by Jan and Stephen Dixon
A case study shows how conditions in the chaotic Indonesian megacity of Bandung mitigated against a migrant Sundanese Christian family’s finding help during their daughter’s 18 month illness.
Little Nyai died in Bandung in January, 1987. Our experience with her family supports the proposition that the urban church must take a more deliberate and active role as patron to less fortunate or less knowledgeable people, and especially to migrants to the cities during their period of transition. In West Java, this would be a truly Christian and contextual approach.
THE PATRON-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP
Researcher Karl Jackson has defined and surveyed the traditional authority and patron-client system that makes up the backbone of Sundanese village life. His anthropological studies give a slightly different understanding of a people who have been widely ignored by the mother church in Indonesia and often stigmatized as merely "rice Christians" when they convert.
Jackson’s findings show that 85 percent of the Sundanese consider themselves to be both an advisor or patron as well as a client. According to Jackson, the traditional authority role is usually inherited and often lasts a long time. But the patron relationship is more opportunistic. Both establish a constant flow of communication and exchanges; both work on a vertical, open-ended obligation system. We combine the concepts under the term "patron-client."
A person assumes the role of patron as he or she becomes more able to materially assist would-be clients. When the patron offers a client finances or influence, an obligation is tacitly established. The return or payback to the patron will come through respect and loyalty from the client: perhaps votes, attendance at weddings, and so on.
This lies at the very heart of the social structure for approximately 31 million Sundanese. But this network is lost when the individual leaves his or her village. The "leaving" may be literal, as when one migrates to the city, or it may be figurative as when a person converts to Christianity and thus loses favor and is thrust into the "out-group." The individual must then look for a new patron because he or she feels helpless without one. In the following case study, the migrant Christian family found its patron in the urban church family.
Pak Handi and his family live in a satellite village of Bandung, a collection of tiny, ramshackle houses stacked against a backdrop of murky rice paddies and red tile roofs. It was, until recently, an isolated village. Now it is part of greater Bandung. The city, on a rampage of growth, has swallowed the village whole. At a quivering, frantic pace, the village has been churned into a hopeless, gray neighborhood— a place to live, but without promise of progress or future.
In a sense, Pak Handi’s family migrated without moving. The houses are the same: thin-walled dwellings with sagging ceilings and dirt floors. Childrens’ cries echo through thatched walls of olive-brown bamboo. Mothers sit patiently on the front steps, idling, scratching at mosquito bites, and sharing old gossips too often told and too often heard. Only the view is different. Now the city’s cracked, rain-brittle brick walls stare blankly back at them.
At the time of Nyai’s illness, the family consisted of Nyai, her parents, three other children, and her grandmother. Their house, the size of an average American tool shed, with no running water or electricity, was all they knew and all they dared hope for. A kerosene lamp and a bicycle were their only luxuries.
Pak Handi works in the city, returning home only on weekends. The Ban-dung that he sees every day-the swollen, conglomeration of disorganized humanity-is the third largest city in Indonesia and the most densely populated. Its dynamics and infrastructure are seen without understanding through the helpless eyes of this uneducated man.
Often called the "Paris of Asia" or the "Flower City," because of its former splashing color and exotic, tree-lined beauty, the city has become a jumble of traffic, black, belchingpollution, and systematic chaos as it steadily and inexorably pushes beyond the confinements of existing boundaries.
It is the administrative and market town for the province of West Java, which has grown from a population of 17,615,000 in 1961 to a projected 43 million by the year 2000. With growth like this, the trickle from rural areas has become a flood.
People have migrated largely because of push-pull factors. The city lures rural people with promises of jobs, education, a better standard of living, and wild, disco-pounding nightlife. Young people from rural areas come, seeking escape from boredom and poverty. Businessmen open new offices, closer to the main supply routes and toll roads. Job hunters wander in from the fields, brown, earth-soiled rags draping their bent backs. Calloused hands clench desperately as they shuffle from area to area, pleading for work in places that reflect the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. Poor village prostitutes become wealthy city "girlfriends." Gays and transvestites are a common sight, and regularly accost strolling pedestrians and car drivers for a "change of pace." The working class has grown until its needs can no longer be met. Unemployment leaves hundreds of thousands stranded in their relatives’ homes, often begging for their next meal on the sun-blasted, filthy streets.
The many ethnic groups migrating to Bandung from outside the province bring cultural diversity, which causes something of what Ruth McVey describes as the social formlessness of Indonesian cities. The city has not been sectioned off into any recognizable form. Modern buildings with high, marble walls and metal gates press against a dismal mass of squalid huts and shops.
Bandung is experiencing "a serious inadequacy or even absence of community-wide institutions, such as public transportation, communication, recreation, and social welfare facilities," according to McVey. Many of the institutions were started before 1940 by the Dutch and have not been improved. Transportation is available, but is so poorly organized that traffic is frequently at a standstill. Other public services are underdeveloped or non-existent. The deterioration mirrors the walls of hope that are crumbling in the spirit of the people. There is no unemployment compensation, no welfare, and no medical insurance.
