Saturday, February 26, 2005

3. THE HILL TOWN OF BOGOR

"Hey, mister!" said Dede, when I was on my third trip to Bogor. "Remember me?"

"Yes. How are you?" I said. It was a lad with a small gory lump on his leg and I’d met him previously, at around the same spot, during a stroll along the little lanes near Jalan Pledang.

"Fine. Where’re you going?"

"Just out for a walk. Jalan jalan." I was proud of my growing knowledge of the Indonesian language. (To be honest it’s the easiest language in the world to learn.)

"Come to my house?" asked Dede.

"OK. Where?" I was delighted that for the first time ever I was being invited into a real Indonesian’s house. This was real travel and I felt a wave of excitement.

"Right here." He pointed to a russet roofed bungalow the size of a large caravan. A small, grinning granny stood just inside the door.

We stepped through a tiny garden and into a simple little lounge with concrete floor, a threadbare settee, a slightly broken wooden chair, a shelf sporting football trophies, a TV and a picture of a mosque. The granny retreated behind a canvas curtain to a primitive kitchen where I glimpsed pots and pans on the floor. I sat on the chair while Dede sank into the settee. Fergus would have hated this place, but I loved it. It was like being one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five meeting the gypsies; or the children of Coral Island encountering the natives.

"How’s your leg?" I asked Dede. " Did you go to the doctor with the money I gave you?

"I got some ointment." Dede pulled up the hem of his school shorts to show me the wound. It was no worse than before.

"Did you get a receipt?"

"I lost it," said Dede.

From behind a curtained door, a girl in a short black skirt appeared. She can’t have been more than twenty and she was alpha double plus in a dark-eyed Sundanese sort of way. Is it the big eyes, or the curvy lips, or the gypsy face that marks out the Sundanese?

"My sister." said Dede, "Her name is Rama."

"Hi," I said, trying unsuccessfully not to stare.

"Hi," she said, smiling like a heavenly body from a brighter universe. "Where are you from?"

"I teach in Jakarta," I said. She looked away. I should have said I owned a computer software company and lived in Washington state. "What do you do?"

She turned to me again and said, "I haven’t got a job. Can you give me work as a maid at your house?"

"Sorry, I’ve already got a maid," I responded.

She looked away again. Why hadn’t I said I needed someone to open doors for me or something like that?

"I have to go to the market," she said and slipped out the door.

Dede sat with his knees under his chin looking like a hungry rabbit. "Do you like Newcastle?" he said suddenly.

"I’ve never been there."

"I’ve seen them on TV. And Manchester United."

"Ah. Football."

"You like something to drink?"

"No thanks," I said. I didn’t want to risk drinking the local water; and I felt an urge to go to the loo. "May I use your toilet?" I asked.

Dede smiled in a slightly embarrassed fashion. "We haven’t got one. You can use the canal or the river."

"OK. I must be going then. Thank you for letting me see your house."

"You come back next week?" asked Dede.

"Yes, that would be nice."

I had no intention of squatting above the canal or the river next to a lot of other cheery squatters. I got my driver to hurry me to a high street fast food restaurant which was blessed with a real latrine. My image of Rama and Dede was slightly changed by my discovery that their house did not possess a privy.


As the weeks went by I made lots of weekend trips to the countryside.

One sunny October day I discovered a particularly magical realm on the outskirts of Bogor. Along a bosky country lane I found myself taking photographs of buffalo, fields of tapioca, dark wooden shacks among tall trees, and smiling children carrying huge baskets of mangoes and bananas. There was an aroma of burning wood and goat manure. Some of the houses along the lane were simply grubby slums, full of naked babies and toddlers, but some had decent brick walls, concrete floors, peach-coloured tile roofs and glass windows. The occasional house even had a car parked in the front yard and one mansion, belonging no doubt to a government official, had five cars. Some of the children wore clean, red and white school uniforms while others wore ragged shirts, skirts and shorts, but all of them, at least on the surface, looked fairly healthy.

Not quite all of them. There was a clearly unhealthy child crouched outside a windowless, wooden hut and he cried miserably when I pointed the camera in his direction. He had the head of a five year old but the body looked younger. Although his stomach was enormous, his limbs were rickety and withered as in pictures of starving children in Africa. He was too weak to stand up. For the first time I had met one of the waifs and strays that I was anxious to help, but unfortunately it was a rather an extreme case.

The four year old boy was named Budi. I spoke to his hollow-cheeked mother and gave her money so she could take the child to a doctor. The father, who looked tired and unwell, told me he worked in the mornings as a farm labourer, earning about 60 pence per day for his family of six. One litre of milk cost about 60 pence.

I had encountered the Third World and, naively, thought I had achieved something useful.


