books.


Wednesday, December 25, 2002



On one of my walks beside Bogor’s Ciliwung River, I chanced upon an Islamic boarding school, a pesantren, housed in an old tenement-like building, perched on one side of a deep and narrow gorge. Hordes of rollicking boys, some wearing peci caps and chirpy smiles, milled around the entrance or entertained themselves in the open spaces of the village beyond. I was not sure that all of these young people were students of the pesantren. Down a narrow lane, two boys were enjoying an energetic bout of wrestling; on a patch of dusty ground a group of three were kicking around a tennis ball; under the shade of trees some older boys were smoking clove cigarettes and some younger ones were holding hands.

"Hello mister," said a young boy wearing a green, checked sarong. "Where are you from?"

"The astral plane," I said.

"Qantas?" he asked.

"This is a school," said a plump old man with a funny hat and a benign expression "Come and have a look." He spoke in English.

I was delighted by the invitation; I had always wondered what went on in these Islamic boarding schools; would they be full of violent militants dreaming of jihad in Afghanistan? We entered a small courtyard, which was cool and shaded, and then toured various dimly lit corridors and rooms. In one sparsely furnished classroom a teacher was reciting something in Arabic. In a spartan dormitory every inch of space seemed to be taken up with metal bunk beds. There was a primitive kitchen area and a space where washing hung on lines.

"Who runs this place?" I asked, as we returned to the courtyard.

"A cousin of mine," said the old man. "He’s the kyai, the head teacher. He and his family own the school."

"Do the children pay?"

"A little. We have some farm land and we do some printing. We get gifts from rich friends. This morning we had a visit from a member of the Supreme Advisory Council. Have you heard of that?"

"Yes. They give advice to the President. Are you political?"

He laughed. "We are religious. Not political."

"What do the children study?"

"Islam and other subjects."

"Do the students become good citizens?"

He laughed again. "We have a good effect on some of them. Around here there are many bad influences."

"I’ve heard there are hotels in the Puncak where there are things like gambling. And in Jakarta there are schoolchildren who fight each other with knives. But this country still seems more peaceful than most."

"Islam means peace," said my host, looking totally at ease with the world.

"You don’t want to go to war against Israel?"

He grinned. "The Koran says, ‘Don’t begin a war. God doesn’t love aggressors.’"

"Are there any militants around this part of Java?" The old man seemed so easy going that I doubted he would take offence at my probing questions.

"There are a few young men who are angry. There are the occasional militant preachers. But I’m not one of those rich young men educated in the Middle East."

"Here you have to worry about Aceh and East Timor," I commented.

He laughed again. "We have to worry about the gangsters controlling the bus stations and the markets; and golf courses springing up everywhere. Come into the office and have some tea."

We sat on well-worn armchairs in an office containing a rusty filing cabinet, various sports trophies and not much else. After some idle chit-chat, and the serving of the tea by a young boy with mischievous dark eyes, my host asked me a few questions about myself. After he had established that I was a harmless teacher, he lay back in his chair, and, after some prompting from me, proceeded to open up on the subject of militant Islam.

"There have been problems," he said. "In 1984, at Tanjung Priok in Jakarta, there was a serious incident. Do you know the story?"

"I heard that a soldier went into a prayer house to tear down some posters. There was a scuffle. Some Moslems were taken to the police station. There was then a march by over a thousand Moslems to the police station to try to free these prisoners. Soldiers opened fire. The army said that about thirty people died."

"Some people say the army killed about four hundred people," said the old man, in a slight whisper, "and then buried the bodies in secret graves. That was when Murdani was army chief and Sutrisno was Jakarta military commander. You can understand that some Moslems were not pleased with these two generals, one a Christian, one a Moslem."

"Was the army worried that the protesters wanted more democracy or wanted a more Islamic state?"

"Probably both. I think it was mainly about poverty. Very few Indonesians want an Islamic state."

"Some Indonesians want an Islamic state?"

