The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, December 31, 2007


Banana lady minds her own business © Duncan Graham 2007

Most Western countries provide pensions for the poor. That’s not the situation in Indonesia where the extended family is expected to support the needy. But what happens to a widow with no children? Duncan Graham reports:

It took some tricky negotiations for permission to use the photo above, though not because it had been snapped by some sly paparazzi while the celebrity was sans make up, dirty bra straps cutting into surplus fat.

Slim, neatly dressed Sapatun was well aware of the camera but the result was not to her liking. “If my friends see this they’ll laugh because I’m showing my teeth,” she said.

Some persuasive chat was required – all true. ‘Ibu, your smile is a real delight. It lights up the whole street when you turn the corner. It makes everyone’s day that much better. Clearly it’s one of your better points, particularly when the sunlight winks off your silver crowned front tooth.

‘This is a much better picture than the stern formal one you want and where you look like a politician. You see it’s already charmed me into wanting to write your story.’

This was no guile. The picture truly reflects her personality which is at the heart of her sales pitch along with her vocal chords.

For every day bar funerals, in scorching heat or torrential rain, Sapatun tramps the potholed and puddled asphalt of Malang hawking bananas, winkling customers out of their homes by singing Pi-sang! laying such heavy emphasis on the last syllable that the first one vanishes.

On a good day she might make between Rp 7,000 and Rp 10,000 profit, which is around one US dollar or less. On a bad day – well, nothing.

She prefers the cheery middle-class areas with a mixed ethnic population rather than the monocultural kampung or the gated enclaves of the rich.

“I buy about ten hands of bananas, and maybe some papaya in Pasar Buring (Buring market on the south side of Malang) every morning about 7 am,” she said. She has a working capital of Rp 60,000 (US $6)

“Then I start off for the housing areas. I don’t use a becak (pedicab) or bemo (public transport). Why should I spend the Rp 2,000 (US 20 cents) for a lift when I can walk?

“I keep going until I’ve sold everything, or till it gets dark and I’m too tired. I’m fit, though I sometimes get headaches.”

No wonder, for she carries the fruit in two wide woven baskets stacked on her head. At the start of the day she has close to 20 kilos pushing down on her skull. The load is softened by a coiled towel, but lifting and lowering the baskets requires a real knack. Either your arms get jerked in their sockets, or you overbalance and drop the lot. Not a good sales pitch.

The tendency is to push the descending load away from the body. Ergonomically unwise; that’s the quick way to tear a back muscle, as government health and safety officials warn in Western campaigns to instill proper work practices.

No one has told headstrong Sapatun this, and even if they did she’s not into style change. Maybe the way she squats in one movement as the wide baskets tumble downwards helps dissipate the weight. Chiropractors take note: Sapatun claims no spinal agony though she repeats this exercise 20 to 30 times a day.

At this stage in a profile it’s normal to highlight the age of the interviewee. Sorry, can’t oblige. Sapatun doesn’t know, reckons 50 plus. Maybe plus plus, like a hotel bill. So study the picture again and make your own best guess.

When you do, take into account that she spends all daylight hours in the open, and doesn’t use the skin creams sinetron starlets recommend. Also remember she weighs less than 50 kilos and has the frame (though not the height) that teens would squeal to achieve.

Her parents came from Madura, the long, dry island that lies parallel with the north coast of East Java, but Sapatun was born in Malang in the district where she trades. This is her world, her alpha and omega.

She wanted to be a farmer. She likes nature and being outside, but could never find the money to buy land.

She may have gone to school briefly – the facts here are sketchy because Sapatun only speaks Jawa pasaran (market Javanese). No problem for the locals for this is the patois of Malang. Big problem for outsiders who’ve been told that Indonesians speak Indonesian.

Sapatun married young. Her husband, also a street trader, died about six years ago. The union was barren. That’s a major tragedy for poor Indonesians. This is the converse of the Javanese proverb: Many children, much welfare.

When told that modern Western states supply decent pensions she laughed at such an incredible notion. The idea that a government could be benign and caring was fantasyland.

She lives in a tiny shack with no electricity and uses kerosene for cooking and light. She eats when and where she can. Sometimes her customers share a snack.

“People are generally kind and want to have a chat,” she said. “They usually like to talk about their children.” And how does she feel looking at the smart houses, the fecund mums, the flash cars? To fit the stereotype this story has to carry the bitter taste of revolt and anger.

“Angry? If I get angry I might go crazy,” she said. “Why would I want to do that?” (This wasn’t the only question that Sapatun found absurd.)

“My life is buying and selling. It’s walking and eating and bed. This is what I do. I don’t want to envy other people. What they do is their business.

“I’ll do this as long as I can. I want to work and be independent. I would never beg. I think that’s shameful.”

This comment presented an opportunity not to be missed. One of the curses of Malang is the work-shy youth who strum slack-string plywood guitars and howl like wolves hoping householders will pay them to shut up and move on.

So what did Sapatun feel about these wastrels? How about a fruity comment on idle kids? Oldies are seldom short of gratuitous advice for the young.

Unlike Eve and the apple, the banana lady would not yield to temptation. “I don’t think about them - that’s their concern,” she said.

Suitably trounced, there was only one question left that Sapatun might bite. Any comment for the buyers of her wares?

“I just want to say that I only make between Rp 500 and Rp 1,000 (five to ten US cents) profit on a hand of bananas. Then you try to beat down my price. I can end up selling for what I paid, so what do I live on then? That’s not fair.

“Please think about other people and how they have to live. That’s all.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 30 Dec 2007)


johnorford said...

I really enjoyed this story. Thanks!

Trisian said...

It would be most interesting to learn how Sapatuns of the 8th CE (Borobudur era approx 2 centuries), 11th CE (Singosari, Kediri), 13th CE (Majapahit's, approx 2 centuries), 16th CE (Demak), 17th CE (Dutch era, approx 3 centuries) fared, to compare with Sapatun after World War 2 and the era of globalisation.


fannie said...

here is a simple lady with a big heart (!). thank you for sharing the story.
it makes me think again, to be grateful, for everything I have in life - good or bad, stress or not stress -
look forward to read more from your blog, now that i had it bookmarked.