On a sunny Saturday morning, one week later, I returned to Budi’s house to find him looking even more sick and fragile. I asked his mother if she had taken him to the doctor. No, she had not. But I noticed she had what appeared to be a new set of earrings, and the other children in the family, who looked healthy enough, had some cheap toys which also appeared to be new. I was angry and let it show.

"Budi must go to the doctor!" I growled. "I’ll come with you. I’ll pay the bill."

I seemed like the pushy, know-all, foreigner treating the locals as inferiors. But I felt justified in my aggressiveness; Budi looked dangerously ill; his parents seemed pretty ignorant and needed help; I came from a culture where we had learnt that doctors could help children. Also, I’m sorry to say, I had got used to ordering around my driver and maid, and having doors opened for me at the Hilton.

Mother, father and sick child were persuaded to get into my vehicle and off we drove, a short distance, to a clinic.

It was a dirty little concrete house with cobwebbed walls and virtually no furniture. The sullen young man, who claimed to be a doctor, gave Budi a brief examination and muttered something to the parents. I was being ignored.

"What’s wrong with the child?" I asked.

"Malnutrition," said the doctor, scowling.

"Anything else?"

"Maybe TB."

That seemed to be the end of the conversation. I wondered if the doctor was going to write out a prescription or make some recommendation about further treatment, but he remained silent. I guessed that he hated his country-clinic work and would rather have been doing something in a comfortable part of Jakarta.

"Should the child go to hospital?" I asked.

"Yes," said the doctor.

I waited for him to say something else. More sunless silence.

"Will the parents agree to the child going to hospital?" I persisted.

The doctor spoke to the parents and then said, "They don’t want to go to the hospital."

"Can you persuade them?" I urged.

"They don’t want to go," repeated the doctor, in a tone of voice that signalled he’d be happy to see me leave immediately and never return.

"Should the child get some medicine now?" I asked

The doctor shook his head and we retreated outside.

"You must take the child to the hospital," I said to Budi’s father.

"We’re too busy," he replied.

I appealed to my driver to see if he could persuade the parents to see sense and he had a brief word with them.

"Nothing doing," said the driver.

It seemed that the locals would smile, and be polite, and put up with all sorts of indignities. But when they dug their heels in, they dug them in hard. I needed some advice and resolved to speak to my colleague Carmen whom I was due to meet for lunch the following day.


I had Sunday lunch with Carmen at a simple little Jakarta restaurant called Sari Bundo on a street called Jalan Juanda. We both had the rendang, which is thinly sliced beef loin cooked with coconut milk, lemongrass, turmeric, lime leaves, garlic, ginger, bayleaf and chillies. As we ate, I explained to Carmen the story of the malnourished child called Budi.

"Try one of the churches in Bogor," was Carmen’s simple advice. "They may know what to do about Budi.When I’ve been abroad I’ve always found the church useful in a crisis."

"I’m going to Bogor after lunch," I said, "I’ll call in at the big church near the main police station."

"Good luck."

"You’ve done lots of teaching abroad?" I asked.

"My last job was in Tanzania. I loved it." Carmen beamed.

"Why did you leave?"

"I thought I was missing England."

"And were you?"

"I came back home and found everything dull and grey. No mystery. No street life. The tedious nine-to-five job, teaching Maths. There are three types of student: those who can count and those who can’t. Sometimes those who can’t count decide to bait the teacher. I remember one kid who was an overactive baiter of masters."

"I know the type," I said, after almost choking on a piece of beef. "What were the Tanzanians like to teach? Could you mix with them?"

"The school kids were lovely," said Carmen with a giggle. "I thought I was getting on well with my garden boy. He was a wretchedly poor youth and I gave him a job, got him an education, and helped his family. Before I left Tanzania, he stole from me and ran off."

"Disappointing."

"I felt very hurt," continued Carmen, temporarily losing her normal sunny expression. "I think the local people were friendly on the surface but we expats were still from a foreign tribe."

"Is it the same here?" I asked.

"There’s a more complex civilisation here. So it varies."

"You like the Indonesians?"

"Very much," said Carmen. "I like the dolce far niente. The nearer you get to the Equator, the more friendly and easygoing people become."

"Italy rather than Switzerland."

"Mind you, there are disadvantages when things are very lax," said Carmen. "There was this Bangladeshi restaurant I used to use in London. Chap called Aziz said his town, North of Dacca, was a pleasant Moslem paradise. Then he told me the other side of the story. He said things didn’t work because too many people were cheats and liars. It was a mafia town. Girls were forced into marriage."

"The Indonesians seem to marry young," I commented.

"But not too many of the marriages last," explained Carmen. "Both my maid and my house guard have been married twice. The children get shared among members of the extended family."

"Sounds like England."

"Among the Indonesian poor, life is communal," said Carmen. "Children get shared around. Money gets shared around. If my gardener learns that his neighbour’s come into some money, he’ll want his share."

