When my younger boys were at school in Jakarta they had a rascal of a girl, let’s call her Vanessa, as a classmate. My younger son, a wild one himself, called her naughty, so coming from him she must have been a handful. She was a mix; a small, blondish, cute Indonesian girl. In a word, she was adorable. She was the product of an Indonesian mother and an English father who was the English teacher at the school. The mother disappeared and the father left the teaching job at the school in Jakarta for a new job in Surabaya. He left the daughter behind with the maid for a few months. Apparently the situation for the maid and Vanessa (aged about 8) got so bad that in the evenings the girl went into the neighbourhood from house to house to beg for food. She only had a very few clothes. At one time the school parents association chipped in to get her dressed up for a school play because she had nothing to wear. The maid eventually wanted to give up the girl and give or sell her to a Wartel owner in the neighbourhood.
I was so shocked that I started to inquire with the school head master about providing her with shelter and support. My kids were in agreement that this was the right thing to do. But then, she disappeared.
Was Vanessa rescued by her father? Was she sold? Is she alive or has she been killed? Has she found a house, a family to provide her with warmth and love? Nobody knows. She just vanished.
The story of Vanessa touches the core of Indonesian society today and illustrates the utter lack of social fabric needed to protect kids like Vanessa. The informal structures in place helped out a bit in the beginning, but in essence the parents’ organization of the school was powerless to do much. We are living in an age of high-power mobile phones, iPads, and interconnectivity to the darkest corners of the planet. Yet we are unable to provide the protection and secure future for the people who need the basic, most human condition of all: the love of parents for our future generation of children. Yet we have everything else. Asia and the rest of the world have by and large seen long periods of peace and development; our life expectancy has increased; and our health services’ (if you have money) capability to heal illness is unparalleled in human history. Yet, we are unable to provide the basic needs of food, shelter, education, and clean clothes to kids like Vanessa. That is not acceptable.
I must question the values of this English expatriate teacher who left his daughter behind without sufficient resources and safeguards. But I also hold the mother responsible for the abandonment of her child. This story of human tragedy is as incredible as it is unbelievable. I hold our collective communities responsible for not recognizing the incredible struggle kids like Vanessa face every day, every second of their lives. Their struggle for survival is a result of our collective failings. We are trapped by our daily struggles and the minutiae of our daily lives and we often look away from the plights of kids like Vanessa. Cynics will argue that millions of kids like Vanessa struggle every day and perish. While callous, this argument rings true. The scale of this issue is global. But making even a small gesture of kindness to the children of our future must become a cause for us as humans. It must. If not we will fail as society, we fail as humans and lose our humanity.
We must ask hard questions, such as what values was this teacher teaching if he abandoned his own child? How can he teach and inspire other children if he himself is unable to value his own daughter? These failings disqualify him as a teacher in my view. Then we must ask, what are our political leaders’ responsibilities for protecting the innocent, the young and the weak? If they do nothing, they fail as leaders.
Indonesians have an incredible depth of human qualities and an enormously strong sense of community, belonging, and kindness. But like so many developing countries that have jumped to First World status, Indonesia failed to address the most basic needs of our future, our children. Its social security system is corrupt, inefficient, and does not benefit the future (nor the past) of Indonesians. The young, old, and weak alike are equally ignored. The lack of empathy by the “me-generation” of the new middle class is breeding a deep hate among the young, thereby creating a ticking time bomb situation. The survivors of this breed of discarded will become the disenfranchised future.
As we face this future, cold, hard questions must be asked such as what happens to all the billions of dollars of foreign aid that is annually poured into Indonesia by the Western countries? Seemingly, corruption is getting worse, roads are in disarray, power shortages continue to plague everyone, water is bad, flooding has gotten worse, So what are all these NGOs and the foreign governments really doing other than singing a song for the president? Are these groups serving the interest of Indonesians or are they just in the game of wasting money? Of the development aid so often trumpeted with massive media campaigns by the government and the NGOs themselves, what does the government and the NGOs scorecard really to show? Little to nothing is the answer. So we who retain a sense of humanity must ask the hard questions. We owe it to Vanessa and the future generations of Indonesians.
The economy, the fight against radicalism, hate, and bigots who in the false name of Islam destroy and steal and are not brought to justice by a president who, instead of focusing on the interest of his people, looks imperial as he rides on the bridge of a ship that harms Indonesian interests. But all this becomes irrelevant once we fail to protect the most important issue for us as a humans; children like Vanessa; the children of Indonesia.
Vanessa represents the future for Indonesia. Cosmopolitan, interconnected to the world, a child of East-meets-West, a power in its own right with resources, richness, and history beyond the tourist fantasy in Bali. But this future is threatened by the daily perversities of corrupt police and tax officials, incompetence by greedy politicians who line their pockets, traffic jams, and messiah-like of politicians who instead of focusing on their work are eyeing the presidential chair.
The kindness, the sense of community, and the capability to protect kids like Vanessa and many like her, must become a rallying cry for Indonesians. It must.