Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Christmas, Min in Lamaya, Imah

Indonesian children can be very polite.

It was Christmas time and my young Moslem friends came round to my house to shake my hand and wish me ‘Selamat Hari Natal’, or ‘Merry Christmas’. They sat quietly on the tiled floor of the lounge and listened to the two little street musicians, Ali and Dikin, sing their songs. Ali still had TB but was not infectious as he was taking his cocktail of medicines.

Fajar, Andri, Hermanto, Sinta, Farah and several others played games of cards. Thin, gangling Fajar was supposedly now cured of TB, but he was as thin as ever. His elder brother, who had also had TB, was still in Sumatra and Fajar was unsure about the state of this elder brother’s health.

When the music and card games were finished, we watched a video of Mr. Bean, always popular in Indonesia.

Min’s family were now into their new house in Lamaya and one Saturday I went to visit them.

Min was standing in the front yard when I arrived, as if he had been expecting me. He smiled a shy but happy smile and shook my hand. Wardi, looking a little tense, came out of the house with his grinning wife and relatively new child, a plump and healthy little girl.

"How is Min?" I asked Wardi.

"He’s fine," said Wardi.

"And the rest of the family?"


"Is Min’s little brother, Itin, going to school?"

"Yes. He likes the school."

"And you have a rice field?"

"We have a rice field on the other side of the river."

"And Min’s mum and dad?"

"They have rented a house down the road from here," said Wardi, sounding edgy.

"You’re not all living in the same house?"

"It was difficult all living in the same house," said Wardi, frowning deeply, his large dark eyebrows moving towards each other.

I thought it best not to comment. Naively, I had assumed that the whole family could live together in the one building.

Min, Wardi and I took a walk through the trees to the house occupied by Min’s parents. It was a bright, clean house, but not as grand as that of Wardi. Wati, Min’s mum, greeted us with a forced smile. She had things on her mind.

"Mr. Kent," said Wati, touching my arm gently, "there is a house for sale near here. We’d like to buy it."

"Another house!" I said, trying not to sound too grumpy. "You’ve already got three houses in Jakarta. You’ll need to sell the brick house in Teluk Gong."

Wati was not smiling.

"How about a walk with Min?" I said to Wardi. I was tired after my long journey and needed some pleasant distraction to improve my mood.

"Min wants a drive," said Wardi.

We climbed into my van, Wardi and I sitting at the front, Min with Wati and Min’s little seven-year-old sister Imah sitting at the back. As we drove slowly around the edge of town, the radio played loud classical music, from Canteloube to Rodrigo. The country lanes were full of children and flowers. Min’s twinkling eyes and the set of his mouth suggested he was in a state of ecstasy.

"Imah seems very quiet," I said to Wardi, as we headed back home to Min’s house.

"We think she’s gone the same way as Min," said Wardi. "She seems to be mentally backward."

My stomach tightened. "Has she always been backward?" I asked.

"Wati thinks it happened just after Min’s brother Aldi died of tetanus. We all went to your doctor to get various immunisations."

I had a vague memory that Imah had had a bit of a fever on the day of the visit to the surgery and that this was reported to the doctor. I had a feeling that the doctor had postponed the vaccination of Imah. My remembrance was cloudy. I could not think of any suitable comment to make to Wardi.

As I drove back to Jakarta my mind was troubled. Had it been a mistake to get Min’s family vaccinated? A mercury based preservative is found in certain vaccines. Mercury can cause mental retardation. The well water in certain parts of Jakarta is polluted with various heavy metals including mercury. The drinking water sold to some of Jakarta’s residents reportedly contains levels of mercury well above those recommended by the Health Ministry. Malnutrition and lack of iodine can cause mental retardation. From what sort of fever had Imah been suffering? Meningitis, measles and encephalitis are among the diseases which can lead to mental retardation. Why was Imah apparently mentally retarded while her brother Itin was quite normal? Imah lived with Min’s mum; Itin lived with Min’s older brother Wardi.

I consulted our school nurse and was told that vaccination against diseases such as measles and tetanus was ‘a good idea’. The risk of getting brain damage from these diseases was many times greater than the risk of getting brain damage from the vaccines. One study related that the risk of brain damage from whooping cough is about 1 in 10,000; the risk of brain damage from the vaccine which protects against Tetanus, Diphtheria and Whooping Cough is about 1 in 100,000. Another survey suggested that encephalitis develops in one child out of every 2,000 with measles; for every ten children with encephalitis, around three may get brain damage. One out of every 200,000 children develops brain degeneration 5 to 10 years after having had measles.

I remembered what Bob had said about every action containing not just positive yang but also negative yin. If you have a positive, it is always balanced by a negative.


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