Lea Jellinek and Ed Kiefer
Central Jakarta is a smoking concrete jungle created over the past thirty-five years by Western-driven development. Work opportunities are difficult and extremely competitive. Uncontaminated water, air, and food are scarce. The poorest live crowded along stinking open sewers that were once rivers and canals. Ground water is polluted by industrial effluent and human waste. The sky is grey-black - as if a storm is coming - the result of unregulated vehicle emissions, open smoldering rubbish fires, and massive smoke-belching generators that power the air-conditioned luxury malls and apartment blocks of the rich.
Mimin is a native of Jakarta - a Betawi Asli. In her youth, she had been a tall, beautiful woman with lanky legs, a handsome face and long black hair which she tied back in a tight bun. She had been a singer (sinden) and widely known throughout the kampungs of Jakarta. With a middle school education, she was a confident, forceful woman.
In 1962 she married Mas Nilum, an East Javanese with a government job managing a military hostel near Mimin's home. At first they lived fairly comfortably with a house and a car. They started to have children. But Mimin's life went downhill dramatically when her husband lost his job during the upheavals of 1965.
In 1975 Mimin lived with her husband and many children in a dank concrete shack on the edge of the Cideng Canal in Kebun Kacang, then a densely settled urban kampung in the heart of Jakarta. She was nearly always on the central city streets. She traded all manner of things, as did her husband. She collected cakes from a Chinese manufacturer and sold them in the narrow pathways of local inner-city markets. Her husband distributed beer and live chickens to other kampungs. They were brokers (mencari objek) and dealt in anything going for sale. If a person needed a sideboard, chair, television, mattress or kampung house, they asked Mimin or Mas Nilum. They would find out who was selling these items, and where to buy them cheaply - receiving a payment from both the buyer and the seller. Mas Nilum also sold lottery tickets.
During the first ten years of their marriage, they made and lost money and were forced to move from one house to another in the same neighborhood. Eventually, Mimin obtained a cart and became a regular trader selling cigarettes, sweets and drinks opposite the Sarinah department store. Mas Nilum sold newspapers and magazines and his business expanded to incorporate ten to twenty paperboys, including some of his children. While Mimin was out on the streets, her eldest daughter looked after the younger children, shopped, cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed clothes.Raids
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mimin suffered from anti-trader raids. The government clearing team would come along and try to confiscate her stall. She stood up to the military and police. Unlike most vulnerable traders on the streets of Jakarta, Mimin insisted she was a native of the area and how dare they try to move her away! She demanded to know whether they had children who needed food and education. What right did they have to destroy the livelihood of her family? Often they backed off, but once when her goods were cartedtaken away, she went with them, wrapping her arms around her cart and refusing to let go. The clearing team took her and her goods to Bekasi on the edge of Jakarta, where they were dumped in a compound among the rotting carts of many other traders. Many times she returned trying to retrieve them but without success. The guards wanted more for them than they were worth. Mimin mourned the loss of that cart for many months.
Mimin loved being surrounded by children. She had twelve, of whom nine survived, and she struggled to provide for them. Three of Mimin's children died of cholera. She had taken each to the hospital, but without money, they were not treated. From an early age, each child was taught to be responsible. Some sold newspapers, or shined shoes to add to the family's income. Each child, even if they worked, had to go to school. Her view - many children, much fortune ('banyak anak, banyak rejeki') - was typical of Indonesians at that time.
For many years Mimin had chosen to spend as little as possible on food. The children were thin and had poor complexions. They ate mainly fried or sweet snacks, rice, fried noodles, chili and salt. Mimin said that she lived on four herbal drinks (jamu) a day, which she bought from a passing traditional vendor. She believed they gave her the strength to go on.
Mimin befriended people sleeping on the streets who had just come into Jakarta and knew nothing about the city - advising them what to do, how to survive, where to make a livelihood. She often helped them with loans which were sometimes not repaid. She tried to help one young woman who had gone mad and walked the streets at night, black with dirt.
Mimin brought Aam to Jakarta from a poor family in Bogor, and tutored her in all the things that she had learned from a lifetime of trade on the streets of the city. Aam was related to Mimin through the marriage of a daughter. Aam had the innocence, strength and sharpness of a village girl, and became Mimin's loyal helper both in the home and at the stall. Aam eventually set up her own stall, taking over from Mas Nilum who had become too old and tired to sit by the bus shelter on the streets all day. As Mimin said: 'He cannot defend himself against the police. If they come to raid his stall he just sits there dumbfounded and lets them take everything away. He is afraid to speak out and assert his rights.'
Mimin preferred to ask outsiders such as Aam to help her with her stall rather than her own children. She felt that her children would feel entitled to dip into her trade and she would not be able to say no to them. Mimin believed that it was better if each of the children had their own separate income-earning activities. Mimin's eldest son had taken over his father's newspaper business. One of his younger brothers worked as a driver. The eldest daughter became a hairdresser. She combined this work with waitressing in a Chinese restaurant at night until she married and had a baby. Another daughter had married a man from Bogor and produced two children - thus the links with Aam. Sheni, the youngest, brightest and most ambitious daughter (much like her mother) had battled to study through university and became a cashier in one of the city's most exclusive restaurants.
The family was forced to move in 1981 when the kampung was demolished to make way for apartments. Most kampung dwellers were afraid to take up their option to move into these new flats. Without secure incomes, most feared regular monthly payments for mortgage, electricity, water, gas and rubbish collection. Mimin's family, however, jumped at the opportunity and took a ground floor flat. At that time it seemed beyond their capacity to pay, but looking back it was a bargain. The government had been trying to promote flats among the urban poor, and they received a subsidised rate. Years later these flats sold for many times the original price. Mimin and her family had obtained a very valuable asset: legal title to a home near the centre of Jakarta - within walking distance of their jobs on the city streets.
Mimin's children liked to gather regularly in the flat it was often full with as many as fifteen people, counting children and in-laws. At night, they lay like sardines - one beside the other watching television on the floor of the living room. Mimin and her husband had a room to themselves.
When the economic crisis of 1997 hit the city centre, Mimin felt the impact keenly. Many banks which towered up around her home closed down. Across the road, the Golden Truly supermarket - partly owned by one of Suharto's children - went bankrupt. The number of people who came past Mimin's stall dropped by more than half. Instead of whole packets of cigarettes, customers wanted to buy only one cigarette at a time. The prices of Mimin's goods leaped up. She found it difficult to know what to charge. Sometimes she could not replace her stock for the price she had sold it.
Time and environment have taken a toll on Mimin. She sits every day in her tiny red and white striped stall on the hot, noisy and filthy street. No longer the elegant girl, she has become a wrinkled old lady, often frustrated, tired and in pain.
In her thirty years in central Jakarta, the temperatures have risen as large trees have been replaced by multi-storey buildings whose air-conditioners pump out heat. She worries about her children being influenced by the young drug addicts injecting and sniffing drugs beside her stall. A brothel has been started behind her stall. Police have been paid off and do little about these problems.
Although Mimin and her husband long to return to the village where some of their relatives still remain, there are major obstacles. Their children do not want to leave. They think rural life represents poverty, hard work and boring backwardness. They prefer to seek their livelihood in Jakarta and cannot envisage living anywhere else. All of them depend on their central city apartment. To move, Mimin would have to sell that flat to pay for land and a house in the village - but that would leave her children homeless in Jakarta.
Ed Kiefer (email@example.com) and Lea Jellinek live near Lismore, Australia. Lea wrote about Mimim in Josef Gugler (ed), 'Cities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America' (1997).