September 19, 2017

Children and onlookers bemo-an the fate of Jakarta’s three-wheeled library


An Indonesian bemo.

You’ve got to love librarians — especially the ones who find creative ways to get books to underserved communities. Unfortunately, one such community in Jakarta, Indonesia may find itself without easy access to books soon, after the local “bemo library” is taken off the streets. Sixty-two-year-old Sutino “Kinong” Hadi has been delivering books to children in the Indonesian capital’s poorer neighborhoods for a long time — but his method of transport has just been outlawed. The venerable bemo, a three-wheeled, motorized vehicle once ubiquitous as a form of public transportation in Indonesia, is being taken off the streets by authorities concerned over the vehicle’s carbon emissions and safety. (The word is a contraction of “becak motor,” meaning “motorized rickshaw.”) A ban announced in June has slowly been enforced, threatening to leave Hadi without a means to deliver his books.

The Jakarta Post’s Stefani Ribka has noted that, while illiteracy rates in Southeast Asia’s most populous country decreased from 10.5% in 2005 to 3.7% 2015, much of the public still struggles to form regular reading habits.

Crowds of children clamber around Hadi’s bright purple bookmobile when he arrives in their area and stay pouring over a selection of colorful books donated by universities and libraries. In a Reuters video, third-grader Firda Dwi Sagita excited tells the camera, “With this library, we’re becoming fond of reading, we’re becoming smart and diligent.” In a related Reuters story, a classmate, Alfandi Mardiansyah, says it’s helpful because “there’s no need to go look for other places or libraries that are too far away.”

If Hadi’s not allowed to drive his bemo around Jakarta, the city’s poor neighborhoods will lose not only a convenient source of books, but also a safe place for children to gather over shared interests. As we’ve reported before, it can be hard to know how to respond to this sort of thing.

Still, there is cause for optimism. Hadi’s program has at least proved that there is a need for this kind of service in Jakarta, and may inspire others to get creative: “I hope that the library idea will be continued by younger generations with other vehicles,” he says. We hope so, too.



Sarah Healy is an intern at Melville House.