Sun, 03 Sep 2000

A day with herbal medicine vendor 'Ibu' Slamet

Ibu Slamet, 55, was born in the ancient Central Java city of Surakarta (Solo). A jamu (traditional herbal medicine) seller all her life, she moved to Jakarta when she was 16. She currently lives in Kampung Tambak, Central Jakarta, with her husband, Jadit. They have four grown-up girls. In conversation with The Jakarta Post's William Furney.

JAKARTA (JP): We live in a small two-roomed house, which is rented. Every day, I get up at 4 a.m. to prepare jamu. I'll wash the ingredients, such as ginger and so on, grind them together and pour the mixture into bottles. That takes about an hour, and after I say the morning prayer I'll go out and sell the jamu on the street. There's no competition in my area; I'm the only Ibu jamu in the kampong. If there were others, it'd be difficult to sell.

I buy packets of jamu from an agent at the local market, and mix it with eggs, ginger, honey and so on. I learned to make it from my grandmother in Surakarta. She's dead now, but she taught me a lot. After she passed away, when I was 16, I moved to Jakarta and began selling. Surakarta is the heart of jamu; it's where the knowledge is.

At 7 a.m., I'll have some rice and tempeh from a warung; it costs only Rp 1,000. And then I'll continue walking the streets looking for customers. But it's not hard to sell; many of the people that buy my jamu are regular customers; they drink it every morning. And they're nice people, mostly Javanese. Men, women and children drink my jamu, and they're usually bajaj and taxi drivers and housewives. Jamu is excellent for your health. It helps all conditions, including colds and flu's. It also cleanses the blood, clears acne, helps with antianxiety, skin diseases and slimming, and lots of other ailments. Everyone in my family, including my old parents in Surakarta, drinks jamu every day.

Indonesians like to drink jamu because they know it's good for them. Everyone drinks it, because for every ailment there's a jamu remedy. But it takes some getting used to because the taste can be quite bitter. People here like sweet things, so many of them ask me to add a lot of honey to the jamu.

I'll sell until 10 a.m., when all my jamu is gone. Then I go back to the house to rest. Sometimes I sleep for a while before going to the market to buy more supplies. I sell jamu for between Rp 1,000 for children to Rp 5,000, which is the complete one, and I make about Rp 30,000 to Rp 50,000 per day, but only about Rp 30,000 of that is profit. I try to get to the market by 1 p.m. to buy the things I need.

Every Idul Fitri (celebration at the end of the Muslim fasting month), we return home to Surakarta by train. It's an overnight trip and costs about Rp 30,000 per person. It used to be cheaper. We stay with my parents. They're very old -- my father is 80 and my mother 75. Every three months, I send them some money, not much, just Rp 30,000, which a friend takes from Jakarta to their house. It's just as well, as sending things by post is expensive.

Jadit drives a bajaj. He has been doing it for years, but doesn't own the bajaj; he rents it from a local man. He works half a day and makes about Rp 30,000, but has to hand over Rp 20,000 of that to the owner, leaving just Rp 10,000 for himself.

I've never been anywhere, because I'm always tired. But I guess I like my work, it's all I know how to do. And if I didn't work, there'd be no food on the table.

Like other Ibu jamu, I wear the traditional clothes of Surakarta, which includes a batik sarong. And I carry my basket of jamu in the gendong style (carried on the back). Even though I am from Surakarta, I prefer to live in Jakarta. Life in Surakarta is very difficult; there are many sellers of jamu there and it's extremely difficult to make money. It's much better in Jakarta, and there are no bad people in my area, just central Javanese, who are good.

I'm tired of living in our rented house. I like the area, but the house is too small. We pay Rp 1.5 million each year for it. But what I really want is a house of our own. In Surkarta, houses are very expensive, especially those near the city. A small house costs about Rp 10 million there nowadays, but if you want a bigger one, it'll cost about Rp 25 million. We have nothing in our house, except for a well. We don't have a television, radio or even beds; we sleep on the floor. I'd like to have some of those things but we don't have any money. The most important thing now is to save for a house.

I like to go shopping in the traditional markets. But I don't like going to the big malls. Once, I went to Pasar Raya in Manggarai, but I was frightened. I just bought some cakes for the children and left. I don't want to go back there again; I don't feel comfortable. I'm much happier in the traditional places.

As a child in Surakarta, I never went to school. My parents didn't send me as things were difficult. But I'm proud my children have all been to school in Jakarta, even though I can't read or write myself, which is not a problem anyway as I don't need to be able to do those things.

I've never had a bank account, purely because my money doesn't last that long. After I pay for food and clothes, there's nothing much left.

In the evenings, I just sit around in the house with the others and we talk until we get tired. We usually chat about families and children. Then I'll just lie down on the floor and fall asleep. Although my life is difficult, I don't think about things too much, there's no point; I'd just get a headache.