For our first day in Indonesia we had decided we wanted to see some of the ‘real’ Jakarta. We’d heard that Jakarta was lacking actual tourist sights, so we thought it would be interesting to see what makes Jakarta the humongous metropolis that it is today.We’d read about taking a day trip into the slums / shanty towns. Initially we felt highly sceptical as to the ethics of visiting a shanty town and paying money to a company / organisation profiting from poverty. A little further reading about one organisation soon helped to allay those concerns.
The organisation is called ‘Jakarta Hidden Tours’. It is run by a man named Ronny and his wife Anneka. Ronny is a former film director turned sociopolitical activist. The organisations purpose is to help raise awareness of the plight of the millions of people living in absolute poverty in Jakarta. Ronny started running tours in 2008, they have since attracted news coverage domestically and internationally.
The majority of the tour fee charged goes towards community projects (e.g. helping locals start-up a small shop to earn a living for example) the rest covers our costs for the day (public transport etc…) and Ronny and Anneka take a small percentage as tour guides. I’ve forgotten the exact figures but it was explained to me and seemed very reasonable and ethical. In addition, their motives for operating the tour seemed very well-intentioned and upon meeting them we found them to be truly passionate, inspiring people. They certainly weren’t exploiting the local people or profiting from poverty. I don’t think they had a great deal of money themselves, but they were educated, caring and genuinely hugely frustrated with the inequalities of wealth and corruption in Jakarta.
So Saturday morning we travelled around the areas of Jakarta that we were told westerners never normally see. We travelled using local transport (buses, Indonesian rickshaws etc…). The roads in Jakarta are insane, seeing is believing. My words cannot do them justice.
To start with, we were taken to a square in the west of the city, I cannot remember the name. The area was built by the Dutch during colonialism with the intention of creating a South-East Asian Amsterdam. Unfortunately the area, like most of Jakarta had fallen into a state of dereliction and was in dire need of renovation. We visited one of the national museums in the square and were mobbed by the locals. Children wanted their photos taken with us, some wanted to practice their english, and others just wanted to say hello. I even had numerous middle-aged Indonesian women ask for a photo with me. It was very amusing yet very surreal, I felt like a celebrity. Eventually after posing for a silly amount of photographs and shaking people’s hands we headed for our next destination.
We ventured into a community of what can only be described as ‘shacks, built on stilts’. It was built illegally during the 1970’s by local people who had moved to the city in an effort to find work, an all to familiar story. The conditions were as expected, shocking. The ‘shacks’ themselves were falling apart, there was no privacy, limited access to electricity and worst of all – no running water. There was no active waste collection service or provision, rubbish and litter was strewn everywhere. The land beneath was flooded by sea and canal water. People defecate and urinate in this water, and some of them even use it to shower. Fortunately, they don’t drink it.
Particularly striking to me was the situation of one local woman and her family whom we were introduced too. I cannot remember her name, but she had six children aged between 1 – 16 years. This is where herself, six children, and husband lived…
That is it. The picture is not very clear but the floor was flooded with water and consisted of pebbles and stones. The mother had to give birth to her youngest child (within the last year) in this very room as she could not afford to see a doctor or go to a hospital. She had to cut her own umbilical cord. I’m sure you can all appreciate the dangers of this. Especially given that the room was anything but sterile. That said, this lady was very keen to emphasise to us that her children were clean, and that their clothes were not dirty. They were proud, dignified people.
Ronny told me he considered the majority of people in Jakarta to be either; poor, very poor, or extremely poor. These people were only considered by him to be poor. After all, they did have a roof on their heads, access to electricity (albeit very limited) and although malnourished – they weren’t starving either. The kids also got to go to school for 2 hours 5 days a week. Still, most of them lived off less than US$2 a day.
Next we visited a community built on the railway lines. I’m not joking, these people literally LIVED between the tracks. Ronny considered them to be ‘very poor’. It turns out this was one of the 3 main train lines running out of Jakarta, and there were hundreds of people living next to it. Trains sped through every 5-10 minutes. They were relentless. Huge passenger and freight trains. I couldn’t imagine having to endure that every day and night. The locals told us they had got used to it. I suppose they had no choice. The whole area was covered in piles of rubbish, nobody seemed to own shoes but yet they were walking along broken glass, twisted metal and many other unsavoury objects that I did not choose / want to investigate further. There were so many children, everywhere just living and playing on the tracks. This was day-to-day life for them.