The city has a number of hospitals of varying quality, but most cost too much for the average citizen, who is obliged to go to the local clinics for basic care, or to the government hospital for emergencies.
Class is infinitely important in Bandung and is related to heredity, position, education, and income. At the top socially are high government officials. At the bottom are the day laborers and beggars. The vast majority of people are in the lower ranks and live in areas of hovels crammed into block after block of degenerated shantytowns, interspersed by alleys often too narrow for even motorcycles to enter. The average house, perhaps 12 feet square, contains 10 occupants, according to Surjadi. Because water supply, sewage, sanitation, lighting, and drainage are so poor, hepatitis, choleral dengue, and typhoid are endemic in these lower class communities.
The Sundanese are the world’s largest unreached people group, over 90 percent Muslim, with a hefty splattering of animism and spirit worship left from their pre-Islamic past. Bandung’s urban Christians are mostly Chinese and other ethnic groups from outside West Java. There is a great deal of wealth in the churches, but little understanding of how to reach out to the 31 million people outside their colored glass windows and high fences.
After pretty, bright, 12-year-old Nyai and her younger brother had washed their clothes, rubbing them half-heartedly on the smooth, black rocks of the river, they were startled by some strange hissing sounds nearby.Frightened, they rushed up the steep hill toward their home.
Nyai arrived flustered and told her mother she didn’t feel well. Her mother did nothing, perhaps assuming that little Nyai was malingering, since washing clothes was not her favorite task.
In the morning, though, it was obvious that Nyai needed help. There was no one to call but two Indonesian evangelists who shared our home in the city. These men ministered in the village weekly.
They arrived immediately and found Nyai paralyzed from the waist down.
The evangelists rushed the girl to the government hospital in a hired vehicle. The hospital staff admitted the child and started giving her antibiotics. The family was responsible for feeding Nyai, for going out and buying the expensive medicine, and for administering it. Thus, Nyai’s mother and grandmother were forced to take turns sleeping on the tile floor beside or under her bed.
NO DIAGNOSIS MADE
Nyai had been in the hospital a full month. She had lost a great deal of weight, was incontinent, and was developing large, frightening bed sores. By this time, even the evangelists, as used to the filth and unconcern as any villager, were becoming disgusted with the nursing care at the hospital. In frustration, they asked us to visit Nyai. We were horrified at the conditions in the ward.
The rooms smelled like neglected urinals. Roaches ran freely on and under the metal beds and in dishes of spoiling food. The walls were coated with grime and cigarette smoke. Adding insult to injury, a group of nurses was seated in an alcove laughing and relaxing as if nothing could be wrong in the world.
The parents of the baby in the bed next to Nyai requested prayer for their child, and when Jan laid her hand on the bed linen, she found the yellowed clothing and sheets stiff with dried urine. No one said anything, pretending not to notice or find this unusual. These children were in the lower class ward and evidently merited no attention whatsoever.
It was decided then to remove Nyai from the hospital and take her to our home. A cool, freshly lit room was prepared for her and her mother to share.
The evening of her arrival coincided with a worship service in the house. During the praise singing, Nyai’s legs started moving, and there was great rejoicing and cheering. After that, the girl could move her legs when she chose. Unfortunately, that was not often.
The bedsore on Nyai was a festering crater so large and deep that a full inch of bloody backbone had been exposed. Jan had to force her stomach to stop heaving when she saw it. She felt hot, angry tears rising. A Christian nurse explained how to treat the child, so Jan began giving her high protein food and dressing the sore (which started healing rapidly) twice a day.
During this time, the mother and grandmother were living at the house, washing Nyai and cleaning up the bed as best they knew how. They all had to be de-loused and instructed in simple hygiene. At least weekly, a group of Christians would visit. Nyai was gaining weight, but she refused to move voluntarily.
After a few weeks, an expatriate friend who ran a medical aid club told Jan about a very fine woman neurologist. This doctor, a Christian, was glad to treat the family with no charges, and said she would put Nyai back in the hospital for more tests and therapy.
Jan explained their hesitation about a return to the hospital, so the doctor agreed to be Nyai’s patron and put her in another ward where she would check on her. It was also agreed that the nurses would keep at their jobs better if Jan made frequent visits. This was not her first, or last, deliberate use of status and influence to gain an advantage for a neglected member of society.
Pak Handi was told that he would have to clear up his previous hospital bill before Nyai could be treated again. He would be given radical discounts if he could get the proper papers. Sadly, he was veryconfused by all the red tape, and once again the evangelists had to do the legwork to determine what was needed. First, the family had to get a bill from the hospital, then take it to their area leader, then the community leader, then the village leader, and finally, to the district leader to get letters stating that Pak Handi was indeed a poor man. Of course, this took several long, drawn-out days, but in the end the hospital reduced the bill to $60.
Nyai was given extensive tests, which were paid for by the medical-aid group mentioned above. Since the doctor could find nothing seriously wrong, physiotherapy was started. However, due to the many patients and the scant facilities, on many days Nyai waited without getting a turn. Her tiny, pregnant mother was literally carrying her to the physiotherapy ward, as no wheel chairs were available.
