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.