Between Go and Went

Jun 14, 2018 Uncategorized

On Wednesdays I teach English in two informal classes. It seems for white foreigners in Indonesia, requests to teach English are almost as common as requests for selfies. One of these classes is held at the methadone clinic at Puskesmas (Community Health Centre) Gambir, Central Jakarta, attended by a group of methadone patients who come to the center for treatment at least once every two days. The other is with staff members of LBH Masyarakat (Community Legal Aid Institute), where I am currently an intern. One of these classes is characterized by its attentive and diligent students, while the other one; the one with my colleagues; is a zoo. This week’s topic of discussion was “best friend”. Answers given included a friend who hadn’t been contacted for 5 years, cats, Jesus, the Sun…and so on. I’m not sure how much progress we’re making but entertainment factor is high.

Meanwhile, my friends at the methadone clinic are enthusiastic beginners. This is fortunate for me, because it is a misconception that we are automatically well-equipped to teach our native language. I’ve got no idea how English works, and when pressed for explanations about why go becomes went and so on, all I can say is “ya…gitulah” (yeah… that’s how it is). The basics, like telling the time, food and the weather, are a bit more manageable.  Attendance can be patchy, but there several regular faces who are committed and avid learners. Given methadone, depending on person and the dose, could cause groggy, drunk-like side effects and some of the guys have consumed it as little as 15 minutes before class, I’m amazed by their concentration and application.

Among the participants is one of my colleagues from LBH Masyarakat, Bang Kiki. From what I can tell, he is somewhat of a role model, advocate and unofficial representative of the methadone patient community at Puskesmas Gambir. He began with LBH Masyarakat as a paralegal in 2008, acting as an intermediary between the people who use drugs community and the LBH Masyarakat, before becoming a full-time public defender in 2012. Now he handles narcotics and child welfare cases, conducts education sessions in prisons about the legal process and prisoners’ legal rights (which seem to be flaunted with alarming regularity in Indonesia), and works to increase access to healthcare for the community of people who use drugs. All the while walking his own long road to rehabilitation from heroin and methamphetamine addiction. His understanding of drug issues and relationships within the community coupled with his professional legal skills and knowledge make him both a valuable conduit between the relevant parties and an example of the possibility of change for his fellows.

It was Bang Kiki who established the class as a constructive activity for the patients and enlisted me to teach it. Many are unemployed given the realities of being a recovering addict, including the logistics surrounding their daily treatment. The methadone may only be consumed between 11 and 12 o’clock each day at the clinic, and patients usually end up spending several hours collecting and taking their medicine before waiting for the effects to subside so they can safely drive again. Unable to hold jobs with fixed hours due to these time constraints, some work as online motorbike taxi drivers, and so the side-effects also directly affect their livelihood. This is before mentioning the severe societal stigma faced by people who use drugs in conservative Indonesia.

Those undergoing rehabilitation at the Gambir clinic represent a minority amongst the community of people who use drugs in Indonesia. Indonesian drug law is both riddled with contradiction and unforgiving regarding drugs. In facing the legal system, only a small percentage of people who use drugs are offered the right to rehabilitation. This actually flies in the face of certain articles in Indonesia law which guarantee that rehabilitation be considered before imprisonment. However, the vast majority of people who use drugs are imprisoned, swelling the populations of Indonesian correctional institutions towards breaking point. Recent figures placed the number of people who is charged with drug use article in Indonesian prisons at 33,000 and rising, as they form an increasingly large percentage of the total prison population.

Big numbers like this can seem a bit meaningless and devoid of context, but it’s important to see they are comprised of people. After class this week Bang Kiki and I went back to the office via the Central Jakarta District Court to pick up some paperwork. There we met with a middle-aged couple whose son’s is one of Bang Kiki’s clients. I chatted with mum while dad and Bang Kiki were in the courtroom. She told me how anxious she felt to be at the court, holding her hand to her heart thudding heart as she described how nerve-wracking it was to be dealing with the justice system. She told me she couldn’t bring herself to visit her son in the police station while he was detained there for over 3 months after being caught buying a negligible amount of drugs for personal use. She told me about the bad environment of her inner-city neighborhood and how the police had shot a dealer near her home only two days prior. She told me how her son, her youngest and only boy of 18 years, had cried when he was arrested and quickly signed the confession put in front of him by police. When I asked about his sentence, she pointed to the courtroom and said the reason we were all here was to seek clarification from the judge about its length. The two possibilities she mentioned were 4 and 6 years. No English class at the clinic for this boy, who will instead spend many of his formative years in prison paying for his mistake in a manner which I find to be grossly disproportionate.

The importance of rehabilitation for people like my friends at the methadone clinic is illustrated by the bleak nature of the alternatives: the one suffered by that boy and his mother, or the eternal sentence of an overdose. From getting to know the guys in my class even a little bit, it’s clear to see they don’t belong in prison. If they pose any threat to society, I certainly can’t see it. I hope they can keep walking the path and maybe learn the difference between go and went along the way.


This piece is written by Iven Manning, a University of Western Australia student who volunteered in LBH Masyarakat from February to June 2018, and edited by Yohan Misero.

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