"About forty years ago, there was an organisation called Negara Islam Indonesia, or NII. It wanted to set up an Islamic state. In recent months the authorities have arrested about one thousand people said to be linked to NII." He paused to sip his tea.

"Who are these people? Middle class?" I asked.

"One of the leaders is supposed to be a former army officer. Another is rumoured to be a teacher at an Islamic school. But most of them are probably lower class, and worried about poverty and injustice."

"Are these NII people dangerous?"

"If there was a fair election, they’d get very, very few votes. Megawati would win with her secular party."

"So the NII are not a problem?"

"Who knows? It depends how much support they have from any foreign country wanting to change the government?"

"Which foreign country?"

"Certain Western countries have supported extremist Moslems in the past. They did it here in the 1950s. They did it in Afghanistan."

"How much support is there for NII within the Indonesian army?"

"It’s probably just a handful of the middle and lower ranks of the army who support NII. They’ll be people who’re fed up with corruption. In the future though things could change."

"How’s that?"

"Overpopulation and lack of education. One hundred years ago Java had only 4 million people. Now it’s 100 million. There’s not enough jobs or land. Good jobs in Jakarta go to the rich who can use computers. These are often people educated in Christian schools. Often Chinese or children of the elite."

"Do you have computers here?"

"No." My host looked slightly embarrassed.

"The education here is mainly about Islam?" I asked. "Arab law, Arab culture and so on?"

"We are traditional Moslems. Not orthodox Moslems. It’s not just religion we teach. We do the normal school subjects. We teach farming skills. Some of the students, those who think about these things, want to live in the way their grandparents lived. They want to be simple farmers and good Moslems."

"A world from the past. No hamburgers or internet."

"No drugs or nightclubs. I think it’s not just here that people want a simpler Islamic world."

"Malaysia?" I suggested.

"Malaysia has had its Al Arqam Islamic group. In Malaysia it’s often the Chinese who have the education and the top jobs."

"The Philippines?"

"The Moslems in Mindanao feel their land is being taken over by Christians from other islands. In some churches, in the Philippines, the Moslems are referred to as ‘the enemy’. You know the Moslems were in Mindanao before the Christians."

"There is a problem for Moslems," I said, feeling it was safe to be outspoken. "In the Middle Ages, in the 14th century, Islamic civilisation was the most advanced in the world. But now some Moslem schools lack things like computers. And a lot of the students seem to be being seduced by American junk culture."

My host smiled. "We have to trust in God," he said.

"I’m sure you’re right. I think the students around here look happier than American schoolchildren."

The glasses which had contained our tea were empty. I stood up, my host escorted me back into the sunlight and I received a firm and friendly handshake. Outside the boarding school, some young teenagers posed alongside the old man for a photograph. They did not look like disciplined, brainwashed fanatics. The grinning boys jostled each other for the best position in the centre of the group; several of them had their arms around each other; the bolder ones thrust out their hips like pop stars; one held up his hand with a three finger salute; and one was scratching his crotch.

The slums of Teluk Gong were hot and dusty and the morning sky was grey.

"Can I take Min for a walk?" I asked Wardi.

"Of course."

"Is all of this area safe?" I asked. "I’m going to explore the area to the south, for a change."

"It’s all safe," said Wardi, sounding positive.

Min and I set off along alleyways sided by wooden shacks outside which sat overweight women with underweight toddlers and babies. One baby had a lump on its head but its mother refused my offer of help.

We turned a corner. A boy with a Chinese face and a mincing walk stuck out his tongue at us. A man mending a bicycle gave us a cold stare. The omens were not good. Min took my hand and we turned another corner.

Two drunken toughs barred our way. They were unsteady on their feet and had the sinister, smirking look of characters from a nightmarish movie. One took hold of Min’s arm and I immediately feared a kidnapping. With some force, I tugged Min free and dragged him into the shack on our right.

"Nice house," I said to the bemused owner of the shack. "This is my friend Min. We’re out for a walk. Is this your house?"

"Yes," said the man, staring at me.

I continued talking. The two thugs waited just beyond the door. "Min lives near here," I said. "Do you know his brother Wardi?"

