Ronny is an odd character—the wanna save the world kind—thing is that he probably is, at least the small corner of the world that makes his heart palpitate faster than due. He’s an artist, an actor, a director, film liaison, a curator, a researcher and a tour guide of sorts.
Originally from Manado, Ronny has been living in Jakarta for more than 45 years and he knows the nooks and crannies of the city like no other. What more, it doesn’t mind sharing what he knows with visitors who show a little more interest in Jakarta than its farcically glam shopping malls.
Ronny has a social research style that is quite impressive. When he wants to know something related to the state of the blighted, poor slum-dwellers of Jakarta, he brazenly stops the first person he comes in contact with and initiates a conversation by firing direct questions. Probably this method wouldn’t pass the scrutiny of the stuffy ethic committees of academia, but it impressed me, so I took my shoes off, rolled my pants up and followed him in the sewer-flooded alleys of Jakarta’s kampongs.
Ronny calls this his ‘Hidden Jakarta Tours’, it’s not because places such as Galur, Sunda Kelapa, Ciliwung or Malaiyu are concealed or too hard to find, on the contrary, if eyes are for to see, there they are, along railway tracks, river banks, the outer boundaries of garbage dumps and a spittle away from the degenerate, self-indulgence some call progress. It’s more likely that someone has hid them out of sight to render its inhabitants ‘invisible’, because, you see, this massive chunk of humanity that almost doubles the number of the official residents of Jakarta has no status, and with that they have no access to education, health care, voting rights because … well, they don’t exist.
The Hidden Jakarta Tours have been vilified and glorified by the local and international media. Some say that Ronny is exploiting poverty for his own gains, the likes of the BBC and CNN portrayed Ronny as an Indonesian version of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Tell me what brave soul does not have the slightest remnants of an ego that needs gratification from time to time irrespective of how well-meaning it may be.
Interestingly, the few volunteers that help Ronny in his regular rendezvous in the slums have been attracted by the negative coverage he has received—three cheers for courage and defiance.
What you are likely to see when you hang out with Ronny are children swimming in sewer water that floods most aspects of their lives, and as a result produces nasty skin diseases, you see an informal sector of labour that tries to make a living by any possible way and means. Emma peels and bags10kg of onions a day for a dollar; Nur’s mother bags thousand of plastic trinkets used as merchandise promotional gifts for less than that, tofu and tempeh makers gamble their eye sight in poorly lit workshops, garangan sellers fry up their fare in many times over recycled oil bought second hand from city restaurants, while Ratna is the human Laundromat minus the coin slot.
Meanwhile, Ronny channels the money he makes from the tour donations into covering doctors’ bills, books, tools and clothing, his wife and daughter run one of the make-shift primary schools three days a week, and with other volunteers, they work with the ‘invisibles’ to figure out ways to uphold the dignity that makes this part of the world go round.
One may guess that despite his relaxed and happy disposition, Ronny may be a troubled soul. He disappears from time to time, and if you ask around they’ll say ‘Pak Ronny has gone to eat something because he has to take his medicine’.
Q. What’s up Ronny, you’re not well?
Ronny: No’ it’s just may stomach.
Q. What’s wrong with it?
Ronny: I have ulcers.
Q. Ulcers? Are you stressed?
Ronny . . . how I can sleep well, while I know there is poverty among us, and not far from where we live, in front of our eyes, how may I not come to our brothers and sisters, to discuss our life … in a families’ forum (http://realjakarta.blogspot.com)
Fotos: 1) Ronny in Ciliwung. Pic by http://realjakarta.blogspot.com; 2) Sewer Ally ’10; 3) City Dump ’10; 4) Children ’10; 5) Nur’s Mum ’10; 6) Tofu Maker ’10; 7) Garangan Seller ’10