Tuesday, January 27, 2004


The second school term had begun and we were now well into 1991. The school was running fairly smoothly, I had hardly ever been bitten by mosquitoes, and my tummy was behaving itself. Best of all I had lots of time off, thanks to the short school day and the large number of public holidays to celebrate the holy days of Moslems, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. There were always exotic new people to meet and totally unfamiliar situations to offer a challenge.

One Saturday morning in February, I was being driven past the glitzy skyscrapers on Jakarta’s Jalan Sudirman towards the Hongkong Bank when I saw a body lying lifeless on the grass on the central reservation. The body was that of a small boy and he looked as if he might have been hit by a car. Two adults had stopped to have a look.

Should I get out and offer to take the child to hospital? In Indonesia there is the danger, when someone has been hit by a vehicle, that an enraged kampung mob will appear and try to grab the supposed driver so that they can kick and beat him to death. There was no sign of a mob. A quick decision was called for. To stop or not to stop?

"Stop! Park!" I yelled to Mo, my driver. The traffic slowed and I was able to get out of the Mitsubishi and over to where the body lay.

A policeman had arrived. The boy looked about ten years old, was poorly dressed and had the face of a youthful garden gnome. Fortunately he was breathing and had no obvious injuries.

"What happened?" I asked, in order to establish that I had nothing at all to do with the accident. "Is there a hospital nearby?"

A man pointed. We were right opposite the modern Jakarta Hospital. The policeman picked the kid up and I followed them all the way to the emergency room.

A young Chinese-looking doctor, having given the boy what seemed like a five second examination, declared that nothing seemed to be broken and that the urchin could be returned to the street. The boy’s eyes were now open and he was able to answer the nurse’s questions.

"He’s a street kid," said the smiling doctor, addressing me, "and he’s not right in the head. Probably also has epilepsy. He says he has no parents and his name is Bangbang."

It was becoming clear that indeed Bangbang wasn’t completely normal. He suddenly poked the doctor in the stomach and then stared at him hard with a wide-eyed manic grin. The doctor chuckled.

Back to the street? Surely not.

"Maybe he should have an x-ray to see if his head’s been injured," I suggested. "I’ll pay."

"He’ll need to go to the Dipo Hospital," said the doctor. "They’ve got a place for mentally disturbed children there."

So, with the policeman and Bangbang, we drove in my vehicle to the hospital I had previously visited with One Hand. Bangbang sat fairly quietly, enjoying the ride. Only occasionally did he poke me gently in the ribs and give me the staring grin.

The policeman, an affable chap, took us to the drab emergency room, where a doctor looked at Bangbang and decided he could be admitted for tests. The policeman showed me where to pay the deposit for Bangbang’s stay and then led us down long dingy corridors until we came to the absolutely vast quarters reserved for stressed, mentally ill and mentally backward kids. The high ceilings and dark walls reminded me of classrooms in Victorian schools. Bangbang seemed to be the only patient.

The three nurses on duty stopped watching their TV in their little office and started to chat to the policeman and the new little arrival. Jokes seemed to be being made but I couldn’t make out what was being said. They all seemed totally at ease, in a Javanese sort of way, and to be enjoying each other’s company. Bangbang looked content and I relaxed. The policeman shook my hand, accepted some money for his bus fare, and departed.

"Mister likes children?" asked the oldest nurse, a lady in her mid-thirties whose face, shoulders and hips made me think of a happy Hermann Goering. Her name was Fatma.

"I felt sorry for Bangbang," I explained. Fatma’s eyes suggested she might be sneering rather than smiling.

"Mister has no children?" she continued. The other two nurses were now grinning.

"Not yet," I said. "How about you?"

"Two children," said Fatma. I noticed on one of her fingers a chunky gold ring that didn’t look cheap.

"And now you’ve got Bangbang to look after," I said. "I’ll be back tomorrow evening."

"Bring us something nice," said Fatma.

"Maybe," I said, and left.

Next afternoon I brought some chocolates to the nurses who smiled and looked pleased. Bangbang trotted up to me, squeezed my arm, took my hand, and gave me a sudden punch in the stomach. Fortunately it was a gentle, friendly punch. Bangbang and I then took a walk around the ward.

