Did you spend time by the pool? A snapshot of an inner-city kampung

We regularly return to Yogyakarta in Indonesia to brush up on language and culture; connect with family and friends and escape our every day lives. Whenever I tell someone I’ve spent a month in Indonesia – they picture a resort, a pool and nice bar. Reality is a little different. 

Ten years after our Javanese wedding, we were back in Yogyakarta for another holiday. It has become a place of comfort. I relax as I head down the road away from the airport now. I know what to expect when I hit the city. I walk in to “our” room, with a cupboard full of clothes that I have left behind since last time and check the cupboard for coffee beans. It has become a second home. It is relaxing, but not in the way many would think.

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Ten years ago – looking as serious as possible at all times

Yogyakarta is a really interesting city. It is a big university town with lots of interesting art and culture. Street art is very popular in the town – officially, in the form the changing of sculptures down the main street; and unofficially in the form of graffiti murals and paste-ups. One of my favourite pass-times has always been exploring the new works around the city, in the alleyways and on wrecked buildings. The most impressive on the ruins of a small village destroyed by the erupting Mount Merapi volcano in 2010.

 

While we are in Yogyakarta we stay in an kampung, less than 10 minutes walk from the main drag. It is the epitome of low-socio economic inner-city settlement. These are my personal thoughts after a month there this year – and shouldn’t be extrapolated across the country – this represents my experience of the inner city kampungs I’ve walked, jogged, cycled and stumbled through.

Kampung dwellings are very close together, if not sharing common walls. Accessing these areas involves walking down a one-car wide “gang” or alleyway, before turning in to the community itself – a crammed, squashed together place of screaming humanity.

There is a river just behind the kampung. Choked with rubbish and used by some for their daily ablutions. It runs fast, having had sand continually dug out of it for nearby construction. If someone could figure out a way of combining rubbish with concrete, the river might run clear. People catch fish from the river to eat. Small, sad looking things that live off of the rubbish and such floating by.

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Our river – it actually looks ok in this picture

The totality of kampung living is quiet challenging to someone coming for such a mobile society such as Australia. Some have lived in this kampung their whole life – living in houses owned by their parents or grandparents. Admittedly, some have recently moved in to the area, taking over someone else’s foxhole or building something new. People do move out and up; but many will remain here – some by choice, others by lack of alternative.

The houses are simple. A family may have a sizable dwelling, or they may use a room inside of a dwelling shared with others. We stay in a simple and by Australian standards, small four bedroom house. It dwarfs many others nearby and offers a structural integrity and vermin-proof existence not afforded to everyone.

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Tight living

Staying inside the kampung for an extended period is equal parts comforting and claustrophobic. Its safe and secure. Its close-nit. It is close living. So close you can hear your neighbour clear their throat pre-dawn. Every morning. Everyone knows when you’ve come home late. Everyone knows. Everything. Always.

I was once naive to believe that there wasn’t much gossip in the kampung. I was told that people are happy. They don’t worry. The longer I’ve stayed and the more about the culture I’ve learnt, the more I’ve challenged this.

Staying inside a community and a culture like this fast-tracks understandings about the world around you, and fast tracks your language. Over the past ten years of kampung stays – particularly a six month period in 2011; I have had the opportunity to learn so much about the way of life for inner-city people in Yogyakarta.

It can be easy to say people are happy. They have smiles on their faces. Yes, there is a certain level of day-to-day happiness in these places, but in my opinion, it is less to do with contentment and more to do with reservation. Sure, they aren’t stressing about the incidentals in life. They are too busy working out how things are going to work out for the rest of the day.

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Yogya street art – love your neighbour

Things are pretty close to the bone in these sort of places. The average yearly salary in Indonesia is around $10,000 AUD. The average wage in the inner-city kampungs is well below that. That is if you have a job. Many don’t.

Staying regularly inside this kind of environment gives you a sense of perspective. It highlights your sense of and your ACTUAL entitlement. I can choose to holiday in this environment and check out the way of life before safely returning to my real world and my country. The people I interact with do not have that option. It is a massive of entitlement.

