I had the privilege to work in a place whose existence the majority of people prefers to ignore. A place where people walk by the same way they cross a smelling trash bin in a hot summer day; nose hold tight, walking past fast in order to forget the discomforting atmosphere as quickly as possible. I want to talk about slums and what I have experienced during the time working in one of them, a red light district on the island of Java in Indonesia. The memories are too hard to summarise into a judgmental final statement. This will just be a collection of memories and thoughts I had during the time working and living in this extraordinary place.

A ballon that was not

I remember one day driving with my bicycle to work, crossing the railway and turning right into the slum. While turning, the strong smell of burning plastic and feces immediately dominated my nose. I recall driving through the small alley, huts made out of wood and blue plastic roofs on each side, between and in front of the houses trash and ash of burned plastic. In that same trash, the children were sitting, smiling and waving at me cheerfully.

By the time I reached the end of the alley I already gathered a considerable amount of children running behind my bicycle, waiting for me to open the door of the small hut we used to spend the afternoons in. In order to get the key I first had to visit an old lady within the slum who was in charge of it. On the way to her house I had to cross the railway again. The picture I captured there on that particular day will stay in my mind forever.

Imagine daily life next to a railway like this: people drying their clothes, cooking their food and doing all kinds of daily chores. In the middle of this busy railway trail I saw three children sitting on the railway, blowing up a kind of ballon. As I came closer I recognised that the thing I identified as a ballon wasn’t exactly a ballon but a used condom the children must have picked up on their way –now they were happily playing with it. This radical picture of reality is hidden behind railway paths and big fences all across the world… to make it easier for us to close our eyes.

The people I met in the slum were extraordinarily poor, poor in a material way. Their houses are self-made out of plastic, wood and cartoon they find in the trash. The floor of their huts is the actual floor that mother nature provided us with, dust and sand mixed with rubbish and ashes. Privacy is as inexistent as sanitary facilities, running water, a kitchen or a proper bed. All people of the house sleep on the floor, in the same room. The kids I worked with suffer from scabies all over their bodies, through their ripped and dirty clothes you could see numerous infected wounds and bug bites on their supposedly young and smooth children skin, in their matted hair a wide range of small animals. These children represent, to me, the consequences of our privileged living standards.

By using the need for money, low budget prostitution, procuring, gambling and gang violence are witnessed on a daily basis by the children I spent my days with. Most of their mums were earning their little money by prostituting themselves after the city went dark and the children went to bed. Some children call dad somebody who is, in most cases, not their parent but a pimp, somebody who uses the body of their mums to make profit.

I discovered quickly that money, power and education always go hand in hand and flow only in one direction. The destiny these children face is being caught in a circle of material poverty, injustice, violence, lack of education and, consequently, lack of possibilities for their future no matter how talented or ambitious they are.

Within this vicious circle of poverty I found an extraordinary richness of immaterial values and a fascinating human beauty.

Nothing to share, but sharing it all

The kids that attended my classes were, even though some of them never attended school, more creative and fast learning than any child I know. When I would bring material to make handcrafts there was never a need of instruction or encouragement. The children would simply take the material and build things out of it that I wouldn’t have thought of and draw the most beautiful patterns I‘ve ever seen. If I would bring a new game or exercise there was rarely a need for explanation. Even though we didn’t speak the same language they were masters in understanding rules and dynamics simply by watching and experimenting.

One day I brought a new card game into my class. I tried to explain the rules to the children. Of course some of them didn’t understand. However, instead of using the advantage of knowledge to win the game, we wouldn’t start until the children who already understood, explained the rules for everyone to understand.

At one point of the game a new child came into the hut with the wish to join the game. This girl was mentally disabled and, due to her disease, not able to interact properly with the other children. Instead of joining the game, the girl threw away all the cards in the middle of the gaming circle, punched the others –including me– and pulled their hair. Some smaller children started to cry, others started to fight back.

Surprisingly the situation did not end in the exclusion of this girl from the group. Instead, the majority of the children split into groups, one calming down the smaller children, another stopping the others from fighting back the handicapped girl; the rest,with me, trying to calm down the disabled girl and her tension, because she obviously didn’t know what she did wrong. All together we solved the situation and finished playing the game.

After this day I was astonished by what these children, all aged below ten years old, having witnessed many things a child or not even a grown up should ever witness, already learned about living together in a respectful and inclusive environment. Just by being forced to live on a very small area together and share their belongings with each other in order to increase the overall happiness and wealth within their surroundings dominated by prostitution, poverty and violence.

This is the visible beauty within the self-made houses, improvised furnitures and colourful decorations, as well as an invisible social strength through maintaining a culture of giving, sharing, respect and tolerance. Nowhere else have I experienced this beauty, a beauty that grows in this rough and dirty environment, a place our world shuts their eyes from.