I took this photo about a year ago near a tiny fishing village in southern Sumatera. I kept returning to it because there was something about it that struck a cord but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then it came to me, the subject is a metaphor for the Indonesia that I live and work in today. On the one hand the picture shows Indonesia with one foot stuck in the mud of tradition and resistance to change while the other foot is firmly planted on the solid ground of a dynamic and exciting future inextricably connected to the global community. Plus a strong dose of irony in every element.
The design of this cart is so ancient that, with the exception of the modern tyres, Julius Caesar and Brutus probably drove a similar cart around their farm when they were boys more than 2000 years ago. However, if you look at the dirty water marks on the legs of the cow and the mud on the tyres, they have obviously been driving through a location with quite deep water and a soft muddy bottom. Given these conditions, there are probably few more appropriate load-carrying vehicles to successfully negotiate the bog.
Two of the boys are holding mobile phones while the older driver will certainly have one too. Less than a kilometer from this location there is a tall telecommunications tower mounted on a prominent ridge pumping out a 3G signal that covers the village, the surrounding farming area and extends well out to sea where it is accessed by local fisherman and passing international shipping. The phones were probably manufactured in Korea or China and purchased through the flourishing local second hand retail networks. Almost everyone in Indonesia can afford a mobile phone and the exceptionally cheap pre-paid sim-cards.
The boy in the red shirt is texting, probably keeping up with the activities of his friends in the village. The desire to communicate through ultra-cheap texting must be a powerful incentive to pay attention in school and learn reading, writing and arithmetic. Although they are doing a job that their father and previous generations would have done and remain in the village, they are already comfortably connected to the digital world. When they get a little older and graduate to a smartphone they will learn how the rest of the world works through the internet, Wikipedia, You Tube, eBay, Google, Facebook and the like. Their capacity to learn and develop worldly skills will be limitless, something their mother and father not only didn’t have but could never even have imagined.
The cow is a crossbred; its mother probably conceived using artificial insemination. The white face and tan markings suggest a splash of European Simmental genetics which are very popular with Indonesian cattle breeders. Her feet are well worn so she probably does a substantial amount of road work. She is in quite reasonable condition for a working cow implying that she is well fed. It is highly likely that one of the jobs for these boys, before and after school, is to tether the cow out to graze when she is not being used to pull the cart. Their Dad will ride his motorbike long distances every afternoon to find enough fresh grass to cut and bring home for her. With a body condition score of about 2.5 out of 5 and a significant work load she is still probably pregnant because local cattle have exceptionally high fertility.
These boys will not be aware of it but this cow may well save their lives one day. The Indonesian government cannot afford to provide free health care for all of its 250 million citizens so if there is an urgent need to provide funds for a medical emergency, this cow can be sold for cash within the village trading network, delivering bundles of cash faster than any distant ATMs can manage. She is the true “cash cow” that will also provide the occasional calf to expand the family’s wealth. Future progeny could be sold to send one or more of the boys off to university or help pay for their weddings.
Much improved nutrition through greater wealth and better access to high quality foods like milk and meat explain why these boys look so fit and healthy. They will no doubt grow up to be at least 20 cm taller than their parents.
The only really frustrating feature of this scene is the ubiquitous rubbish which is thrown thoughtlessly and relentlessly around the entire nation. This beautiful, tropical paradise is literally covered in all manner of discarded materials especially plastic packaging. It is simply not part of the culture of Indonesia to show any concern for the environment. I guess that comes from having one that is so bountiful and forgiving that it just keeps producing regardless of this sort of abuse. The soils here are deep and volcanic, blasted there by Krakatau, the famous volcano which is only about 50 kilometers away out to sea. The average rainfall is a little over 2000 mm and highly reliable. The range of crops grown in this area includes palm oil, copra, rice, corn, tapioca, cocoa, pepper, bananas, paw paw and many others. They all continue to produce consistent crops despite the massive array of rubbish strewn in all directions.
The boys are well dressed, considering they are out doing a dirty job for the farm. Their clothes were almost certainly manufactured in the massive textile and clothing factories of Java. These world competitive industries ensure that all Indonesians and many other consumers around the world have access to good quality, low cost clothing. The purple cap worn by the driver has a logo which indicates it is a promotional give-away from the US based Monster Beverage Corporation which manufactures and distributes its very popular energy drinks all over the world including the more remote parts of Indonesia.
The one thing in this photo that is not representative of the Indonesia I know is the road. This section of road has obviously had a new application of bitumen recently, making travel along it a very pleasant experience. Sadly this is the exception rather than the rule as road infrastructure is one of the most neglected areas of the national economy. The shocking roads and ever increasing traffic loads represent a major threat to the future growth and prosperity of the nation.
The new President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), has a boyish look about him despite the fact that he is 53 years old. For some reason the boy in the yellow shirt made me think of the new President and wonder if he delivered furniture for his Dad driving an ox cart like this one through the streets of Surakarta 40 years ago. I am sure that these boys could not care less about presidential politics right now but Jokowi has just proven that anyone in Indonesia can aspire to the highest office in the land and be judged by the electorate purely on merit rather than personal wealth or powerful connections. This is a phenomenal achievement in a country where corruption and nepotism are smeared through every aspect of daily life. There is absolutely nothing stopping these boys from achieving their dreams apart from talent and application. If they are keen enough and smart enough then the sky is the limit. For now however, these three potential presidents will pick up their load from the store at the top of the next hill and probably buy themselves an ice cream to enjoy on the way home.