Friday, 8 March 2013

The dark of day: life in a Jakarta urban slum

In the mornings, Neng helps her mum on the family food stall
© UNICEF/Indonesia 2012/Andy Brown
Neng is fourteen years old. She lives and works on Venus Alley, a lane in the notorious Jembatan Besi slum in Jakarta, Indonesia. Unlike other children her age, she rarely gets to see the sun. The slum is one of the most densely populated in Indonesia, rising to four stories in places. The ground floor homes are reasonably well constructed but as they ascend, they become increasingly makeshift, with walls and floors made from wood and scrap metal.

Sunlight is in short supply throughout the slum, due to the narrow alleys and tall buildings. In the densest areas, people have built across the top of the alleyways, cutting out the sun altogether and plunging the lanes into perpetual night time. Here, the only light comes from neon tubes and bare lights bulbs hanging from wires. The air is stale and the lanes smell of rubbish and sewage.

Neng looks like a typical teenager, with a trendy haircut and ‘Gangnam Style’ t-shirt, reflecting the latest Internet craze. But she dropped out of school when she was ten years old. Now she works on her family’s food stall and at a small t-shirt factory in the slum. “I left school because my teacher was always angry at me. I don’t know why – I didn’t do anything wrong,” she says. “Now I wake up in the mornings and help mum cook food for the stall. Then I go to work and make t-shirts. I earn 50,000 rupiahs a day (around $5 USD). I keep 10,000 for myself and give the rest to my mum.”

Despite her situation, Neng says she is happy with her life. “The main problem with living here is that there’s no soccer field or place to play,” she continues. “We don’t have a bathroom in our house and have to pay 1,000 rupiahs to use the public toilet. But I like living here. All my friends are here and I can see them after work. Even if I could leave, I wouldn’t want to.”

Neng makes t-shirts at a local factory, earning $5 USD per day
© UNICEF/Indonesia 2012/Andy Brown
Water and sanitation

I was in Jakarta to help the UNICEF Indonesia office with their digital communications, including blogging and online video. As part of this, we visited Jembatan Besi to document the lives of the people there and the challenges they face.

Before we went, we met Ansye from UNICEF’s water and sanitation department, and Ferdie from the National Development and Planning Agency (Bappenas). UNICEF is working with Bappenas to improve water and sanitation in the slum, through a community-led initiative. Although there are toilets in the slum, they are poorly constructed and run for profit by local businesses. Without septic tanks or proper drains, the toilets simply flush out into open sewers in the street.

I travelled to the Jembatan Besi with Frieda, Nuraini and Rafael from UNICEF Indonesia. We met Ferdie at the local government office on the edge of the slum. It was opposite Seasons City, a massive new shopping mall and apartment building on the site of a former cleared slum. The mall was topped by a garden and swimming pool, plus three huge tower blocks which punched up into the sky. It stood in stark contrast to the poverty of the neighboring slum.

We followed Ferdie into the slum, through side streets that narrowed as we went deeper in. The alleyways were packed tight with residents and street vendors. We passed a woman sewing fake football shirts, an old man sleeping on a thin mat on a concrete shelf, and a youth surreptitiously charging a mobile phone from an electric wire attached to an overhead power line. Clothes were hung out to dry in the few patches of sunlight. At one point, I saw a young boy standing in a doorway and urinating into the alleyway, creating a puddle in the middle of the street.

The community was expecting us and we were soon followed by a crowd of excited children. As is often the case, they wanted to be in all our photos, but these children were more tech-savvy than their Thai counterparts. “Tweet me!” they shouted at Aini when she took a picture with her iPhone.

We were followed by a crowd of excited children. “Tweet me!” they said
© UNICEF/Indonesia 2012/Andy Brown
Family ties

Our first stop was at the home of the sub-district chief, Kholil. It was in the ‘legal’ part of the slum, built on common land. We interviewed his wife, Muratsih, a 36-year-old woman in a checkered shirt who volunteers with a local anti-malaria initiative. She was friendly and knowledgeable, if a little nervous on camera.

“There are over 4,000 people living here,” she told us. “Some people have been here for generations, others are migrant workers who stay for just a few months. This is a good area but in places like Venus Alley you have 20 people living in one house with no toilet. They have to take turns to sleep because there is not enough room for everyone.”

Like any parent, Muratsih’s biggest fear is for her children. “Sometimes they hitch rides by hanging off the back of trucks, which is very dangerous,” she continued. “There are also problems with drugs and alcohol. But I like the sense of community. If someone dies round here, everyone goes to their funeral. You don’t get that in an apartment block.”

After the interview, Muratsih took us to Venus Alley, to meet the families living there. She knew everyone by name. One of the people she introduced us to was Neng’s mother Wati, a middle-aged woman in a psychedelic blue and white outfit. She was minding a food stall outside the family home. Their small front room doubled as a kitchen for the stall, so we used their next door neighbour’s house for the interview – an example of the community spirit Muratsih had described.

“I’ve lived here all my life, for 50 years. There are now 22 people living in the house,” Wati told us, counting off her extended family of siblings, children and grandchildren. “My husband and sons work for a business installing water pumps. The women run the food stall. I don’t like living here but it’s good for business. You can sell anything in the slum. We earn 2 million rupees ($200 USD) a week before expenses.”

Wati highlighted the hygiene issue in the slum, with houses built on top of rubbish from previous generations. “We can get water but cleanliness is a problem,” she said. “You cannot drill into the ground for a water pump because it’s all trash underneath. We have to buy water from the local mosque instead.”

A bird cage wedged into a gap between houses
© UNICEF/Indonesia 2012/Andy Brown
Caged bird

Before we left, Murnasih took us into the heart of the slum, where the streets are darkest. At the narrowest point, I actually had to bend my shoulders inwards to squeeze through – and I’m not a particularly broad person. At one point, I saw a bird cage wedged into a tiny gap between two houses, the fortunate pet getting more sunlight than its owners.

I’ve been to slums before in Bangkok, Delhi and Manila, but never to anywhere so dark, dense and overpopulated. It was quite a shock to me and I felt claustrophobic. It was like being inside a scaled-up ant’s nest.

Despite this, most people seemed happy and were very warm and friendly towards us. They found ways to make ends meet and got on with their lives. Before I moved to Asia I assumed that everyone who lived in a slum or on the streets lived lives that were unremittingly bleak. But now I realize that the situation is more complex, and there is as much joy as sorrow in these places. Still, there is much that can be done to improve their lives, starting with clean water and proper sanitation.

To find out more, visit UNICEF Indonesia on Facebook »

The author
Andy Brown is digital communications consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific