Sunday, January 30, 2005


November brought school exams, occasional short downpours, and more weekend trips out of Jakarta.

While wandering along the tree-lined banks of the River Cisadane in Bogor, enjoying the perfumed tropical air and the cheerful grins of passing schoolchildren, I encountered a crinkled old woman with the sweetest of smiles. The woman was holding a wooden pole, suspended from which was a spooky looking fruit bat, as big as a poodle. With its wings stretched out, the bat looked bigger than the woman.

"Is it your pet?" I asked. On closer observation, the winged creature had a cute face like a sheep dog.

"Yes, it’s my friend," she said.

"Do you live here?" I pointed behind her to the simple little white-walled, red roofed house, which was part of a terrace clinging to a steep slope.


"You’re quite high above the river. Wonderful view of the rice fields and the volcano."

"Come into our house," called out a pretty girl appearing at the bright green door of one of the houses.

"She’s my grandchild," explained the old lady proudly. "Her name’s Melati. She’s learning English."

I climbed some stone steps, squeezed into the tiny front room and sat on a wooden chair next to a sewing machine. Melati, who was wearing white cycling shorts, stretched out on the torn settee, next to her young brother. Above their heads was a picture of a mosque. Granny stood with the fruit bat at the open door.

"I want to practise my English," said Melati, in Indonesian. "Can you help me?"

I switched to English. "You go to school in Bogor?" I said.


"You live in Bogor?" I asked.


I decided to continue in Bahasa Indonesia. "Who is this next to you?" I said.

"Adik saya," she said.

"Brother," I explained.

"What’s this?" Melati asked in Indonesian, while pointing to her head.

"Head," I said in English. She didn’t repeat the word.

"What’s this?" She pointed to her arm.


"What’s this?"


"What’s this?"

"Leg," I said. Young brother was having a fit of the giggles and I thought it was time to change direction. "What is this?" I said, pointing to the settee. "Settee."

"Settee," she repeated.

A good looking woman in her mid-thirties had appeared at the door and was standing next to granny.

"My mother," said Melati, seeing me looking in the direction of the newcomer. The mum smiled warmly and nodded in my direction.

"Mister, where are you from?" asked the boy.

"Ursa Major," I said. The lad looked puzzled and perhaps a little worried.

"Do you have a wife?" asked Melati.

"Do you want to marry me?" I asked.

This time they all grinned.

"I’d like to come to England," said Melati. "How long does it take to get there?"

"By boat, several weeks."

"Wahai! Is it near America?"

"No. It’s near Holland."

The conversation rambled on for some minutes. Then I noticed that the Mother was no longer smiling; no longer looking in my direction. I sensed this was a signal that it was time for me to go.

"I have to get some shopping done," I explained.

"Can I come with you?" asked Melati.

I looked at the mother but she was staring at the wall.

"Sorry, that’s not possible," I said.

"Come back soon," said Melati.

I always loved being invited into the homes of ordinary Indonesians. I loved the fact that they dropped whatever they were doing in order to make me feel welcome. I loved their warm smiles and normally relaxed body language. I loved their relatively uninhibited chatter. But, I had come to realise that there was a moment in any visit when someone would signal that it was time for me to go; they had work to get on with; it was time to feed the baby; they were getting bored; or mum had bad vibes. The signal might be a frown or a yawn or a remark such as: "What time is it?" Often the signal would come after only a short visit. In any case there was a limit to how many things we could chat about. My Indonesian vocabulary was too limited for discussions of anything other than the relatively trivial. Politics was out because they didn’t feel free to criticise their government. And although these people were earthy and flirtatious, there were sometimes limits to what the community would allow by way of risky repartee. They had their taboos.

Having left Melati’s house I visited Budi’s little windowless home to see how the sick five-year-old was getting on. His hollow-cheeked mother was seated by the door with a host of little children, including a pale fragile looking Budi.

"How is he?" I began

"Fine," she responded automatically.

"Did you get the last lot of money for the hospital visit?"


"Have you got receipts from the hospital?"

"Not yet."

"Have you been back to the hospital for the twice weekly check up?"

"Not yet."

"Have you still got the money?"


