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The hands that rock the cradle

Indonesia, December 22, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Yoyo Maesaroh. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The West Flood Canal passes through Yoyo's neighborhood. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Another view of Jakarta's West Flood Canal and houses of a poor neighborhood that runs alongside it. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps

I often wonder how a single city could be so extremely diverse, both economically and socially, as my hometown, Jakarta.

It's so diverse that the lowest income of an inhabitant could be as little as $20 a month, while the highest income could surpass even $20,000 a month. So diverse that, today, I met someone my age who — like me — has been living in this city since the day she was born, but — unlike me — got married when she was 17 years old. I remember I was barely even seriously dating anyone back then.

This particular someone that I met today was a 30-year-old woman named Yoyo Maesaroh. She is a mother with three children, living in the west part of Jakarta, in a neighborhood called Tomang. There in Tomang, Mercy Corps conducts a Community Based Sanitation project that focuses on solid waste management. Today was the closing day of the one-year project, and also the opening day for the newly-built composting house. For a year, Mercy Corps has trained cadres of residents to be the agents of change by showing examples to their community on how to recycle their waste for better use. Yoyo is part of these cadres.

“Father is the neighborhood leader, that’s how I became involved in the first place,” she explained to me.

“You mean your father? Or your children’s father?” I asked naively — and confusedly.

She laughed serenely and answered, “My father. My husband is only an informal parking attendant.”

The reason why I asked that question was because it is a must for the wife of a neighborhood leader to be involved in the community. After we talked for another while, I learned that her mother refused to have that role, so she voluntarily registered herself last year. Here, she stated the cliché, “I wanted to do something for the community.” But then, hearing her whole story, I came to think differently.

Yoyo was pregnant with her third child when she registered. Living in the slums of West Jakarta alongside a startling number of malnourished children, she was worried of the future of her unborn child. “The waste problem had got me really frustrated. The smell is overwhelming. Flies are everywhere in my house — everything is covered by flies,” she sighed. I could see that clearly.

Her neighborhood has all the regular problems of an urban neighborhood that's situated by the river banks: unimproved sanitation, lack of access to clean water and garbage strewn everywhere. When Jakarta was hit by a huge flood in 2002 that drowned 60 percent of the city, her neighborhood was impacted badly. Yoyo and her family had to temporarily move to a nearby shopping mall, sleeping on level eight of the parking structure.

The government recently built a long and wide drainage system called the West Flood Canal to help tackle Jakarta's flood problems. This canal passes through Yoyo’s neighborhood. Surely, this helped the whole city. But because the poor hygiene behavior of the community didn’t change, a wider river only means greater problems.

When Mercy Corps stepped in to facilitate the community in improving their sanitation, Yoyo was ready to catch the ball. She actively approached all the women in her neighborhood to be involved as well. “It’s not easy, no one wanted to be involved. There’s no money in it,” she recalled. So at first, she invited her relatives who also lived in the neighborhoods.

Then word of mouth spread. Other people joined. With other local cadres, she now has an extensive network of composting groups across the district.

“Our neighborhood was covered in the national newspaper. Of all other neighborhoods in Jakarta, they chose us to be the example. I’m so proud of being a part of it,” Yoyo said.

Aside of her composting activity, she volunteers once every month in a local health post to weigh children under five years old in the neighborhood. “It’s not only putting babies in the cradle and weighing them, I was trained for other jobs here as well,” she said modestly.

Yoyo gave birth to her baby boy two months ago. Being a housewife, she's the main caregiver of her baby. She breastfeeds him, rocks his cradle and plays with him while, at the same time, taking care of her other two school-aged children. She does all of this while participating as an activist for the improvement of her community, without being paid even a cent.

“I do it for my community,” she said. Now I believe her.