I’ve had to check myself when I’ve wanted to get all “white-knight” and look for programs or things I could do to “improve” life in the kampung. I’ve had to assess whether those things were actually necessary, feasible and wanted in a world where day-to-day life is about existing. Was I doing something for the people of the kampung that the people of the kampung actually wanted and needed – or was I going to do it to make myself feel good – or even look good back home?

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A becak in the alleyways

Staying regularly reinforces how easy things are in Australia. From the basics like clean drinking water, warm water that comes out of a tap and refuse removal – to more complicated things like recylcing, planning for the future and healthcare.

Life expectancy is low (69 years). Survival rates of non-communicable disease are low. Risk factors, such as cigarette smoking (over 60% of the male population), high cholesterol diets and excessive sugar consumption teamed with low physical exercise are major issues.

People live day to day; making it most days. They don’t have time jog. They are too busy surviving. Food is an essential source of energy – unfortunately a lot of that energy comes in the form of rice and sugar. People can’t access a salad – if there was even the refrigerated option to have one, they need affordable energy.

Same goes for meat – people talk about exporting frozen carcasses to Indonesia rather than live export. I get the animal cruelty aspect, but in the inner-city there are no freezers. Cows are slaughtered on a needs based system. There is an abattoir near our kampung. The cows seemed ok, but they were not getting slaughtered quickly (as in number, not style). Honestly – the protein intake in our kampung is low. A lot of tofu and tempe is eaten. And rice. And sugar. And rice.

Food is a thing that you buy in the morning, convert in to meals and eat. You don’t keep it for later. Food safety and food security are major issues day to day.

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Urban poultry farming

Quality of life is low. Strokes account for over 20% of deaths in the country. People live difficult lives and die young. Every time we return, we are greeted by another “space” in the kampung that used to be filled with a life. A human with a great personality. That can be confronting. It is almost reported with a nihilistic manner when we arrive. Everyone is dying, it was just someone’s turn.

Over my time of coming to the city – I’ve learnt so much and seen so many interesting things. I’ve witnessed the election of Jokowi, while deep in his party’s supporter base. I’ve spoken to villagers returning after their homes were destroyed by a volcanic eruption. I’ve learnt so much about Javanese culture – its intricacies and its contradictions. I’ve been hassled by street hustlers and avoided what have felt at times to be set-ups.

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The Jokowi stickers were EVERYWHERE – as were flags, graffiti and posters

I’ve watched the evolution of the city and Indonesia. There are things that are obvious, confusing and at times concerning. Almost all of the young Muslim women I meet now wear a jilbab/hijab.  The older women are wearing them more and more too. What, ten years ago was something you wore to and from the mosque, is becoming all day every day wear. And they are bright, blinged up numbers. There are also big shiny Muhammadiyah schools all about the place. The lurch of Muhammadiyah towards a more conservative way of thought in recent years may have been a factor in the proliferation of head-wear for women – I wonder what else is being impacted.

There also seems to be a new mosque being built on every corner. Given there was almost one on every corner already, I find it incredible that there is a) enough money and b) enough demand to build these new buildings. I know part of this is almost a colonialist action, to over-saturate the area and drown out similar strands of Islam that you are in competition with, but it still seems staggering. What happens next with Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism is Indonesia will be interesting to watch.

Despite these leans towards conservatism – there are some other things that really interest me developing in Yogyakarta. There are far more bars and nightclubs than when we first started going to the city – and they are well attended by Indonesian s – not just bules. Sure, they are full of cigarette advertising and your attendance is life-reducing, but they are well patronised and full of people (male and female) having a good time in ways that would make conservatives a little upset.

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Local bar – on a quiet night

There is also been an explosion of coffee culture in downtown Yogyakarta. When we lived there, there was literally no espresso-serving cafes in the city beyond the tepid offerings from the large hotels. Suddenly, there are espresso machines, aeropress cafes, pour-over single origin speciality joints and speciality coffee roasters. The real life implications for this and any public health impacts aren’t known – but I can tell you now, I would have loved a bloody coffee when I lived there.

