15 Years From Now...
Another Sunday morning expedition on foot with Bu S, this time to the local landfill. I had run by it once when I first arrived here, not yet aware of the taboo of unaccompanied female joggers. Bu S suggested it as an interesting place to visit and a chance to meet people whose paths I might not otherwise cross.
A beautiful vegetable garden immediately welcomed us after we entered, and just a few steps further were the composting silos. Two rows of five white buildings whose sole purpose was to process organic waste. How ignorant I’d been- I thought for certain I was bringing this revolutionary idea of composting to my uninformed students and neighbors. I thought for certain if they knew about composting they would immediately opt not to burn all of their trash, but instead set aside old mango peels and apple rinds to create eco-friendly fertilizer for their small gardens. I thought for certain that the only reason they weren’t composting already was because they didn’t know it existed…because it was too advanced of an idea for them. I feel ashamed that I’d ever assumed that my knowledge on the matter was somehow superior. I quickly swallowed my pretentiousness and acknowledged the positive progress that was already taking place.
Bu S asked if I was prepared for the smell. Naturally I was, given the location, but I wasn’t prepared for the copious amounts of flies whose collective buzz made it difficult to hear at times. And the small clusters of people, with their large woven baskets and sorting tools, sifting through piles of decaying garbage also took me slightly by surprise.
Had I been alone I would have lacked the courage to approach them, but Bu S confidently greeted an elderly woman walking a few steps ahead of us. In rapid-fire Javanese, I understood little of the conversation, but the woman’s warm smile made me realize that Bu S had made yet another immediate friend. People are instantly drawn to her nonjudgmental friendliness, and I’m continually grateful for it.
We tagged along towards a cluster further down the fly infested path and gradually infiltrated the small group. Most Indonesians’ perceptions of a young, white American female don’t fit in the backdrop of a landfill, and I could tell they were slightly self-conscious of our surroundings and the less-than-glamorous work they were doing. But we gradually made new acquaintances and learned about why they go there every day, without fail.
And this is where the heart-wrenching, true-life, self-sacrificing story of determined parents comes in. Every day they come straight after subuh or morning prayer to sort through mountains of trash before a truck comes to pick up their collections of paper or plastic for the day, usually around 4 in the evening. They tie a handkerchief around their faces to mask the stench and fasten a bamboo hat to their heads to shield the scorching sun. The combination of intense heat and humidity is brutal when united with the rotting piles of garbage; not at all a pleasant work environment. So why go through this miserable set-up day after day, including holidays? “To pay our students’ school fees,” everyone proudly concurs. So for 500 Rp (the equivalent of 5 US cents) per kilo, they sort out the suitable paper and plastic from the mounds and mounds of other trash. Every three days they earn about 50,000 Rp, or US$5. My math is a little rusty, but I think that’s 100 kg or 220 pounds of sorted material! Low income by Javanese standards, a ruthless environment, and no recognition for hard work, all so their children will have a better future than they had. I asked if I could photograph them working in order to share with friends and family back home. They were somewhat embarrassed to have their picture taken in that setting, but pleased that I would be sharing their story.
So there is a harsher side to life in Indonesia. A group of students, who study at my house once a week, informed me yesterday that Indonesia is ranked third as the most corrupt country in the world. Something they’re not proud of, but something their generation is going to change. The students are the future, as cliché as that may sound. They have the motivation and the opportunities that their parents were never afforded. I look forward to seeing where Indonesia is at in 15 years.