The next time you decide to litter, think about why floods happen. The rivers here are full of trash; trash people throw into the river or onto the street that drains into a river. Oni, an unsung hero in Jakarta, picks up more than a ton of trash from the Ciliwung River each year so that when the rains come, thousands of his fellow Jakartans won’t lose their homes.
Every day, like clockwork, from 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, this father of two rows his bamboo raft up and down a kilometer of river at the Manggarai floodgate in Central Jakarta, making sure it doesn’t get clogged with all our trash.
Oni, how did you end up here next to the floodgate cleaning up the river?
I do this for cigarette money. I just pick up the plastic and put it in a sack and then sell it later. I collect four kilos of plastic daily.
Cigarette money? So you have another job?
Sure. I work for Leo Mandiri. They pay me to monitor this part of the river and make sure that if they need to open the canal they can do so and not have to worry about trash clogging the offshoot river I monitor. So I get a salary from them and then I collect all the plastic on the boat and sell it for cigarette money.
Where did you get your bamboo raft? Did you make it yourself?
Mandiri gave it to me. All the guys like me they pay to monitor and clean the river, have boats like this. We each get a one-kilometer stretch. The company also has a dorm we all live in over in Senen.
What did you do before you started working here?
I never had a job before this one. I’m lucky to have this job. I moved here from Semarang seven years ago. My wife’s from Banten and she lives with our kids up there. I get two days off every two weeks. So sometimes I go to Banten to see my family when I have some free time.
Let’s not beat around the bush, you have a pretty dirty job. What’s the dirtiest part of cleaning up the river?
The rats. They’re all over the place, especially when the water is shallow like it is now. But I work during the day so I don’t see them very often. They’ve never bitten me or anything. I just see them. But that’s bad enough.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found while on your raft cleaning up?
Coolest? Once I found a wallet with two grams of gold in it. But that’s about as interesting as it gets. Every once in a while I find a Rp 1,000 or Rp 2,000 bill.
What’s it like when it rains here? Do things get crazy? Do you ever get scared?
It all depends. If it only rains for two hours or so then the river rises, like, 20 centimeters, which isn’t that big a deal. But every three to five years the water just gushes out.
What goes through your mind when you see people throw their trash into the river?
I’m not just cleaning the trash out of the river. I pick it out of the banks, out of the limbs of trees and off the street. I know that it is my job and if no one littered I wouldn’t have a job. But I have to be honest: I wish people would stop throwing their trash in the river.
You’d think that since you have your hands in a filthy river all day, you would be a little more enthusiastic about people putting trash in its place.
I hate it when I’ve just cleaned up a place along the river and then someone comes up and just throws their trash there again. I mean, come on … right after I just cleaned it up!
Your wife lives in Banten, and you live with a bunch of co-workers. Do you go home right after work or do you have a place you like to hang out ?
It depends. Sometimes I go back to the house, and sometimes I hang out around here.
If you could pursue a career other than the one you have, what would you like to do?
I can’t really dream too big. I mean, I already have a job and I feel pretty blessed for that. The reality of life is that no matter what, you have to keep pushing and make it through the day.
If you were governor for a day, what changes would you make in this city?
I would build a better river system and dredge out each individual river to keep them from flooding all the time.
Oni was talking to Iwan Putuhena
Original interview was published in The Jakarta Globe
Picture by Iwan Putuhena