The man shook his head.

"I have friends in the army," I lied. "I know lots of people around here."

After a few minutes the two drunks were no longer in view.

"Well, I must be going," I said, and gingerly made my exit.

No sign of the bad guys. I pulled Min along at speed back to his little house.

"Mardi, " I said. "We had a problem." I told him the tale.

"Yes, Mr Kent," said Mardi. "You have to be careful. Maybe some people think you are very rich and want to get hold of Min. To get a ransom."

"You said this area was safe," I complained.

"It’s better to walk in the area towards our old house on stilts," said Wardi. "We know all the people there. Lots of relatives."

"Will you come with us?"


We walked down the main road with its goats and potholes. Min held on tight to Wardi’s hand. We passed a tiny mosque and came to a collection of grey-brown hovels with sagging roofs. Standing beside a dog with sticking-out ribs was a small boy with a sad face and a swollen tummy.

"What’s your name?" I asked the boy, who looked about ten.


"Are you ill?" I asked. He had bags under his eyes and the strained look of someone who did not sleep well.

"Yes," he said shyly.

"Is your mum around?" I said.

"His mother’s dead," whispered Mardi. "He has a step mother."

A man with a slight paunch, and the face of a happy publican, came out of a wooden shack and introduced himself as Saib’s father.

"Saib’s got a stone in his bladder," said the dad. "There’s blood when he urinates."

"How long has he been ill?"

"Seven years," said dad. "Since he was about five. It’s very painful."

"Has he had treatment?"

"The hospital says he needs an operation, but we’ve got no money."

"I’ll pay if you want him to go to the Teluk Gong Hospital," I explained.

It was agreed and we drove to the local hospital to consult a Dr Benny, a friendly young man in a clean white coat. He arranged some x-rays and blood tests.

"Saib has an enormous stone in the bladder," said the doctor, as we sat in his white-walled surgery. "He also has TB. Shall we have him admitted?"

"Yes please, " I said. "Who’ll keep an eye on Saib while he’s in hospital?"

"He’s got relations who’ll come in," said dad.

Saib gave a wan smile.

About ten days later I went to visit Saib and his father at their home in Teluk Gong. The boy had had his operation.

"How’s Saib," I asked. The child did not look happy.

"Fine," said his dad.

"How are the stitches?" I asked.

Saib lifted up his shirt. "Liquid comes out from the stitches," said Saib. Sure enough, there were traces of light yellow liquid.

We returned to the hospital and consulted Dr Benny. I was worried and angry that the hospital did not seem to have got things right.

"It’s nothing to be anxious about," said the doctor. "There’s a little infection. The main thing is to keep his wound clean."

"Does he need to be readmitted?"

"No need," said the doctor.

A few weeks later, much to my relief, Saib was back to normal. I started paying for him to go to school, and made sure he made regular visits to the hospital for his TB medicine.

I was on my way to Bogor for a Saturday morning jaunt and couldn’t help noticing that the road out of Jakarta was lined with people.

"What’s going on?" I asked Mo, who was driving more slowly than normal.

"Ibu Tien, the president’s wife, has died," said Mo speaking softly and politely. "She’ll probably be buried in Central Java. The cars will come this way on the trip to the airport."

"Everyone looks very subdued," I commented.

"Ibu Tien was very important," said Mo. "She was related to the royal family in Surakarta."

"Was she powerful?"

"The Javanese say that when a wife dies, a person loses half his soul. Some of the dukuns say that Suharto is losing his special power."

When I reached the home of Dede and Rama, in Bogor, I found the family and neighbours were watching events on TV. Ibu Tien’s body was being moved from the Cendana residence, in Jakarta’s Menteng area, to a local airport. Dede and friends were not giving anything away. Their faces were impassive.

Around this time I was told that I had to vacate the house that I was occupying. The owners wanted to move back in. I began the search for a new home and eventually found a handsome two storey detached villa not too far from the old neighbourhood. The air-conditioning worked and the bathroom and kitchen were of the modern variety.