Monday, October 31, 2005

43. TB

Photo of Jakarta by Kevin Aurell at Wikipedia

Next evening I returned to the Dipo Hospital to find that the life support system for little Nur had been turned off and that Nur's body had been transferred to the hospital morgue. Nur's mum, who had been waiting for me in the hospital's cavernous reception area, brought me up to date with events. She exhibited that disturbing cheerfulness that some Indonesians display at times of bereavement.

"The bill has to be paid before Nur can be taken home for burial," said Nur's mum, with a polite smile.

"Please, you ask at the cash desk," I said morosely. "I don't want to deal with these people." I was afraid I might lose my temper.

She made enquiries and returned with a bill for me to examine. The stay of several months in the third class ward was cheap. The main items of expenditure were for treatment in intensive care after the child had become brain-dead. They seemed to have added as many extras as they could think of. We were talking of many millions of rupiahs. "It looks much too expensive," I said. "Why should I pay for treatment after the boy was dead? Tell them I won't pay for those final bits."

Nur's mum negotiated with the pebbly-faced cashiers and then returned with a second bit of paper. "They won't let us take Nur home until we've paid," she said. "But if we don't need a receipt, we only have to pay half."

"If there's no receipt, they'll pocket the money," I said bitterly. "The third class ward needs a bit of money. Tell them I must have a receipt."

Having paid the full amount, and having got a receipt, I went in search of a doctor to ask why we had had to pay so much for treatment after the failed attempt at an operation. The only doctor I could find was a miserably thin young man with a scowl. He looked more like a poor Moslem than a rich Chinese. As we stood in a gloomy corridor near the third class children's ward, I explained the problem.

"The operation was a major one. That's why it cost a lot," said the doctor, who seemed impatient to get away from me.

"But I don't think the boy had the operation. He had the anaesthetic only. And most of the expensive bits are dated after the child's death."

"I don't know anything about that," he said, glaring at me.

"Look at this hospital," I said, my voice rising. "Paint peeling from walls, old furniture dumped in corridors, water dripping through ceilings, children not getting any medicine, cashiers who suggest you don't need a receipt."

"You have no right to criticise," said the doctor, almost spitting. "Remember this is the Third World."

"Singapore was a Third World country," I shouted. "But its hospitals are clean and well equipped. They don't have oil wealth or mineral wealth like you. Malaysia has good hospitals."

As I made my exit I slammed the corridor door so hard I thought the walls might come tumbling down. The doctor reopened the door, came towards me in a menacing way, but then thought the better of it. He turned back towards the children's ward.

I had to pay for an ambulance to take away Nur's body. That seemed to be another rip-off. While we waited near the morgue for things to be organised I watched various bodies being brought into the hospital. One bulky man, face completely crimson in colour, had a knife stuck in his chest.


Sunday, October 30, 2005


When I arrived at Min's house, one bright Saturday morning in September, there was no sign of Min.

"He's down the road at the old house," said Wati, wiping the snot from little Imah's nose.

"Beside the swamp?" I said. "It's not very healthy down there. Does he wash in the filthy water from the canal?"

"No," said Wati, frowning.

"Who's he with?"

"His big brother. Wardi."

"Does Wardi still live down there in the old house?"


"I bought this house here because it has a toilet and a well," I said a little testily. "Min would be safer here."

"Mustapha didn't turn up yesterday," said Wati, changing the subject to the one-eyed boy I was paying to take Min for walks.

"Has he turned up today?"

"I don't know," said Wati. I wondered if Wati would have preferred the money I was paying Mustapha to have gone to her.

I took my vehicle as far down the street as the potholes would allow and then stepped carefully over wooden planks, gravestones and gangways until I reached the houses built on stilts. The sky was heavenly blue and the wooden shacks, some made colourful by bright paint and people's washing, had a certain airy attractiveness which I had not previously appreciated. These homes had views of miles and miles of flat sunny marshland and there was no motor traffic.

Outside Wardi's house I found Min, eyes gleaming with happiness. Min had a friend. His teenage minder, Mustapha, wearing a shy dutiful expression, had turned up to keep one eye on him.

It was agreed that we would go for a walk. Mustapha took Min's hand, which pleased me, and together we strolled through the kampung to the house where Nur's family lived.

The house was a one room hut built on top of wooden stilts which were embedded in the mud of the drainage canal. There was nobody at home so we moved on to the home of Sani and Indra.

"How are the twins?" I asked their mum, who was seated at her front door, sorting out her washing. My driver had told me that the doctor at the hospital had declared them to be cured.

"Fine," said mum, in a slightly vacant manner. The twins, who were standing some way behind their mum, still looked malnourished, like small teddy bears minus the stuffing.

"What did the doctor say?" I asked.

"He said they were better," said mum.

"Everybody well?"


I could see a pitifully emaciated little girl seated on the steps of a house a few paces distant. "Who's the little girl?" I asked.

"That's Aisa. Sitting next to her mother," said Mustapha.

I walked over to Aisa's mum. "Is the little girl well?"

"She's got a cough," said the plump young woman.

"How long has she had it?"

"Long time."

"Does she eat a lot?"

"No. Doesn't want to eat much."

"Fever at night?"

"A little."

"Tired? Doesn't want to play?"


"Want to come to the hospital for an x-ray?"


I was surprised at her willingness. Min, Mustapha, Aisa, and her mum got into the back of my van and we drove, with windows wide open, to the nearby Teluk Gong Hospital.

After various tests had been carried out, the bespectacled lady doctor invited us into her room. We had a long conversation in English.

"Looks like Tuberculosis," said the doctor.

"If it is TB, how long will the treatment take?" I asked.

"At least six months, and it could be a year, or longer," said the doctor. "Children usually get better fairly easily, with good nutrition, which is not guaranteed in this area."

"Some adults don't seem to get better." I was thinking of Asep in Bogor, and a host of others.

"If the adult's been ill for years and years, getting no medicine, the lungs and other organs may become permanently damaged. Then, even if the patient gets treatment and is cured, he or she is likely to get frequent bouts of pneumonia and other such infections. People like that may not live long. It's vital they get diagnosed early."

