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Jakarta Man Leads Slums Tours to Raise Awareness, Money

  • Brian Padden

Ronny Poluan gives guided tours of Jakarta, Indonesia's slums to tourists

Ronny Poluan gives guided tours of Jakarta, Indonesia's slums to tourists

Urban poverty is often hidden, relegated to neighborhoods tourists rarely visit. But in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Ronny Poluan gives guided tours of city slums to tourists. Critics say he exploits poor people for personal gain. Poluan says he is trying to make a difference by raising awareness and money for development programs.

Ronny Poluan says the purpose of his weekly tour of Jakarta's poorest neighborhoods is not sightseeing but bringing people and cultures together.

"My idea is how a person, like an Indonesian person, meets with another person, comes together to see and then talk to each other and they can share what is their life," he said.

Poluan is an artist who began giving tours to his friends, then decided to open them up to the public to raise awareness about urban poverty. Participants peek inside cramped rooms where entire families live, see the harsh conditions under which they work. Many residents, like Wartini, are happy to open their homes to tourists.

She says she likes it that these foreigners want to know about them.

In Jakarta, as in cities all over the developing world, urban poverty is a growing problem. The World Bank says nearly 25 million people live in the Jakarta area, and every year 250,000 more come. Many end up living in tents and shacks next to rail lines.

The tour participants are mostly foreigners - ranging from the curious to students studying urban development, like Australian Lauren Naulty.

"I don't think you can come to Jakarta and not see it. It is Jakarta," said Naulty.

Critics say the tour exploits the poor for personal profit. Poluan rejects that argument, saying his foundation "Interkultur" gives half the nearly $50 fee to the community, in payments to area organizations, no-interest micro-loans and medical care.

And he has inspired some participants like Cheryl McKenzie, a teacher from Australia, to contribute skills, time and money. She is helping start a school.

"I had visions of, well this will help these children to grow up and aspire to go forward, to do more," she noted.

Poluan has become friends with many in the neighborhoods along the tour. He is inspired by the spirit of people who endure great hardship.

"I learn so much to see them. How they survive. How they are very tough guy[s] and what I see is their peaceful mind," he said.

Polaun hopes his tour will attract visitors with the expertise and funding to fight urban poverty and not keep it hidden.

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