Letter from Jakarta: Amin's death

In hindsight, there was a great deal of beauty in the scene. There was a kaleidoscope of colours: dark blues and greens, the red and white of the national soccer team, as well as fading browns and greys and dirty whites.  T-shirts and dresses, trousers and singlets, chequered green and brown sarongs, black pecis on black hair, all coloured the scene. There was glistening silver from the sun’s steaming rays bouncing off the zinc and tin rooftops and the myriad blacks, browns and greys among the timbers, tiles, packing cases, corrugated iron, tarpaulins and plastics that were the constructions materials for these people’s homes. And there was the sky, grey and brooding and dirty, with clouds of faint blue among the puffy curtains that forebode rain. There were the greens of scattered trees and the occasional pot plant.

The coloured beauty of the intense life of that narrow lane remains vivid to me even quite a while later. At the time, it registered only fleetingly, the colour and life and movement drowned almost instantly by the sense of exhaustion that dominated faces and bodily movements and somehow even rose up from the potholed asphalt of the narrow road.

Our taxi stopped immediately outside a doorway into a rectangle of darkness divided by a curtain, lit only by the hot glare of a light globe and a little shudder of light as somebody opened a door or pulled back the curtain. The curtain divided the room about two metres inside the door. Behind the door was a small table, waist high. On the table lay a baby, six months old, his face covered in gauze, his body under a sheet and a piece of  simple batik. The baby, named Amin, had been dead about four hours. Amin’s mother knelt by his head, wiping the pus that still drizzled from his nose. The father received guests, weeping and holding back his sobs as he greeted his neighbours.

Amin had taken ill earlier in the morning, appearing to be in pain, breathing hard and with red spots appearing over his body. The relative looking after him at the time tried to get the child to a clinic and then a hospital. Lack of money for a taxi, the horrible slow traffic of Jakarta, the bumpy, impossible transport of the little Indian-made motorbike-powered mini-cab made the trip a horror in itself. “The child cannot be helped”, said the doctor. “He has measles; it is too far gone and the child is too young to fight the disease.” Amin died soon after.

Thirty-eight thousand children a year die of measles in Indonesia.

Amin’s father rushed home from work. His mother was there, dealing with these bitter, sad facts of their life. Sadness dominated the exhausted faces and the sobbing voices. Bewilderment too: “He was so well yesterday”, said neighbour after neighbour.

Amin’s father tidied the sheets. His mother again cleaned his nose with cotton a relative handed across the table.  Their eyes, watching the child, were red. The room grew hotter as more people crowded in and out. The mother, now talking outside to a friend, was sobbing.

Loss. Stress and the weight of an unjust reality.

The child had to be buried. Paperwork had to be done. “Two and a half million rupiah” would be the cost, a sturdy woman in plain, brown Western dress explained. Burial and the cemetery papers; money for the kyai to pray; to wash the baby - there was a long list. Two and a half million rupiah ($200) was two or three months’ wages in this community, where saving was impossible and debt the norm. More debt loomed, except if the safety net of the extended family could come into play. The state would give no real help, a fact that was like an abrasive little razor in the back of the mind.

There wasn’t much I could say except through a hug and whispered words of “So sorry”.

Sadness was the air everybody breathed; words about facing reality and “dealing with it” vibrated through that air. Muslim custom required that Amin be buried quickly, the next morning. The father, accompanied by his wife and their relatives and friends, carried Amin a kilometre and a half through the tropical heat and polluted air of Jakarta. They will have to pay money every month if another child is not buried over Amin.

I write this note because I can’t forget the incident nor the anger that I felt that poor working people, already squeezed for their energy, for space and for money for their minimal basic needs, need bear a baby’s death and be further burdened by the miserliness of a state that allows millions of fathers and mothers to slave for such a life. Hating too the cruelty of a world structured to allow it to happen.

The only medicine for what Amin suffered is to turn the world upside down and the state inside out so that all the Amins and their sisters grow up healthy, and their fathers and mothers rule that world.