"I'll get my driver to make sure Aisa comes to the hospital," I said. "It's amazing how many people have TB."

"It's the number one contagious disease in this country, in terms of deaths," said the earnest doctor. "Indonesia's probably in the top three in the world, in numbers of cases."

"How can a person avoid TB?" I was thinking partly about my own welfare.

"Sunshine," said the doctor beaming. "It kills the bacteria. Sunshine, fresh air and good nutrition. Also, stay away from the sputum of any infected person who's not getting treatment. Watch out if your taxi driver coughs. If the patient's been having their TB medicine for at least two weeks, they shouldn't be a danger."

"Why's TB so bad here?"

"It's a poor person's disease. They'll build expensive facilities for rich people with cancer or heart disease, but not for people with TB. Not enough top people die of TB, but that's changing."

"Why changing?"

"Maybe a top official meets a girl in a disco and they kiss. He gets TB. Maybe the rich businessman has food in a restaurant where the chef has TB. The other thing is the fast spread in HIV. TB's a big problem and getting worse very quickly. In some areas perhaps twenty per cent of the population may have it in the active form."

"Is the government doing anything?"

"The medicine's too expensive for most of those who're sick. You need a cocktail of three different medicines. The patient may buy the medicine for a fortnight or a month, feel a little better, and then stop buying it. The bacteria becomes drug-resistant. The patient then passes on the drug-resistant germ to ten or fifteen new people. Once there are a few cabinet ministers infected, then they may waken up."

"What about the cheap government clinics, the Puskesmas?" I asked.

"Have you been to one?" asked the doctor, with a twinkle in her eyes.

"Yes, it had a health worker, but no doctor. The place was filthy. Everyone seemed to get the same injection from the same needle. And nobody seemed to be getting free treatment."

"A huge number of these places are not equipped to deal with TB or any other such disease. No X-rays, no skin tests, no sputum tests, no blood tests. There are lots of Puskesmas clinics but not enough decent people to make them work, and not enough money. Ideally the doctor or nurse must actually see the patient take the TB medicine. And the medicine must be free. We need a big American drug company to invent a cheap new antibiotic."

"How would Aisa have got TB?" I asked.

"She's probably surrounded by people who've got it," said the doctor.

"My driver brings a few people along here each week. He'd better bring some of Aisa's family too."

"They may be all right. People can have the bacteria in their body but not have the active infection. The skin test may be positive, but not the sputum test or x-ray." The doctor turned to Aisa's mum, speaking in Indonesian. "How many children do you have?"

"Thirteen," said mum, grinning.

"How come all the families I meet have huge numbers of children?" I said, addressing the doctor. "I thought family planning was supposed to be working here."

"Some people say the figures are manipulated to impress people like the World Bank," explained the doctor, speaking again in English.


"The population growth rate figure may be higher than that published by the government. There have been successes, but mainly due to non-government agencies. You'll find a lot of the better educated people use family planning."

"How good is the KB, the government family planning organisation?"

"They've won international praise," said the doctor, not bothering to keep her face straight. "I know one of the officials. He finds time to run a business and is very rich."

"I met someone like that. He's a civil servant but he runs a hotel."

We took Aisa and her mum back to their home; and then Min, Mustapha and I continued our walk.

Mustapha led us along a sunny path with colourful shanty houses on one side and a wide flat plain of grass and marsh on the other. We stopped at an open-sided wooden shelter, a bit like a bus stop, to have a seat. A smiling schoolboy on an old bike cycled up to us and began chatting to Mustapha. The schoolboy had a small pocket transistor radio which he switched on to provide some dangdut music. Min stood up and began to dance. I thought to myself: in spite of the lack of clean tap water, this is a beautiful and friendly place.


Saturday, October 29, 2005

Business, corruption and the Dutch.

Photo from /

During the October holiday I enjoyed a candlelit dinner with Anne, Bob and Pauline at their house in Menteng. Bob was attired in a business suit, Anne was wearing a white Rita Hayworth-style dress, and Pauline had on a silky blue top and short denim skirt. I felt slightly underdressed in old trousers and open-neck shirt; but, as always, I was made to feel relaxed and welcome.

Our first course was Betawi Beef Soup, which Anne informed me contained shallots, coconut milk, candle nuts, lemon grass, limes, cinnamon, celery, ginger, coriander, cumin, garlic and beef.

"How's business?" I asked Bob, as we supped the racy soup. Bob was looking slightly wan and tired.

"Not good."


"The number one problem is the way staff get employed," said Bob. He always spoke in a gentle manner, with a hint of a smile at his mouth. "They're not taken on because they're good at the job. They're hired because they've got the right religion, the right family connections, the right ethnic background. A Christian woman from Medan, for example, is only likely to hire people from her own tribe, no matter how incompetent they are."

"Can they be trained?" I asked.

"You show them a better way to do things. You explain that it will make their lives easier. It will lead to higher pay. They listen. They smile. Then they obstinately ignore the advice from the foreigner. Productivity stays low. You feel paranoid. You feel they're ganging up on you. You wonder if they've put some strange powder in your tea."

A skinny little maid brought in the second course, which was a spicy chicken stew containing kampung chicken, shrimps, tumeric, tomatoes and lime juice; and hopefully no strange powder.

"So business can be stressful at times," I said to Bob, as he poured me some White Burgundy.

"I was stressed last week," said Bob, trying to supress a yawn. "We were in court. We had a perfect case. We acted against this well connected businessman because he was owing us a fortune. He had no real defence, but he won."

"How come?" I asked.

"The story is that his lawyer contacted the judge and offered a hundred million rupiahs. The offer was accepted and the lawyer handed over a suitcase full of money."

"You were unlucky with your judge," I said.

"Someone told me it's the norm," said Anne.

"Makes it difficult to do business," said Bob.

"Well, I suppose it's more subtle in Europe and America," said Anne. "You know how much a judge earns here, officially? About the same as my driver. You know how much a lawyer can screw out of people in America?"

