Sunday, January 18, 2004


We were now into a new year, 1992, and I had known Min for just over two months. Doctor Bahari’s clinic was proving to be expensive with large bills having to be paid for Min’s keep every ten days. I had begun looking around for alternatives and one of the places I decided to investigate was a Roman Catholic home for street children.

The home, in North Jakarta, was situated in a dilapidated old building that might formerly have been a mixture of house, workshop and warehouse. Having made a Saturday morning appointment to see the director, I arrived slightly early. The place was strangely quiet. A cleaner, a skinny and cheerful teenage girl, seemed to be the only person on site. She led me from the hall into an empty office where I took a seat beneath a large picture of the Madonna. The office had a comfortable appearance, a lot of money having been spent on plush leather chairs, an almost roof-high music centre, and a hardwood desk.

While I waited for the director to arrive, my thoughts were of Indonesia’s Catholics. They made up around three percent of the population but many were stunningly powerful. In the early years of his presidency, Suharto ruled with the help of an army led by General Benny Murdani, a right-wing Roman Catholic. Towards the end of the 1980s, however, there were some changes. Sections of the army seemed to have become more critical of the president and his family. Suharto ‘sidelined’ General Murdani and began to promote some orthodox Moslem groups, perhaps as a way of countering the army and other possible opponents. On the other hand, there were still many generals who were nominally Christian; and most of Suharto’s business partners continued to be Chinese Indonesians, some of whom were of the Christian faith. Suharto’s wife was born a Roman Catholic.

After a twenty minute wait I decided to seek out the cleaner to ask if I could look around. She took me upstairs to see the dormitory.

"This is where the children sleep," she explained, with a smile.

All I could see were broken metal-framed windows, bare grey walls, empty shelves, and six wooden beds with no mattresses or sheets.

"You only have six children?"

"Yes. They’re at school now."

"You have lots of rooms in this huge building but only six beds?"

"We’re fairly new."

"Jakarta has at least fifty thousand street children. It’s strange you only have six beds and you seem to be the only person here." I tried not to sound cross.

She grinned and said nothing. I returned to the office, waited in vain for another half hour and then left. I reckoned the home would not be a secure environment for Min.

My next stop was the impressive skyscraper building of the Social Welfare Department. After making a few enquiries I located the easygoing, grey-haired lady in charge of provision for handicapped children. She sat in a bright and comfortable office which looked onto to a room crammed full of well-fed civil servants, typewriters and mugs of tea.

The lady gave me a very short list of non-government institutions which might suit Min but I had to explain that I had already tried these and they had proved unsuitable. There was, for example, the home for the multi-handicapped which only admitted children who were both blind and deaf. Then there was the home for the severely physically handicapped who spent their days lying on beds barely able to move.

"Min is apparently mentally backward and homeless. Do you have a place for such children?"

"No," she reluctantly admitted, after a long pause.

"No orphanage?"

"There are some street children in Jakarta," she said in a quiet, serious tone of voice. "Ideally these children should be with their families or extended families. There are some shelters, run privately, but only about 100 children choose to live in these places."

"I can understand that some of the children prefer the freedom of the streets," I said, trying to sound friendly. "They can have fun riding on train roofs and they can avoid school. But what about the street children who are mentally backward and can’t cope?"

"You know," she continued, "there are tens of thousands of mentally ill or mentally backward people wandering the streets in West Java. It is very difficult to help them all."

"So you have no government institution that provides free care for someone like Min?"

"No," she said, trying to look compassionate. "Remember we are a poor Third World country."

"Not so poor," I said. "Most of the cars parked downstairs are Mercedes and big station wagons. And you know, Indonesia has more billionaires than Britain."

She smiled politely, shook hands and returned to her tidy desk.

Later that afternoon, when I visited Min at Doctor Bahari’s clinic, I got talking to two of the nurses. One was a moderately good-looking, middle-aged female and the other was a big, muscular and moustachioed male. They told me about a twice weekly school for backward children, run at the relatively nearby Jiwa Hospital.

"I’d like Min to go to the school," I said. "How much will it cost?"

