JAKARTA, SMILES IN THE DIRT

Text and Photos : Christian Fournier; View the photos on section "reportage"

We are the photographic team on board a cruiseship, and for the third time, during our time off in the Jakarta port of call, we visit a slum, near the canal. What a contrast with the luxury of our floating resort : people here have nothing, often not enough to eat. They live in a horrible, filthy and smelly place. They have no hope of a better future : most are born and die in this horror. And it is not their fault. Many people have to live like this in Jakarta. Yet they smile most of the time, even to us, white Caucasians, and welcome us to their homes. We cannot help but compare their open smiles with the usual grins and moans from our overfed and "blasé" passengers. It is not these rich people's fault either : they were born in a different world, they feel that they, too, had to struggle. The usual conclusion : every thing is relative, and money isn't every thing. It is good to remember it, every now and then.
Why are there such horrible slums here ?
Jakarta, on the island of Java, is the capital of Indonesia. This country is a republic, it is made of over thirteen islands, only 8 % of which are inhabited. It stretches across more than 2800 miles. The island of Java has always been the most populated island of Indonesia. Fertilized for thousands of centuries by the rich nutrients of volcanic ashes, its soil supports a large population. Rice is grown intensively on the island. Mountains are carved in terraces. New fields are taken back from the forests by the slash and burn method exposing the soil to erosion. Most of the population of Java has a rural life but only a few owns a piece of land. Attracted by the hope of finding job and money, more people leave the countryside to come to the city : Jakarta.
With its still growing population of 10 millions, Jakarta is to become at the end of the century, one of the largest cities in the world. Located at the mouth of the polluted river Ciliwung, the city has grown chaotically around its harbor, in the oppressing heat and the ever present poverty. A lot of people fill the streets. Buses, taxies, cars, motorcycles try to force their way through the traffic, blowing their horn. Hell could not be much worse.
Unemployment, housing, sanitation are some of the problems that the Indonesian government has to face. People in the country side, starving, think that Jakarta is the place where the jobs are. So they come to the city, but the jobs are not there. A third of the Jakarta citizens lives in squalid cardboard houses that lack all amenities. But there are also some skyscrapers, some modern buildings, the 4 star hotels of Jalam Thamrin and Kebayoran ; poverty and wealth live next to each other : Jakarta is a city of contrasts.
The slum we visit is next to the Maritime Museum. We have to walk alongside the smelly black waters of a canal lined with trash. Some of the people recognize us and welcome us with smiles. Very soon, entire families step out of their wooden plank houses to greet us. We are may be the only "farangs" to come to this place. There is no hostility, no begging, just laughs and smiles : we are the surprise of the day ! We have our cameras with us and they all ask us to take pictures of them. One father insists that we photograph his son. One kid poses in front of the lens, looking very serious, and surprised by the flash, bursts into tears. We have photographed the same cute kid during our three visits, each time holding his latest photograph.
This time, we have brought some "gifts". We start distributing some of the pictures taken two weeks before. The pictures passes from hand to hand : everybody is laughing. These people living in the worst misery and sanitary conditions, are giving us a lesson of simplicity. We also have brought masks for the kids ; we are surrounded by tens of hands. Everybody is excited. The gifts disappear inside the poor houses. We decide to explore further inside the slum. The alleys are very narrow and crowded, so we use our fisheye lens.
A lot of children grow up here. Although family planning is available and has contributed to a decrease in the population growth rate, an average Indonesian family counts 6 children. Some of them show evident signs of malnutrition. The hope for a better future is virtually nil for these children. The women take care of the household : some are preparing rice for dinner. Clothes hang outside to dry. The elder children are looking after the younger ones. Some men are gathered around an improvised table and play (surprise ! )chess. These people live in an extreme poverty. There is no water, no electricity, no plumbing. The floor is just mud and a plank of wood here and there. We wonder what it must be like after a heavy rain. The narrow alley finally ends on a series of small stalls selling anything from food to clothes. Most people in Jakarta are unemployed and the average income is around $15 per day, for the lucky ones who have found work.
The fish market is about to close. One lady looks bored in front of her display of fish. Sadly enough poverty is colorful : the fish straight on the wooden table, the dirty sacks and drapes as background, the wrinkled and tanned frail women in the middle.
We go home with some great photos and a new look are our luxuries.


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