I noticed she was wearing new shoes and a thin gold chain.

"Has Budi been getting the medicine the hospital gave him?"

"It’s finished."

"It can’t be. Have you still got the bottles?"

"I threw them out."

I was boiling with indignation. She looked relaxed and unfazed; perhaps empty-headed rather than aggressive. I wondered if she had ever been to school. I wondered if hunger had robbed her of brain cells.

"Look, we must go to the hospital now for a check up," I said.

"I’m busy. Maybe tomorrow."

"Budi must get his medicine, and on the way back we can stop at the shops and buy some food for your family."

"OK." She seemed to like the idea of shopping for food.

"Have you got Budi’s medical card?"

"I’ve lost it."

"You are unbelievable," I said, unable to control my tongue. "You’ve not got Budi’s money, nor his medicine, nor his medical card, and you’ve bought yourself new shoes."

There was no reaction on her face.

And, when I repeated this information to the doctor at the hospital, he also didn’t blink. He simply wrote out another prescription.

"Doctor," I said, "how can I get this woman to bring her child to the hospital twice a week?"

"Maybe it’s better not to give her money. Maybe someone else can handle the cash. Can you come with her each time?"

"I work in Jakarta," I explained, "but I’ll send my driver here twice a week. He’ll bring her to the hospital."

On the way back from the hospital we stopped off at the modern supermarket at Internusa. I handed some money to Budi’s mother and left her to get on with the shopping. She bought several varieties of crisps.

"That’s no good," I said. "Give me the money you have left and I’ll buy some fruit, vegetables, fish and tinned milk."

Back at Budi’s house a small crowd of ragged children had gathered to await our return. Seated next to this brood was a pale spindle-shanked man in his thirties, who looked too tired to stand up.

This was Asep.

"Where do you live?" I asked the cadaverous chap.

"Near here. Along that path across the road."

"May I see your house?"

"Yes, I’ll take you."

At a funeral pace we walked alongside some fields of rice and tapioca until we came to trees and a small settlement of mouldering shacks. Asep’s earth floor house was in a damp shady hollow. Outside the house stood a shoeless and shirtless small boy with a swollen stomach and a slightly older girl with a sweet and innocent face.

"Do you work around here?" I inquired.

"I can’t work. I’m sick," said Asep.

"Would you like to get an x-ray at the hospital?"


"OK. Here’s some money. I’ll come back for the receipt next week. There’s enough there for medicine too, and some food.

"Thank you mister," said Asep smiling wanly.

There seemed something too passive, too submissive, and too docile in Asep’s body language. He did not seem like someone who would fight his illness. I hoped Budi was not the same.
I set off back through the trees.

"Hey mister!" said a ragged little boy standing next to some goats. "There’s a wedding. Come and join us!"

"That’s kind," I responded, and followed him to a cheerless hovel, outside which stood two old men and a table bearing two plates of meagre little grey coloured snacks. There was a strong smell of animal dung.

I was led into the two room house and briefly presented to the bride and groom, who were enthroned on gold painted chairs and dressed to look like figures from a Hindu epic. He looked pale and she looked sad. Back outside an old man handed me some rancid looking crisps, which I managed to make disappear into my pocket.

That evening, wearing a suit and tie, I attended a wedding reception at one of Jakarta’s five star hotels. In the ballroom, with its cream and gold walls and giant chandeliers, there must have been many hundreds of guests, mainly Indonesians. The bride was a demurely pretty girl called Rima, the niece of one of Fergus’s friends.

I joined the queue to shake the hands of the bride and groom who were seated on gold painted thrones on a stage. Rima and her mate were both attired in traditional costumes including brown batik skirts. They looked rather serious but both made an attempt to smile as each guest appeared briefly in front of them.

After the handshakes came the food. The tables for the buffet meal were laden with dishes of mie goreng, leaf-wrapped spicy vegetables, chicken in coconut, gado gado, baked fish, slow cooked crispy beef and all the things you might expect in a good rijstaffel.

As I loaded up my plate, I got talking to Sarwoto, a small portly Javanese in his thirties. He was part owner of a bar called Hadrian. On our visits to Hadrian, Fergus, Carmen and I had always found Sarwoto to be good company. He was highly educated and spoke perfect English; he was a genial and rather complex character; he was a Christian with strong animist beliefs; he came from a wealthy and well connected Indonesian family.

