The Family of GIRLI: the Homeless Children of Yogyakarta

This is one of the very first ethnographic articles I ever wrote, and which went on to thoroughly influence how I went about the rest of my career. Street kids trained me in ethnographic analysis, patience, trust, and how to combine advocacy with research. In short, if you are not giving back something to the community you are studying for your PhD or any other work, then you are doing something wrong.

In Inside Indonesia, No. 38, March 1994:18-21.


Pushing my bicycle into the narrow rocky paths circulating throughout the low-cost housing district called Mino Martani in northern Yogyakarta, a large group of young children in dirty tee shirts and underwear gathered around shouting, laughing, and talking in a frenzied combination of Indonesian and Javanese. “mas Didid lagi lunga sedelit! Nunggu kene, nunggu kene!!” (mas Didid has gone out for a bit. Wait here, wait here!!), they shouted fighting for my attention. How did they know I was looking for mas Didid? I gathered not many “londo” (foreigners) come up to this village except to meet with mas Didid.

In the midst of the howl of language one boy noticeably smaller than the others said to me “Hello, my name is Budi. What is yours?” While his words were spoken through a rather unstable English tongue, his eyes shone with pride and confidence. I like this kid I said to myself.

Later, mas Didid told me that Budi is homeless and alone, a child of the streets. One afternoon two years ago, Budi went out to play ball with his friends in a slum neighborhood of Jakarta called Tanah Merah. It was stressed to me over and over that he was only gone for about one hour. As Budi turned the last corner just before reaching home again – it was gone. A fire had raged where his village had been. His parents were gone also. No one immediately familiar to a frightened 6 year old was noticeable in the crowd of disaster-gawkers so he turned and ran. The very young, abandoned but confident child named Budi somehow made it into the haven called GIRLI.

GIRLI is a Javanese acronym for pingGIR kaLI, or the river bank, which is where most of the poorest residents of Indonesian cities live. This is where mas Didid discovered and then took the time to organize and care for these filthy, abandoned, street urchins. No one knows how many lost children there are in Indonesia. mas Didid’s estimate looms into the hundreds of thousands!! But nobody seems to care. In Yogya right now there are 36 GIRLI children all of whose stories are as heart-wrenching as Budi’s. But since 1984 when GIRLI was founded, over 500 children have passed through and stayed for various lengths of time. The homeless children who have not found or been found by GIRLI can perhaps triple that number – or more. Meanwhile, the numbers of homeless or unwanted girls, however, are almost impossible to account for. Very young girls can be easily “sold” as beggars, domestics, child brides, prostitutes, or worse. GIRLI for now can only take in boys.

Mas Didid created the organization called GIRLI because Indonesia is plagued by an epidemic of run-away and throw-away children who have no identity, no right to citizenship, and no state recognition. Indonesian law requires possession of a birth certificate and a bright pink “family register” card for residency or even an identity card. “One must have a previous address to register a new one”, explained my village head when I asked him why GIRLI was not permitted to rent accommodation here. “I wish I could help, but there are sooo many regulations,” he says with a noticeable sigh.

While Budi became a child of the streets as a result of what may – or may not be merely a horrible error in a young child’s judgment, other children have been in the streets for too long to even remember the reasons. Some of them simply got lost and are too young to remember an address or even a name; others ran away, and most were thrown away. Yet, what is most shocking is the simple fact that these children are completely neglected by any social system currently existing in Indonesia. They literally do not exist in most official eyes.

“We don’t have homeless children here,” claims Sugiyanto, a secretary in the Mayor’s office. “They are lying to you so you give them money.”

mas Didid

Mas Didid is a name I have heard mentioned often enough to be bordering on the mythical ever since I arrived here in Yogyakarta. The respect and admiration it invokes is something I have not seen before in the culturally and politically distanced youths of modern Java. While my own imagination sprung up a modern day Fagan, or even a Pied Piper, what I found was just a simple, clean-cut, college student, a young family man. But positioned within the modern politics of social blindness common in the Java of today, mas Didid’s work with these children borders on the miraculous. For one thing, he cared. Next, he acted.

In 1982, mas Didid first recognized that these throwaways existed when he noticed a filthy young boy engaging in sexual intercourse with an old prostitute right on the street. There was a crowd of people cheering and howling in the street one day and he stopped to see what was causing the commotion. These crazy old women, he was told, believe that to have sex with children can make them young again. It is hard to say, under these conditions, who is taking advantage of whom, but relations like these spread syphilis onto very young boys. Untung, the first throwaway child mas Didid came to know, already had body sores and brain damage from these contacts.

It wasn’t difficult after that initial sighting to recognize the signs and the extent of this social tragedy. Shortly after that day, mas Didid became acquainted with another ten boys. Now, he says, in two days time through word of mouth alone he can band together over a thousand street boys from all along the rail system into Yogyakarta.

