Jun 02, 2023 Last Updated 2:32 AM, May 31, 2023

Jakarta's poorest

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Jakarta's poorest tend to be hidden at the dead ends of pathways or on the river edge. Often their houses are in corners, along dark narrow alleyways where sun, air and light do not enter, even during the day. Otherwise their homes are perched on foul smelling drains or rest up against concrete walls.

The poorest often have difficulty communicating. They are used to being ignored. Some hardly look into your eyes but down and away so it is hard to have a conversation. They are ashamed. If you ask them about their background and history, they look blank - as if they have no memory. They speak in a mixture of dialects, slur their sentences and cannot explain their problems.

The poorest lack time. They cannot talk for long as they are looking all day for the money they need to buy food. Those who come to their homes find their doors bolted. 'They are out', a neighbour says. 'Gone looking for work.'

At 7 am one morning, we go to meet Ibu Ani, and find her walking through the local market place. She is a masseuse. She does not sit at home waiting for clients but seeks them out. We go back to her house to talk, but within half an hour she looks agitated. She says she must go out to look for work. Often she works till 10 pm, and then returns home to darn holes in clothing for her extended family.

The poorest have only their unskilled labour to sell. They tend to be masseurs, washerwomen, day labourers, guards, parking attendants, or 'Pa Ogah' - as they are oddly called - people who help cars do a U turn in the middle of the road. They seek work on a daily basis. They do not have the capital, confidence or skills for petty trade.

Up to four families, four generations, often live together in one tiny house. Ibu Ani, a grandmother, lives with three related families in her shack - a total of fifteen people - so she needs at least Rp 30,000 to feed them. That is four to six hours of massage per day and many hours of looking for clients.

The members of the family sleep side by side on the floor - no mattress, just pillows. During the day these pillows are stacked in a pile and the room is converted into a place for sitting and eating. An alcove in the roof with little light or air may be built above the room to create more sleeping space. People climb up a steep, rickety ladder to get there.


The homes of the poorest are built of flimsy materials: bamboo, cardboard, chicken wire, newspaper, tin cans, boards and other scavenged materials. The gaps in the walls let in some air but also the rain. They feel embarrassed by these flimsy structures. If the ground is wet, they have a bench to sleep on, for they are often close to rivers which flood knee-deep. Apart from the bench there is only a rack for clothing and dishes.

Electric lighting is rare. They use a kerosene lamp and, if their children are lucky enough to go to school, they gather like flies around the lamp to do their homework. Everything is done on the floor. Many of the poorest cannot read, write, or sign their names. They are embarrassed to write. With difficulty, they hold pen to paper and try to write their name.

Toilet and washing facilities are shared. For most water and toilet needs, the poorest usually have to walk some distance - sometimes along the narrow banks of sewage canals - to communal bathing facilities. Sometimes these cost Rp100-200 for urination and Rp300 for defecation or a bath. The poorest have to find ways of not paying these fees for they lack the money. To avoid paying for rubbish collection and sanitation, they throw everything into dirty canals or empty spaces around their homes.

It is a hard life with the mosquitoes, fleas, heat and filth. Their houses are often within metres of where everybody dumps rubbish. Sometimes the rubbish goes right into their homes, or it is burned nearby. There is a constant smell of burning plastic and smoke.

In the homes of the poorest, there is often an ill person lying in the background. Ibu Ani is very small, thin, and she limps. As we sit together on the floor, she keeps massaging her leg which looks thin, stiff and weak. Years ago she had a knee injury which was not treated. Now one part of the knee sticks out. Her face is hollow and sunken from suffering, and other parts of her body seem oddly disconnected.

Ibu Ani has lived in Jakarta since childhood and was orphaned at an early age. She explains that she has often been homeless and sought shelter in graveyards. She recalls the dark nights, the loneliness, the mud and the rain. Years ago she had one trip out of the city, to Bandung. The local government women's group organised it. She remembers it as the greatest journey of her life - acres of paddy, mountains, trees, blue sky, talk, laughter, friends in the bus and new experiences. Her face glows as she recalls the journey. 'When can I do it again?'

Lea Jellinek (leajell@ozemail.com.au) has written extensively - also in 'Inside Indonesia' - about how the poor cope.

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