2009-04-06 12:49 AM
Soon tens of thousands of people were lining up under the blazing sun for hours, sometimes days. They carried cups, plastic bags or buckets of water, waiting for the 9-year-old shaman to dip in his rock to transform the water into a cure-all potion.
"I've tried going to hospitals, but it's always horrible," said Mohammad Anas, a 65-year-old with high blood pressure. "It was expensive, I was sent from one department to the next, waiting in long lines, filling out papers, and in the end, I still was sick ... I'd much rather take my chances here."
The interest in Ponari reflects the longtime popularity of shamans in Indonesia, where Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs and traditions held sway long before 14th-century traders brought Islam. But it also seems to suggest that some people, like Anas, have all but given up on the long-neglected health care system in this sprawling nation of 235 million people.
Chronic funding shortages and chaotic decentralization efforts have forced many local clinics in the poorest parts of the country to scale back operations in recent years, reducing the time and money spent on community outreach, education and routine immunization.
The result: skyrocketing cases of measles, tuberculosis and other preventable diseases and often too-late diagnoses of illnesses such as high blood pressure, stroke and cancer.
Few if any can recall quite so much hysteria around a single healer, much less one as young as Ponari. The boy is exhausted and can barely hold up his head as he rides piggyback on one man, while another dips his hand into containers of water.
The lines of people waiting to see him stretch for miles (km), and he has brought more than US$500,000 into the economy of the desperately poor village of Balongsari. It costs US$0.50 to see the boy shaman, and many people donate more money.
So eager are people to see Ponari that four died in a crush in February to reach him, temporarily forcing police to shut down his practice. It reopened last month, despite objections by the boy's father. Villagers punched the father in the face after he complained the third-grader was being exploited and belonged in school, playing with his friends.
"This is a hassle, sure," said Sudarmanto, a 45-year-old diabetic patient, as he jostled with the crowds to see Ponari, rent a room from villagers and find a place to park his car. "It's still cheaper and better than going to the hospital."
Another diabetes patient, Suyatman, 60, traveled 160 miles (257 km) to see the boy shaman.
"I just don't trust state clinics," he said.
Another woman nodded, smiling as she held up her ticket with her number in line - 4,138 - written in pen on a purple square of paper.
They, like others, said they were at first excited about a program introduced several years ago to provide free medical insurance to the country's most vulnerable. But they quickly became frustrated with the reams of paperwork and long waits, the result of so many people flocking to the hospitals for affordable care.
The plan, criticized as poorly enforced, also put a burden on the state. Some hospitals had to wait seven months before their bills were reimbursed. In many cases, patients with the free insurance cards said they were afraid that disgruntled doctors wouldn't give them the same time or attention as those who paid upfront.
Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari insists Ponari's case says nothing about the state of the country's health system.
"This is about desperate people looking for miracles," she said in a telephone text message. "As soon as they realize they won't get those miracles, the phenomenon will be over."
"The government doesn't spend near what it should," said Zuber Safawi, a lawmaker who oversees parliament's health commission, noting that only 1.1 percent of the country's gross domestic product goes to health. "It shows a real lack of political will."