Leaves shaken from the passing storm littered the raised asphalt of the bumpy, potholed roads. The drains along the roads were brimming with cloudy grey storm water, leaves, and discarded household rubbish. Narrow wooden food carts with dirty glass cases lined the streets, fried delicacies being circled by watchful flies. My colleagues led me up a narrow alleyway, tucked in between a large house and the fenced carpark that belonged to the school.
The alleyway was long, narrow and twisting, and was lined with trash, rotting leaves, and puddles fresh from the rain. After dodging the oncoming traffic of children running, men on motorcycles, and more vendors with their carts, a clearing approached, revealing a community area that made me think of a small village. Knee-high piles of plastic, worn tyres, and household rubbish lay in many heaps on the bare dirt, while chickens and feral cats picked off what they could find to eat. We were led by a little girl, and today, we were going to her house. She walked far ahead, and she looked back at us a couple of times, wondering what kept us.
Single storied houses with corrugated metal roofs lined one side of a laneway, and a high, cement wall on the other. Adolescent boys sat atop the high wall like cats, while some young girls played tag on the damp asphalt. It was midday, and the humidity was rising thickly from the ground. The vicinity smelled like mildew, piss, and very faintly of decomposing rubbish.
“It smells worse in the hot season,” said my boss while walking by my side, “this girl has attended our school for two years now… her brother also attends our school.”
“Have you been to their house before?”
We walked down more twisting alleys, passing children that were playing with construction debris and students riding motorcycles when we finally arrived at the girl’s house. The girl’s mother was just hanging up some laundry when the she ran up to her.
“You must be my daughter’s teachers! How nice of you to come visit us!” Mom greeted us in Indonesian, “I’m so sorry for the mess, please come inside!”
We introduced ourselves as we filed into the small house, and let ourselves be ushered in to sit on their living chairs – two threadbare poufs pushed together to form an oblong sitting piece. We squeezed ourselves onto it, while Ibu sat on a thin stained mattress on the floor. The room was small and cramped with a small table, an old looking fridge, an old tv, and some picture frames. Disney’s Frozen played quietly on the television, left forgotten as the girl’s young sister shifted her attention as she surveyed us silently. The girl and her sister slipped out of the house silently after a stern look from their mother.
As Mom and my colleagues started conversing in Indonesian, I slowly turned my attention to the picture frames on the wall. There were many photos squeezed into each photo frame, all showing various members of their family of eight, smiling back at me from behind the glass.
“How many children do you have, ‘Bu?” my boss asked.
“I have six children,” she replied.
“Do they live here too?”
“Yes, they do.”
We learned that her oldest two children were already working to help with the family’s expenses. The girl’s father emerged from an obscured room, coming out from behind a stained batik curtain. He started telling us about his family, and was able to converse fluently in English. He used to be a businessman, who imported and exported spices. After his spice business took off though, he sold it and transitioned into the mining industry. Unfortunately, his business in mining collapsed and he fell into bankruptcy. Trapped in debt, he and his family had to give up everything that they had, and move to a smaller house. He works as a merchant now, selling herbs, barely making enough for the family to get by.
“We try to [discipline] our children without violence,” he told me in English, “we try to raise them such that they have a dream and a hope for the future.”
“How do you find our school, Pak?”
“The formal schools cost a lot of money, almost 700,000 IDR or more per month for each child, the Rumah Belajar helps us send all our children to school, without wiping out all of our income,” he continues, occasionally switching to and from Indonesian, “the formal schools don’t care about personal growth though, just the grades. YCAB cares about that, I think it’s a good concept. It’s a good school. I hope my children will be able to achieve their dreams and be more successful than I ever was.”
The two little girls returned, their hands full of bottled juice.
“These are for you,” they said, “take it while it’s still cold.”
As we left their home and set back off on the long, twisting alleyway, I reflected upon the warmth and hospitality of the family. Life was certainly and definitely not easy for the folk on the flip side. These people work hard, sometimes working two, three jobs in order to make ends meet. These people, however, remain positive, and they remain hopeful for their children that they might stand a fighting chance – if only an opportunity is given to them. Equal opportunity is something of a scarcity in these parts.
We may not be able to choose the circumstances or the social economic statuses that we are born into, but we are able to choose to make it better. In the words of Anne Frank, no one has ever become poor by giving. Let us take some leaves out of their books and count our blessings, for it is only through being grateful can we be able to look past our lives and be willing to take on the injustices of the world.
*Names are omitted entirely to respect the privacy of the family.