It’s a common sight in Kupang—a thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy collecting fare money from uniformed school children as they pile out of his crowded bemo. The boy, like many others his age or even younger, works as a konjak, riding around on the bemo (minivans that serve as Kupang’s public transit system) that buzz around the city, hanging out the open side door, collecting fares from passengers, and trying to cram as many people into the vehicle as possible.
These konjak perform their duties with great enthusiasm. They shout at idle pedestrians as their bemo speeds past, jump out of the still-moving van to usher passengers inside when they call for a ride, and show hesitant customers where the few inches of free space are on the deluged benches inside the car. This is a typical job for a teenage Kupangnese boy. In the poverty-stricken capital of East Nusa Tenggara, it’s a pretty good job to have—working as a konjak for a few years puts you on track to become a driver of your own bemo. However, as the tragically ironic image of a konjak collecting money from school children his same age reminds us, this boy should be in school. For one reason or another, he isn’t.
The monthly tuition to attend SMA Negeri 3 Kupang is 125,000 rupiah a month, which is just over ten U.S. dollars. Even though this does not seem like a lot of money to pay for school, for the poorest families in Kupang, it is too much. The 750,000 IDR (around $70) that it costs per month to attend SMA Kristen Mercusuar, a private Christian school in Kupang, is more than many families will even make in a month.
On top of this, employment opportunities in Kupang are not as bountiful as you would expect for a provincial capital, especially for young, less-educated workers. Jobs in the service industry, for example, which in America would normally be filled by low-educated workers, are hard to come by or non-existent altogether. Girls in their late teens or early twenties often find work as maids in the homes of wealthier families, but many boys this age have trouble finding work and settle for occasionally giving rides as an ojek, or motorcycle taxi.
There are certainly a multitude of factors that contribute to the high unemployment rate in Kupang, but it is hard to not look first at the education system in the city and across the entire province of East Nusa Tenggara when searching for culprits. East Nusa Tenggara ranked second-to-last among the 33 Indonesian provinces in the National Exam administered to junior high schools during the 2012-2013 academic year. Although there are around 30 universities in Kupang, the majority of high school graduates from the city’s public schools will not attend college for academic as well as financial reasons. Another problem is the physical state of the schools in the city. At the public school where I teach, the classrooms, although functional, are out-of-date and in some cases in disrepair. At the privately owned Christian school, where the tuition is almost seven-times higher than that of the public schools, the facilities are not much better. Although there are many diligent students at the schools in Kupang, those that can afford high school and university fees go to Java or Bali for the superior quality of education.
The year 2013 marked the lowest poverty level in Indonesia’s history, with a Gross National Product (GNP) four times higher than that of 1998. However, the apparent poverty level of Kupang begs the question of how much the poorer provinces of the country, like East Nusa Tenggara, are factored into that statistic, and how accurate a depiction of the nation’s economy can be revealed by Indonesia-wide economic generalizations.
About the author: Nicholas Hughes is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara. He graduated from Rutgers University in 2013 with a double major in English and Anthropology.