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Speciality coffee roasters

Holidaying in this environment has moments of challenge. There are risks – from exposing ourselves and our family to tropical diseases and food-borne disease relating to poor food handling. Oh, and the cats. And rats. There are bats too, but they seem pretty low key. There is car and motorbike based pollution. Pollution for the seemingly typical South-East Asian rubbish disposal technique of setting it on fire.

You hope for the best and know that through a position of absolute privilege, we can come, observe, immerse and learn – then leave for the safety of our real world – leaving friends and family to live the reality of inner-city kampung life. I will always keep coming back to Yogya – it is in my blood now.

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Young Crew and Severe Injury

I have spent some time working with young people on a program attempting to engage them on the concept of choices and consequences, particularly around partying and road safety. It was hard work. It was enjoyable work. Most importantly, it was work that allowed me to hang out with young people and hope that they cared about what I had to say. It sometimes felt a lot like high school.

When you’re in high school you are desperate for people to like you. To talk to you. To think that you are worthy of their attention and they you have something interesting and useful to say. There is so much at stake. What if they hate me? What if what I say sucks? My work allowed me to return to those anxieties, but at seemingly much higher stakes. I wasn’t just hanging out at lunchtime with young crew, I was trying to convince them that keeping their limbs on was worth their attention.

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Until recently I worked on a project that involved coordinating and delivering a program that focused on reducing youth trauma – particularly trauma resulting from drinking or high risk behaviour. I was basically trying to teach teenagers how to not be stupid. And really, the focus is predominately on young men not being stupid. In 2016, a staggering 71% of trauma patients through the major trauma centre in WA (15-24 year old age bracket) were young men. And primarily young men that had taken stupid, high risk choices. From my home region – young people accounted for 25% of people killed or seriously injured on our local roads between 2004 and 2013. The excuses of the excesses of youth, the difficulties in delivering programmes or vagrancies of funding can’t be excuses for not trying to educate this group.

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I was involved in a really fun program to deliver. I am also the first person to admit it wasn’t always perfect. It could always have been improved, expanded, built upon. Health promotion is most effective when delivered as part of a structured program that is embedded in to multiple areas; rather than one-off field trips – but when you only have the capacity to deliver the one-offs, you have to decide whether one-off interventions are better than no interventions. We endeavoured to ensure the program was delivered in conjunction with other projects and programs, but occasionally it was purely stand-alone. I know what the research says, but sometimes you can only do what you can do.

A major challenge involved in running a project like this, was stakeholder management. So many stakeholders, all very important to the project, all with different needs, goals and motivations for their involvement. There were tense moments during development and delivery that would have been easier to manage with less people to worry about, but that may have reduced the efficacy of the program or the internal and external support. It was a delicate balancing game.

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After navigating the stress of just getting the project up and running – my main joy was delivering the actual program days. Delivering programs to young people takes a significant amount of energy. You have to just go for it and second best will not do. Program days would first involve juggling presenters and pretending on top of everything; then once that was under control the real fun would begin. It would be my turn to hurtle head first in to an awaiting pack of rabid youths, desperate to make my mark, or at the very least, a smeary smudge against the windshield of their youthful egos.

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That is where when head back to high school. Now, this was not peer-education. I’m old. Like grey hair, married with children old. I am so not lit. Sure, I’ve met young people and some of them have even spoken to me in a consensual two way conversation – but I am O. L. D. The young crew I was speaking to were generally in the sticky, messy part of the teenage dream, where parties, booze, sex and risk taking come crashing together with awkwardness, naivety and acne. I’m old enough (if I’d made some dramatic life choices) to be their dad. Or at least their uncle. In fact, for one of the kids – I was their uncle. Now, that was a tough day of trying to balance role duality. The challenges of working in regional areas.

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So, how do you make yourself relevant when speaking to young people without making yourself a grade-A example of an epic toolie? The first step is to sincerely acknowledge that you are not their peer, you are old and you do not know what they are going through. Aside from the fact that this is 90% the truth, it helps establish that you aren’t trying to be cool – you’re trying to be useful.

One thing that was VERY successful for me and a I recommend to anyone working with young people: don’t be afraid to ridicule yourself. It helps reduce the feeling that you are holier than thou and preaching to the group. I never felt that I lost standing mixing strong messages with some self targeted ribbing. One of the most talked about slides from my presentations has been my then and now picture. I use it to introduce the concept of choices and consequences to the program – mainly my poor choices in hair style and fashion.

