|English: Slum life, Jakarta Indonesia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
|Jakarta slumlife34 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
|Jakarta has long been a destination for rural poor, many of whom end up living in slums. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
|A young boy living on an East Cipinang garbage dump, Jakarta Indonesia. Picture taken by Jonathan McIntosh, 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Much of the commentary about poverty that passes for wisdom in the information outlets of the Western world (most of them controlled by big capitalist firms) seems to be based on a vague assumption that poverty is something essential to human life that just, sort of, exists…. An attitude that was summed up in a statement of Mother Teresa that “we would be lost without the poor…. What would we do without them?” Or words to that effect.
It has long been my contention, based on having visited the poorest of human habitations in countries such as India, China, Kenya, Ecuador, Jamaica and other Latin American countries, that poverty is, first and last, man-made; and being so, it could also be man-fixed. In other words, men create poverty, and men can abolish it.
These reflections were stimulated by a BBC TV programme I saw today which, apparently, is part of a long series the BBC as been running in Britain under the generic title “The Toughest Place to be a….” The particular episode was about the toughest place to be a binman. The idea was that a binman (or garbage man, as he is more usually called) from London was chosen to visit Jakarta, Indonesia, where he would undertake exactly the same work he does in London, allowing the network to film the results.
The man chosen, Wilbur Ramirez, turned out to be a gregarious, thoughtful, cheerful, and hard-working fellow who was tailor-made for this job. He arrived in the district of Gantur in the immense metropolis that is now Jakarta, with its population of 28 million people, who generate some 6,000 tonnes of waste every day, which is deposited in a huge landfill site, with another 20 per cent simply dumped into rivers, thus despoiling them for human use.
Wilbur’s contact was to be with a small binman called Iman Syaffi who had a contract with the residents’ association for 100 palatial homes, who paid him $22 for a six-day working week that seemed to go on from morning to night. The father of a small child, he was born in a long line of improvised wooden shacks lining an alleyway, and now lives nearby in a tiny house the rent for which is just covered by his weekly earnings, meaning that in the evenings Imam and his wife have to pick over the garbage he has collected, so that they can sell for recycling anything that might be of use, for which work they receive $3, after working into the night for three nights.
The alleyway in which Wilbur found Imam working was strewn with garbage when he arrived, and when he set out with Imam to pull his hand-drawn cart he embarked on a task that he certainly had never envisaged when operating his air-conditioned high-technology truck in London. The people in the houses simply threw their garbage into the alleyway through a hole in the wall at the bottom of their garden, allowing it to clog the drainage channels, into which Imam had to plunge in bare feet as he tried to clear a way for the water and effluent to escape. “He’s down in there with bare feet,”Wilbur said, admiringly. “He has no idea what’s down there. It could be glass….It could be anything.”
To make matters worse other garbage men, having collected their rubbish elsewhere, had gotten into the habit of throwing bags of garbage over the wall into Imam’s alleyway, whose garbage collectors never protested for fear that if they did, a complaint would be made to the residents’ association and they could be fired with countless other people ready to take their job at any time.
Wilbur, however, had no such inhibitions: he yelled at the miscreants as they were getting rid of their surplus garbage in this way, and eventually they slunk off.
This show of defiance inspired the local collectors into becoming more vocal in their own defence. Towards the end of his 10 days Wilbur undertook to make Imam’s total round to pick up the garbage by hand. He said he had no idea the job was so tough, he was beaten long before he finished, and indeed he didn’t get the round finished that day.
So, amid protestations of undying affection on both sides, Wilbur left his new friends, and went home. Back at his old job, he and his wife tried to raise money that could possibly make the Jakarta workers’ lives somewhat easier, and when he returned after a year he did so with 3000 pounds so collected. But he returned to a transformed alleyway.
The local council, embarrassed by the negative publicity generated from Wilbur’s visit, had bought Imam a small power-driven cart capable of pulling two large bins. This had transformed his working day to the extent that he now sometimes had an afternoon free to go and do some fishing. All of the garbage collectors, also inspired by Wilbur’s visit, had had the first meeting in their history as workers, and had so banded together as to demand and receive better treatment from their employers. Wilbur, working with a local agency, decided that some of his money should be spent on educational materials for a primary school. But some more of it he decided should go to providing the binmen with uniforms, a decision that gave them immediate pride in their work and how they went about it. At last they felt they were in a position to demand some respect.
As the camera swung along the alleyway, once so untidy and clogged with garbage, now so clean and rubbish-free, one could not help but be impressed with the power of example, and of persuasion.
It may be true that the transfer of resources from the richer countries to the poorer in this way can be interpreted as an act of charity, and therefore hardly a good example of how to overcome the problems caused by intense poverty. But in this case there was an essential difference: Wilbur did not arrive as a social worker flaunting a high salary and superior technology: not at all, he arrived as a binman, did the work on the ground as it was done locally, and so established such an intimate relationship with the local binmen as to have set about the beginnings of a social change.
This result confirms something that I have observed repeatedly from visiting places of extreme poverty in different parts of the world. I have written it many times: the poorest place in terms of income that I was ever in was a Chinese commune that we filmed in 1978. On the basis of six weeks of intensive research, asking questions of everyone I met, I arrived at the conclusion that the average income in that place was the equivalent of a mere $60 a year per capita. Yet with that income, matters had been so organized that every one of the 15,000 who lived in the four villages of that commune had a house, everyone had a job, every child was in school, and every citizen had consistent availability to medical treatment from men known as “barefoot doctors” whose entire training consisted of a six-months course. The health standards in these villages appeared to be about equivalent to our own. Put it like that, and what was being achieved there was close to a miracle.
A few years later I visited Kibera, the immense slum alongside Nairobi in Kenya. Here the garbage was piled so high along the streets, which were pitted also with immense holes, that it took a four-wheel drive jeep even to negotiate the road. I talked to people working with the citizens of this town and was told they had every social problem known to man. Many huts were occupied by women with their small children, usually with a mother, her daughters and grandchildren, but with no men in sight, the mother trying to keep things going by selling matches on the street in Nairobi downtown, and many of the daughters selling themselves into prostitution.
I couldn’t help asking myself: what kind of society allows such conditions to fester without making a serious effort to improve them? W.hat kind of political party occupies this place and has been unable even to organize to pick up the garbage? The experience made me question seriously the meaning of the freedom we so often prate about in the Western world. Which were the freer in their lives and their prospects in life: the citizens of the Chinese commune, obedient to the dictates of their Communist bosses; or the deprived, unemployed homeless, impoverished citizens of the African slum, whose total income, if it were possible to calculate it, was almost certainly slightly higher than that in the commune?
Wilbur’s example lay not so much in the 3000 pounds he collected for distribution among his friends in Jakarta, as in the 10 days of back-breaking work he did with them, work that transformed not only their attitudes, but his own view of life.