A few evenings later, I was able to meet the Dipo Hospital’s child psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph, a round faced, middle aged Chinese Indonesian with thinning hair.

"Mr Kent, you are very kind to help Bangbang," said the doctor, sitting at the nurses’ desk, looking benevolent and calm.

"It gives me something to do," I said.

"The tests show Bangbang has no broken bones," explained the doctor.

"I find he can be quite affectionate," I said. "For brief periods he even appears quite normal."

"We’ve discovered that Bangbang has got parents," said the doctor. "They’ve been to visit him. They say Bangbang’s often gone missing."

"Do they want to take him home?" I asked.

"If you want him to stay here a little longer, I’m sure they’ll agree."

"What do you think is wrong with Bangbang?"

"He’s got epilepsy and he’s psychotic. He claims he gets beaten at home. Maybe he gets beaten because he has epileptic fits."

"Is the father poorly educated?"

"Yes. I’ve told him he must not beat the child."

"I think Bangbang should stay here a little longer," I said.

When I returned to the hospital the following evening, I found Bangbang strolling along one of the corridors, on his own. I took him by the hand and returned him to his ward.

"I found Bangbang wandering around the hospital," I said to Fatma, the nurse in charge. "He should be kept in the ward. He might try to run off."

Fatma and her assistant seemed unconcerned. They continued watching the TV in their little office.

Next evening I returned to the Dipo Hospital to find Fatma and her friend busy eating chicken stew. There were no patients to look after.

"Bangbang has run off," said Fatma, looking surprisingly happy.

"What!" I shouted. "Have you looked for him?"

"The hospital guards looked all over. He’s gone." They carried on eating, picking up bits of chicken in their fingers.

"All you do is sit in your office and eat and watch TV," I said. "You only have one child to look after and you manage to lose him!"

They smiled, refusing to be unfazed.

Oh dear. What would Bangbang’s parents say?

"I’m going to see the hospital’s director," I announced, hoarsely. I wanted someone to take the blame and I didn’t want it to be me.

I strode along corridors and up flights of stairs until I came to a grand hallway and the offices of the hospital’s top people. The Director of the Dipo Hospital had an office that reminded me of a ballroom at a Grand Hyatt. But it was empty, as was the office of the deputy.

"When will they be back?" I asked a secretary, seated at a desk in the hallway.

"Next month," she said. "They’ve both gone on the Haj pilgrimage."

There was no one at the hospital on whom I could vent my rage.

When I got home, I noticed that Rachmat, the house guard and gardener, had not cut the grass in the front garden and Ami, the maid, was not ready to serve supper.

"Rachmat!" I shouted.

A grining Rachmat poked his head around the kitchen door.

"Rachmat, the grass should have been cut days ago. Get it cut first thing tomorrow!" I found myself speaking like a colonial master.

"Ami, why is supper not ready? This is ridiculous." As I spoke, the roast chicken was rushed onto the dining room table.

I sank my knife into the chicken breast. Red blood oozed out.

"Ami! This chicken is not properly cooked. This is useless."

I had noticed, when I had first arrived in Jakarta, that certain expats addressed almost all Indonesians as if they were stupid ten year-olds. It was too easy to do. People like Ami and Rachmat did occasionally behave in a slightly sloppy way; and when they were told off they seemed to put up with it.

The problem was mine. I would need to learn not to take advantage of the politeness and servility of some Indonesians. I would need to learn to adjust to Jakarta’s occasional frustrations. I would need to be less like a volcano. What I needed was a soul-mate.

When the weekend came I visited little Budi in Bogor. Good news. His eyes shone, he smiled, his hair looked darker, and, although still seriously malnourished, he had put on a little weight.

I took a walk to see consumptive Asep in his damp little home under the trees.

"Have you had an x-ray?" I asked.

"Yes," said Asep, handing me an envelope containing the evidence. The doctor says I have TB. I’ve got some medicine."

"Got a receipt?"

