Jakarta, Indonesia: Slum kids find 'calling' in children's theater

Youth from impoverished areas find an outlet in community-based children's theater and music classes in Jakarta, Indonesia, where millions are in need of assistance.

Sara Schonhardt
Marginalized children participate in a Sanggar Ciliwung theater class in Jakarta, Indonesia. Such children's theater programs have become powerful tools to empower poor youths.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Teenagers dressed in black cry and shout and pull at their hair. They fall to the ground pleading for help. Their theatrics are part of a performing arts class offered to Jakarta’s slum children, but they draw on something deeper – the experience of living among Indonesia’s urban poor.

Sanggar Ciliwung is one of many community-based organizations focused on helping orphans, victims of domestic violence, and other marginalized children in Indonesia, where, according to government figures, 4.4 million children are in need of assistance. The organization works along the Ciliwung, a river in central Jakarta where massive flooding forces thousands to flee their homes each year.

Psychologists say the forced evictions – by both nature and the government, which is working to provide alternative housing for Ciliwung residents – can be traumatic. But the children here say the theater and music classes provide an outlet for their frustrations.

Rio Febrian is from northwest Indonesia. His family recently sent him to live with his sister in Jakarta, where they believed he would have more opportunities. Rio stopped attending school two years ago because of its high cost, but has now enrolled in government-subsidized classes. He is one of the stars of Sanggar Ciliwung’s theater group.

Another is Vinty Arfah, whose single mother sells snacks and sweets to support Vinty and her brothers. “Life has many ups and downs in Jakarta,” she says.

Improvisation was the focus of a recent theater class, all of which are run by college-aged volunteers. Vinty’s emotion to perform was grief, and even after she finished her skit she fell against the wall as real tears trickled down her cheeks.

While theater is not a solution to the problems of poverty, for children such as Nur Hayati, who has grown up along the Ciliwung, it is more than just fun. “Theater is like finding my true self, my calling,” she says.

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