Friday, September 23, 2005


Walking near the mental hospital in Bogor’s Babakan district, I passed a group of small children playing football in a muddy field. Like most Indonesian boys they knew how to enjoy themselves and they had few inhibitions. They skated on the slippery red earth, hurled themselves into puddles, and wallowed in mucky wetness like happy little hippos. When they stood up they shook mud from their hair, wiped mud from their cheeks and eyelids, and slapped mud off the seats of their shorts.

Sitting under a mango tree, dressed in Islamic headgear, were three teenage girls, one with a motorbike. They giggled as some of the boys made their tummy muscles ripple or did clownish handstands and cartwheels which always ended in more floundering in the mud.

My conscience was troubling me as I had not visited the mental hospital for some time. I called in at the office of the children’s ward to speak to the nurses on duty and was told that over in the Merdeka ward there was one little boy who was rather sick.

The large open courtyard of the Merdeka ward was peaceful and sunny in the way that a farmyard or orphanage in Rumania could be peaceful and sunny; in one corner an elderly patient was helping to feed a malnourished friend who was lying on a lumpy mattress; in another corner a ragged woman was scratching her hair.

"This is Firdaus," said the motherly nurse in charge of the office, as she patted the head of a boy aged about ten. "The police found him on the railway track. He can’t speak."

Firdaus had a most appealing appearance apart from egg-sized bumps on his forehead and absolutely enormous lumpy fleshy scars on his chest. It looked as if, at some time in the past, he had been involved in a major accident or been attacked by a maniac; and not had his wounds attended to by a doctor.

"He doesn’t look very happy," I said.

"He’s depressed. No family. No friends," said the nurse.

I took him for a walk around the hospital grounds and bought him some chocolate milk and some savoury snacks. On our way back to the ward, he squeezed my hand and stared at me hard. His big gentle innocent eyes told me he was feeling a little better.