In order to win their confidence, mas Didid himself became a child of the streets. He put his college education, as well as personal comfort and safety, on hold for five years when he made the decision to understand and help these children by living in the streets with them, earning his own “keep” by rummaging through garbage and selling the finds. To prevent theft and promote a more healthy social contact, mas Didid created the shoe-polish brigade. The boys were given a trade from which to earn enough money to eat, and most importantly, they were organized to support one another. Thus, GIRLI was founded upon a platform of mutual need, support, and care, where theft and violence are severely frowned upon, and confidence through self-respect and independence blossoms.

But they are still children and children are not very respected in most societies. What kind of a life these children must lead is up to the reader to imagine. Many of them have suffered a great deal of abuse, including sexual, from those they had trusted. Some of these offenses were the reasons for their running – or being thrown away, and some occurred since coming to the streets. Lives based entirely upon unimaginable and uncontrollable series of experiences create what kind of adult is any body’s guess. While physically they are so obviously children, their behavior and speech patterns are those of adults. Even if given the opportunity to attend school, which is near impossible in Indonesia because of the numerous regulations and requirements, these kids have nothing in common with others their own age. This is a discrepancy they themselves recognize – some with embarrassment and loss, others with pride and achievement.

At least mas Didid has given them a role model, a mature, adult style of caring and acting from which they can learn to judge others. Despite the hardships, they can trust and they can still be children, albeit not very often. These boys cannot be made dependent through placement in shelters or orphanages, and they cannot be treated as intellectually or socially inferior, as social foundations have done in other countries- and failed. As they are not officially recognized they cannot be adopted either. But
who would really want an eight year old with a smoking habit and the experiences of someone twenty years older?

Yet, mas Didid insists he is not the “boss”, that these kids are their own boss. If there are any problems that need to be discussed, it is open to the entire group to decide. Unlike the surrounding outside world, decisions are never imposed from a mythical above. By taking advantage of the outer world positioning of these children as virtually invisible, Didid has built a true democratic system of principles based entirely upon freedom of choice, mutual respect, and total fairness. Rather than sympathize, which can weaken, the children are encouraged to always face the reality of their lives in a straightforward manner. Such a hard-fought freedom places GIRLI in direct opposition to the government which has used numerous scare tactics to disband the group – including murder, kidnapping, and torture. But GIRLI succeeds, accepting and respecting the boys for what they are. The approach has proven very successful. Instead of banding together in crime, they make their living on Malioboro, along with all the others left out of the centrally planned, Indonesian development programs.

Jalan Malioboro

Anyone who has ever been to Yogyakarta will know Jalan Malioboro, the “Main Street” of the city. To those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, it is hard to describe. Jalan Malioboro is the center of life for Yogyans historically, religiously, politically, economically, and socially. It directionally links the kraton (the sultan’s palace) with the two “centers” of traditional Javanese power in both the mythical and religious senses: Gunung Merapi (Mountain of Fire), the world’s most destructive volcano, is located 30 miles to the north. Parangkusuma, the beach 30 miles to the south, is said to be the domain of the Queen of the South Java Sea, the patron saint of Javanese mysticism. Jalan Malioboro is also the location of the Governor’s office, as well as the local legislative councils. Jalan Malioboro is lined on both sides with shops and shopping malls of all kinds. It is considered the world’s longest permanent open air market with stalls lining both sides of the street, both on the street side, and in front of the shops. It is thus a Mecca for tourists, vendors, artists, musicians, thieves, and anyone looking for a bit of easy recreation at pretty much any time of the day or night. But the bright lights and gay music of the shops are only a small part of the Malioboro story. In front of those shops, on the pavements and in the street, exist a completely different world. Jalan Malioboro, as an easy source of income for some and company for others, has become the “home” for many of the city’s poor and homeless population, including the children of GIRLI.

The children can be found day and night, armed with their faithful shoe shine boxes slung over small bony shoulders roaming up and down Malioboro offering their shoe-shine services to anyone. They are also easy to spot both day and night sleeping in doorways of closed shops and in the spaces between tables exhibiting goods for sale. What makes GIRLI successful is that the family of GIRLI has already been expanded to include most of those who live day to day off of the fruits of Malioboro. The hawkers on the side of the road, the pedicab drivers, the street musicians, beggars, cigarette sellers, have all been invited to look after the children. Rather than depend upon one person, the kids have been advised to become close to the whole community of Malioboro, all geared toward developing a sense of family as well as independence, a sense of personal control over their own lives that very, very few Javanese really feel.

The political impact of such a union of those people untouched by the central government’s highly acclaimed program of development and modernization has yet to be realized. Their strength alone may lie in the fact that they seem to be powerless. These are not the shop owners or the masses of shoppers. These are the huge numbers of people who live hand to mouth off what ever meager profits they can muster during the course of a long day’s efforts, selling, begging, singing, carrying, or serving in whatever way is needed by the constant stream of those better-off passing by each day. These are the “wong cilik”, the little people, the lowest end of the socio-economic scale of city dwellers.

