Street Credibility

Selected portraits of Jakarta’s itinerant street vendors – tales of strength in adversity rather than despair and defeat.

Text by: Irfan Kortschak
Publisher: Mercy Corps 2008

It would take a remarkably dumb visitor to Indonesian cities not to notice hawkers of all sorts, buskers, roadside kiosk holders, scavengers, ‘ojek’ motorcycle-taxi drivers, sex workers and others that go to make up what Australian author Irfan Kortschak here calls ‘the informal sector’. Many, if not most, are self-employed.

You encounter these ‘informalistas’ everywhere, men, women, and, with sad inevitability, some children. All are trying to earn a living by means that place them outside the ‘formal sector’ of civil service, factories, hotels, banks, stores and offices.

Some, of course, have a foot in both camps, young factory workers from the footwear trade doubling up in ‘the world’s oldest profession’, schoolteachers ‘moonlighting’ as ‘ojek’ men.

What author Korschak has done here is to press into very effective service his good command of Bahasa Indonesia and marry it to considerable interviewing skills. He has through very admirable transcriptions given his subjects real and substantive voices of their own, and I do not detect a false note at all.

Hidden from history these people could very well be but for this fine effort.

Illustrated by Josh Ersey’s photos, especially the black-and-whites, Nineteen is a number of slices of Jakarta life in which the 19 ‘informalistas’ have been willing participants. Why ’19’ I can hear some readers ask? Isn’t that a bit arbitrary? Well, of course it is but if, say, the author and publisher had hit on 33 the result would have been rather unwieldy, I think. The result here is a good cross-section.

We meet both those whose income is a bare subsistence and those like Cahyan, a tahu gejrot seller from Cirebon whose Menteng stall brings in enough for him to employ a number of workers to produce the ‘tahu’. We meet a poor Chinese woman who scratches a living from a sparse snacks stall, an ex-political prisoner from the Dark Ages of Suharto’s New Order repression who makes a solid income from the herbal medicine he has largely taught himself, a young blind woman who lost her sight at age 2 to meningitis who twins some massage with a trade in shrimp crackers, and an apparently talented young fellow who lost his factory job on account of his defense of labor rights.

What would Jakarta be without its itinerant hawkers, men and women? Not only those hardy souls who pad the streets with their ‘kitchens’ bamboo-yoked to their shoulders but the familiar jamu ladies with their bottle ‘pharmacies’ strapped to their backs dispensing traditional medicines.

So, perhaps fittingly, the first ‘informalista’ we meet is a jamu lady called Srimudjeni (Eni), 30-ish mother of two and working her beat around the wharves of Sunda Kelapa and the neighboring fish markets. She estimates her monthly income at Rp2-2.2 million for “four hours a day”. If I am not mistaken, that is about the take-home pay of a TransJakarta Busway driver.

Eni tells us, “When I first came to Jakarta, I had a few different jobs… a while as a sales promotion girl… had to wear a miniskirt …harassment I got from rich businessmen was far worse than I get from the boys in the dockyards…”

No surprise there for me in the harassment, that is!

Eni feels that by not working on a commission as she did as a sales promotion girl and by ‘building up her own clientele’ she has developed a sense of independence and thus greater self-esteem.

What comes across in many of these portraits is a facility to fit into the nooks, niches and interstices in a way that the ‘rich businessmen’ Eni pours contempt on would do well to study for lessons in humility.

In a portrait of Wati, at the time of interview just 15, a junior high school student “who sells soft drinks from a tray to car passengers”, the author writes, in “Senen, a place where the paths of the rich and the poor frequently collide…”

It is a hard-scrabble area with many preman criminal elements working around the market and the bus station, just the sort to extract tong from a hard-working schoolgirl making money to support her family and put herself through school. The conditions that people who, like Wati and her family, live in alongside the railway line would bring tears to the eyes of a brontosaurus, but Josh Ersey’s photo of this young lady tells us much about the best of the human spirit, a flashing smile and great personal poise.

I recently got on the wrong train from Bogor and found myself passing through the Senen-Kemayoran area and the poverty trackside was gut-wrenching, an object lesson in humility for me. But officialdom and the so-called ‘developers’ do not always see it that way, do they? The former with their big-stick, big-booted public order raids and the latter with the malaise of malls they have inflicted on the city in the interests of ‘development’ seem to live in a separate universe.

I would have been tempted to use the book as a platform to attack them but Irfan has probably been that much wiser by allowing his interviewees to tell us in their own way about how life works for them. In any case, it would take a fool not to see the glaring social inequalities and iniquities described here.

As the great English poet P. B. Shelley has put it, “The Iron Rod of Penury still compels Her wretched slave to bow the knee to wealth and poison with unprofitable toil a life devoid of solace…” Well said, but despite all the privations and tribulations described here what comes through is the quiet tenacity and dogged persistence of all the subjects. In all, the message here with all its well-caught nuances tells us of strength in adversity rather than despair and defeat.

I have asked the author if he knew of the great American oral historian Studs Terkel who died recently aged 93. No, he said. Terkel was one of the finest practitioners of oral history and a man dedicated to allowing ‘ordinary’ people to tell the stories of their working lives. Irfan Kortschak belongs to that tradition and I recommend that he extends the project to other sectors, to farmers and fishermen, say, or to those ‘helots of Sparta’ who work the sulfur mines of the Ijeng Plateau.

I might have added, as I have already suggested to him, some characters very familiar to me such as Oni the tirelessly smiling blowpipe-as-souvenir seller who has patiently patrolled Jalan Jaksa for years in the hope of a sale or two. But I respect the author’s choices and commend this book as a fine social statement. It ought to be compulsory reading for city governors, bureaucrats and ‘developers’ alike.

(pub. Tempo No. 18-19/IX/Jan 06 – 12, 2009)

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