One day with a scavenger

*) Santo Koesoebjono

Jojon, a scavenger, lived under a plastic tent in front of my mother’s house in a well-off area of Jakarta. It was an illegal settlement, on the grassy side of a quiet street. The tent was just big enough for one person. Discretely, my mother gave him water, tea, sugar and occasionally some food. In a biscuit tin Jojon boiled water and cooked rice using wood or tree branches he found on the streets.

In his work Jojon collected plastic sheets/bags only. A part of his meager earning was sent home to his wife and daughters who lived in a village in Central Java. His eldest daughter was at senior high school and the youngest one at junior high. It is the dream of every parents to give the children a good education and if possible to send them to the university.

One day, at breakfast, I asked Jojon if I could go with him to observe his daily activities. Only after being convinced that this observation was important for my study, did Jojon agree to take me to work.

We left home at around 6 a.m. Usually Jojon started earlier. He took his equipment: a plastic bag and a long stick to pick up the plastic bags/sheets. He rummaged in filthy and stinking garbage bins cramped not only by household waste and trash from street vendors and eating stalls, but also contained construction trash and sometimes dead animals. Jojon collected plastic bottles for a friend in exchange for plastic sheets.

The whole day we walked long distances and covered a large part of the capital city Jakarta following his daily routes, up to the end garbage disposal location, landfill Bantar Gebang. Sometimes we had to take a bus between two locations. But it was obvious that Jojon did not do this often as the bus trips were too costly for him. We jumped into the bus that did not stop completely and sat at the back seat. People looked at us and some sniffed as if smelling something unpleasant. Jojon sat uncomfortably by my side regularly scratching his head.

During the walk there were moments when I had to keep a distance from him when he met his fellow scavengers, but when passing an unsafe site he ordered me to stay close to him. The scavengers saw each other at certain meeting points, chatting and exchanging their collected items; some carried a bag and a stick like Jojon and others pulled a cart. Most of these scavengers were men.

Around noon I offered him to take a break and have something to drink and eat at a tiny eating stall. He clearly felt awkward eating together with me there. Usually he would eat what he found in the dustbin or garbage pile near market places. The stall keeper showed a surprised look but did not make any comments to us.

At sunset I stumbled behind Jojon with a large bunch of folded plastic sheets, back to his plastic tent. Jojon would clean these sheets and take them to a place where someone would purchase everything collected by scavengers to be sold for recycling. Scavengers are indispensable in the recycling system. Jojon was surprised when I gave him some money as a token of gratitude for showing me his world.

A trip with Jojon has enlightened me about the other side of glamorous Jakarta, namely the hardship of the little people living in the shadows of the sky scrapers, luxurious cars and glittering shopping malls. That day I was exposed to the strong contrast in the life and lifestyle of the people living in Jakarta. It makes me grateful for what I have now.

A few years later I visited my mother. The plastic tent was gone. Apparently there has been a wedding party in the neighborhood. For the grand reception the area was cleaned. There was no place any longer for Jojon or other homeless people.

*) Santo Koesoebjono, economist-demographer

Unpublished Note, September 2013

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