Anne proceeded to give us the benefit of her knowledge of Indonesian history. She explained that, under Dutch rule, civil servants were paid such low wages that they were forced to supplement their incomes by taking bribes and siphoning off government funds.

Pudding was sweet rice balls flavoured with coconut sugar and pandan leaves. They were so good that we made little conversation while devouring them.

We moved to the living room to enjoy our Java coffee.

"Is it more corrupt here than in Europe or America?" asked Pauline, as she unpeeled a mint. She was sitting on the settee with her knees up to her chin.

"Well, it's corrupt in a different way. Here it's more blatant," said Bob. "Government ministries quite openly give contracts to firms owned by their relatives. Rumour has it that up to 80% of the budgeted funds can end up in the pockets of government officials."

I then proceeded to tell them about my experiences at the Dipo Hospital.


Friday, October 28, 2005


The sky above Bogor was an equatorial blue and the trees and tiled roofs, washed clean by the night time rain, were aquiver with colour. It was a Saturday morning and Carmen and I were on our way to a picnic.

As we drove past Bogor's white pillared Presidential Palace and its shops and its crowded markets, I had a peculiar feeling that something was missing. Where were the street children who sell plastic bags to people shopping for vegetables? Where were the boys who shine shoes for the rich? Where were the ragged mentally backward men who sometimes rummage in roadside rubbish piles? Where was the semi-nude mentally disturbed woman who strides along certain streets staring straight ahead?

"President Clinton's coming," said Carmen. "For the APEC free-trade summit."

"Of course. They've cleaned up the streets," I said. "Wouldn't it be good if Hilary visited the medical wing of the mental hospital?"

"No chance. She'll be taken to some posh orphanage for the unwanted offspring of top officials."

"I wonder where they'd take a President if his helicopter crashed?"

"Not the Red Cross Hospital."

"Definitely not. I suppose they've set up a special clinic."

"Where are we going for our picnic?" asked Carmen, as we approached a quiet junction.

"Mystery tour," I said. "We'll just take any old road. Deep into the countryside."

We motored for half an hour along a variety of minor roads peopled by happy schoolchildren and waddling ducks. Having parked on the edge of a hamlet, we picked up our picnic things and set off along paths of damp red earth. This was a countryside of papaya, padi, coconut palms and little huts with roofs of ochre tiles. Dragonflies cruised beside us.

"No tigers here today," said Carmen, striding along on her little middle-aged legs which had been kept fit by playing squash. "Or rhino, for that matter."

"What do you know about wild life?" I asked cynically.

Carmen proceeded to educate me. I learnt that tigers still occasionally killed people on Sumatra but the last time anyone had seen a tiger on Java was in 1972; the Javan one-horned rhino, which used to be found throughout Java, was now the world's rarest large animal; only around fifty of these rhinos survived in Java's Ujung Kulon National Park. And Carmen knew all about primates.

"There aren't many left," said Carmen. "The Javan leaf monkey has lost almost all of its habitat."

"Too many people?" I asked.

"The ordinary Indonesians haven't benefited much from the destruction of the forests," said Carmen, guffawing. "When Suharto's government took over all the forests, people like the Dayaks in Kalimantan tended to get pushed out. Suharto's Chinese and military buddies set up their businesses and the forests began to disappear. The Americans and the British are also to blame because they import thousands of primates from Indonesia for scientific research."

"So primates are becoming rare," I sighed.

"The rarest of all is the orang pendek from Sumatra," said Carmen, bubbling with excitement.

"Orang pendek? Never heard of it."

"It's like the yeti. There have only been a few sightings. It's supposed to be a man-ape. It has a hairless brown face and it walks almost like a human. Marco Polo claimed he saw them. And about eighty years ago a Dutch journal reported sightings."

Carmen filled me full of information about primates and their behaviour. I was informed that among Java's macaque monkeys the females are in charge and the daughters spend all their lives with their mums. Young male macaques usually join other groups or become solitary. The moloch gibbon, which is found only in West Java, is monogamous and mates for life. The male proboscis monkey, found only in Borneo, lives with a harem of around seven females; the bigger his nose, the sexier is his behaviour; and because of his big nose he is sometimes called the Dutchman monkey. The orang utan, found only in Borneo and Sarawak, is a solitary, introverted and intelligent primate. The common chimp is often aggressive. One male, sometimes the unruffled psychopath, becomes the boss or president. Being the top male means he get lots of women and he also gets to attack other tribes.

"But note that chimps cooperate when they hunt for food," said Carmen. "And some chimps can be altruistic and kind. Do you know about the bonobo apes of Zaire."

"The what?"

"Bonobo. Now they are rather nice. Sociable, friendly, gentle. Ninety eight per cent of bonobo DNA is like that of human's. That's more than with the common chimp. With the bonobo there's equality between the males and the females. The young do it with the old, females do it with females, males do it with males and males do it with females."

"Do it?"

"Sex. Rubbing up against each other. It only lasts a few seconds."


"The bonobo are bisexual, but then Tom was telling me that bisexuality is the norm in the world of nature. And in non-Western countries."

"Tom, our friend who had the problems with a girlfriend called Kuntil?"

"That's the one. Tom was telling me about this German called Ferdinand Karsch-Haack who studied zoology at the beginning of the century."

"Tom told me about him while I was having a coffee in Kem Chicks."

"It seems Karsch-Haack found bisexual behaviour throughout the animal kingdom."

"Don't tell this stuff to your students," I said. "Some of them are a bit against Evolution and all that stuff."

"The point is that humans may not be inevitably violent, or inevitably anything," said Carmen. "If we are descended from apes, we may be lots of things."

"You're telling me primates are a mixture of the monogamous, the polygamous, the kindly and the cruel. Do you think you are descended from macaques, gibbons, chimps, or what?"

"Ah," said Carmen, giggling loudly, "I'm a combination of orang utan and bonobo."

