Bright city lights, drab becak colonies


Villagers seeking a better life in the South Sulawesi capital of Ujung Pandang find that things are just as difficult there. DERWIN PEREIRA reports

THEY are called becak colonies.

Here live men and families who came to the big city from villages in search of a better life. Many work as drivers ferrying people in three-wheeled bicycle rickshaws called becak.

The colonies, by any conventional standard, are slums that have been in Ujung Pandang, the capital of South Sulawesi, for decades.

But with the economic crisis in the industrial and Muslim heartland of eastern Indonesia, the rutted streets and shanty dwellings are growing as thousands come to the city to look for jobs.

Mr Bela Nujur, a 45-year-old Makassar native, is one. He left his village in Jeneponto, some 100 km from Ujung Pandang, with his wife and four children in October last year.

“I could not feed my family in the village,” he says. “There was no harvest because of the drought and no jobs. We were surviving because of help from relatives.”

But life is no better now for him and many of his friends who left Jeneponto and other places.

The big city, he feels, is a vortex that sucks in the poor, providing little more than the hope of hard work at low pay.

He makes 3,000 rupiah (75 Singapore cents) a day. Half of that goes to renting a beat-up five-year-old becak.

With the astronomical prices of staples these days, he finds it hard to have even one meal of rice and vegetables a day.

“Sometimes I ask myself how I am going to have enough energy to carry people in the becak without eating,” he says, his leaf-brown face showing every trace of a bitter man.

“I just drink water, lots of water, to fill my stomach and forget my problems.”

But the problems keep coming.

His 38-year-old wife Yuni was hit by a “strange illness” last month that requires daily medication. She cannot control her hand and facial movements now.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with her. The doctor just keeps telling us to eat well and live in better conditions,” he says. “But how can we, when we don’t have the money?”

Malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery, typhoid and cholera have ravaged people in the slums because they do not have proper food and housing.

Outbreaks of such diseases are increasing as more join the “colony”.

Mr Nujur’s slum is 10 km east of the bustling city centre. It consists of some 15 dilapidated huts.

The huts, known as gubuks, cramp up to six people in an area the size of a room in a Housing Board flat.

A canal cuts through the slum like an artery. Some residents use it to bathe and dispose of human waste.

In the evenings, children and adults play in the chocolate-coloured water, unfazed by the globs of faeces that gently glide past.

Obscure and hungry in the city, the slum dwellers have no intention of going back to their villages as conditions are just as bad.

In Jeneponto, for example, the prolonged dry season has killed any chances of planting cash crops like rice. There is little rain, just soaring temperatures.

Besides Sulawesi, parts of Nusa Tenggara, Maluku, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya are all facing this double tragedy.

Unlike Java, the rice basket of Indonesia, and resource-rich Sumatra, many villagers in the eastern provinces cannot sustain self-sufficiency because they have no rice to harvest given the climatic vagaries. They are forced to find work in the cities.

The reverse is happening in Java. Unemployed labourers from big cities like Surabaya, Semarang and Jakarta are returning to rural areas to earn a living.

The effect on cities and villages is the same, however. There is pressure on food and space. But the local authorities are responding to the problem in different ways.

In Java and Sumatra, they have launched pasar murah, or markets selling staples at reduced prices, to help the people cope with the crisis.

Residents in the slum areas in Ujung Pandang contend that little is being done to help them. They have not heard of the pasar murah and neither have they been given freebies.

“They have forgotten us,” charges Mr Nujur. “They don’t realise we exist.”

The sentiment among middle- and upper-class Indonesians here is more muted.

While acknowledging that rising food prices have made life more difficult, they contend that they are lucky to be working. Unemployment is very low compared to other cities.

Slums are in fact minor physical blotches in cities like Ujung Pandang that are reeling from breathtaking growth.

Despite the national economic downturn, an investment boom is reshaping the town centre with new hotels, offices and shopping centres.

The reality is that there are two “colonies” in Ujung Pandang, as elsewhere.

And the gap between rich and poor is becoming more pronounced as the economic crisis deepens.

Posted in Indonesia