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Another tip: find a concept and deliver it well. We worked hard on the choices and consequences concept – reduce your risks, help your mates, beware the ripple effect. Trying to convince a group of young people that a potentially silly error could lead to ongoing and possibly lifelong effects is a tough sell – one that can be achieved through making what you are talking about real, relatable and raw. A participant has to be able to put themselves or someone they know in the picture.

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The ripple effect was one of the key tenements of the program. It sprung in to existence from almost nowhere one day and became a core principle of explaining the concept of road trauma to young people. We don’t give young people much credit – they can be portrayed as lazy and self-absorbed. An unfair generalisation that doesn’t allow for the fact that there is great compassion and empathy in amongst our young crew. I would often explain the concept that health workers – the paramedics, doctors and nurses that dealt with front-line trauma are not robots. They are people, with families, and friends and lives that went on beyond delivering emergency health care. The concept that their decisions may actually impact on me and my children’s lives proved to be surprisingly effective in gaining their attention.

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Another pointer: tell real stories. Scenarios are great. Real life is even better. I have, unfortunately, lost far too many friends and peers through road accidents. Some were drinking driving. Some were speeding. Some remain unexplained, many, many years later. All were young men. All were tragedies. All ripped the heart and soul out of families, communities, sporting groups. There is nothing like the jarring finality of the loss of a young life through road trauma. There is a jarring reality when you stand in front of a group of young people and speak candidly about how hard it can be to see the mother of a dead friend, even years later. Explain the times you catch yourself day dreaming about the possible children a mate could have had, what type of dad he may have been, what type of partner. Retelling the reality of a life lost aids with cut-through.

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There was great opportunities to learn from the groups. Not just from what they were saying, but their actions, their responses, their feedback. There is something really exposing about presenting to young people (if you care). You are putting yourself out there – and they will provide direct and cutting feedback if what you are serving up isn’t to standard. The groups I spoke to had no qualms in questioning what was presented, how it was presented. They were fair but harsh critics – and they demand the best of you as a presenter.

The content we delivered was hard going and the manner it was interactive, challenging and occasionally fun. There can be a misconception that if you are learning about a serious topic you can’t enjoy yourself. It is widely accepted that children learn best through play. Surely adults and young adults are the same. This week I was reading an article by Dorothy Lucardie, who highlights that having fun and experiencing enjoyment were recognised by adult learners and teachers as a significant motivators to attendance and learning the knowledge and skills; while fun and enjoyment were considered a mechanism that encouraged concentration by learners and helped in the absorption of learning. We shouldn’t be afraid of making learning about serious topics fun. Why not engage a group, have them invested and involved when talking about the challenges of managing a trauma patient?

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The element of fun, some self-depreciation and relatability and acknowledging that while I definitely wasn’t a peer, I was at least worth listening to – meant that I had a lot of fun delivering this program and excellent feedback from my harsh, teen critics. Delivering alongside some exceptional presenters made my job that little bit easier, and definitely ensured that we had maximum impact on participants. This project was heavily evaluated, and the feedback forms were always glowing – but the biggest things that I would take from delivering the program were the unexpected outcomes, the remembrances, and the relationships with my fellow presenters.

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The value in presenting that program was always the things on top of the content. The outcomes no-one knew would exist. Two male students chose to study nursing after attending the project, changing their study preferences in perhaps the biggest professional compliment I have ever received. One student spent the day seemingly ignoring the key points of the program, before everything clicked in the final 15 minutes of the day. He solemnly shook my hand at the end of the day, staying back explicitly to do so – and still welcomes me in the street 2 years after he attended the program. The young people who remind me they were participants as they serve me coffee in local cafes, thanking me for the program. The parents who approach me and tell me their child raved about the program at home and that they hope it continues. Those were the things that made it really worthwhile, and are the things that cannot be captured on an evaluation or wider expansion of a program. The intangibles, the connections you make, the moments of realisation in a participant’s eyes. You can’t capture that – but it makes it worth throwing so much of yourself in to it.