"You seem to me to be a jolly bonobo," I said. "Now, where are we going to eat?" I was getting hungry and we could hear the sound of running water.

"Down by the river."

"What happens if there's a flash flood? It's the rainy season."

We sat on rocks well above the river, in the shade of tall trees. A gentle breeze kept the mosquitoes away.

"Now," said Carmen, as she unpacked our picnic, "Ikan pedis, sate ayam, rempah, sambal goreng buncis, sambal goreng telor. In other words, fish in cabbage leaf, chicken sate, beef and coconut patties, spicy fried vegetables, and spicy fried egg. Then there's fermented soybeans, peanut sauce, shrimp paste and the Nuits-St-Georges and that's about it. Apart from the cheese and the pastries."

"Carmen you've done an excellent job. Or rather, your maid has."

As we ate our modest meal we watched various forms of life parade along the opposite river bank. Half a dozen women were on their way to the secluded spot where they bathe, brush their teeth and do that sort of thing. An old man with a bike was going fishing. Three schoolgirls were skipping home from school.

"1994," said Carmen. "A good year for drinking this red stuff."

"Can the good times last? We must have passed a dozen new housing estates on the road to Bogor. Where's the money coming from?"


"Many of the roads are choked with Mercedes and much of the better land is covered in luxury houses. Something's wrong."

"There are predictions of a crash," said Carmen, as she finished off the Rocquefort cheese. "Most of these houses will never be bought. The banks will never get their money back."

"Will this APEC summit help the economy?"

"The Americans are only here to help the big American corporations." Carmen began giggling again.


Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Bangbang and Wisnu

I made one of my regular visits to Dr Joseph's Taman Clinic, to visit Wisnu.

"How is Bangbang?" asked the pretty little nurse who was sitting at a desk near the entrance. She looked about sixteen years old.

"Bangbang?" I said. It slowly dawned on me that the nurse was referring to the mentally backward and epileptic little boy I had found lying on the central reservation near Jakarta's World Trade Centre. It was Bangbang who had vanished from the Dipo Hospital, who had playfully punched people in the stomach and who had kept on running away from home.

"I used to work at the Dipo some mornings," said the nurse. "I remember Bangbang."

"It's ages since I've seen him," I confessed. "I must visit him sometime." I couldn't remember having seen this nurse at the Dipo, in spite of her having a strikingly cute and friendly little face.

Wisnu was wandering about heavily drugged. We went for a walk and came upon a huge church, some market gardens and rows of neat little middle class houses. This was an area with plenty of open space and light, an area where smiling children peddled about on bikes, and where cabbages and carrots didn't have to put up with too much in the way of traffic fumes.

Next evening I took a trip to Bangbang's house.

"How is he?" I asked his pregnant mum, after exchanging greetings at her front door. The house looked out onto an exceptionally busy main road.

"Gone again," she said, smiling in a dazed sort of way.

I was upset, but to a lesser degree than I would have been if Min had gone missing. I had helped Bangbang partly out of a sense of duty and had never seen him as a soul mate. "How long has he been missing?" I asked.

"Many months."

"Have you been out looking for him?"

"Come in and speak to my husband."

The narrow front room was full of skinny but happy-looking little children; and the settee on which I sat was still broken. Bangbang's grinning little father got up from his sewing machine and came and sat beside me.

"I've been to the place near Taman Mini where the police take mad adults," he said. "Bangbang wasn't there. I've looked everywhere. This is the longest time he's ever been absent."

As I was being driven home, my eyes scanned the poorly lit streets for any little figure who might be sitting huddled in a doorway or lying asleep under a wooden cart. I never did see Bangbang again.


Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Sometime in December, there was an evening phone call from Juriah, the mother of Nur, the boy from Teluk Gong who had had an abscess on the brain and who had died at the Dipo Hospital.

"Nur's younger brother, Didi, has toothache," she said. "Can Didi go with your driver tomorrow to the Teluk Gong Hospital?" Juriah's voice was pleading, like that of one of these persistent beggars in the market. Pleading and annoying.

"Toothache!" I said. "He doesn't need to go to the hospital just for toothache."

"It's very bad toothache," she said.

"The hospital is for things like TB and typhoid," I said.


"How old is he?"


"Well, you can meet my driver outside Min's house about nine in the morning. The driver's meeting about half a dozen kids. See what the doctor says. But the hospital's meant to be for serious illnesses."

At the end of the next school day, Mo, my driver, told me how he had got on that morning at the Hospital.

"Do you remember Nur's mother?" said Mo, as we drove sedately in a homeward direction.

"Yes. Her son's got toothache."

"The doctor says Didi's got tetanus."

"Tetanus! Has he been admitted to the hospital?" My heart began to pound as I remembered what had happened to Aldi, Min's brother.


"Why not?" I sounded more than irate.

"I thought I'd better ask your permission first."

"Of course I'd give permission. Where's Didi now?" My driver seemed to lack basic common sense.

"Back home in Teluk Gong."

"Did the doctor want him admitted?"


"Well he should have been admitted." I wanted to hit someone.

"Yes, Mr Kent."

"OK. Let's go to Didi's house at full speed. Every second counts with tetanus."

Mo put his foot down extra hard on the accelerator and we overtook everything we could. On the long narrow road called Srengseng the traffic was hardly moving. When the lights turned in our favour at the intersection with Pos Pengumben they were green for only a few seconds. Yet there was only a trickle of traffic on the other road. We chugged along and at last reached a wider thoroughfare.

"Faster!" I called to Mo. Normally I tell drivers to slow down but now I was feeling reckless. Mo certainly could drive fast when he had to. We reached Didi's house and sped with the little boy and his mum to the Teluk Gong Hospital.

Didi was admitted to a first class ward, not third class as had been the case with Min's brother at the Pertama Hospital. Six-year-old Didi had a funny little face and seemed to be not over-bright. He didn't look as ill as Aldi had done.

"How is Didi?" I asked the young doctor. My voice was as shaky as my hands.

"He's got tetanus, TB and pneumonia."

