Ponari and the Sorceror's Stone

BY M FAJAR
Jan 31, 2010

A little boy’s miracle-working sheds light on the hunger for salvation amongst ordinary people.

It began with a lightning strike on December 12, 2008. In the middle of a hard rain, a lightning strike left behind a mysterious stone. According to Ponari and his followers, a sick person is healed when water in which the stone had been immersed is drunk. As the media told stories of his powers spread, Ponari’s popularity grew. At first, only the people of Balongsari village came to see him. But soon, around 5,000 people spilled out of Jombang and even travelled from the towns of Central Java to come and visit Ponari every day, each paying Rp.5,000 (US$ 0.5) to visit him.

Four people died, crushed by the crowds. For several months, the line stretched hundreds of metres in front of Ponari’s house, as people waited for him to sink his stone into the glasses of water they brought. Those who could not wait scraped up soil from around his house and plastered it on their bodies, or collected water from his family’s well, hoping it would cure whatever ailed them.

Ponari and his stone not only attracted people, it also attracted a large amount of money. The money that circulated in Balongsari village as a result of the Ponari phenomenon was estimated to be as much as 1 billion rupiah (US$100,000) per day. Most of this money went to local businesses, including local merchants who sold food, water and accommodation for those who wanted to wait in the queue to see the child healer. There was even a soft drink named after him, Ponari Sweat, evidently borrowed from the popular Pocari Sweat drink.

For Ponari’s family, however, the story had a bitter side. Ponari’s life became thoroughly consumed with healing, leaving no time for school or normal childhood activities, and led to pressure from the National Commission for Child Protection. Ponari became the centre of a quarrel between family members. In February 2009 the police shut down Ponari’s practice. His father, Khomsin, was beaten in a fight and hospitalised for trying to take Ponari away from the control of extended family members who wanted to reopen the practice.

 

A plethora of prophets

The Ponari phenomenon is not new. Before Ponari, there have been many miracle workers, alternative healers, and prophets who claimed to have magical powers to heal and bring good fortune.

The miracle workers and prophets make two different but related claims. Firstly, they claim they can heal the sick of their mental and physical ailments. Secondly, they promise a doctrine of liberation and salvation.

Ponari is not the first child, or the last, to hold this sort of fascination for the community. A nine-year-old girl named Selvin attracted thousands to Poso in January 2007 with her Christian faith-based healing. Since Ponari, at least two children have opened up practices, six-year-old Della Nastaya from Malang and 14-year-old Randy Wijaya Kusuma from Makassar. Both children also use stones to heal.

 

State-making

What kind of background creates fertile ground for Ponari and similar miracle workers in Indonesia? One issue stands out: The state’s failure to provide cheap or free health services drives members of society to find alternative health services in non-state institutions. Ponari and the others offer what the state does not.

What kind of background creates fertile ground for Ponari and similar miracle workers in Indonesia? One issue stands out: The state’s failure to provide cheap or free health services drives members of society to find alternative health services in non-state institutions. Ponari and the others offer what the state does not.

In 2009, the Ministry of Health received only 2.8% of the overall budget, far short of the international standard set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which states that a minimum of 15% of a country’s national budget should be allocated to health.

The numbers are misleading, however, because the budgets in local districts vary. In Jombang, the health sector budget allocation from the district budget is only around 5%. At the same time, the regional minimum wage, as decreed by the Jombang district head, is Rp 752,500 (US$ 75) per month in 2009. Of course, this isn’t a sufficient sum to obtain health insurance, or fulfill other basic needs, including education and food.

With the state failing to provide succour, Ponari and other faith healers offer ordinary people a glimpse of hope. Of course, the mystical attributes often hold greater influence than the practical consequences. Ponari not only attracts people from all around Indonesia because of his magical abilities, but also because of the fairy-tales that surround him.

 

Incomplete modernisation

Now, it seems the Ponari craze is coming to end. Unlike in its heyday when patients came in their thousands, now the village is relatively quiet. Ponari has started to resume his life as a normal boy and large numbers of patients come now only on the weekends when Ponari doesn’t go to school. During weekdays he only receives visitors for half the day, and their numbers are declining. The drop is causing an economic downturn in Balongsari village. Local merchants who had made a killing from the Ponari phenomenon are once more getting used to the meager takings that used to be their norm.

Despite the decline of Ponari’s practice, it’s still worth thinking about what light he and other prophets cast on Indonesia’s epoch of modernisation. Modernisation does not assure that society as a whole becomes modern. There are always going to be parts of society that are left behind. Strong beliefs in mysticism and miracles have not evaporated as a result of capitalist development. Instead, they coexist with the modern state. Ponari reignited those ideas when the district of Jombang couldn’t provide for its sick citizens. The failures of the state and modern institutions such as hospitals have led many Indonesian people to turn to mystical healers like Ponari. It is likely that the "Ponari Effect" will continue to flourish in Indonesia until the country fully completes the development process and creates a state that can truly provide for its people’s basic needs.

 

M. Fajar also blogs at Inside Indonesia

 

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