The magical faith healing stone of young boy Ponari is big business for a small village in East Java.
Even Ponari must go to school. He hasn’t been there for three weeks and this Monday is the time. The school director takes him there personally on his “moped”, and a platoon of riot police officers run alongside the 9 year old prodigy to protect him. It is not easy to get the boy away from his village. Thousands of people crowd between the houses and when they see Ponari they even press harder. But people have to wait because Ponari must go to school.
A month ago Ponari was hit by lightning, according to his story. When he regained consciousness there was a stone on top of his head. He threw it away but the stone came back so he took it home. There he discovered the healing effects of the stone: a neighbour healed of fever after he had touched it, the village head got rid of a bad pain in his arm and the local police officer, a pious Muslim, swears he has seen with his own eyes how Ponari healed a boy who had not spoken a single word for five years.
The news about the miraculous healings spread quickly and people started to flood to the small village of Balongsari, a few hours drive from Surabaya. First dozens, then hundreds, and now there are thousands. They bring cups, bottles and buckets of water in which the boy wonder plunges his stone. This allegedly turns the water into a powerful panacea. Ponari is carried around by his father. He looks tired.
A party tent protects him against the sun. There are barriers of bamboo put down to control the crowd. This has already led to accidents: four people have been trampled to death and an unknown number got injured. And also the healing doesn’t work that well. A child of three died after his parents had given him wonder water instead of taking him to a doctor. The media are interviewing more and more people who have been drinking the miracle water but didn’t notice anything. Hamzah (53) says that his eyes are just as bad as before. Such information may not deter visitors. They keep on flooding to the village.
Yet there is growing criticism of the Balongsari circus. Especially Muslim organizations condemn what is happening there. It is superstition and therefore sinful but also dangerous. Child welfare agencies demand closure of this 'practice' of Ponari in order to protect the boy against exploitation. Even his father says now enough is enough. He has already tried a few times to get Ponari to school but was always stopped by the crowd and his own neighbours which keep the family more or less as hostages. They want Ponari to continue because they earn big money: they sell food, they rent out parking spaces, sleeping places and sell water in which Ponari has immersed his stone. This poor peasant village is making a daily turnover of one billion rupiah (70,000 euros).
As long as the faithful continue to throng there’s no way back. Ponari says nothing. After school he is back on his father’s shoulders and he immerses his stone in water until he cannot hold it anymore....
This post is a translation of an article which appeared in Dutch daily "Volkskrant" on 24 February 2009 (link: http://www.volkskrant.nl/buitenland/article1154300.ece/Indonesisch_dorp_teert_op_wonderkind).