We asked how they earn money to live. As they lived on an illegal settlement (there is nowhere else for them to go) the government classifies them as having no fixed address, so they are ineligible for an ID card.
No ID card = you can’t get a job.
This despite some of the residents having lived here since as early as 1970. No job makes it virtually impossible to escape the cycle of poverty. They told us the only way they could earn money was by collecting glass and plastic bottles etc… 1kg of plastic fetches 5,000 Rupiah (about 32 pence), 1kg of glass 6,000 Rupiah (around 40 pence). They told me they were able to collect a kilogram of each every 2-3 days. Unimaginable. We wondered why they didn’t move, but they had no-where else to go and this was their home. A large number were born here.
I asked Ronny if the government was doing anything to help these people, or better their cause. We were told that the government (in the eyes of the world) is making great efforts to resolve poverty in Jakarta. That is because officially 900,000 people live below the poverty line, living off less than US$2 a day. The government is investing in initiatives to help these people. I asked if the people we were meeting were due to receive anything from the government programmes to aid poverty. I was told very bluntly, no.
International NGO’s and Charities do work in Jakarta, but their resources are being directed towards the 900,000 or so people who the government favours for whatever reason. I was told but have since forgotten! Ronny told me that the 900,000 being given aid and supported enjoyed far better circumstances and living conditions than the people we were meeting. As the people we were meeting lived on illegal settlements, and had done for decades – they were not included in government records or statistics. In the eyes of the government, they did not exist. None of the people we met received any help or assistance from any NGO’s or the government.
Ronny told me it’s estimated that approximately 65% of Jakartans’ are living below the poverty line. Amelia and I would have to agree with Ronny. There are 19 million people estimated to live in Jakarta – there is no way that only 900,000 are living in poverty. Outside of the CBD and downtown area – it’s pretty much slums and shacks as far as the eye can see except for a few tower blocks here and there for the middle class to live in.
We heard countless tales of hardship and poverty from the local people, who were all incredibly dignified, friendly and welcoming. We almost felt shame as we walked around, chatting with people, hearing their stories. Of course it is not our personal fault that there are so many inequalities in the world, but we couldn’t help but feel immense guilt that we had so much, and they had so little. In material terms they had nothing, but they did not want our pity or sympathy. They wanted us to come and see how they lived in the hope that we can raise awareness and maybe try to do something to make this wretched situation better for them. They did not complain, they just got on with things, got on with life and the daily struggle. I was amazed at how happy, friendly and excitable the children were. They were the cutest, most adorable kids. They are no different to any other children in developed countries, the tragedy is they will never have the opportunities that most of us have always taken for granted.
The adults we met, although friendly and welcoming were tired and fed-up of living in such conditions, you could see it in their eyes. They looked very worn and weary.
We ended the day feeling frustrated that we are just English teachers in Korea, and that we possess very little power and resources to actually make a difference.
That said, I’m going to enquire about running some charitable activities in my school in the hope that it will encourage a social conscience to blossom in my students, as I get the impression that is lacking in Korea on the whole. Apart from a few fundraising activities there is very little I can do. This blogs scope is limited to a few dozen facebook friends that read it. The only people who can really make a big difference are the Indonesian Government and NGO’s.
In the mean time, Ronny and Anneka are doing splendid work. Their organisation is attempting to help individuals support themselves by giving them resources and materials to start-up a business, a small shop for example. This is something that the NGO’s and government are currently not doing. $200 is how much it costs to enable a family to start-up a shop within their community. They’re also trying to support local people by providing rice, clean water, recycling / waste disposal services, and children’s education. Ronny and Anneka are devoted to the cause of Jakarta’s poor, they volunteer for long hours in the communities and do as much as they possibly can to help. Unfortunately, they are just normal people trying to make a difference. As wonderful as that is, it means their resources and influence are limited. They need help. $20 in Jakarta is a hell of a lot of money and can make a difference.
Ronny and Annekas spoken english is very good, but their website and written english is not so good. If any of you would like to speak to them or wish to make a contribution then please e-mail them – email@example.com
They have two websites:
After all of this, check out how the rich live – on the doorsteps of the poor…