The two nurses took me into a side office to discuss prices.

"He’ll need to go on my motorbike," said the male nurse. "It’ll cost one hundred thousand rupiahs each trip."

"That’s crazy," I said, tired and furious after a long and frustrating day. I reckoned one hundred thousand rupiahs was around £30 sterling. "It should only cost around three thousand rupiahs a month for the schooling. A taxi would be about three thousand one way."

"One hundred thousand or he won’t get in," insisted the male nurse.

"He’s a poor street child who’d benefit from a bit of training.," I said, hoping for some sympathy. "I’ll pay twenty thousand."

"One hundred thousand."

I wanted some physical expression of my anger but decided it would be unwise to punch the muscular man. He was much bigger than me. I picked up a metal chair and slammed it down hard on the floor. It made a very loud noise. Neither of the nurses looked particularly moved or concerned, but Min looked white and scared. I thought I had better forget the schooling, calm down and make some kind of peace.

"I’m sorry to get stressed," I said. "Jakarta can be a difficult place sometimes."

A few days later, Margaret, the well-proportioned, middle-aged mother of one of my students, from a family that was half Indonesian and half Dutch, came to see me in my classroom. Margaret was a good soul and took an interest in charitable institutions. Seeing her looking so terribly chic, I found it difficult to believe that as a child during the war years she had lived in squalor in a Japanese internment camp.

"I hear you’re looking for a place for the child you found," she said, as we sipped cheap coffee. "I think I’ve found somewhere suitable."

"I certainly hope so."

"It’s called Wisma Utara," continued Margaret, "and it’s not far from Blok M. It’s not nearly as expensive as the place you’ve been using."

"That’s a relief."

"It was started by a widow with a mentally backward son. She was worried about what would happen to the son when she died and so she raised the money to build this home. It’s in a kampung but it looks not too bad an area. And they’ll definitely take your child. Shall I drive you there?"

"Let’s go."

Margaret and I collected Min and we motored to the suburb where Wisma Utara was situated. Having parked our vehicles, we walked along leafy little lanes sided by home-made brick and concrete houses with pretty gardens and brightly painted doors. This place was full of trees and light and little children, in contrast to the grey downtown area around Doctor Bahari’s clinic. Wisma Utara itself looked like a simple brick-built primary school and it had a long narrow front garden.

"Welcome. I’m Joan," said the girl from Flores, who greeted us in Wisma Utara’s lounge, a place cheaply furnished with dilapidated settees and a black and white TV. Joan was in her thirties, dark skinned, friendly and unpolished. "I’m the senior member of staff. I’ll show you the room where Min can sleep. It’s my room."

The bedroom had a crucifix, a picture of Mary, Joan’s bed, and a bunk bed with bright covers. I liked the room.

"It’s so much more cheerful than Dr Bahari’s clinic," I commented to Margaret. "There are no psychotic adults giving you frightening looks."

"Let’s meet some of the other children," said Joan, leading us to a back courtyard, where a dozen young people, both staff and inmates, were either seated or trying to play badminton.

"The Down’s syndrome one is Hari," said Joan. "The little one with poor eyesight is Tedi."

"Who’s the one with his finger stuck in his ear?" I asked, looking at an emaciated teenager sitting alone in a corner. Green bubbles oozed from his nose.

"That’s Dadang."

"Has he seen a doctor?"

"The doctor comes once a week to see any children who’re sick."

"And the pretty teenage girl?" I asked.

"That’s Diah. She’s a bit backward. She’ll be sharing the room with Min. And the young man next to her is Dan who’ll be helping to look after Min." Dan, in his twenties, looked cheerful, calm and decent. He lacked the tough, prison-warder-look of some of the nurses at Dr Bahari’s clinic.
"What do you think?" asked Margaret, smiling in my direction.

"I think it’s great," I said. "Min seems reasonably relaxed. When we visited the place for the severely physically handicapped, Min immediately tried to drag me out." I was referring to a privately run institution where the young patients had been lying motionless in bed.

"So we’ll leave him here at Wisma Utara," said Margaret. "After we’ve signed him in."