"He’s not just marrying her for love," said Sarwoto, who was wearing a princely gold Batik shirt.

"How do you mean?" I asked. "Not just marrying her for love?"

"It’s an arranged marriage. It’s about money," explained Sarwoto, eyes twinkling.

"Which one’s rich?"

"Both. Rima’s father was a bank manager. There are also army and government connections. Her mother’s sister is married to a government minister. One member of the family owns five houses and five station wagons." Sarwoto grinned, perhaps admiring the family’s sagacity.

"And the groom?"

"Father’s in the Ministry of Social Welfare or something. Very rich. Giant mansion in Bambu Apus near Taman Mini, a house in Tebet and another in Bogor. Oh, and the groom works for Pertamina, the oil company. They’ll be able to send their kids to university in the States and have shopping trips to Paris."

"I was at another wedding today, in Bogor," I said.

"Two weddings in one day," said Sarwoto, looking in the direction of the food.

"There’s a lot of poverty in Bogor."

"You go to Bogor a lot?"

"It’s a beautiful place."

"I’m going to get some more of that beef," said Sarwoto, and off he went.

My first reaction to Sarwoto not picking up on my comment about poverty was disappointment, mixed with warm and comfortable feelings of moral superiority and false pride. Then, my chicken drumstick slipped off my plate. I remembered that Sarwoto regularly helped out at a home for handicapped children.

I sidled up to Jim, a young American businessman and pillar of the church.

"Hi Jim. You can help me," I began.

"Always willing to help," said Jim.

"I came across this little kid with TB, pneumonia and malnutrition. In a poor kampung out in Bogor. The problem is getting advice about medical treatments. And the kid’s mother needs some advice about child care."

"There’s a lot of them die in the kampungs. Very high death rate. Not a lot one can do."

"Do you know of any organisation that could help?"

"The women’s organisations can’t help individuals. My wife’s group raises money for an Indonesian charity that helps blind children."

"It’s just that I want to help this poor kid."

"You know how you could help, if you’re wanting to do something charitable? My Scout group could do with an extra volunteer."

"I don’t think that’s quite me."

"Excuse me, I’ve just seen someone I must speak to before he goes. See you again some time."
And off he went.

Jim was very rich but he was a genuinely decent sort. Maybe it was difficult for him to feel deep sympathy for a kid he had not actually met; maybe he wanted his charitable giving directed mainly towards Christian run institutions rather than individual Moslems; maybe be was a pessimist about the chances of a foreigner successfully intervening in the life of a slum family.
I wondered what my reaction would have been if Sarwoto or Jim had mentioned the existence of some poor child to me. I would have thought that it was vaguely interesting, but it was up to them to sort it out.

In the post next morning was a letter from the director of the International Children’s Village in Lembang, near Bandung. It was about Abdul, whom I had found asleep on the bridge. The director had visited the grandmother’s village, which had turned out to be not so poor, and discovered a few more facts about the child. Abdul had a little brother and sister, his parents were already divorced, and his mother might be working in Saudi Arabia. The grandmother had decided to keep Abdul and so he had been returned to her. I suppose a grandmother is better than a children’s home or sleeping in the street.


Blogger sparklingcosmic said...

I got a fwd-ed email which was written by a guy who worked in an NGO for street kids. It says that it is not wise to give money to the street kids. The notion of getting easy money from the simphaty of bus passangers in Jakarta makes them so reluctant to go back to school, yet so eager to be back in the street and doing the "ngamen" or "minta-minta". Why wasting your engergy and money to go to school while you can make 20 ribu rupiah/day out there? Apparently the NGO's program's for giving a free education for them, is not working well because of this image in their heads. They fear that they will always hang out in the street, suffer from violences, and give birth to children who would follow their path. It creates a chain which is not so easy to be cut.
About the poor kid who's ill, i do agree about your idea on odering your driver to take him to the hospital, rather than giving money to his family. I guess, to solve the poverty problem, it takes more than just giving money, we need to change our mentality too.

10:52 AM  

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