What these people do have over the hoards that pass by is a sense of social values and humanitarianism rather than the materialism that has infected most Javanese these days. When young Eka, (homeless since he was 10) the 21 year old street musician desperately needed money in order to marry his 16 year old, pregnant girl friend, pedicab drivers whose daily income is around $1.50 per day offered Eka half of it. When Lila the deaf mute beggar’s young child was ill, it was the batik seller who bought the child vitamins and the old food seller who gave her food. When the GIRLI children earn $.20 from shining one pair of shoes and can finally eat breakfast, the sellers make sure the children have meat with their rice and vegetables. They can always make up the loss by charging some tourist a little bit extra.

What is ironic about all this voluntary mutual cooperation and self-help is that it seems so often to be limited only to the lowest end of the spectrum. Those that barely have enough for themselves are ready to help others, whereas the mighty and powerful won’t even look in their general direction. Except, that is, when the view is deemed too unsightly. The local government has on several occasions this year, without prior notice, issued a decree stating that certain classes of sellers on Malioboro are hereby illegal. The incredible havoc and panic caused by such actions is understandable when one becomes aware of the lack of options for the hundreds of victims. Malioboro is a true life-line for a great deal of people. There are no alternative resources or opportunities for these people to turn to. With Malioboro, they have nothing; without it, there remains starvation or crime. In a country which claims representational democracy through mutual consensus as a state policy, these little people need a great deal of shouting and demonstrating to have their silent voices heard.

Homeless children can also be a source of embarrassment for governments so occasional “sweeping up” programs are enacted, especially when dignitaries visit. The children of GIRLI are then carried away for a day while the VIPs are in town, given very simple food, then ordered to go “home”. Sign this and you are free. Just as the officials never seem to consider the impact of their attempts to “clean up” Malioboro of all those unsightly street sellers, they also never attempt to help the children, nor do they ask questions. According to GIRLI members, the police do occasionally take a child far into a rural area and order him out of the vehicle. The child is then abandoned in the middle of a jungle or some place far enough away from any village to make survival near impossible.

A Home

A main goal now for GIRLI is to rent a house in the slums by the river near to Jalan Malioboro for these kids to live in where they can learn what it means to have a “home”, to trust and care for others, to bathe each day, and sleep in peace rather than face the potential dangers of the streets each night. But this too is officially against government regulations. People with no identity and no residency identification can not live in any of the strictly monitored neighborhoods. Government regulations leave no room at all for exceptions. So how can these children have any hope when from all angles they are confronted by regulations that victimize them even further?

The solution is to create a “nation within a nation”, the People’s Republic of GIRLI, or rather the Extended Family of GIRLI. Anyone left identity-less and homeless by the labyrinthine regulations imposed by the central Indonesian government is welcome to join GIRLI. There are many who have answered this call. In a rather cynical response to their imposed identity-less-ness, GIRLI also issue their own identity cards. Unity, support, and mostly, an identity, have created real pride for them. GIRLI is growing in strength and in voice.

Why are Children Homeless?

What kind of a system could create such an abundance of homeless children? Many of them are victims of the Indonesian government’s own development policies. Political activists and their cautious word-of-mouth grapevine claim that Budi’s region in Jakarta was burned intentionally by a government needing to quickly clean up a slum area just prior to a prestigious international conference. Other children were thrown away after a new government regulation specifically prohibited civil servants from having more than three children. Indonesia’s internationally acclaimed family planning program has resulted in an explosion of abandoned children as well as infanticide. Since officials punish those who excede the child quota, accidental pregnancies leave many of the poor and frightened with few options. The case of Hartono illustrates one of the alternatives. He comes from the impoverished mountain region just south of Yogyakarta. His parents send him to the city to find his own keep after the harvesting season ends. When there are no crops to harvest, there is no money or food. Since the age of 5 Hartono has headed out alone to the streets.

Then there is the story of Widodo another member of GIRLI. After being thrown into a garbage can at birth, he was raised by a community of garbage collectors until he was 6. Widodo was resourceful enough to attend school through buying a fake identity card. What should have been a GIRLI success story tragically collapsed when Widodo was killed, an innocent by-stander in a “war” of rival gangs. Widodo was stabbed to death and his body was brought to mas Didid’s house. Widodo’s only family had been the family of GIRLI. But because the child had no real identity card and no real residence, his corpse could not be buried in a state cemetery. For several days, as the odor of death grew stronger and stronger, mas Didid pleaded with local officials to receive young Widodo’s body. From birth the child was unwanted and abandoned to his own fate in the streets. Later in death he also was forced to suffer the fate of the unwanted. As mas Didid says, “Where ever their is a clash between government regulation and humanitarian sentiment, the winner is always the government.”

Whether the children of GIRLI grow strong enough to alter their own fates, only time will tell. For now, they are just one more example of the callousness and failure of this era of modernization and development in just one more third world country.

June, 1993

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