Saturday, October 01, 2005


I was walking alongside the railway track, near Batutulis in Bogor. The sky was a perfect blue and the shacks and gardens on either side of the line were alive with noisy cockerels and happy children.

"Hello, mister," said a schoolboy, in white shirt and red shorts, who had walked up behind me from the direction of a mosque. "Where are you going?"

"Just out for a walk," I said. "Is the track safe?"

"Safe, mister. Not the roads though. My little sister had an accident." The boy looked worried.

"What happened?"

"Hit by a car. Broke her leg."

"Did the car stop?"


"Is she in hospital?"

"She’s gone to the dukun."

"She’d be better at the hospital. The dukun’s a faith healer, isn’t he?"

"Like a doctor. Do you want to meet my sister, and the dukun?"

"OK. Is it far?" I thought it would be interesting to see if the dukun really was helping the little sister; and if he was not, then perhaps I could offer to take the girl to a proper hospital.

"Not far. Up in the hills."

"Fifteen minutes by car?"

"Fifteen minutes."

"We’d better consult your mother. What’s your name?"


Mother, an apparently shy woman, didn’t want to come with us and so Mono and I set off up into the hills with my driver. The track became twisting, steep and potholed and the vegetation turned to something close to jungle.

"You said fifteen minutes," I complained to Mono. "It’s been almost an hour so far."

"Nearly there," he said.

The dukun’s house, when we got there, was a plain Dutch-style bungalow in a tiny village. Mono led me through the front room, where one or two youths lounged on ancient armchairs, and on into a dingy bedroom where the boy’s young sister lay on a mattress, next to an older female companion. The sister looked as if she wasn’t enjoying her experience.

The dukun entered the room and we were introduced. He was a giant of a man, aged around fifty; he wore baggy trousers and looked as if he could have been a retired boxer; his face had a solemn, battered appearance.

"How’s the patient?" I asked.

"Almost better," said the dukun. He took the girl’s hand and she stood up. I was impressed. But I was still a little worried in case the bones had not been set completely correctly, or in case there was any infection.

"Shouldn’t she have an x-ray in the hospital?" I said to the girl’s companion, whom I took to be a relative. "I’ll pay for hospital treatment."

"No, thank you," she replied quietly but firmly.

"How can you treat patients without antibiotics and x-rays?" I said to the dukun. I tried to sound friendly.

"My father taught me how to set bones," he said solemnly.

"Can you cure fevers?" I asked.

"I deal with bones."

"In Britain, where I come from, we tend to use x-rays when a leg gets broken."

"Hmm," said the dukun.

I felt I had been undiplomatic and decided to say something more friendly. "My driver told me about a dukun who lives near me in Jakarta, in Rempoa. I think I’ll go and see him sometime. His name’s Ariri. Do you know him?"

"No," said the dukun.

"I get sinus problems sometimes. And a stiff neck. I’m told he massages people’s feet."

The giant dukun said nothing. This seemed to be an indication that it was time to shake the man’s hand, make my departure and return Mono to his home.

When I got back to Jakarta, I decided, on an impulse, to pay a visit to Ariri, my local dukun.

I have always been a little bit wary of the paranormal; I have tended to take the attitude that it is probably better not to dabble in such things, unless you can be sure that you are dealing with good, as opposed to evil, forces. I had once read about experiments carried out at the University of Manitoba in the 1950s. According to a report in a learned journal, a Hungarian healer had succeeded in bringing about a faster than average cure of some sick mice. He had also managed to get some plants to grow faster than normal. I did not rule out the possibility that certain dukuns could on occasions have a beneficial effect on people’s health.

At a dinner party in London, given by an Italian Countess, I had been introduced to a numerologist, an elderly gentleman of dandified appearance. This numerologist, who had apparently given consultations to Winston Churchill, had promised, in return for being given my date of birth, to give me some free advice. He said that after doing some mathematical calculations at home he would send me information about my role in life. I hesitated at first; but then decided that the man sounded as if he was on the side of the angels, so to speak.

A few days later a small envelope arrived and inside was a much folded piece of blue paper on which were written three sentences. The numerologist had written that I was a negotiator, that I should do more to avoid false pride and the things of the flesh, and that I should get more exercise.

He seemed remarkably accurate about the false pride; I wasn’t so sure about the things of the flesh.

The foot-massaging dukun, Ariri, lived in a relatively poor kampung, in a small bungalow filled with children. He was comfortably built, bright eyed, and easy to talk to. I felt reassured. After seating me on a wooden chair, he began some foot reflexology, squeezing each of my toes in turn and pressing hard against various other parts of the foot. In a mixture of Indonesian and English, we got chatting about dukuns.

"How did you learn to be a dukun?" I asked.

"My father taught me," he said, with a big smile.

"I’ve heard there are both good and bad dukuns ," I said, perhaps unwisely. "Are there any bad dukuns?"

"Lots of bad ones," he admitted. "Be very careful."

I had heard of dukuns who were incompetent and who had failed to get people better; I had been told that when a patient had diarrhoea, a dukun might spray water at the patient with his mouth; sometimes a dukun would burn a piece of mystical writing over a glass of water and then get the patient to take a drink; dukuns often acted as midwifes and in the past this had sometimes meant dirty hands and dirty equipment.

"What do the bad ones do?" I asked.

"They harm people," said the dukun, without smiling. "Sometimes they kill people. Good dukuns can help people who’ve been affected by bad dukuns."

"What makes these things work?"

"A kind of energy."

"Do you believe in spirits?"


"Where do they come from?"

"Everything has a physical body and a spirit body. The same with plants and animals."



"How do you know there are spirits?"

"What makes something come alive? Where were you before you were born?"

"Don’t know."

"The spirit enters the body and leaves the body. Dukuns try to treat the spirit, not just the body. But now I am treating your body."

He squeezed my big toe and I squealed.

"How does that help?" I asked. "It’s agony when you hit that spot."

"It helps the energy to flow."

My neck, shoulders and sinuses felt much better that evening. And I was pleased that I had met some dukuns whose views were not necessarily unreasonable.