Sun, 20 Feb 2000

A gloomy picture of a Dutch colonial inheritance

By Sumanto

YOGYAKARTA (JP): In the beginning, she felt ashamed stretching out her right hand, begging for money from passers-by. But now she has gotten used to it, and her five children have joined her in the work.

Tomorejo recalled how hard it was when she first decided to beg. She had to fight her feelings of shame and the mental burden that came along with her choice.

"I managed to handle all the obstacles. The mental burden and the shame have vanished on their own. My children and I work in this way. It is no problem, it is also called work, isn't it? We leave at seven in the morning and go home at six in the evening," said Tomorejo spiritedly.

The woman, who is in her sixties, said she became a beggar after her husband died, though she does not remember the exact year. But she said she got married at the age of 18 and her husband died when their child, who was born a year after they were married, was only 6. Now she has four other children from four different men -- all born outside of wedlock.

Tomorejo and her children live in the hamlet of Karangrejek, Karangtengah village, Imogiri district, Bantul regency, Yogyakarta. Karangrejek is often referred to as the kampong of beggars, because most of its residents earned money in this line of work. Today, many of the residents have other jobs, but Karangrejek's nickname remains -- much to the annoyance of many of the residents.

Pargianto, 30, chief of people's welfare affairs in Karangtengah village, said that in Imogiri district there were many people who were not from Karangrejek who made their living as beggars. They live in villages throughout the region, including Srunggo, Selo Pamioro, Kretek, Mbobok and Nambangan.

"But when you ask the beggars where they come from, 99 percent say Karangrejek," said Pargianto.

Its status as a beggars hamlet dates back to the Dutch era. Atmodirejo, 70, a farmer and a local leader in Karangrejek, said that in 1915 the Dutch government issued a regulation saying that anyone wishing to till the land had to pay 10 guilders plus an additional five guilders in taxes every year. This amount was quite high for the locals; with 10 guilders at that time you could buy 10 adult buffaloes. The only villager who could afford this price was Mbah Gumbrek, who was one of the richest people in Karangrejek at the time. The other residents could not cultivate the fertile land in their own village, and as life became increasingly difficult for the farmers, many of them turned to begging.

Atmodirejo believed that in the beginning people would beg only to survive, but when the situation changed they would become farmers again. But nothing changed, and so kept from they land they continued to beg.

Amat Damiri, 78, another resident of Karangrejek, confirmed that begging became a kind of tradition that continued into the 1980s. He still remembers a time when nearly all the residents of the hamlet worked as beggars.

The number of beggars has decreased gradually, but it has not entirely disappeared. Out of about 80 families in the hamlet, dozens of them are beggars.

The money these people make is enough to survive. Tomorejo said that on average she earned no less than Rp 7,000 a day.

Amat Damiri, who spends his days working his 1,000 square meters of land, earns roughly the same amount of money as Tomorejo.

The level of living of the beggars in the hamlet is hardly distinguishable from that of the inhabitants who are not beggars. They all have houses, some semipermanent, others permanent dwellings with brick walls. The houses have TV sets, and some of the beggars' children have achieved as much in their lives as the children of other residents. They have houses, motorcycles and businesses that according to village standards are well- established. According to Pargianto, one beggar's son has finished a non-degree program at a university.

The man, however, was not willing to be interviewed. "Let my past, my parents being beggars, be my own. Allow me not to retell it."

The central government's social safety net fund has also reached Karangrejek. The beggars got their share of the money, but they looked at the fund as nothing extraordinary.

Karto, 46, said that after he received money from the fund his life did not change. He added that he saw no difference between the money from the social safety net and the money he earned begging.

"It was not bad. It provided extra time in life," said Karto, adding that he was content with his life as a beggar.

Karto, however, said working as a beggar was not always easy, and there were times when he faced difficulties. For example, when there are cheap goods available but he has no money, as when the government launches a cheap rice program and he cannot afford to purchase the cut-price rice. "Even at a price of Rp 1,000 a kilogram it is useless if I have no money. It is not funny," said Karto, who always wears a caping (pointed broad hat made of plaited bamboo), when he begs.

Whatever a beggar's income, it apparently is never enough to raise their status. Therefore, Karangtengah village head Basuki and a number of organizations, including Muhamadiyah, the Indonesian Muslim Students Association and Bina Nusantara Foundation, are working to increase the beggars' awareness of their own dignity and worth.

"We try to make them proud for having achieved something through their own sweat," Basuki said.

Basuki said local religious figures also had a role to play in raising the dignity of the beggars. Besides the schools and other public facilities, Karangrejek has two mosques and four musholla (small buildings or rooms for the performance of religious duties).

"The children who come to study the Koran will probably not become beggars like their parents," said Basuki.

Geographically, Karangrejek, at an altitude of 200 meters above sea level, has a loose soil structure and planting is easy. Now, Sultan Hamengku Buwono X -- the sultan and governor of Yogyakarta -- has invited 200 family heads from Karangrejek to cultivate land owned by the sultanate.

Many residents have begun to work this idle, fertile land. However, many of the beggars appear uninterested in following suit. They seem uneager to become farmers, choosing instead to remain beggars.