After two or three weeks, the discouraged family decided to return to their home. They could not endure the strain any longer. So Nyai returned to her village and her squalid, burdened home. The evangelists continued to visit weekly to encourage the anxious family and to pray for healing, but Nyai would no longer cooperate at all in the healing process. She fought her mother over simple exercise, and refused to eat even the soft chicken "bubur" that was cooked specially for her. Her experiences seemed to have left her in a tragic and profound depression. She died a year later of unknown causes.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CHURCH
Nyai’s sojourn into the urban scene had not helped her at all. But her family was deeply affected by the security and care they felt from their new patron, the church. Their home is now a bright, lively, place – even without Nyai – and they are seen regularly attending weekly worship services.
We think this has been a major factor in strengthening them to be faithful to Jesus Christ, in spite of persecution, ridicule, and ostracism. In reviewing the history of this case, we believe that in a small way, at least, the church, representing a loving Christ, fell into a role that made sense to these villagers.
That relationship was familiar to them. They recognized it. They needed it. And, as is all too rare, their patrons in Christ met that need as best they could. Availability was the key: their willingness to care for the more helpless brother. The fact that Nyai did not live was not the final issue for them. What counted was the loving patronage and the follow-up support.
Let us look at the simple system that operated for their emotional rescue and encouragement.
1. As foreigners, we were still patron to the evangelists at that time (until they established themselves into a self-organized, functioning church).
2. As missionaries, we acted as a catalyst, enabled, encouraged, and helped the evangelists as they went through the steps necessary to obtain aid for Nyai.
3. The evangelists became patrons for Pak Handi at the time he was in desperate need of a sponsor. The missionary did not take on that role for Pak Handi.
Let us examine how the evangelists met the requirements.
1. One of the functions of a patron is to assist financially. The evangelists had no money of their own, but they were able to put Pak Handi in contact with others who did. All money was channeled from the foreigners and the city church through the Indonesian evangelists.
2. This gave them enough prestige to be allowed to carry out the next function, that of advising, which was offered at each step in the process of treatment. At one point they had to advise against taking the girl to the local shaman, as the village leaders were suggesting.
3. They were able to transfer some degree of status to Pak Handi. Since Pak Handi had an urban patron, his neighbors seemed to have more respect for him. If he was important enough that the patrons would take him into their house for several months (and then visit him), he must be more valuable than they had thought. His testimony and opinion would have more impact in the future.
It is evident that the Christian community as a whole (Indonesian and missionary) has repudiated the patron-client aspect of the Sundanese culture. One powerful reason is that the needs of the poor seem never-ending and hopeless. Affluent non-Sundanese Christians have commented that they hardly dare give to the poor, because one gift will initiate an ongoing process of "making the rounds looking for a handout." They feel used, taken advantage of, irritated, disgusted, and certainly do not feel the need for any reciprocal benefits from a client. Too often the well-off cannot or will not try to understand the unspoken desperation and helplessness of the very poor; their need to clutch at any hope in order to survive; the collapse of "pride." It takes too much time, money, effort, and emotional stress to deal with so many depressing needs.
Their observations about the poor may be valid, but it is not right to withdraw, judging their motives, without helping them work out a solution. This is similar to condemning people as "rice Christians" because they come to church looking for material advantage. Perhaps the first stone should be cast by whichever of us came to Christ with purely unselfish motives. Don’t we all seek something for ourselves, whether simply salvation or a way out of our deepest, black despair? It is usually as we grow in knowing Jesus that our motives are refined or corrected. Will the Holy Spirit not do the same for the poor?
The church in this case study has solved the problem by establishing a fund and urging its members not to give aid individually, but to lovingly refer the request to an appropriate staff person, thus causing the body of Christ to become the sponsoring party.
If the patron-client relationship could be viewed as a built-in opportunity to influence, to represent Jesus, to assist in times of need, and then to disciple the client in turn to become someone else’s patron, perhaps the church could move into the pattern of Sundanese life in a vital and realistic way. We think this would enable networking into the whole fabric of West Java.
The Sundanese concept of patron-client is an honorable one. It is not one-sided; each party has obligations. It seems to us that it is essentially very compatible with the Christian mandate to "tend my sheep" and to "feed my sheep.” It is the most beautiful story of the Father who loved the helpless, who sent his Son to the sick, the lost, the poor, and who now sends his church in his name to do the same.
Jackson, Karl D. "Urbanization and the Rise of Patron-Client Relations: The Changing Quality of Interpersonal Communication in the Neighborhoods of Bandung and the Villages of West Java." In K.D. Jackson and L.W. Pye, eds., Political Power and Communications in Indonesia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, pp. 343-392.
McVey, Ruth T., ed. Indonesia, Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University. New Haven, Conn.: Hraf Press, 1963.
Surjadi, A. Masvarakat Sunda Budava dan Problema. Bandung: Penerbit Alumni, 1985.
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