By Rio Helmi
We walk through garish corridors haphazardly hung with children’s paintings. By local standards it’s a big house with a big kitchen, and although it’s on the edge of whatever is left of Denpasar’s ricefields, there is no garden. Ibu Putu Etiartini introduces me to “her” children.
One of the young girls has a freshly bandaged foot and is on crutches. Buoyed by the friendly atmosphere, I blurt out: “Hey, what happened to you?” – only to realize that her right foot is missing. In the matter-of-fact, practical way that Balinese can sometimes assume, Ibu Putu glosses over what I hope is my concealed mortification, explaining that the girl had to have her foot amputated. Apparently her foot, twisted at birth, had developed a infection from a cut she got as she hobbled through the streets of Kuta begging barefoot. Gangrenous, it was left unattended.
In truth, all of these kids have been left unattended. On the streets in the urban sprawl that now engulfs Denpasar, Kuta and Sanur, their Fagin-like minders appear a couple of times a night on shiny new motorbikes to collect the money from their grubby young charges. Parents get some of the cut but often stay out of the way, at home on the other side of the island. The children are left to their own devices. This smiling young girl who now has no right foot and has had several operations (and more to go) is one of the lucky ones – Ibu Putu found her and brought her under the care of the YKPA foundation, which she founded for street children in 2005.
Ironically, despite the fact that the parents of these children so blatantly allow their children to be exploited, YKPA legally still has to convince them to give permission to the foundation so their children can get the care and education they never would receive otherwise. Even more ironic are the cases of two of their recent charges who, because of having been taken off the street no longer provided an income for their unemployed parents – and as a result the parents revoked their permission to have them kept at YKPA.
Part of the issue is desperate poverty brought on by the aridity of the northeastern tip of the island. Another part is the cold-hearted mafia that has developed the system that takes advantage of the lack of education and effective government welfare nets – from the point of view of the parents it can look like the simplest solution. But overwhelmingly it is the willingness of the majority, perhaps too busy with dreams of new motorcycles or even perfect holidays, to simply ignore what is going on around them.
Poverty has also taken its toll in the villages in the Batur caldera. Pande Putu Setiawan has been exposed to the harsh realities of life here since his youth, through the work of his father, a paramedic who devoted nearly his entire life to providing basic healthcare to the impoverished villages in the Kintamani region. Prompted by his father’s example, Pande decided to set up the Komunitas Anak Alam.
With a primary focus on providing education to the children of these villages, the group of young volunteers Pande leads are dedicated to providing the kinds of opportunities that many of the children, especially girls, would never have even dreamed of. These volunteers, students and young budding professionals, often dig deeply into their own pockets and happily sacrifice their own time. Though Kintamani is a major tourist destination promoted by, amongst others, the government, little evidence of the dividends filters into the villages of Songan and beyond.
Yet this is not all simply a case of a lack of modern sense of civic responsibility. Nor is it just the abject failure of the social services department to do something more meaningful than promise paltry sums which often enough don’t even get disbursed (the average sum per child per day promised to various orphanages is about Rp3,000, or 34 US cents). There is a collective shrug when the subject of the poverty-stricken in these areas is discussed – “These people have been begging for centuries; it’s their way,” says popular local wisdom.
Harsher still are the effects of personal shame. Social stigmatization, once set in, is a difficult stain to erase in a deeply conformist and communal society. Once one falls into the margin, it takes a lot to stand up and be counted amongst the smiling.
This is not something new which has sprouted within the ranks of the new arriviste bourgeoisie. Along with the many great qualities that have dazzled visitors to the island since the 18th century, there has always been something of a dark, fatalistic side to traditional Balinese culture. One brutal example of this deep sense of stigma is that which attaches itself to any family with handicapped children. Until as recently as a decade ago many of the island’s handicapped simply never left their compounds – perhaps loved at home, but hidden away from the public eye.
When the late president Gus Dur held a meeting of the handicapped 10 years ago at the Grand Bali Beach, many who attended at his insistence had never left their homes before. Not a few had no formal schooling. “I was stunned and excited to meet so many others in a similar situation. A year later, missing them terribly, I decided to get in touch with them all,” says Putu Suriati, a victim of polio who got her first wheelchair as an adult from American Judy Slatum.
That started the ball rolling. Soon, with the aid of an Australian confined to a wheelchair, Vern Cork, the group turned into a collective, and eventually they formed a legal foundation, Yayasan Senang Hati. Education and empowerment feature large on their agenda. Supported by donations and some of their own efforts at sales of arts and crafts, and a variety of activities, what really shines through is the sense of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. “Several of our graduates are now working in hotels on the islands,” the organisers told me proudly.
Despite the evident good that YKPA, Kommunitas Anak Alam and Yayasan Senang Hati have done and are doing, even today government and Balinese society support for these two desperately needed programmes remain sporadic at best. They mainly survive on donations from individuals.
Yet they remain inspired to keep at it. These stories have come out of the dark closet of society’s denial. Street children, impoverished villagers and the handicapped, denied of education in their own homes, have responded to schooling, education, special courses, and come out shining. Behind each one of these stories is a fierce sense of personal dedication, a defiance of the so-called “natural order of things,” and the awareness that there is nothing that can stop you if you have the will.
The real stigma lies with a society and a political system that cares little for its needy, with a government which pours its attention into an industry of luxury and leisure whilst ignoring the dirt-poor and the unfortunate. As elements of our society, at least we can change that. As individuals we can be aware and can care. Helping those who already want to help themselves is the least we can do.
Rio Helmi is an Ubud-based photographer and writer. For more: riohelmi.com