Wednesday, September 21, 2005


The sun was high in a benevolent blue sky. I drove past the Bogor Golf Club, turned left to face the dark blue mountains, and crossed the River Cisadane by way of a high and handsome, arched metal bridge.

On foot, I ascended, by various red earthen paths, to a zone of chickens and goats, jungly trees and kampungs filled with children and washing. Among the Henri-Rousseau-vegetation, I made out tamarind trees, flame trees, clove trees, coconut palms, bamboo, bougainvillea, hibiscus, frangipani and jasmine. There was a smell of damp leaves and petals and armpits.

Part of a football team emerged from the trees by way of a steep narrow path. Eleven small boys, in red shirts and white shorts of almost adult size, filed past me in single file, each boy giving me a cheeky, tigerish grin.

"Manchester United!" called out the last boy in the line, as he turned his head in my direction and gave a victory sign.

I rounded a corner and came to the edge of a hamlet. A garage-like building had its door open and I peered in. Sitting on the concrete floor were a number of young girls who were putting soft jelly-type sweets into little paper packages. This was some kind of cottage industry employing child labour. The girls stared at me with expressions that seemed to mix hopelessness and hostility. I felt embarrassed and moved on.

At the other end of the kampung I was hit by the strong smell of chemical glue coming from the open door of a wooden shed. Curiosity persuaded me to investigate. Seated at primitive benches were several young boys sticking rubber soles onto trainers. The pasty faced lads wore impassive expressions. A fat adult male, who might have been a Chinese-Indonesian supervisor, gave me a sour look from his shark-like face.

I continued my journey through the countryside and in the next kampung encountered three pramuka, which means boy scouts. They were standing in the yard at the front of a simple house. One boy was having his neck scarf adjusted by a proud and pretty-looking mother. A second boy was examining the badges on his chest. The third was adjusting the wide leather belt which held up the well-worn shorts into which he must have earlier been squeezed.

There was a fourth boy, wearing not a scout uniform but a tattered shirt, baggy jeans and a tired expression.

"Hello mister," said the scout with the most badges.

"Hello," I replied.

There was no time for any conversation about ropes and knots as the three pramuka leapt over the fence in front of the house, saluted me and marched off in the direction of Bogor. The lady of the house disappeared inside.

"Hello," I said to the lad with the tired expression. "What’s your name?"

"Mukhlas," he said shyly.

"Where do you live?"

"At the bottom of the hill," replied Mukhlas, almost in a whisper. He managed to smile slightly, but his face was pale and his tummy had the bulge of the malnourished.

"I’m going that way," I said, hoping that Mukhlas would follow me. I wanted to ask the boy’s parents the reasons for their son’s apparent exhaustion.

I set off down the sloping path. Mukhlas tried to keep up, but, like an old man, had to keep stopping to regain strength. He was a handsome child, in a benumbed and weary sort of way.

At the bottom of the hill was Mukhlas’ home. I t was a fair size for a kampung house, and seemed pack-full of children, moulding half-damaged furniture and untidy piles of clothes. Mukhlas’s mum was a wide-shaped woman with a face that suggested friendliness and a simple easygoing nature. I introduced myself and explained my concerns about Mukhlas. It was agreed that we would take the boy to see a doctor.

During the fifteen minute car journey to the Menteng Hospital, mum explained that her husband worked and lived in Jakarta. She had twelve children to look after.

The doctor had greying hair that was slightly untidy, a body that was slightly overweight and an imperious manner that somehow failed to impress. He spent some time examining Mukhlas’ chest and then declared that the poor boy had heart trouble.

I collected various expensive pills, returned Mukhlas and mum to their kampung and promised to return at a later date.

After the passage of many weeks it was clear that Mukhlas was making no progress. A Saturday morning trip to the big modern Heart Hospital in Jakarta was arranged. The hospital put the boy through a series of tests on impressive looking machinery.

"There is nothing wrong with the child’s heart," said the neat little doctor, whose eyes spoke of shrewdness and charm. "But, there is a problem with TB, which the hospital next door can sort out over a period of six to twelve months."

Within a month, Mukhlas was beginning to look more bright eyed and bouncy. I had the rest of Mukhlas’s family x-rayed and it turned out that a little three year-old called Sri was also suffering from TB.


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