A hardscrabble life
In the clouds above sit the business tsars, but atop the media mountain are the newsmakers.
On the foothills below squat journalists, recording the triumphs and misfortunes of us all, and the fancies and foolishness of those on high. Sometimes we write of their good deeds and noble aspirations; mostly we report their villainy.
Further down in the steaming floodplains where the ink river ends, grind the smallest yet most essential cogs in this mighty industry: The peddlers of print.
If Khusnul Nurdiana (Ana), 37, and the thousands of other newspaper sellers across the archipelago fail to flog our words, then the whole edifice will collapse.
Ana knows how tough her task. Seven days a week she stands at a junction in Malang, East Java, most daylight hours, hoping passing motorists see the screaming headlines and stop to buy.
“If there’s a big news event then I might make Rp 50,000 (US$5) a day profit,” she said. “Normally it’s half that sum.
“Politics seems to attract, then football and the economy. I sell near a university and a rich suburb. Scandals and artists seem less important – they can get that from television. They can also get their news from the Internet.
“I read the papers and discuss the news with customers. I like to talk, express my concerns and opinions. That surprises some people.”
It wouldn’t if they knew her story, a classic Indonesian tale of crippled talent and endless struggle. Her father, a pedicab driver in Surabaya, died when she was three. Her mother worked in a plastics factory.
Bright and ambitious Ana won scholarships that took her through to high school. She loved English and had private lessons, but is now rusty after years of little use.
She wanted to teach in rural schools (“so I can encourage village children to be educated”), but her mother needed money for her other two children.
So Ana’s dreams were crushed by hardscrabble reality long before her potential could be realised. She sold cosmetics in a mall, unafraid to chat with foreigners and use her language skills. Later she worked in a Gramedia bookshop where her thirst for knowledge could be slaked a little.
Then came the economic crisis. She lost her job, then found another in Malang. She married and has two children.
“I will wash clothes, clean shoes, do anything,” she said. “It was stressful. I tried selling fruit salads, but because we don’t have a fridge the unsold food rotted.
“So I then sold newspapers outside shops while carrying my daughter, but got moved on. Then I found an ideal place outside the gates of the PLN (Perusahaan Listrik Negara - State electricity company) office.
“The manager gave permission provided I kept the site clean. He also said no-one else had survived there for more than three months. I’ve been selling for more than eight.”
Before sunup the family of Dad, Mom and Afifah (daughter Alisah, 7, stays with relatives) rides a motorbike ten kilometers from their rented home to Ana’s patch under a sono (rosewood) tree.
Before husband Agus Sutianto, 30, heads to work in a local supermarket’s fruit section he retrieves a crude timber frame hidden behind a building and ties this to the trunk with twine. Ana goes to an agent to buy newspapers and magazines, which are then pegged for display.
Ana is not alone. Afifah, 3, plays with a radio or looks at the children’s comics. These show wide-eyed princesses floating in a fantasy land of towering castles and pale-skinned youth, glowing with promise.
The tabloids feature ‘celebrities’ flaunting their baubles, breasts and spoilt kids. Wherever this world of frippery and fads exists, it’s as distant as Mars from the crush and toil of Jalan Danau Sentani Raya.
The site may be ideal for sales, offering motorists a long view and space to stop, but it’s no place to park a kid. There’s little shade. Burning rubbish and car exhaust fumes set pedestrians coughing. The background noise is as shrill as some covers, with horror and haunting stories the loudest.
The upside is access to a PLN toilet. The negative is staff thinking they have the right to read without paying.
Ana wants to buy a lock-up rombong (small shed), like one selling cigarettes just two meters downroad. Here little Afifah would be safe and snacks could be sold.
A two-meter long rombong would cost about Rp 5 million (US$ 500). A cheaper alternative would be a kaki lima (five feet – a mobile food stall) for a third of the price, but no shelter from sun and rain.
All the couple’s earnings (Agus gets Rp 1.5 million (US$150) a month) go on paying bills so advancement opportunities are limited.
Ana doesn’t grieve for what might have been. “I wanted to go to University, but how was that ever possible?” she said.
“Now I want the best for our daughters. I want them to be independent, not exploited. With a good education you can get knowledge that will serve till you pass away.
“I want honesty in government and transparency in decision making. I want to know how the rich get their money and where the taxes go. I used to support the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party – PKS), but not now we know the leaders are corrupt.
“I’m not into escapism. I’m not interested in entertainment, gossip and sinetron (soap opera) news– everyone has their headaches.
“All Indonesian children should have the best education opportunities, wherever they live. The government’s job is to help the poor and distribute wealth fairly, but we should also be prepared to change.
“Religion is important to me. It should be about tolerance. Terrorism is not Islamic teaching.
“We have the will and conviction to do better. I don’t accept that our destiny is written and cannot be altered. We must believe that things can be better.
“I know that God helps those who help themselves.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 8 July 2013)