Mo drove me slowly back towards the centre of town. I needed to take my mind off things and so had supper at the Hilton. I thought it was nice to be in the same hotel as President Clinton.


Monday, October 24, 2005


In his comfortable private room in the Teluk Gong hospital, little Didi was sitting up in bed watching TV and finishing off an apple. Both he and his mum were smiling contentedly.

"He can go home today," said a trim little nurse who had followed me into the room.

"Tetanus gone? Pneumonia gone?" I asked.

"Yes," said the nurse. "He's still got the TB so he'll need to come back regularly to the clinic for treatment."

"He got rid of the tetanus without too much difficulty?"

"We caught it early," said the nurse. "The mother did the right thing."

I felt good inside.

During the first week of January 1995 I was occupying the 'VIP room' of a small Arab-owned hotel in the centre of Bogor. Water leaked through the bathroom ceiling and the first electric socket I tried to use broke into several pieces. However, my spacious room had air conditioning and I was enjoying my winter break.

The heavy rains had come at last which meant that, at certain times in the afternoon, it was wise to take shelter in Bogor's shops and markets. While standing under the canopy of a food stall, protecting myself from a deluge, I took photos of two happy little boys doing an impromptu dance with each other in the middle of the flooded street. Moving from shop to shop in the rain was not a problem as barefoot boys with umbrellas were, as usual, escorting the rich from one shop to the next. Each young boy carries only one umbrella, so the wealthy shoppers stay dry while the umbrella boys, in their thin, dripping wet shirts and shorts, can get shiveringly cold. The umbrella boys are paid a few pennies for their services.

During my morning walks I could see one of the results of the rains: more soil, and more houses, were slipping towards the muddy brown rivers.

On one of my strolls through a poor kampung in the middle of Bogor I got chatting to a group of plump giggling mothers. One of them told me about a little girl called Yanni who was very sick. My driver took Yanni, a sweet little ten year-old, to the nearby Menteng Hospital.

Half way through my stay, I visited Yanni at the hospital and found she was successfully recovering from typhoid. In the next bed to Yanni lay a six year old boy whose name I discovered was Mukmin. He looked like he had a sick headache and there was something about him of the shrivelled yellow durian.

"What's wrong with the child?" I asked the boy's hollow-cheeked dad, who was packing some ragged clothing into an old plastic bag.

"He's had a fever and stomach ache." The dad's voice and body language seemed gentle and polite.

"Are you taking him home today?"


"How far away do you live?"

"It's five hours by bus."

"Is he better? He looks ill."

"The hospital wants its bill paid today. We've had to borrow a lot of money. We can't borrow any more."

"I don't think Mukmin's ready to go home."

"My wife's been staying here in hospital with Mukmin. She needs to get back to the other children. She's not been to work for some days."

I spoke to a comfortably-built nurse drinking tea in her office. "What's wrong with Mukmin?"

"Fever," she said, looking up from her brochure which advertised a new housing estate and golf course.

"What kind of fever?"

"Like flu."

"Is he better?"

"The father's taking him home today." She smiled reassuringly.

A slightly overweight doctor came in and sat down at a desk covered in files. "What's wrong with Mukmin?" I asked him.

"Typhoid and TB," he said, while sorting his files.

"Is he ready to go home?"

"No. He needs at least another week in hospital," said the frowning doctor, looking up briefly. "But the family insists on taking him home."

I went back to the ward and spoke to Mukmin's dad who was adjusting the strap on his son's plastic sandals.

"If I pay for all of Mukmin's treatment, will you let him stay another week in hospital?" I asked.

"My wife needs to get back to work," he said.

"Do you want me to pay?"

"Yes." He grinned sheepishly.

"And you'll let him stay another week?"

"Mukmin wants to go home."

"I won't pay unless you let Mukmin stay another week. And then he'll need to come back to the hospital once a month for TB medicine. I can pay for that."

"My wife wants to get home."

The argument progressed for about fifteen minutes until it eventually sank into the man's head that, if the lad stayed a little longer in hospital, then this mad foreigner would give them the money they needed to pay back their debts. When he saw me take bundles of notes from my money belt, something clicked. Mukmin got back into bed. The dad then went off to find his wife who had evidently been buying some food at a stall on the street outside the hospital.


Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ramadan again

At the beginning of February, I had my annual chat about Islam and politics with my former-neighbour Mr Samsu, the retired university teacher who reminded me of a friendly little polar bear. We sat on comfortable chairs in the shaded back garden of his bungalow. No drinks were on offer.

"Ramadan again," I said. "The mosques seem absolutely packed."

"As you know," said Samsu, "Ramadan teaches us what it's like to be poor and hungry. However, you'll have noticed it has an unfortunate effect on services by the Post Office and hospitals. It's not a good idea to get sick during Idul Fitri."

"You mean the good doctors are all away on holiday?"

"That's it."

"Do you think Islam is growing in influence?" I asked.

"What do you think?"

"I seem to see a few more women in the countryside who're wearing Islamic clothing. I also hear complaints that the president has too many Christians in his cabinet."

"There are various forces at work," said Samsu. "The president is worried about the loyalty of some sections of the army. Some in the army criticise the President's children and his rich Chinese business partners. So the president may be becoming more friendly with certain orthodox Moslem groups. He may be thinking of putting more Moslems in his cabinet."

"It's a question of alliances."

"Yes. And maybe the intelligence services have warned the president of the dangers of not keeping in with Islamic groups that are becoming more important. Look at how Moslem protesters forced the government to abandon the idea of a national lottery."

"Why is there more Islamic militancy?"

"Remember that the majority of Moslems here are moderate, and their Islam contains a touch of mysticism and a sprinkling of Hinduism and Buddhism. However, there is a minority of Moslems who have been influenced by conservative ideas from the Middle East; that means Saudi Arabia, which is allied to America. The Saudis, and the Pentagon, prefer governments that are fundamentalist and easy to control."

"Religious rather than secular."

"That's right. But then some people in India want a completely Hindu state and some Israelis want a state run by orthodox Jews."

