Sunday, March 01, 2009

Dede, Oman and Nurul

I wandered alongside one of Bogor’s red-brown river gorges. To my right was the volcano, Mount Salak. To my left little kampung houses were clinging to a series of steep terraces; colour was provided by sky blue doors, red-brown cockerels in cages and sheeny pink bougainvillea in tiny gardens; a food cart vendor was seeking attention by knocking on a hollow bamboo stick; a young girl in a too short skirt was slowly climbing some wide stone steps; drifting down the river was a raft covered in semi-naked children.

"Hey mister. Come in." It was the voice of young Dede, fan of English football, and brother of the fragrant and beautiful Rama. Dede, dressed in school uniform, was sitting on the wall outside his house.

"OK," I said, pleased to have some company.

Once seated on the concrete floor of his front room, Dede took a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it with a match he had rubbed against the wall. He began blowing smoke rings. There was a slight movement of the curtain leading to the bedroom, suggesting someone was on the other side.

Seated on the lumpy settee, I looked at a framed photo positioned on top of the TV. In the photo, Rama was holding hands with a tall, ungainly young man with a big forehead, hollow cheeks and a facial expression suited to a spivvish barrow-boy.

"My sister," said Dede. "She’s got engaged."

"To the man in the photo?" I asked with a slight croak in my voice. It seemed incredulous that Rama should want to marry someone so less attractive than herself.

"Does he live near here?"

"Round the corner," said Dede. "His mum is friends with my mum. They’re distant relations."

Before I had time to think too deeply about Rama’s fate, a small boy, dressed in a sarong, appeared at the open door and stared in. He was accompanied by a grey old lady I took to be his granny.

"This is Hadi," said Dede, pointing in the direction of the elfin kid. "He’s just been circumcised."

"Brave chap," I said.

"Hadi," said Dede, addressing the lad, "show mister where you’ve had the operation."

The boy grinned and shook his head.

"Want to see my barbet?" asked Dede, cocking his head to one side.

"Your what?"

"Barbet," said Dede, dark eyes widening.


"Do you like barbets?" asked Dede. "I’ll show you it."

He went into the small front garden and returned with a tiny quivering object.

"Do you like birds?" he said, as he opened his hands to reveal the feathery fledgling.

"Yes, but not in cages," I said, feeling sorry for the creature. "There are hardly any birds in the trees around here. They’re all in cages."

He sat on the floor and let the bird walk over his head.

"Be careful. It may not be clean," I advised. "You don’t want to catch some disease."

"Oman’s ill," said Dede.

"Who’s Oman?" I asked.

"A little kid down the road," said Hadi. "He’s got typhoid."

"Has he been to the doctor?" I asked, suspecting that I already knew the answer.

"The dukun’s been to see him," said Dede. "And, his aunt’s ill as well."

"What’s wrong with her?" I said.

"She’s all swollen up," said Hadi.

"Has she seen a doctor?" I asked.

"No," said Dede. "The dukun treated her as well."

"We’d better go and see them," I said, with some reluctance. I felt I had already had enough hassle for the day.

Dede led me to a white walled kampung house inside which were lots of small rooms, all dingy, dark and untidy. There were grubby paw marks on walls; and in one room, piles of threadbare clothes covered a torn settee. We entered a room smelling of rotting meat. Lying on a mattress on the floor was a middle aged woman, named Nurul, whose legs and arms looked swollen to twice their normal size.
"Have you seen a doctor?" I asked.

"She’s been getting treatment from the dukun," said a young man standing by the door. "The dukun did something which made her bleed. But she’s no better."

"She looks fevered. How long has she been like this?" I said.

"Maybe ten days," said the young man.

"Do you want to go to the hospital, if I pay?" I asked Nurul.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Where’s Oman?" I said.

I was taken into a room off a back courtyard. Ten year old Oman, who was lying on a settee, looked like a skeletal creature from a Japanese internment camp.

"Has he seen a doctor?" I asked.

"We took him to the government clinic," said a plump woman with a kindly face and broken sandals. "They gave him some pills for typhoid, but they didn’t work."

"You got pills for how many days?" I inquired.

"Three days," said the woman.

"Did you go back to the clinic when the pills were finished?"

"No," she said, smiling.

"How long ago was that?"

"About a week ago." She looked unsure.

"Do you want him to go to the hospital?"

"He’s been to the dukun," she said, avoiding looking at me.

"But he’s not better," I pointed out.

"Give us the money for the hospital and we’ll go later," said a man who appeared at the door of the room. Unshaven, and dressed in a snazzy shirt, he looked like a down-market used-car-salesman.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Joko, Oman’s father," said the man.

"Why can’t we go to the hospital now?" I asked.

"I’ve got to go off to the market to work," said Joko. "My wife’s got to look after the other children."

"We’ve got to go now," I insisted. "Look. Nurul’s being taken now." Six young men had appeared carrying the sick woman on a stretcher.

Joko put Oman on his shoulders and we set off towards my van.

At the Menteng Hospital the doctor looked worried after examining Nurul.

"She suffers from diabetes," said the doctor, "but she’s also got septicaemia, blood poisoning. She should have been here when she first got ill." Nurul was wheeled away to the third class women’s ward.

Oman was fitted to a drip and the nurse handed me a prescription for pills to last three days.

"Typhoid?" I asked.

"Yes," said the nurse, a pretty girl in a tight white uniform.

"Can we not get medicine to last more than three days?"

"No. It’s always three days," she said.

"But I live in Jakarta."

"Maybe Oman’s father can buy the next lot of medicine."

I turned to Joko. "If I give you medicine money to last ten days, will you make sure it’s used only to buy your son’s medicines?"

"OK," said Joko, avoiding my gaze.

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