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The Big Read « Java « Dede Koswara: The 'Tree Man' of Indonesia

The original story of Dede Koswara – the so-called 'Treeman of Indonesia' – before he found fame on Discovery Channel.

Dede Koswara died on January 30, 2016.

THE SLIM, TWIN MINARETS OF THE MOSQUE hover over hawkers gathered in the dust of the small town square. Powdered Finto and Sprinta - just add water - are on sale along with bags of clothes, racks of cheap shoes and Gurci sunglasses. Parents dawdle and chat while their kids race from one stall to the next eating shocking-pink candy-floss and laughing.

Pirated DVDs and fatty snacks complete the night-market scene. A travelling sideshow nestles under the minarets. Tree-roots and buffalo skulls decorate the entrance to the tent and its darkened interior. Ki ('Master') Obes the matchmaker, and Zorro the international acrobat, take the procession of Rp.3000 (20p) tickets on the black, curtained door.

The crowd gathers and enters.

- "If he had it at birth, it's OK" says a young, well-turned-out chicken farmer from the next village. "I'd just feel sorry for him. But if he got it after he was born it means that he probably committed some kind of grave sin and is atoning for it."

A jilbab-wearing mum in her early thirties disagrees:

- "I think he meditated too much when he was young."

A middle-aged grandmother goggles at him for a few minutes before she turns away in disgust.

- "I bet he left it to grow like that on purpose so that he can make money out of it."

Children gawp and poke at Dede, 37, with their fingers and ticket stubs. A young boy creeps up past his school-friends and pulls hard at the tumours on Dede's hand:

- "It's just a glove!"

A tall, uniformed military man - hired to guard the troupe from local gangs' attempts at petty extortion - lopes up and gives Dede a nudge, then a comradely punch on the arm, and finally lights a cigarette for him. Nothing much happens in Indonesia without some form of protection.

On Dede's right is Wawan - at 17 something of a young veteran on the Indonesian sideshow scene. Wawan's pulling his own crowd of admirers: he's just promised a sweet sixteen-year-old that if she holds his hand all of her dreams of will come true. She giggles and paws him a little and his wide, uneven eyes grow even wider and more lop-sided.

Ki Petir ('Master Lightning'), the new sideshow talker, begins to chat up the crowd through his crackling microphone and a monster active-speaker at his feet.

- "Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen! One of the miracles of the world! Braja Karang, the King of the Coral as you've never seen him before! Straight from the volcano, the only man in the world with roots, horns and scales! And introducing Braja Keling, King of the Dark! He's half-man, half-djinn, and he's waiting for you! Braja Keling's so dark he sometimes disappears!"

On cue, the town's generator fails.

The tent and night-market fall into quiet darkness. The crowd fidgets. A minute of foot-shuffling and dark whispers: the Indonesian people are terrified of ghosts. The electricity returns with a bump.

The new sideshow talker doesn't miss a beat:

- "Roll up! These two never eat! Braja Karang and the King of the Dark only drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, they never eat rice! They're alive, ladies and gentlemen, and they're waiting for you!"

Ki Petir persists:

- "Roll up! Roll up! If one of you wants to go and check he's real, please do! But just one at a time please, one at a time!"

The bravest of the male spectators inches forward to have a pluck and a stroke followed by a final, solemn nod of the head. The audience wince. Their faces are pictures of awe, horror, shock, pity and disbelief. Some cover their noses and mouths because of the smell. Ki Petir takes me aside by the arm. He's excited about ticket sales, and he's beginning to see the green - they've just pulled 7,000 punters in nine days.

- "I see big potential in this business", he says finally.

He stops and looks at me really intently.

- "Big stuff, man."

At the end of the night Dede and Wawan are covered with black cloths and huddled, Michael-Jackson-style, into the troupe's beaten-up black van outside the show-tent. Nobody wants the public to get a free glimpse.

The charade continues until we're well out of town: Wawan and Dede remove their shrouds and light up. Ki Petir the talker fires up some heavy-weight joss-sticks on the front seat and waves them around Ryan's head. Even with all of the windows down, the smell of old fungus is overpowering.

We dodge potholes and crawl along at 40kmh past darkened banana plantations and crumbling verges until we reach the troupe's down-at-heel hotel where we're holed up. All but Dede go out for a snack of rice or chicken. Dede waits alone staring at one of the walls in his tiny, windowless room until his 15-year-old nephew Dedi brings him back a plate of food. Dede eats his evening meal with a modified spoon wedged in a gap in his hand.

The next morning we catch up with Dede over a coffee in his hotel room. The normal late-morning power-cut in the hotel suits the mood: all dark with stray rays of light peering through the roof's barred window.

- "Frankly, I just want to go walking to the corner-shop without everyone staring at me."

There's no bitterness or anger. Ryan the giant has already confided in us that if he had Dede's condition he would have killed himself by now. None of us know how he keeps his mind intact. Dede himself puts it down to acceptance, patience and praying.

He has a serenity so completely at odds with his visible appearance - with a warmth and a softness in his eyes - that quite simply astonishes. He also believes he's going to be cured one day - in a country where social security benefits and free healthcare for the poor do not, in reality, exist.