"What would happen here if they had free elections?"

"The secularists and moderate Moslems would win," said Samsu, sounding confident of his words. "The president, and his American backers, don't want those two groups allying against the government."

"But Islam is becoming a bigger force in society?"

"Yes. Partly due to ideas from the Middle East and partly due to politics. Then there's another factor. There's the economic situation. This country has growing debts, too much red tape and too much corruption. You can't trust the police or the courts. Some people turn to Islam as an escape from the uncertainty. Then there are some Indonesians who simply don't want a world of computers and high-rise flats. They don't want to work in an office or factory all day like the Singaporeans. They would prefer a simple Moslem culture which is rural in character."

"Some of the protests in this country seem to be very well organised," I said. I had been reading my Jakarta Post.

"It's rumoured that certain Moslem sects are set up, financed and controlled by rich and powerful individuals."

"Is there a lot of that sort of thing?"

"It's possible that rich businessmen, even Chinese-Indonesian ones, could buy a militia, even soldiers. When soldiers dress up as civilian protesters, who knows who they're working for. Who owns the different units of the special forces, the strategic reserve command or the intelligence services?"

"The government and the people?"

"Not necessarily. This is in some ways a feudal society where the loyalty of barons is often in doubt."


Saturday, October 22, 2005

Piste Top and Plato

In the Piste Top nightclub, with its mirrors and expensive black furnishings, Carmen and I were sipping Benedictines and waiting for the glamorous young Filipino band.

"What do you think of Rosa, the lead singer?" asked Carmen.

"She's got a nice pantat," I commented.

Seconds later I became aware of a figure behind me.

"Ah, Rosa, how are you tonight?" asked Carmen.

"About to go on stage," said Rosa, "and I'm sakit perut. Diarrhoea."

"Want something for it?" asked Carmen.

"I'll be OK. I've taken a tablet." So saying, she exited stage left.

"I'm not so sure about her pantat," I said.

"We should try to see absolute beauty, divine beauty," said Carmen, straight faced. "That is beauty not corrupted by human flesh. Beauty that's not a pile of perishable rubbish. Think of an angel that never needs to go to the loo."


"That's from Plato. The Symposium. Not the bit about the angel, but the rest of it."


"This Greek bloke," said Carmen, giggling loudly. "About three hundred years before Christ. He wrote things."

"What did he say about Filipino singers?"

"In The Symposium it says we fall in love with one particular person. Like I fell in love with my doe-faced friend, at university, and then I realised it wasn't just my friend I fancied. There were lots of good looking people. And anyway, my friend had some disgusting habits and was no angel."


"Right. Plato and Socrates. Eventually we learn to love all physical beauty, not just one particular person."

"Is that good or bad?."

"Good if it means we're not a slave to one individual's cuteness."


"Yeah. The next stage is when we realise that the beauty of the soul is more important that the beauty of the body. Think of Min. Think of a handicapped child."

"Min. Yes. I like the little soul, but not his body. Min may sometimes seem a little odd but he's got a sweet nature."

"My university friend was not always sweet-natured. And isn't it strange how quickly someone changes from looking like a doe to looking like a hippo."

"So what else does Plato say?"

"We're looking for the kind of beauty that's eternal. Absolute beauty. Not beauty that only lasts a few years. Eternal beauty's more valuable than gold or heroin. When we see divine beauty we'll do good things. We'll act morally. We'll be loved by God and become immortal."

"Sounds sort of Greek?"

"It ties in with some Christianity and Buddhism."

The band started singing something about "Money, money, money..."

"They should be playing Mahler," said Carmen.

At the interval I had a question for Carmen. "Plato believed that if we have a knowledge of divine beauty we will do the right thing. Plato might say that if Hitler had had more knowledge, he wouldn't have been so evil? But don't some people freely choose to do what they know is wrong? And aren't mentally backward people often more kind and decent than highly educated people?"

"Morality isn't just a matter of knowledge," said Carmen. "Effort comes in somewhere. And suffering and self sacrifice. And learning from one's mistakes. And love and goodness. Lots of things."

"Life is a puzzle."

"Have you read Kierkegaard?" asked Carmen. "Good bloke Kierkegaard."

"What did he say?"

"He said, 'I believe that which is absurd.'"

"Sounds sensible to me. Very sensible."


Friday, October 21, 2005


It was a muggy Saturday morning and I was standing in the garden area in front of Bogor's Menteng Hospital. Butterflies were fluttering happily around the magnolia flowers, two schoolboys were enjoying a pretend-fight on the grass, but I was not in the best of moods. Mukmin and his family were supposed to have turned up before ten o' clock. It was now eleven o' clock and there was no sign of them. Six-year-old Mukmin had recovered from his typhoid but he still needed medicine for his TB.

"Where do you think they are?" I asked Mo, my driver.

"Perhaps they've gone off to visit relations. This is what happens after Ramadan."

I was not only worried about Mukmin but also about sad little Agosto, the boy who lived in the shack under the dark trees. The previous week, Agosto had been looking like a Boticelli angel, grown thin and grey. I was feeling guilty at having done so little for Agosto after he had been orphaned by the death of Ciah, his mother. He had never looked well since the time he had had typhoid. There was something gloomy about the boy that sometimes made me want to avoid his company.

"Can you go to Agosto's house," I said to Mo, "and get him to come to the hospital for a check up. I'll wait here in case Mukmin arrives." Mo drove off in the direction of Bogor Baru.

I sat on a wooden bench, shaded by sweet-smelling trees, and watched a series of hospital patients come and go. Spindly-legged creatures shuffled past in dusty torn sandals; women with fat brown legs stepped smartly by in polished leather shoes; there was a distant wail from a small child.

I took a look at my newspaper and began studying an article about a novel called 'Pale Fire' by the author Vladimir Nabokov. According to the article, Nabokov was making the argument that there is a lot of chaos in life. Accidents happen. People do not always achieve the objectives they desire. How true.

