Jakarta’s True Colors: My City, My Agony

Ini adalah sebuah tulisan lama yang drafting-nya sudah dimulai sejak Agustus 2008. Saya ga ngerti mengapa tulisan ini ga selesai-selesai. Ini awal tahun yang baru, mungkin ada baiknya memulai dengan menyelesaikan hal-hal yang belum terselesaikan. So, this is it.. the finally finished unfinished piece.

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“Indonesia’s sprawling capital Jakarta is an urban planner’s nightmare. In just three generations its population has exploded from two to thirteen million people. At first glance, Jakarta’s wide boulevards, slick malls, and glass-sheated skyscrapers suggest order and prosperity. A few hours spent exploring the city, however, quickly undermines this impression. Traffic crawls. Exhaust fumes cover buildings with a layer of grime. The city’s sanitation system are inadequate. Its waterways are clogged with garbage and sewage.

There is no single, prominent slum area in Jakarta. Instead, the urban poor are scattered, living in hundreds of pockets of poverty throughout the city. One-quarter of Jakarta’s population live in kampungs, poorer neighborhoods that are often remnants of villages absorbed by the swelling metropolis. Another 5 percent are the slum dwellers found in ubiquitous illegal settlements that have formed under highway overpasses, near railway tracks, and along the edges of riverbanks and drainage canals. The Indonesian language has no precise word for these communities, whose inhabitants scratch out raw dwellings in the cracks of Jakarta’s public spaces.

Aside from routine evictions, fires, and cramped living quarters, slum dwellers must also contend with the threat of severe flooding, as two-fifth of Jakarta sits below sea level. Many of the poorest neighborhoods are located near the city’s trash-filled storm drains, and have little protection from the annual monsoons that send torrents of water into the city from the surrounding deforested hills. Two weeks after my stay in early 2007, all but one of the five homes pictured in this chapter were destroyed in one of Jakarta’s worst ever floods, displacing all the families in them. The one remaining home was demolished during an eviction six month later.”

Having read that article, the beat of my excited heart suddenly stopped. I was very excited to have the opportunity to study in Norway. I was also very excited to have a free chance to visit the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, such a cozy place to learn. It is such a comprehensive, interactive, and absolutely representative place to perpetuate the history of the Nobel Prize and the story of all its laureates.  There was also an awesome photography exhibition with an advanced multimedia installation, screening a slideshow of pictures and the audio testimony of the people portrayed. It was an intriguing exhibition that induced me to come over and have a look. Unfortunately, this cool exhibition turned out to be the reason that ended all my excitement.

The article was taken from “The Place We Live”, by Jonas Bendiksen, a photography exhibition capturing slum life in four big cities of the world. Together with Caracas (Venezuela), Mumbai (India), and Nairobi (Kenya), Jakarta’s slums were represented in his photographs. The lady in the Nobel Peace Center said that his mission was to give some kind of a wake-up call for people in the developed world that in the same planet we live, there are still some areas with conditions far, far worse than in their countries. I think he did a very good job. I believe many people were inspired or awaken by his exhibition but to me it was far more than a wake-up call. It was like a slap in the face, no, worse, it was like a spit on the face as it slammed my dignity, especially among other international students from about 43 countries.

There was a moment that I felt angry, “why should they expose this ugly side as if there is no beautiful side of Indonesia??”, “why should this be the first impression my potential new friends will have of my country?? “. But then I told myself that I shouldn’t feel angry because everything in the slideshow revealed the true colors of Jakarta. So yes, I shouldn’t have felt angry, I should have probably just felt… sad? I actually didn’t know how I felt, it was like a mixture of many feelings, but I know for sure that I should be more aware that there are many of our brothers and sisters who live in the hard-paper house under the highways; some of them live very close to the railway, and some others live by the dirty river and use its water to wash, shower, and cook. How contrasted it was with what I saw in Norway, where the water quality was so good that the same water used for cooking and drinking was used to shower, and wash as well. This Norwegian photographer, Bendiksen, lived in the slums for about two weeks in each country, not only to take the pictures of them, but also to live the inhabitant’s life, the life in the slums. Have any of us done remotely the same thing to at least grasp the concept of real empathy?

Maybe some of us had done something, but probably couldn’t do anything more other than helping them to at least have a good meal for one day. Maybe there were some of us who could do more, but it still would not have been enough to solve the root of this big problem since there are only few people who care that much. Or maybe, we have too many “mind your own business” kinds of people. Maybe?

We almost always have incidences where concerts of international artists are sold-out in spite of how expensive they are. Many Jakarta citizens spend the average monthly labor wage over the course of one night. Some of them even have more than 10 cars in their garage, or probably have a mobile phone which costs almost as much as a brand new middle-class family car. Do they ever at least think about the human beings that live under the highway? Maybe yes. But maybe they end up with conclusions like, “that’s the result of your own laziness,” and that’s why they don’t do anything. And unfortunately, maybe the middle class put the blame on the rich as they believe that the rich are the ones who are really obliged to help the poor. Thus, as the final result, nobody is actually doing a significant thing to help the poor in a holistic way; that is by empowering them and enabling them to help themselves. All of us, together, never do anything significant to solve the problem. Instead we all contribute to the sin of making Jakarta as part of the top 4 city with the ‘grandest’ slums in the world. We, Indonesians, especially Jakarta citizens: the government, businessman, academics, students, and all other members of society, are contributing in the destruction of Indonesia’s image. In a place where many countries have names of their people written on the Nobel Laureates wall, we on the other hand have the portrait of our poor brothers and sisters living in the slum quarters to show to the world.

Sad? Angry? Disappointed? Ashamed? I felt all of that. What are the many fancy malls and classy skyscrapers for if we still have to see a large lot of slums stretching behind them? What kind of city view do we, the people of Jakarta, actually want or would love to see? Mr Governor, I would love to see a view of Jakarta that shows the warm face of togetherness. Do you think it is attainable or quite simply too naive? Hhmm… probably too naive. Okay then, I will just try to get used to Jakarta’s current bitchy face of to-get-theirs-ness. If a wise man said, “where there is a will, there is a way”, in this case it is probably more accurate to say, if you can’t get a villa on a hill, you can always live under the highway. Doesn’t that sound more realistic, Mr Governor?


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