Travel

In This, One of the World’s Most Densely Packed Slums, the Sun Never Rises

We visited Jakarta's Tambora slum to see what life was like in a place so densely populated that four people live in every square metre of space.

by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja
07 November 2016, 12:00am

All photos by author.

A woman hangs clothes in Tambora's Gang Venus—the alley with no sunlight. All photos by author.

Tambora is a part of Jakarta we all know, but rarely see. The neighborhood is walled-off from the nearby Seasons City shopping mall and apartment complex—a massive all-inclusive development that stacks aspirational middle class apartments atop a five-story mall. If Seasons City is iconic of one style of urban planning in Jakarta—vertical, self-contained communities built on commerce—then Tambora is its polar opposite.

Tambora wasn't planned by city officials. The slum just built itself—germinating in a part of the capital where land ownership was in dispute, and a steady tide of new arrivals—low-skilled migrants from poorer, rural parts of Indonesia—needed a place to live.

Today, Tambora is one of the world's most densely populated places. The Jakarta government estimates that 250,000 people live in an area that measures 5.48 square kilometers. That's an average of four people for every one square meter. Some of the slum's alleys have grown so narrow that residents complain that they can't see the sun. Others say the perpetual darkness is a gift—it allows families to sleep in shifts since it's impossible for everyone to crowd into the house at once.

"Three to five families can live under the same roof," Nirwono Yoga, a Jakarta-based urban planner who studied the neighborhood, told VICE Indonesia. "So they have to take turns to sleep. Some of them may adapt to situation by arranging their working time in shifts."

City officials say the slum is a firetrap of shoddy wiring and poor construction.

"In my nine months as Tambora district chief, relatively moderate and small fires have struck here nine times," Djaharuddin, the neighborhood's district chief, told me.

I entered Tambora through a narrow alley that was about one-and-a-half meters wide. As I walked deeper into the neighborhood, the alley narrowed and branched off in various directions. Buildings rose up on both sides. They were two-to-three story houses made of plywood and sheet metal.

I quickly found some little kids who were eager to show me Tambora's notorious Gang Venus—the alley with no sunlight. ("Gang" is the Indonesian term for "alley") The kids shouted and laughed as they led me through Tambora's twisting alleyways. The alleys got darker as we approached Gang Venus. A woman, who was exiting a public bathroom, saw my camera and scoffed.

"There are too many people coming in here, taking pictures, exploiting our condition, and then benefitting from it," she remarked.

Another woman chimed in as she climbed two stories to hang her laundry to dry in one of the alley's few rays of sunlight.

"We're all fine here," she said. "You can ask the kids. No one has a disease. It's not a chaotic situation like people think."

Their reaction is understandable. Communities like Tambora are often in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. The press paints Jakarta's slums as crime-filled places full of disease and hopelessness. They are blamed for the floods, which afflict the city every rainy season.

The city government has responded by ordering a series of forced evictions that will eventually relocate thousands of families. The city says it's building 20,000 low-cost subsidized apartment blocks—buildings locally called rumah susun— a term that roughly translates to vertical housing. The apartments are meant to house people who currently live in slums like Tambora.

But these apartments are only available for people with Jakarta identification cards. Most of the residents of places like Tambora are unregistered, and therefore ineligible for the apartments. They could be placed in a rental unit in similar government housing, but they then need to pay rent to the city. And most of those units are in the capital's peripheries, far from the jobs and communities slum residents built for themselves.

"Thirty to forty percent of them are migrant workers renting makeshift houses in Tambora," said Djaharuddin, the Tambora district head. "And the challenges we face are mostly caused by migrants who do not hold Jakarta identity cards."

Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has ordered at least ten forced evictions since he entered office. Each resulted in a protracted and noisy standoff between residents and city officials. I asked one woman, who declined to be named, if she was worried about being evicted.

"Sure, we're worried about being relocated," she said. "Where would we go? There hasn't been any news that Tambora will be relocated, but still, what we see on TV terrifies us. I've been staying here my whole life."

The woman told me that she used to live with her parents—sleeping in a makeshift second-story loft.

"I have three kids, now going on four," she said. "It's no longer possible to live there. There were just too many people. So I started renting another place. Now everything feels better."

The kids grabbed my hand again. They want to show me Gang Playboy—an alley that's home to a crew of young men who are behind many of the area's street brawls.

"Those boys at Gang Playboy, those kinds of boys usually initiate the street brawls," said eleven-year-old Doli as we walked down the alley.

"Here you can find pickpockets, thieves, thugs, street brawls, but we never do anything like that," added Hendrik, another of the young children. "Sometimes we hitch rides on the back of trucks, but no, we've never committed any crimes."

Children in Tambora are often left alone. It's not because of parental neglect, but is instead a symptom of the slum, said Tambora's district chief. Demand for space is high. Migrant workers arrive constantly, living in the slum for a few months at a time before returning home or moving on to other cities for work. It means that most families sleep in shifts, a fact that leaves children unsupervised and prone to fall-in with the community's criminal element.

"They are forced to live life in shifts, which means the parents can't always watch their kids," Djaharuddin said. "That's why this situation leads to more complex social problems, like drugs, street brawls, and so. That's what happens when parents are unable to control their kids."

I hailed a blue bajaj—one of the narrow three-wheeled vehicles that putter down the streets of Jakarta—to catch a ride out of the slum. Out my window, I saw a typical Jakarta streetscape—banana vendors, traffic, and piles of garbage.

Jakarta doesn't have the massive sprawling slums of India. Slums here are ubiquitous but also nearly invisible. They fill in the cracks between the city's development—rising up near construction sites, along the river banks, and behind luxury apartment towers. But they are temporary places—pockets of poverty in a city that's rushing to reinvent itself.

In Mega Kuningan, a ritzy district stocked with five-star hotels and flashy bars, a small slum remained hidden for years behind a worn cement wall. The streets were narrow, but every day motorbike drivers used the road as a shortcut, passing by grazing goats and small homes.

Then one day it was gone—replaced by a wall advertising a new office tower. Today, the evictions and demolition continue. Tambora is safe for now, but one day it too might vanish—becoming another place never seen and soon forgotten.