JAKARTA: It was a weekday morning in Kojem, an impoverished neighbourhood in the northern part of Jakarta, and children as young as seven were coming home from a day of fishing on the rough Java Sea instead of going to school.
Education appears to be an afterthought in a place where crimes, drugs and prostitution are rampant.
Most of the children here dropped out of school before they get to fourth grade. There are kids who left school because their parents could not afford to pay their tuition fees. There are also those whose fathers or mothers are in prison for drug offences and violent crimes.
Then there are children who dropped out because they have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Some kids have never even set foot in a formal school their entire lives.
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“Ninety per cent of all the children here are dropouts. You can count with one hand the number of people with a high school diploma,” Desi Purwatuning, who has been running Rumah Belajar Merah Putih (Red and White House of Learning) from a tiny rented space in Kojem for the last 14 years, told CNA.
The school has been helping school dropouts from Kojem and the surrounding areas to take elementary, junior and senior high school equivalency tests so they can find better jobs and escape the vicious cycle of poverty.
“No one expects them to be anything more than fishermen and hard labourers. Not even their parents. That’s why their parents don’t bother to keep them at school after they learn how to read and do simple math. They would rather have their children helping them at sea or work odd jobs,” she said.
“The children here think that they are destined to work in small fishing boats. They don’t even think that working in steel container ships they see everyday is an attainable dream. I want to open their eyes and make them realise that they can be whatever they want as long as they put their minds into it.”
A SAFE HAVEN
At least 100 children go to school at Rumah Belajar Merah Putih, studying in shifts for two hours a day at a dilapidated shop no more than 4m by 5m in size.
The makeshift classroom is so small that there are no chairs inside. Instead, teachers and pupils sit on detachable, rubber play mats which were starting to show signs of wear and tear.
The pupils are taught anything from math and science to social and Islamic studies by a group of university student volunteers.
“It is important to teach them religion. Because there is so much crime, drug abuse and prostitution around them they need to know right from wrong,” she said.
It can get quite crowded at Rumah Belajar Merah Putih, particularly as some children feel more at home being here than out wandering the rough neighbourhood, which is located at the mouth of a river reeking with the smell of rotten fish, industrial wastes and oil spilling from rows of colourful wooden fishing boats docking on either sides.
Some children even spend more time at the school than at their own homes.
“One of our students was raped last year. We also had one former student who was sexually abused by someone close to her. We also had children who were forced into prostitution. For many of the children here, this is their safe haven,” she said.
HOW IT BEGAN
Purwatuning, a 42-year-old widow who likes to wear strict Islamic dresses, never imagined life as a champion for free education for the poor.
She used to be one of the few female sailors working in a man’s world, becoming a crew member onboard ships and ferries which sail across Indonesia and neighbouring countries.
“In 2005, I was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors gave me months to live and I felt like I haven’t done anything for my community,” she said, adding that after many operations and chemotherapy sessions, her cancer has yet to be completely removed.
Purwatuning then set up a library and a play house at an unused portion of her house, less than 1km away from Kojem. She would also host film screenings for children in the area at the makeshift public library.
“I noticed that some kids were holding up the books upside down,” she recalled. “I asked them where they were from and how come they didn’t know how to read.”
Almost overnight, she moved her entire operations to Kojem and dedicated her time to teaching children there how to read, write and do simple math.
“I did everything myself. Next thing you know, I had 100 pupils. It became overwhelming and so I began to look for volunteers,” she said.
Today, her staff comprises five university students and a former Rumah Belajar Merah Putih student who helps out in his spare time.
Purwatuning also actively seeks out donations to finance her pupils’ equivalency test fees, which can range between 600,000 rupiah and 900,000 rupiah (US$41 and US$62) per student.
PROVIDER OF HOPE
The morning classes are dedicated to small children who cannot afford to go to kindergartens, a luxury for many low income families in Indonesia as there are no government-run preschools where students can enrol for free.
“Elementary schools tend to favour children who go to kindergartens because they already know how to read and write. Those who don’t could not compete with these privileged children,” Purwatuning said.
Meanwhile, the dropouts usually study after 10am upon their return from a morning out at sea.
Yogi Pratama Putra said studying at Rumah Belajar Merah Putih afforded him the flexibility that he needed.
“In the morning, I can help my father fish. In the afternoon, I can help my mother cleaning mussels,” he told CNA.
The 14-year-old said that he quit school at fourth grade to help his parents. “I used to hate school. I’d rather work and earn money. But I don’t feel that way about Rumah Belajar Merah Putih,” he said, adding that unlike formal schools, he could learn at his own pace and still have time to help his family.
Putra obtained his elementary school diploma recently and is now studying for a junior high school equivalency test.
Another student, Tegar Mahendra, said he quit school at second grade soon after his mother died. Mahendra’s mother worked as a food vendor to supplement the family’s income and after her death, his public minivan driver father struggled to pay for his tuition.
The 17-year-old said he has been working odd jobs since he was 10. He joined Rumah Belajar Merah Putih five years ago and is now studying for his junior high school equivalency test.
“I am grateful for the education that I have. Without it, I might end up doing drugs or other bad things, because that is what I see around me in this neighbourhood,” he told CNA.
“I want to be an entrepreneur one day. That way I can create jobs for other people.”