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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


A JOB WITH BITE Duncan Graham, Nias

Most health professionals display their qualifications with pride.

Well framed, the fancy calligraphy glows from surgery walls assuring agony-wracked patients that they’re in good hands – and to justify charging equally painful bills.

But there’s no fancy diploma on the coarse-planked walls of dentist Warnidar Hulu’s riverbank surgery in Gunung Sitoli, capital of the west coast Sumatra island of Nias.

In fact there’s next to nothing in the nine square-meter shack which serves as surgery, waiting area, office and drop-in center. There’s a thin blue half-length curtain to shield sensitive patients as they lie on the rickety examination chair, but nothing to dampen the groans and yelps, or the nerve-piercing noise from the pedal-power drill and grinder.

Less honest practitioners of the bloody arts of tooth pulling might have got someone to dummy up a false certificate on a computer, but Warnidar, 43, is not one for subterfuge.

“Before the 2005 earthquake the government health department registered me and helped show me what to do, but they seem to have forgotten that now,” she said.

“There’s no running water so I use bottled water and Dettol (an antiseptic) for the instruments. If the patients want an anaesthetic I inject them with lidocaine. I never use the needles more than three times.

“They get me to go the hospital to make sure I’m healthy and don’t pass on any infections. No problem. I’m fit. All my teeth are my own, and I’ve never had toothache. I’ve never had a patient get ill from my treatment.”

That’s some claim, because she’s been in the business for more than 20 years, honing her skills with pliers, gougers, picks, probes and other tools handed down through her family.

For Warnidar was taught by her husband’s grandfather. He learned from his father who fled with many other families to Nias from Fuzhou in China’s Fujian Province. They escaped from discrimination and fighting during an early unsuccessful attempt at revolution, probably around 1911.

Then and now the family hasn’t been short of clients driven by pain and desperate for relief – or a new set of dentures.

Warnidar’s business is called Shonjaya, and it’s advertised on a hand-written board in red and white paint. The ‘S” is in the shape of a Chinese dragon. The title is a mix of the words for prosperity and the family name.

The location is ideal to attract attention, only meters from a bridge spanning the estuary of the River Nou, used by hundreds of vehicles every day. Many walk past to get access to the pig meat market opposite.

A regular sea breeze blows the noxious smells inland. The tide helps dispose of the waste. Well, some of it anyway. Stuck in the mud are the remnants of a police launch and other rotted craft along with plastic bags, street muck and all the debris of a busy town indifferent to garbage control. Close investigation unwise.

Warnidar’s neighbors are not so well housed. Her corrugated iron roof has been nailed down, and the shutters (no windows) actually open and close. The shop next door uses plastic string to hold down the scavenged rusting sheets and protect its stock of basic household goods.

A few planks on stilts lead to a tiny open-roofed shed. Bystanders can’t actually see what you are doing there, but they can view the results as they drop into the mud below.

“I used to visit my patients in their homes,” said Warnidar, “but it’s better for my five children if I’m in one place.

“The earthquake destroyed our house and with it my drill. My mother-in-law hurt her back. She was in hospital for six moths. The rest of my family was unhurt.

“The quake also damaged the examination couch. My husband Sho Cenghian is a good motorcycle mechanic. He used parts to make me a new drill and grinder. He also got some new pipes for the couch.”

She said that the government has tried to shut down her business three times, sending public order officials to tear down the riverside shanties.

“They smashed the other huts, but not mine,” she said. “I can be a tough woman. I threatened them with a knife. They’ve left me alone since then.”

But for how much longer? A new two-storey market built with post-quake reconstruction money and opened in 2008 stands empty. Warnidar said the rent of Rp 20 million (US $2,200) a year for a stall was too expensive for her and all the other small traders who are supposed to move off public land.

“I only earn Rp 3 million (US $330) a month. How can I afford to move?” she asked. “It would be better and cleaner there but we need government help and lower rents so we can shift.

“There’s no discrimination against the Chinese in Nias. Many have married with the locals. During the 1965 coup d’etat some people tried to force the Chinese out of Gunung Sitoli. However we weren’t bothered because my husband’s father had been a veteran (a revolutionary fighter in 1945.)

“I charge Rp 50,000 (US $5.50) for a filling and half that for an extraction. New teeth cost Rp 75,000 (US $8) each.

“There’s lots of competition – including the hospital. But you can walk in here and usually get treated straight away.”

The first interview was regularly interrupted as Warnidar treated one patient while another smothered her mouth with a bloody rag. Idle passers-by dropped in to gawk under the pretence of shooting the breeze.

The able Warnidar darted expertly between her plastic bowls of mixes and cements and patient, selecting the right instruments without hesitation, keeping up the banter with those not too pained to talk. There were lots of jokes and laughter, helping focus patients’ minds on other things.

She lacks formal qualifications. Her gear is primitive. The environment would repel those who expect hygiene in dentistry. But Warnidar’s couchside manner and obvious dexterity with pliers and grinder help offset the deficiencies. Just a little.

“Our grandfather used to say: ‘Better to be diligent in practice than theory,’” she said. “I agree.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 September 2010)

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