Hidden Jakarta: life in an urban kampung

Jakarta is home to more than 10 million people.

It is the largest city in SE Asia and the 12th largest in the world. It is estimated that at least a quarter of Jakarta’s inhabitants – and predominantly its poorest – live in  kampungs.

Many kampungs in central Jakarta are just a few  hundred metres from gleaming skyscrapers and 5 star hotels and yet it’s as if they are hidden away. Most foreign visitors remain blissfully unaware of their existence.

The word kampung has its roots in  rural Javanese tradition and means “village”. As such it carries with it a sense of cohesion and community; a sense of belonging.

Kampungs are not quite slums. Jakarta does have some slums which are home to the truly impoverished, mainly squatters, devoid of electricity or indeed any real infrastructure. They are as confronting as any in the world.

Kampungs though, and particularly the ones in inner Jakarta, are different.

There are some permanent dwellings in these kampungs, a semblance of infrastructure and many residents can show some entitlement  (possibly informal and not necessarily enforceable but entitlement nonetheless) to the space they live in.

Often, the first indication you are entering a kampung is the narrowing of the streets. No longer wide enough for cars, dwellings are suddenly cheek by jowl and you have to turn sideways to let mopeds pass.

Open drains line the streets and you become aware that you are suddenly very much in the midst of people going about their lives.

Delicious cooking smells waft from the tiny dwellings, children shout and babies cry, open doors reveal tidy but sparse and simple rooms that do double duty as living and bedrooms. In some, tiny televisions blare and satellite dishes stick up incongruously from corrugated iron roofs.

I certainly don’t mean to romanticise or glorify the crowded, sometimes unsanitary and precarious living conditions in Jakarta’s kampungs.

These are places characterised by higher rates of illness and poor access to organised health services.

They are highly vulnerable to Jakarta’s seasonal floods, reliant on its poor quality water and while a minority own a stove and live in bricks and mortar – some complete with immaculate tiled courtyards and ornate cement-work – the majority still cook over camp stoves and  live in corrugated iron shacks or meagre double rooms that open directly onto tiny streets.

I’m simply saying that what struck me was the true beauty, humble pride and palpable dignity in every aspect of their community. Things are shabby but cared-for; basic and valued; simple and essential.

With all of that came great beauty.

The kampung  was almost scrupulously tidy – hardly a speck of rubbish in the tiny public spaces and everywhere was evidence of people making an effort to beautify the space: walls of potted greenery, colourful paint and embellishments. Small touches that together brought enormous dignity to the space.

Coupled with that was the warm but welcoming curiosity with which the inhabitants greeted my girlfriend and I. Every corner we turned led us deeper into increasingly narrow and labyrinthine laneways where we were greeted with mild surprise but genuine, gentle warmth and welcome.

And a lot of puzzled amusement as to what on earth I would want to photograph.

We weren’t hassled or questioned or made to feel unwelcome in our whole time there. Rather, people smiled at us, called out the ubiquitous “Hallo Mister” greeting (it applies whether you’re male or female and always makes me laugh), waved at us, beckoned us towards them, laid gentle hands of greeting or good-bye on us and entreated us to take photos of their kids.

We turned a corner and surprised one older lady who let out an exclamation of mild embarrassment at being caught in her shabby house coat which she quickly clutched closer around her neck. Even though we were in a narrow public thoroughfare between two rows of very simple shacks, in essence, we had stumbled into her living room. Despite that, she smiled warmly wished us a good morning.

It does not surprise me in the least that in general there are lower rates of mental health problems in Indonesia. This is directly attributable to individuals having a sense of community and belonging – from close-knit families through to their extended families and on to the larger village structure. It’s inspiring.

The uninhibited and joyful smiles of so many people drew me in. Almost invariably though they would clamp their lips together and look grim for the shot.

This lady is a perfect example. She beckoned me over to chat and  agreed to let me photograph her with the most beautiful smile but when I went to take the photo she promptly closed her mouth and looked very serious. Distant even.

My girlfriend explained that most Indonesians typically have a “photo face”. In a land where expensive digital cameras and the days of having one special photo a year ,or even a decade,  taken, still exist there is no room for naturalness.

That said, this gorgeous fellow did okay.

And this guy was a character.

I had his mates in gales of laughter when I thanked him and then accidentally told him he was very beautiful instead of handsome. Um, yep, my Indonesian was woefully rusty.

On the periphery are the warungs,  informal restaurants. This photo encapsulated my morning; extraordinarily lovely people in simple surrounds.

They wanted a photo with me. Ms Bemused immediately put her arm around my back and drew me closer to her. Ms Amused put on her photograph face. The little one smiled naturally. And the fellow behind laughed his head off in an interpretation of all three states.

The morning I spent in this kampung was the unexpected highlight of my trip. I felt extraordinarily privileged to have been able to do it and inspired on a human level in a way that I know means not just that I want to go back there but that I have to.

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12 thoughts on “Hidden Jakarta: life in an urban kampung

  1. Just came across your essay while searching for the word “urban kampung.” I am just wondering if you know any Indonesian film that takes place in kamoung?

    You are a wonderful writer.

  2. thank you. I was searching information about kampungs in Jakarta and I found your post. I think you have a good human touch describing the kampung and the people living there. thank you!

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