When I photograph Dede this time I can see his heart beating nineteen-to-the-dozen trying to cope with his huge physical disability. It seems as though a little rabbit is trapped inside his body punching to get out.

A large, star-like growth on his chest that looks like an over-sized military medal shivers in time to his quick pulse. He's thin now: when he phones his Mum every night, she badgers him about his evening meal. Everything looks much worse, much bigger, since we last saw him. The dangling tumour over his right eye is beginning to block his vision.

His knees and wrists are now so completely covered by the bark-like disease that it looks like living chain-mail. I ask Dede how the last two shows have been.

- "I'm quite used to it", he says with a shrug of his sloped shoulders. "I don't think about anything now when they look at me."

And his recent changes in management?

- "My old bosses told me that they wouldn't be needing me for about a year after the 28-day show in Bandung."

Strange people, even incredible ones like Dede, tend to have a certain shelf-life on the sideshow circuit.

- "Then they told me that if I worked with any other troupes that they would cut their contract with me. Of course I looked for work - I need to make money for my kids. So they cut my contract. Actually I'm making good money with the new team. They're good to me. I work less. I've even got a hotel room now."

When I met Dede during his first sideshow at a spiritualists' convention in Jakarta, he had to sleep outside on the roof because other members of the troupe couldn't take the smell; he caught pneumonia and was sick for seven weeks.

What of his experiences with Fox TV Studios and Discovery Channel?

- "I was very disappointed. I thought they were going to cure me."

Dede's brushes with cures and international stardom were relatively short-lived. After the two big sideshows in Jakarta and Bandung, a Fox TV crew - shooting for Discovery - flew out from Heathrow and hunted him down. Discovery discovered him, not sitting under a volcano as they might have wanted, but in his living-room watching TV with his mum and dad. The crew pretended that they were friends of mine after making their own introductions through a very expensive middleman and his boss.

Dede looks at the floor and takes a long, slow drag on his unfiltered clove cigarette - he gets through about a pack a day.

- "They treated me like a king for ten days. My old sideshow boss gave me Rp.3 million (223) to appear in the film. The Fox crew had a whip-round just before they left for England and gave me US$367 in a torn, old envelope. I don't know how much they made out of me. You know, I didn't even know it was Discovery Channel who were filming me: I just thought they were your friends so I let them go ahead."

A new, 12-strong sideshow was put together by Dede's boss especially for the programme - only Dede and Ryan the Giant remained from the original line-up. The Fox crew filmed Dede parading up and down the notorious Jalan Braga in Bandung where hungry white men search for prostitutes and cheap beer - somewhere Dede would never normally go.

Fox then wanted to witness his legendary supernatural abilities up-close and personal. Dede was encouraged to drink a glass of protective magic water that a spiritualist had prepared for him before bricks and a neon strip-light were broken over his head.

Dede says of his bizarre experiences with the masters of TV documentary:

- "One of my growths fell off when the spiritualist hit me and the stump started to bleed. So they stopped filming for a while. Then they got me to pull a car along with my teeth. I cried at the end of it. Everyone in Bandung was watching. It was terribly humiliating. I'd never done anything like that before in any of the sideshows: I'd normally just sit around in a tent for hours while people stared or had their photos taken with me."

Dede never signed a contract with Discovery Channel for the first episode: he thinks his boss may have taken care of that for him. He also never signed a patient consent form for any of the investigative procedures.

Dede sips on some more coffee.

- "Then a white doctor that the crew flew out took biopsies from my arm and chest" - he shows us one spot near his left nipple, weeks later still angry and red - "while I was staying in my auntie's house. I don't know why they didn't just drive over to my house in Bandung, or even take me to the hospital to get it done - my auntie's house hadn't been lived in for ages and it was filthy. But me and my brother-in-law had to canoe up a river to get there and it was on the edge of a volcano, so maybe they thought it looked better for the film."

What would have happened if the canoe had capsized?

- "I can't swim. I think I would have drowned."

And what about the biopsy results that Fox's medical man took?

- "I'm still waiting for the results. I haven't heard from them for over three months."

Update: 2011

Soon after this meeting in 2007, the Discovery Channel film was aired on British television and events snowballed. The Indonesian government, furious that a foreign television company had exposed Dede's embarrassing condition, jumped to attention.

An ambulance arrived without warning at his door and he was whisked away to the nearby hospital in Bandung for a series of plastic surgery operations that lasted for more than two years. More than eight kilos of growths were removed. Discovery returned to make their second and final episode with Dede - optimistically called 'Treeman: The Cure' - and this too was aired across the globe among the usual fanfare.

But the cure promised by the good Dr. Gaspari of Discovery Channel fame failed to work. Dede is now back where he started: watching television in his house with his mum and dad. The growths have returned, and he faces two operations a year for the rest of his life to give him a stab at normality.

Dede Koswara has refused all further treatment from Dr. Gaspari and Discovery Channel Network.

Update: 2016

Dede Koswara died of complications related to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) on the morning of January 30, 2016.

Related Content: Dede Koswara and the Association of Strange People: Part 1

Dede Koswara, the Tree Man of Indonesia, at home with his parents in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia

Dede Koswara at home with his parents in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Part One of the heroic story of Dede Koswara, the so-called 'Tree Man of Indonesia'.

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