Her Hard Life
The Editorial Board
When she was born forty-two years prior in Morowali, she did not have a house. Forty-two years later, after moving between cities, she is still unable to call a place her home. She is playing the Shakespearean lessons about life without even knowing it. She works hard so that one day she could build a home for her family. But she should have known the mantra “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none”, for in her story of pursuing the dream of home and happiness, wicked characters always seem to find a room to intrude.
Her life is a series of unfortunate events. She has always been in a pit and every time she tries to escape, she falls again and steps into the mud. She lives life with hardly any light in it. As unbearable as it is, she keeps one dream intact; a hope of a better future for her and her loved ones. This is her story.
A Name is a Prayer
Her name resonates with her character. Firda means brave. But her bravery is not in the traditional sense of overcoming challenges to achieve something greater in return. She is fearless for she is capable to handle anything that comes into her life, anything that would destroy her or her family’s lives. Firda is the second child of six. She did not graduate from elementary school. Not because school was not a thing back then. Putting the blame on culture is not appropriate either. She did not complete her education because she had to help out her parents in covering the household expenses and also her younger siblings’ education. Having a father whose job was a house painter in a then sparsely populated city, an additional working member of the family was a great help.
Firda has had a variety of life experiences on her plate. When she just moved from Morowali to Gorontalo, she and her family lived in a dirty basement in her cousin’s big house. They were not even allowed to sleep in one of the empty rooms. When they asked for shelter, her cousin just said to her parents “You may live here but your place is in the basement”. They lived there for over twenty years. At night, mice and cockroaches would come and disturb their already unpleasant sleep. But they had no choice, for it was the only place they had the capacity to access.
Before the basement, they lived inside an ice factory where her father worked. There was a small room inside the ice factory and that’s where they lived. At the time, Firda’s sister Faiza was still a baby. And they must survive living in a very low temperature. Freezing.
By the time she was fifteen, Firda started working as a nanny. But that was also her entry to become an on-call cleaner. She is known for her ability within her network. And soon enough, in come an offer from her extended family in Medan. They offered her to work as a maid at their house by highlighting the poverty of her family. “Don’t you feel sad about your parents? Look at you only living in the basement all these times.” She then departed for Medan in 2001, hoping that this would change her family’s fortune. Her boss promised to send money to her family in Gorontalo every month, which they would be able to use for buying a house. But that was a lie.
Firda was exploited for her labour and did not even receive the compensation that they promised to her. She was physically abused, tortured, and humiliated in a land that even after living there for six years, remains strange. She was not allowed to leave the house in all those years. And when she decided to run away, she was beaten and watered with kerosene all over her body. But that was not all.
When she arrived back home and met her parents, she discovered another deceit that they played on her. Her family had never received any money from her previous boss. Firda lost six years of her life to false promises. And this led her to make another decision that she regretted; married for a roof.
Firda’s older sister had been married for a few years at the time to a man who worked as a goat trader. Her mother was then offered to live with them but her father could not, for the house could only accommodate one more person. Her father found a place at a distant cousin’s house whilst working as a butcher. They still live separately.
Firda only knew Ato for a month before they got married. She was not charmed by his personality, looks, or attitudes. With all the burden that she had been carrying for nearly thirty years, she was easily swayed by the fact that her suitor worked in a mining firm and had a house. Those were enough for her to accept his marriage proposal. She needed to get out of the basement and reunite in a house with both her parents in one place. But that was not what transpired, for Ato turned out to be a drunkard who used his money to buy alcohol and it was not long after that he lost his job.
Although Firda was finally living in a proper two-bedroom house, it came at a cost of living with an alcoholic husband. Her initial hope of bringing her parents together with her was easily shattered. Apart from the lack of space in the house, she was fearful of Ato’s drinking habit and how bringing her parents to live with them would bring far more issues than the existing ones.
Pregnancy and Giving Kids Away
A few years into the marriage, Firda was pregnant. But with a husband who was hardly sober, she continued to work even at the late stage of her pregnancy. Her first son was born in 2013. She would go to her day job and clean while bringing her son, who then was still a baby. By 2015, she had given birth to three children, the latter being a girl. Three kids with her as the household head. She received comments like “poor you, having to do all the cleaning while taking care of your baby”. She also regularly received offers such as “you know, I know somebody who wants to adopt. If you agree, I could arrange it”. Initially, she refused and insisted on keeping her three children together for what is better than the love of their mother? But, soon enough, household expenses escalated and she could no longer manage to keep her children nourished. She had no choice but to break her words.
Aisyah knows she has two brothers. But she has no recollection of them being together while they were toddlers. Every time she asks about why her brothers are not living with them, Firda would say that they are just visiting their aunts. It’s a lie that even she is not comfortable in telling.
At this point, you might look at Firda as a victim of injustice or as someone who made a series of bad decisions. From agreeing to be a maid to someone who she did not know her true intention, marrying the guy who she did not know very well, to giving her kids away. Nevertheless, this Firda does not have full agency – the ability to act independently and make free choices. Firda did make her own decisions but they were based on her restricted choices. She chose to marry in order to leave the basement. But she would no walk that path had there been other options. To say that a person has agency means to know that she/he is able to select the same choice irrespective of the living condition.
But what about afterwards? Why did not she leave her husband after finding out his true identity? This decision to stay was also influenced by the absence of agency, which is why giving resources and education to empower vulnerable individuals is imperative. She was acting on her willingness to stay. But that was not a ‘free’ decision.
Agency is not merely about making free choices but also rational decisions. A particular example would be the decision to have kids. Low-income households are often unable to access reproductive health care, which can be due to costs or lack of awareness concerning the imperative of family planning. Furthermore, whether or not to have a baby must be determined after giving consideration to child-related expenses and household financial capability. This includes their capability to fulfil the needs of food, shelter, education, and health care.
Had she lived in a village, with a lower living cost, perhaps things would turn out differently. But then, Firda would have had an entirely different life, with a different job, and a different plan for the future. She might probably only have to wait a while before she could find a place where she and her parents could all live together. But it would also be harder for her to access essential sources that can inform her decision to plan a family, such as reproductive health care. It is, indeed, logically easier to have access to the aforementioned resources in cities than in villages. But having lived in the city all her life, Firda did not have access to them. For the grandiosity that it brings, city also has a set of problems that hinge on the ability of local communities and city leaders to solve.
Acquiring and exercising agency requires more than money. Wherever they live, Firda and especially her daughter needs to have access to knowledge, information, and education so that they can be free in making rational decisions. When she was asked about the future, Firda talked about her daughter, Aisyah, saying “I hope that when the time comes, she will go to university and finish her degree”. She had no idea that she was talking about acquiring agency. But time will tell her what her hope means for her, her children, and her parents. Perhaps, only perhaps, it means that someday they can all live together in a place they can call ‘home’.
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 01 Issue 02 — September 2021