There was a slight 'bleep bleep' sound which made me look up from my paper. Sitting on the bench opposite was a toddler with a bruise on one leg. This child was being guarded by a teenage girl with an almost-too-short skirt and a preteen boy playing an electronic game. I might have been irritated by the 'bleep bleep' from the game but instead I was charmed by the lyrical good looks of this trio. The girl wore cheap plastic sandals but she had a face that would not have been out of place among the film stars in Cannes. I suspected that nature was better than any scientist at producing beautiful people, or beautiful magnolias.

Minutes before the children's clinic closed, little Mukmin and his father came striding through the hospital's front entrance. We were just in time to get him his TB medicine.

"Why were you late?" I asked the dad as we stood outside the doctor's surgery.

"It's a five hour bus journey," he said, with a friendly smile. Mukmin gave me a charmingly shy grin.

Then I noticed Mukmin's left eye. It looked squint and dull. "What happened to his eye?" I asked.

"Last week some kid hit him with a stick. They were playing a game."

"What did the doctor say?"

"Nothing they can do. But he can see OK with the other eye."

I had felt good when Mukmin had got rid of his typhoid. It was me who had persuaded the father to keep the child in hospital long enough for a full recovery. But now Mukmin's permanently injured left eye seemed to be forcefully reminding me yet again that life is not a long quiet river.

"See you in a month's time," I said to Mukmin, as he and his dad hurried off to get their bus.

Mo returned without Agosto. "Where is he?" I asked.

"He doesn't want to come to the hospital," said Mo.

We drove to Agosto's damp shack under the trees.

"Hello Mister Kent," mumbled Agosto, who now resembled some miserable Dickensian waif.

"You look unwell," I said.

"I've got a cough."

"We'd better take you to a doctor. Then I can give you some money for food."

As we drove into the centre of Bogor I spotted a sign saying 'doctor' and asked the driver to stop. The sign was outside an orphanage which was housed in a home-made-looking house. In a brown-walled surgery, a thin middle aged man, with the look of a junior clerk, asked Agosto some questions and then opened the drawer of his desk. He took out three different pills from a mixed assortment and handed them to the boy.

"What's wrong with Agosto and why is he only getting one of each type of pill?" I asked.

"This pill," said the man, "is paracetamol for headaches. This pill is for malaria. And the third one is an antibiotic for the cough."

"One antibiotic pill will not cure a cough," I said, in a tone intended to imply angry contempt.

"I only have one of those tablets left," he said, sounding flustered.

"Are you a doctor?"

"No. I work for the Health Ministry." He looked down at the ground.

"I don't think you know what's wrong with Agosto. One malaria pill is not going to do much good. It's ridiculous." I was nearly shouting. I hadn't eaten or had anything to drink since breakfast time.

"I only have one of each pill. It's all I have left of these particular ones."

"I'm going to the hospital to meet a real doctor!" I snarled.

At the Menteng Hospital, the children's clinic was closed, but at three in the afternoon we were able to see a hospital doctor who gave Agosto a quick examination.

"Bronchitis," said the tired looking medic, who was losing some of his dark hair. "I'll give you a prescription for an antibiotic."

"It's not malaria?"

"Definitely not."


Thursday, October 20, 2005


The following Friday, I had just got home from work when there was a phone call from Agosto’s married sister.

"Agosto’s very ill. He needs to go into hospital immediately," she said.

"Has he got a fever?"

"Yes. Can you come at once?"

"I’ll send my driver immediately and Agosto can go straight into hospital."

When Mo got back from delivering Agosto to Bogor’s Menteng Hospital, he related that the child again had typhoid and that the doctor was worried that the disease had been present for three weeks already.

On the Saturday morning I arrived at Agosto’s bedside. He was in that gloomy part of the hospital reserved for the most gravely ill and was linked to various tubes. His skin was grey, his flesh was pinched, and the lack of recognition in his face suggested he was semiconscious. What made me most pessimistic and distressed was the fact that the pupils of his eyes were rolling about in a wild erratic way.

"How’s Agosto?" I asked the only nurse on duty.

"He’s got encephalitis. It’s a virus that affects the brain," replied the very young man.

"Can I speak to a doctor?"

"A lot of the doctors are on holiday," said the nurse. "Idul Fitri holiday. End of Ramadan."

"Is there a doctor in the hospital?"

"In the Casualty Ward." The nurse walked away.

I took Agosto’s hand and squeezed it. I could feel him squeeze my hand in return. I found that comforting.

Seated next to the bed was Agosto’s brother-in-law, a distressed looking youth, not much older than Agosto. No sign of the sister.

An elderly surgeon came in to look at a female patient and as he was about to depart I approached him with a question.

"How’s Agosto?"

"Not my patient," he said, looking a bit confused.

The nurse came over to speak to me. "Better not to touch the boy," he said softly. "You might catch the encephalitis."

I went to wash my hands.

That evening I got a phone call to say that Agosto had died not long after I had left the ward.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Some time after the death of Agosto I remembered a conversation I had had with Sally, our school nurse. That conversation had been after the death of Agosto’s mother.

Sally had explained that people living besides rice fields can get infected with bacteria that cause Leptospirosis. The Leptospirosis can lead to encephalitis. One symptom of the illness can be a big red spot, a purpura. Agosto had had a purpura on his thigh. I wondered if the doctors in Bogor had got their diagnosis correct?

Life continued and various sick children I had encountered during my walkabouts got better. Two children recovered from typhoid, one recovered from tetanus, and one had her tonsils out. Aisa was nearly rid of her TB.

Min was growing bigger, and his behaviour, like that of a two year-old, could still be difficult on occasions. One-eyed Mustapha, frustrated by Min’s occasional obstinacy, had given up his attempts to be Min’s friend and minder. As a result, Min was being looked after increasingly by his older brother Wardi. I wondered how long Wardi would be willing to be Min’s minder. Wardi was going to get married to a beautiful Sundanese girl.

