Pearls from the Grit of Poverty

Pearls from the Grit of Poverty
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At 11 years of age Sepi and her 7-year-old sister Nengah collected trash washed up by the sea then sold it to support their family. Their mother Kirem was too ill to leave the mattress resting on the dirt floor of their tiny bamboo hut in Karengasem. Just three years later Sepi had won the 2009 international Anne Frank Photography Award, at 15 she had completed her first novel, Portrait Terindah dari Bali. Like a pearl in an oyster shell Sepi has grown from the grit of poverty, allowing its abrasion to discipline her for greatness. Her book that describes the daily life of Indonesia’s poorest is due for release this month; for Sepi to attend the launch her mother must sell two of their precious goats. “That is the only way I can raise the money to send Sepi to Denpasar for the book launch,” explains Kirem in the stone garden of her home on land leased for “a couple of chickens”, every six months. Born on Nyepi, Bali’s day of silence, Sepi, which means quiet, says it was picking trash that accidentally led her to success. Sepi is the nickname given to her by her mum. “Her full name is Ni Wayan Mertayani, but because she was born on Nyepi and was a quiet baby we called her Sepi,” explains Kirem. “The first thing I learned picking trash is that life is tough. Before and after school each day we would pick up trash — I learned life is not easy, but I also learned to never give up. We have tourists here and I met a Papuan woman, Ibu Mary, who now lives in Holland. She loaned me the book The Diary of Anne Frank and I was inspired. I could see parallels with her life and mine. Anne Frank was trapped in her little room by the Nazis and I am trapped here in our little bamboo house by poverty. She had a silent dream to live free and I have that same dream,” says Sepi, who turned 16 during Nyepi last week. That connection to Anne Frank, long dead and half a world away from the sea shore of Sepi’s home led her to Holland to receive her international photographic prize. “I had met a woman named Dolly, she was here on holiday and we got talking — she could not believe I knew of Anne Frank. Dolly works for the Anne Frank museum and loaned me her camera to take a photograph for the competition. I had forgotten all about the photo and six months later I found out I had won,” says Sepi who traveled to Holland with her younger sister to accept her award. Due to her illness their mother could not join them. Sepi says the most difficult part of the journey was getting passports to allow them to represent Indonesia in Holland for the award ceremony. “It was really hard to get the passports. At the passport office they wanted more and more money. The staff at the passport office said we had to pay extra to get the passport quickly. I don’t know how much my aunt had to pay in the end — it took more than a month and then we had to get our Visas from Kuta,” says Sepi whose family owns just four goats and a handful of chickens. Sepi’s mother was widowed when Sepi was three years old and Nengah just three months. She fled the home of her husband in Klungkung and returned to the narrow strip of grassland between the sea and the mountains of banjar Biaslantang, Desa Purwakerti. “Black magic was on my husband. People were jealous because we worked hard and had built up two warungs. We were doing very well and then he died. In Bali if your husband dies and you remarry you have to send your children back to your husband’s family home. My husband was 75 years of age — there were no grandparents to care for my children. If I had remarried I would have lost them, so we came here back to the land of my parents. I borrowed money to build this house and a very good man let us live on his land,” says Kirem who collected trash until she was too ill to work. The love that built this home is bound in Sepi’s description of this shack and is written in each movement of the family; constantly they touch hands, return small smiles, as if through touching they strengthen each other against a world that buffets them harshly, a world rebuffed by the family’s closeness. “I have a lot of memories in my home — my home is more patient than people. If it rains or is hot, my home does not protest. My home always loves us and accompanies me when I am sad. I am happy; my home is my witness in this life. My Mum built this house on borrowed money — then she was chased for the debt. Our home protected her in that time. Our house is built from bamboo, asbestos, rough stones and plastic bags to stop the wind. We cook on a wood stove under a tree in a garden of stones. We have no electricity and no running water. Our lighting is from kerosene lamps that makes it hard to study at night. One time half the house burned down because of those lamps,” says Sepi who with Nengah must travel 20 times each day to collect water for the household. “We’ve never had electricity or water — this is normal for us. But I want people to understand what it is like to be a poor kid. In the future I want to make my Mum happier, then I want to fix up our house that is such a good friend to my family, then if I can ask more from life, I want to help other poor kids. I want very much to become a professional journalist so I can tell their stories,” says Sepi whose first dream was to become a doctor, “I wanted first to become a doctor because my Mum was so ill. But I realized that was a dream too far because of our poverty, so that dream is lost, so I hoped to instead become a journalist” says this extraordinary young woman who from collecting the detritus of the seashore to be sold for rice has written a novel and won an international photography competition. News Source : The Jakarta Post

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