The ballad of a scavenger from Indramayu

Kompas – October 19, 2007
Scavenger pulling cart through Jakarta's streets (Tribune)
Scavenger pulling cart through Jakarta's streets (Tribune)

... Congratulations to our leaders
the people’s prosperity is ensured...

B Josie Susilo Hardianto – While young people of his own age race by on motorbikes and others shout and yell from passing busses and open trucks, welcoming in the Idul Fitri holiday at the end of the fasting month, Aji (15) sits on his rubbish cart, staring at them with empty eyes.

As a way to relax, now and then he bangs an old plastic bottle on the walls of the cart that he normally uses to carry the things he finds from scavenging rubbish. “Don’t know what to do, don’t know what to do!”, he cries banging the bottle.

That night, on the last day of the fasting month, he mumbles, “I’m not going back to my home village. I don’t have the money to return home to Indramayu”. After a whole day of effort, Aji together with Anto and Ichwan, his companions and fellow scavengers, were only able to make 10,000 rupiah. “Just for one meal that’s not enough for three, let along money to go home”, said Anto.

Longing for home

Eventually, along with other scavengers, they tried to win some sympathy from local people waiting on the side of the road. It isn’t surprising that from dawn to dusk and all through the night of Idul Fitri, the various the elite areas of the city are crowded with scavenger’s carts parked in rows along the length of the sidewalks.

They keep watch beside the rubbish cards hoping for some kindness from residents busy celebrating the Lebaran holidays. Children who they usually put to sleep in the rubbish cart, will sleep on the pavement tonight, lying on a piece of cardboard or straw mat covered with a thin piece of batik cloth, the sky overhead as their roof.

“There are people who will give away food or money”, said Anto. It is this annual blessing that they are waiting for tonight, the only attraction available if they are not able to get enough to cover the cost of returning home.

But in their hearts, it will never truly replace the desire to return home. Anto recalls his younger brother who he left behind a year ago. He also remembers his father, a farm labourer.

And the darkness of the night, dimly lit by street lights, isn’t able to cover his eyes shining with tears. He takes breath only to quickly let it out again. He tries hard not to let sadness overwhelm him.

When will he return home? His eyes cloud over, as if lost in though, as he watches a young person standing on a truck waiving Indonesia’s red-and-white flag. “Who knows, Brother. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go home. I want to work first, because there’s no work in the village. If there’s no work, it means there’s no money for food”, said Anto who was only able to attend primary school up to fifth grade.

That night, he’s hoping there may be a bit of luck, alms from residents who are enjoying the holiday. But aside from alms or people’s generosity, who knows what else he and other scavengers can possibly hope for. What is clear though, is that on this Idul Fitri, the people working the streets in Jakarta are the window into the poverty that is not just the capital city, but the face of Indonesia.


Every day, more and more new scavengers come to Jakarta from rural villages. Trying their luck in the same area, having to share the rubbish around, sometimes fighting over it. But the alternative of surviving in their home villages is something they must think twice, three time about.

Rice fields are progressively shrinking and income as a farm labourer is not enough, even just to eat every day. In the end, Jakarta, which from afar appears like a huge radiant light, become their goal.

In the city, Anto and his fellow scavengers who have come from all across Indonesia support themselves with garbage, trying to survive the crashing surf that is Jakarta, without having to sacrifice themselves until they too become refuse. For those that are able to survive, poverty does indeed press in on them from all sides, but it does not mislead them. “I still tried to fast”, said Ichwan.

Government policy

In a press conference held to evaluate three years under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Executive Director of the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), Saiful Mudjani said that over the last three years, the president’s popularity has steadily declined, although compared with other leading figures, he is still surpasses his rivals.

One of the causes of the decline in his popularity is dissatisfaction over his administration’s performance, which continues to deteriorate. Poverty, unemployment and the price of basic goods and commodities (sembako) are the basic economic problems that to this day, have still not been overcome.

On the other hand meanwhile, corruption continues and in the most recent cases has even involved law enforcement officials. According to a survey by LSI, it indicated that Yudhoyono is being abandoned by his voters, particularly among the middle- and lower-social groups, who up till now have yet to enjoy the benefits of development.

They are the group that find it difficult to get an education, healthcare services and access to the benefits of economic growth. Conversely, it is precisely they who have been most weighed down by government policies that fail to side with their interests, such as the conversion of kerosene to LPG for household cooking. How is it possible for these people to buy LPG in small qualities like retailed kerosene?

Although there is a policy of free education, books have never been provided free. Whereas not all parents have the money to buy them.

It is not surprising therefore that many young people such as Aji, Ichwan and Anto drop out of school and look for work in big cities like Jakarta, becoming scavengers who even during the Lebaran holidays are unable to return to their home villages.

All this is not just the responsibility of the country’s leaders, but all citizens. Over the fasting period people compete to do good deeds and be pious, refraining from doing wrong and sinning. This would a good existence if it was so every single day, throughout the year.

Just suppose each day marked the end of the fasting month and each season was the fasting season... then the world might be a more beautiful place.

[Translated by James Balowski.]