"Sounds friendly."

"It doesn’t encourage saving. They’re not too good at running a business." Carmen guffawed loudly in her good humoured way. She was a friendly soul.


After the lunch with Carmen I shot off to seek the help of the church. On Bogor’s busy Jalan Veteran, near the Botanic Gardens, I found a big Catholic church built of stone and next to it a venerable old building housing some sort of Catholic order. I introduced myself to a brother John, a relaxed, comfortable looking, middle aged Dutchman. He showed me into the shaded inside garden, where, seated on cushioned rattan chairs, we had a chat with two other elderly Dutch brothers about the problem of Budi.

"There’s a high death rate among these infants," said Brother John. "I’ve been here, off and on, over thirty years. Seen a lot of funerals. But, it’s not as bad as it used to be. Now they’ve got more clinics and there’s more to eat. In fact the population has soared."

Brother Michael, a well fed figure with a white beard, said, "I used to work among some poor rural communities. You know you have to take account of these people’s culture. You have to get to know their way of seeing the world. Otherwise you can’t achieve much."

"But," I said, feeling indignant, "to me, as a newcomer, it’s a simple matter of getting the child to a hospital, which I’ll pay for. The mother spent the last lot of money on some earrings. That’s a problem of human nature, not local culture." I thought it would be silly for me to spend the next six months studying local customs and arts before taking any further action.

"Look at it this way," continued Brother Michael. "These people, by training and habit, expect to go to a dukun, that’s a shaman or witch doctor, when someone’s ill. They’re scared of hospitals. They’ve probably heard of some neighbour whose treatment in hospital went horribly wrong. These folks are used to the idea that, when you’re ill, you stay at home, treated by the dukun, and sometimes you live and sometimes you die. They expect some of their children to die."

"Could it be that the mother is simply lazy and can’t be bothered to go to the hospital?" I asked.

"I think she’s scared of hospitals," said Brother Michael.

"Kent, I’ll see what I can do," said Brother John, "I’ll go and visit them. Maybe we’ll make progress."

"Thanks," I said, "You make me feel better."


A few days later, having had a phone call from Brother John, I was in the reception area of the Menteng Hospital in Bogor. Supposedly Bogor’s best hospital, the Menteng consisted of a series of simple, single storey buildings in pleasant gardens.

"Do you know how long it took?" said Brother John grinning. "I spent six hours trying to persuade Budi’s family to bring him here to the children’s ward, and here he is!"

"Well done," I said. "Six hours! You’ve got stamina. And how’s little Budi?"

"The doctor says he’s severely malnourished and has TB and pneumonia. He says the child must have many weeks of hospital care and that it could take five years to get him restored to good health."

"What do the parents say?"

"I’m afraid they want to take Budi home today."

My heart sank. "What does the doctor say about that?" I asked.

"The doctor said Budi will probably die if he goes home, but he can’t stop the parents doing what they want."

"Let’s go and speak to the parents." I was feeling growing rage.

We walked through an area of garden to the third class children’s ward, a shed-like building which certainly looked third class. There were rows of simple iron beds on each side of the long graceless room. A host of thin-faced female relatives, wearing traditional headscarves and plastic sandals, stood at Budi’s bedside while tiny Budi howled and sobbed.

"Budi must stay in hospital," I said to the mother. I tried not to sound too aggressive.

"He wants to go home," she replied, looking impassively at Budi.

"But the doctor says he may die if he goes home," I continued.

"I’ve got to get home to look after the other children," she said, almost sharply.

"You’ve got other relatives who can help," I pointed out.

"Budi doesn’t like it here," she exclaimed.

"He’s only a child. He doesn’t understand," I said.

"We’re taking Budi home today," she insisted. She bared her teeth as she spoke.

I approached the three extremely young nurses who were gossiping at the other end of the ward.

"Can you help Budi?" I asked. "He keeps on crying. Can you give him something to calm him?" I think that’s what I said, but my grasp of the main Indonesian language was still not great.

The nurses giggled like shop girls and retreated out of the ward.

I turned to Brother John. "Can I speak to the doctor?" I said.

Brother John set off in search of the doctor while I tried to speak to Budi. The child was in no mood for listening to a frightening looking foreigner and shrieked even louder.

"The doctor’s busy," said Brother John, on his return, "but he says he has arranged for Budi to have outpatient treatment twice a week."

"So what do we do now?"

"We can’t force them to stay here," said Brother John.

"I’ll arrange for my driver to come here once a week," I said, "to give them money for the outpatient treatment."

"OK," said Brother John.

On that particular day, the Third World seemed to be a place of ignorance, obstinacy and stupidity. As I was driven back to Jakarta, I wondered if Brother John and I had given in too easily.

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