Making a profession of poverty


Begging: Culture, economics and even family tradition combine to send many Indonesians into the streets day after day, asking for coins from sympathetic strangers.

March 02, 2001|By Ioannis Gatsiounis | Ioannis Gatsiounis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KARANGREJEK, Indonesia - Each day before dawn, the call to prayer drifts from the mosque past the banana groves and soybean fields of this hamlet, and that is the signal for 40-year-old Sarijum, mother of two, to prepare to leave for work.

She rummages around her modest brick and bamboo house for something humble to wear - clothes so simple that people will take notice.

Then she heads about 10 miles north with her children to Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java, where they'll spend the next nine hours, sometimes wandering through traffic along the city's main shopping street and sometimes at the entrance to one of the many mosques, asking for coins.

Her profession is just that - begging.

It's the work Sarijum's mother practiced and the work she is teaching her children. In parts of central Java, Sarijum and her family would be the exception. But in the village of Karangrejek, they are the norm.

Of 103 people living in Karangrejek, more than 60 are full-time beggars, according to Pargianto, head officer for welfare affairs in the village. Like many Indonesians, he uses only one name. But this is not just another case of a village affected by Indonesia's prolonged economic and political crises.

Karangrejek is removed from the ethnic violence on the island of Borneo, where at least 469 people have died in the past two weeks. The violence there, including beheadings and other mutilations, has underscored the government's inability to rein in ethnic and separatist tensions.

In the capital, Jakarta, police scuffled briefly with about 500 student protesters demanding that President Abdurrahman Wahid resign. The demonstrators converged on the state palace, chanting anti-government slogans and carrying banners. They were met by lines of police.

A half-century later

Karangrejek is in a sense dealing with the effects of World War II. The begging began then, after the Japanese occupation of Java. When Japan was defeated, some soldiers stayed behind in Karangrejek; lacking any other source of income, they forced villagers to beg on their behalf throughout the region.

Some people assumed the begging would quickly end. But Karangrejek became a sort of capital of begging. In 1979, when authorities in Yogyakarta conducted a roundup of beggars, a majority of them proved to be from this hamlet. "That's when we realized we have a culture here," Pargianto says.

Over the next 15 years, authorities tried to direct the beggars into normal jobs. Tasimah, 60, and her daughter, Darmiyati, 23, were part of that effort. In 1991 they were moved to the island of Kalimantan and trained to grow soybeans and produce tofu and tempeh.

A year later, though, they returned to Karangrejek - and to begging. Now at noon on Fridays, Tasimah and Darmiyati, along with her two daughters, 11 and 6, can be found squatting on the steps of Masjid Agung Kauran Mosque in Yogyakarta, shaking their plastic cups as worshippers come and go.

Noon on Friday at the mosque - in this, the most populous Muslim country in the world - is the best opportunity for beggars, in part because worshippers tend to give more generously on this day of rest.

Tasimah says that on an average Friday, she makes 10,000 rupiah - about $1.25 - double the daily income of many farmers in Karangrejek. Her granddaughters often take more, she says, because people tend to sympathize more with children.

"We can make more money begging, so why work?" she says. "If I were farming I could not support my children."

Widodo, 25, makes the trek from Karangrejek to Yogyakarta every Monday through Saturday, and on a good day makes as much as 30,000 rupiah. He changes into dirtier clothes before he begins begging. His neighbor, who makes a living selling toiletries and snacks from the front of her home, says Widodo owns a stereo and a color TV - more luxuries than most people in the village.

Creating economic incentives is the biggest challenge facing the government in its efforts to persuade residents of Karangrejek to do something other than beg. Over the past decade, despite government programs to provide alternative sources of income, the number of beggars has remained nearly unchanged.

Failed project

In response to the country's economic crisis, the government trained residents of Karangrejek in handicrafts. But the project has failed: Materials were too expensive, and the market was quickly saturated.

Ginem, a tempeh farmer in Karangrejek who earns 5,000 to 10,000 rupiah a day, says government efforts have failed because they seem half-hearted. "They introduce something and a few months later just up and leave," she says.

Suhardi, head of the social anthropology department at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, says the government needs to create training centers and then closely supervise them.

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