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Little Hands with Fever


At an orphanage this morning, the ustad (Muslim cleric) in charge said they were taking care of 387 kids, and when I shook hands with twelve of them — mainly little girls — four of them clearly had fevers.

When I asked the ustad how the parents had died, he first answered “They were poor people.” Asked to elaborate, he listed sickness, hunger, disaster (the tsunami), accident, and work (ie. on-the-job injury/ overwork) as being among the reasons the kids were now there, instead of in a family.

(We had just met. He prudently omitted murder, private and official).

He went on to explain that some of the kids were on loan, since one of their parents or relatives was living, but so poor that they had chosen to bring a kid or two to the orphanage — securing them better nutrition, etc. — until they found some money, food, or pick-up work and felt equipped to reclaim their children.

When the kids are sick, the ustad said, the orphanage takes them to the PUSKESMAS, the public health clinics for Indonesia’s poor that stand in contradistinction to what poor people call “good doctors” (dokter bagus).

At a PUSKESMAS you’re lucky if a. it’s open b. they have real doctors, nurses or trained aides c. they dispense more than over-the-counter pain killers/ cough medicines and d. the bribe isn’t too heavy.

Even if you borrow/pawn/sell something and go to a dokter bagus if you’re poor you may still be in trouble, since favorite tactics include quite expensive, unnecessary X-rays and, for people with diabetes, walking into the doctor’s office with a swollen foot and walking out with no foot.

One good doctor who truly studied well and wants to help the poor once told of another class of kids-on-loan: kids rented out by their families as beggars, then run by preman (street thugs with army, police or big-shot backing) and, he said, sometimes sedated to be compliant and look still more pitiable.

(All in all, though, one still encounters fewer street beggars than one does in, say, New York City. For a reason why, having to do with extended families, see posting of January 14, 2008, “Economic Indicator”).

Jakarta and other cities have now made it a crime to beg, or to give.

Another shakedown excuse for Indonesia’s POLRI police.

The kids in the orphanage are actually lucky.

Lucky not in comparison to a decent world, where people don’t die of poverty (or, more precisely, die of a failure to move excess wealth from people who merely want it to people whose bodies need it), but lucky in comparison to life on the streets.

No mom or dad is pretty awful.

ALLAN NAIRN can be reached through his blog.






ALLAN NAIRN writes the blog News and Comment at

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