Gangs of Indonesia

“Most jamu sellers are women.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because women have magical powers.” Jamu are natural Indonesian remedies taken to invigorate body and spirit. Best made in the morning from fresh ingredients, jamu can contain natural bark, roots, plant pulp, juice, and leaves.
Ibu Sis (above) runs a jamu stall in a merry and fragrant market in Yogjakarta. Her stall is crowded; her cleavage deep. She splishes different hues of liquid jamu into plastic saucers for an ever-replenishing queue.

“Women need jamu to boost their stamina before their husbands come home at night,” Ibu Sis said. The mothers in the queue giggled.

“Here’s a jamu for tightening your vagina,” Ibu Sis continued, pointing to a tureen of slimy orange Mosoyi bark and spooning some out for me. The jamu was bitter and earthy. Undoubtedly magical.

Ibu Sis rents her market stall for Rp 500 (US 5 cents) a day. She serves 100 customers a day, and charges Rp 2,000 (US 20 cents) for each cup of jamu.

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Her hands were stained a deep turmeric-yellow from the daily grind of pestle and mortar. “I don’t mind,” she laughed, plunging her serving ladle into a soup of swamp-green. “I make money from these yellow hands.”

However, the Indonesian jamu tradition faces an indiscriminate new enemy: youth. “My daughter spurns the art of jamu making; she sees little prestige in it,” lamented a second jamu seller, Ibu Sroeheni, who has been preparing and making jamu ever since her mother first passed the recipes down to her half a century ago. Sroeheni has no willing successor to bequeath the family heritage to.


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