"Yes," he said, handing over some slips of paper and some funny little plastic bags containing pills, all of which I examined with care.

"There’s a receipt for the x-ray and the consultation. I can’t see any receipt for the pills."

"I got the pills from the puskesmas, the local clinic. It’s cheaper."

"So what happened to the money left over?"

"For food."

"Is that a new TV I can see inside?" I could see a cheap little television sat on a table.

"No. We borrowed that from a friend. It’s an old TV."

"These pills from the clinic look odd. Are they as good as the pills from the hospital?"


"I’d prefer you to get the next lot of pills from the hospital and you must get a receipt!" I handed him the money for the next hospital visit.

As I set off back towards my van, I passed a falling down shack, outside which sat a very sick looking young teenage boy, by name Eddy. His face was grey.

"What are these strange green herbs stuck to your forehead?" I asked.

"The dukun, the medicine-man, put them there. I’ve got a fever."

"Are you getting better?"

"No, I feel very bad."

"Want to go to Bogor’s Menteng hospital?"

"Yes, but my father has no money."

"Don’t worry about that."

When we reached the hospital, the doctor did a blood test, diagnosed "typhoid", admitted him to a ward, and had him put on a drip. The boy’s hollow-cheeked father, who did not look very bright, signed the requisite admission form. I paid a deposit and left money for medicine.

"Eddy will need to stay here for at least a week," said the doctor. "He’s very dehydrated."

Three days later I returned to Bogor to find that Eddy was no longer in hospital . His father had taken him home.

"Why did you take the boy home?" I demanded of the father, when I reached his hut.

"Eddy was better," came the reply.

"Has he got any medicine?"


"This is crazy. We must get back to the hospital immediately."

The father didn’t argue. We piled into my van and drove fast over the potholes towards the centre of town.

"Why," I asked the doctor at the Hospital, "was Eddy allowed to go home without any medicine?"

"We can’t force patients to stay," said the doctor, avoiding my eyes.

"Should he stay in hospital?" I asked.

"He’s not yet better but the father wants him home. However, he can get some outpatient medicine." The doctor began to write out a prescription.

Before going home I visited Budi’s house. It was empty but a little way along the road I came across the family on their way to visit neighbours. Budi was in tears, trailing behind his mum and dad. Mum was scolding Budi and her teeth were showing. I stopped to ask after the child’s health. I was assured that all was well.

By the time I got to the plush and exclusive Piste Top Bar that evening, to meet Fergus, I was ready for a drink. I had a lot on my mind. I was discovering that in the Third World it was not always so easy to help the waifs and strays. There was the problem of human nature. Nurses could let their child patients walk out of the ward; foolish TB patients seemed to prefer buying TV sets to buying hospital medicines; ignorant fathers could take their children out of hospital too soon; impatient mothers could reduce their sick children to tears. Perhaps it was the same in the slums of Liverpool or London.

I looked around the bar. The clientele were mainly Indonesians in dark suits or designer dresses. On several tables there were whisky bottles positioned beside the candles.

"How was your day?" I asked Fergus.

"Squash at ISCI. Well, I was thirsty. Went for a workout. Sunbathed at the Mandarin. How was your day?"

"Still no sign of Bangbang." I was aware that I had been in favour of Bangbang staying on at the Dipo hospital.

"Well, it’s not your fault."

"It’s crowded tonight," I said, changing the subject. "Who’s the guy getting all the attention over on our left?"

"Relation of Big Daddy, sitting with his body guards," said Fergus.

"Big Daddy?"

"The President," explained Fergus.

"And the guy in the dark blue suit at the back?" I asked.

"I could be wrong, but it looks like the general who organised the East Timor invasion in 1975. A good catholic."

"Surely not."

"And the CIA station chief is the guy at the next table who looks like a Colombian drugs baron."

"You’re having me on. That’s Carmen."

Indeed it was Carmen and she came to join us at our table. As the Philippino band began to play a song about "Money! Money! Money!" I began to relax with my beer.

A few days later my driver had good news. He had visited Eddy in Bogor and found that the boy was restored to good health. His typhoid was gone.


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