The garden in front of Jakarta’s little, white, classical-style Anglican church is a peaceful place, even though it is in the centre of Jakarta, opposite a major traffic roundabout and the busy Aryaduta Hotel. One Sunday, at the get-together in the garden after the morning service, I found myself in conversation with a tall, thin, Danish businessman called Ben. There was something both tranquil and jovial about the young man.

"So, where does evil come from?" I asked Ben, as we sipped orange juice. I had been telling him about the death of Agosto and about Mukmin’s accident to his eye; and that morning’s sermon had mentioned evil.

"Have you heard of Axel Munthe?" asked Ben. "The Swedish doctor who wrote about his life in his villa on Capri."

"The Story of San Michele," I said. I had read this beautiful book.

"Well, Munthe puzzled about God appearing to be so kind on the one hand in giving us the beauty of an island like Capri, and appearing to be so cruel on the other hand in letting a small child suffer a long painful choking death. Munthe described the agony of holding the quivering hands of patients who were dying. Now, I think we all share Munthe’s puzzlement at some time."

"Yet you still attend church," I said. "I hardly ever come here. What’s your answer to the puzzle of life?"

"Maybe the kingdom of heaven is within us. Maybe it is us who cause illness. When I was aged about thirteen, I used to have asthma. I used to wonder what it was that was taking my breath away? Then I decided that the problem was anger and conflict with my parents and friends and avoidance of the rough and tumble of teenage life. When I relaxed and came to accept the people around me, I got better."

"But is all illness psychological?" I asked.

"Let’s take the question of why someone keeps on getting ill or having accidents. For example, I might have a number of different symptoms but they may have just one underlying cause, such as insufficient love. This lack of love may give me high blood pressure. This symptom, high blood pressure, can be treated with pills; but if the lack of love is still there, a new symptom can emerge, such as glaucoma. I can get the glaucoma treated, but the lack of love is still there and may lead me to having an accident or some incurable disease. And after death I might be reborn with some handicap. In other words this life is only a tiny part of my education."

"So love is the key?"

"Heaven, paradise or nirvana are supposed to be places of oneness and harmony. To get harmony and balance in my life I have to love absolutely everyone; I have to always handle anger, fear and guilt in a sensible way; I have to have no selfish longing for money or revenge or power."

"Getting ill could be caused by poverty and germs," I pointed out, thinking of Agosto’s impoverished circumstances.

"I agree," he said, with a big smile. "But why does one child get typhoid and another not? I’m in favour of improving nutrition and hygiene, but I believe we also have to consider deeper causes. We can also consider the Buddhist argument that suffering is inevitable in a finite world."

"Finite world?"

"In a finite world like ours, you get opposites, light and dark, male and female, good and evil. Some conflict is inevitable, some illness is inevitable and some suffering is inevitable."

"It can be difficult for some people to believe there’s any meaning in life when they see a child dying."

"I agree," said Ben. "But for life to have come about, you probably need that something that we call God. Think of my cat playing with a word processor and accidentally typing out the works of Hans Christian Andersen. So many things had to be just right in order for life to come about. It suggests some kind of spirit or consciousness behind it all."

"Unless you have an infinite number of universes?"

"There may be parallel universes, and maybe one day my cat will produce Thumbelina and the Ugly Duckling. You know the thing that convinces me most about there being a meaning in life is the near-death experience. Opinion polls have shown that millions of people have had these."

"That’s when someone has been declared dead by the doctor," I said. "But they come back to life and describe having seen a bright light and having encountered something like angels."

"Yes, sometimes. But the important point is this. Some of these people have described floating out of their bodies and being able to see and here things, even in rooms next door to where they were lying dead."

"So you think that consciousness does not need the brain?"

"Exactly! And another thing. Look at the patterns in life. The more you give, the more you get. You reap what you sow. Forgive and you’ll be forgiven. I’ve found these things are true. There seems to be a sort of divine law."

"If there’s a divine law, why do we get mosquitoes?"

"Free will. Maybe each individual life-form chooses what it wants to become. And some life-form chose to become a mosquito."

"That’s possible, but I’ve always been puzzled by why one being chooses to be good and another being chooses to be evil. The sermon talked about Adam making the wrong choice."

"We all seem like competing individuals making individual choices, but ultimately we are all one individual. What I mean is that we all came from God, and we all have the same lessons to learn, in a whole variety of lives. Maybe in a previous life I was like Hitler. So we are all pretty much the same. I am no better than you and you are no better than me."

"You obviously believe in free will."

"We have Sartre’s ‘dreadful freedom’ to choose our way of living, and the dreadful worry that we’re responsible for all our actions."


"Maybe it’s not so dreadful. Coming here to Jakarta gave me fantastic freedom. Away from the conventions of Europe, I could do anything here. I could be a saint or a sinner, a cow boy or a clown. That’s why faith is important."


"Kierkegaard has a story."

"Someone else mentioned him." I was remembering Carmen.

"A prince, that is God, wants to marry a humble girl, that is the human who has no true knowledge of what life is all about, the human who sees life as possibly meaningless. The prince can marry her only if she loves him for his goodness, not because he is rich and powerful. If he shows her his wealth and power, she may marry him for the wrong reasons, so he hides his powers and the benefits of marrying him. The girl has to make a leap of faith. She has to have faith in the absurd teachings of Jesus."

A dark haired woman with Italian-good-looks had been listening in to the latter part of our conversation. Ben introduced her to me as his wife. Her warm smile suggested she was as good-natured as her husband.

"We’ve got to go," said Ben. "Lunch invitation in Tanah Kusir. Hope I’ve not bored you."

"Not at all," I said, "You’ve given me a lot to think about. And what you’ve been saying is a lot more logical than most sermons."

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


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?"


Monday, October 17, 2005

Asep, Mukmin, Dede, Tikus

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.


Sunday, October 16, 2005


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.


Saturday, October 15, 2005

Wisnu and Panti Bambu

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."


Friday, October 14, 2005


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.


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Yin and Yang

Jakarta, by thebigdurian

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.


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My driver, Mo

Dutch East Indies, 1912, from chiesavecchia collection © All rights reserved.

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.


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."