Joan put her arm around Min, and held on tight.

"Min, this is going to be your home," I said, looking into Min’s eyes and trying to look relaxed. He gave me the puppy-about-to-be-abandoned look.

I signed a piece of paper and then, with Margaret, made my exit.

"Best to leave him and forget about him," said Margaret, as we headed back to the main road.

"You mean not visit him?" I asked.

"Yes. Not visit him."

I was horrified. Of course I would visit him, but I wasn’t going to argue the point with Margaret. Min was my soul-mate. How can I explain that? The attraction was not particularly physical. Min had an appealing face but I had no interest in his body. The attraction was mental. Min and I liked each other’s funny ways; we were both outsiders; we depended on each other. I had friends like Fergus and Carmen, but I wouldn’t say that my attachment to them was particularly deep. That was my problem; I was not always particularly good at long-term, relaxed closeness with ordinary people, but, I could be devoted to waifs and strays. Possibly that was because I found I could trust them and not be hurt by them. A psychiatrist might suggest that I should sort myself out and get a wife and children, or maybe a dog or a cat.

"Many thanks for finding the home," I said, as I bade farewell to Margaret. "I’m off to Mayestic for some shopping."

Jakarta’s Pasar Mayestic market sells fabrics, animal intestines, coconut milk drinks, goat soup, sweet potatoes, lemon grass, elixirs to improve sexual performance, cheap stationery, and just about everything else. It has a cinema showing lurid films, a games arcade, beggar women carrying fat babies, shoe shine boys, massage parlours, street cafes and the strongest smell of rotting garbage in our entire galactic system. Slimy decomposed things, wormy bloated objects, frothy scummy stuff, and lots of other kinds of fly-covered ordure all get dumped in a great steaming midden on one side of the main street. Nobody ever seems to remove any of this putrefaction, apart from the pretty children who rummage through it looking for bits of plastic to sell.

I was standing near the dump, savouring the stench, when I was approached by a seller of newspapers, aged about thirteen. He was small for his age, slim, dark-eyed and dark haired.

"Newspaper?" he whispered, frowning deeply. His shoes and jeans looked expensive.

"I can’t read Indonesian. Sorry," I said.

"Where are you from?" the newspaper boy asked.

"England. Where’re are you from?"

"I sleep in the market."

"You don’t have a home?"

"I’ve run away from home." The frown grew deeper and the eyes more moist. I was deeply curious.

"Why did you run away?"

"My father was shot dead." He looked down at the ground, perhaps to hide tears.

"Why? What happened?" I said, taken aback by his news. I reckoned he wanted to unburden himself by telling his tale.

"Some people shot my father. They stole his land. In Sumatra."

What could I say? "They shot your father? Then you moved here?" I said.

"We moved to Jakarta. My mother remarried. I had to stay with my grandmother. That’s out just beyond Ciputat."

"Why did you run away?"

"I don’t get on with my grandmother."

"I’m sorry," I said. "Couldn’t you get your land back?"

"No. These people are powerful. Soldiers support them."

The story had a ring of truth. I had read constantly in The Jakarta Post of land disputes, often involving the use of hired ‘muscle’ from the military.

"Do you have any friends?" I asked.

"There’s about six boys sleep in the market. There’s a man gives us food."

"Listen," I said. "If you want to go back home, my driver will take you. It’s only half an hour from here to Ciputat."

"No. My grandmother doesn’t like me. She thinks I’m stupid." He sounded very determined not to return.

"It would be better at home. You could go to school."

"I’m no good at school." His angry frown grew deeper.

"What’s your name?" I asked.


"Your grandmother will be worried about you, Hamid. How about my driver giving you a lift home?"


He wasn’t going to be persuaded, even after a further five minutes of chat. And I was aware that if I stood talking to the boy too long we might attract a crowd of nosy onlookers. The locals often like to listen-in on conversations between foreigners and Indonesians. Perhaps they might suspect illegal goings-on.

"Well, Hamid," I said, before leaving, "here’s my card with my phone number. Let me know if you want to go home." We shook hands on that.


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