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The Big Read « Java « Dede Koswara and the Association of Strange People

Meeting Dede Koswara – the so-called 'Tree Man of Indonesia' – and friends for the first time in 2007.

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

RYAN THE GIANT explains: "When we're at work we call ourselves The Goeriank Troupe of Padjadjaran, but we like to think of ourselves as The Association of Strange People. I think it sounds cooler."

Sideshow in Jakarta, Indonesia

Sukma, 20, poses for local tourists in a freakshow during a paranormals' convention at Taman Mini theme park in Jakarta, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

I'd met Ryan and company at a convention of spiritualists and paranormals on a day out in a Jakarta theme park. Along with the faith healers, performers and alternative medical practitioners that were pushing their wares were Sukma, Wawan, Dede and Ryan. Sitting in a sideshow tent with their mis-shapen heads and limbs, the four waited for monied day-trippers to be photographed with them in the next-door studio.

Engkong, the brains behind the troupe, opens his house to the Association when they're not touring Indonesia or spending time at home with their families. His house is situated in the shadows of one of West Java's numerous volcanos, and ten days later we take the long bus-ride to visit him.

We discuss the Association over an Acehnese coffee.

– "What response do they get from people who go to see them?" I ask.

Enkong screws up his face.

– "Some feel sick and run away, especially when they see Dede. Some come back four or five times to make sure they're not seeing things before they have their pictures taken with them. Others just feel deeply sorry for them."

– "How often are the sideshows?"

– "We've had about four now" he explains. "We had an invitation to Bali, but the backers have put it on hold. We're trying to organise a replacement in Bandung, and then Makassar in South Sulawesi later in the year."

Enkong pauses.

– "There aren't many freakshows in the country. We've got a competitor now in Jakarta, a businesswoman. She's just started up. We don't like her methods: she exploits them. She doesn't care about them."

Of the four core members of the Association, Sukma – with his melting, Dali-esque face – is the most mysterious. During my visits to Taman Mini it was clear that he found his facial disfigurement almost intolerable to bear, constantly trying to hide the affected parts with his hand. Some say that they often see him begging on the buses in Bandung. Others say that he disappears with his grandfather or brother for weeks at a time – in fact, at the time we go to see him, he isn't there.

Engkong says he's up a local volcano.

– "What's he doing there?"

– "I've no idea."

Wawan, at 17, is the youngest and longest standing member of the troupe, and lives in a small kampung or village about four hours' drive from Bandung. His mother realised something was wrong with him when he was two months old and took him to Engkong who lived nearby for advice.

Wawan, Dede's friend, poses at home in Bandung, Indonesia

Wawan, 17, at home in Bandung, Java, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

– "He's been here on and off ever since" says Engkong. "Wawan's difficult, and when his family needs a break they bring him here for a while".

Many Javanese people, despite being Muslim, still hold an unshakeable belief in mysticism – often preferring to consult a psychic in times of difficulty than see a doctor. When Wawan comes round to Engkong's house, they spend their time talking. Engkong uses the time to calm him down, and encourages him to carry out daily tasks. One of Wawan's best-loved jobs is to tend to his father's goats for hours in the light-green, rolling hills near his simple wood home.

When I go to see Wawan – a bumpy, potholed roadtrip flanked by rice paddy and fruit trees – we're welcomed by the lazy smell of an open fire smoking away in the kitchen at the back of his house. After we have eaten alone – Sundanese manners allow for guests to eat what they want and how they want without fear of embarrassment – we are joined by Wawan's family who sit down with us on the reed mat on the floor.

Wawan, with his small frame, mis-shapen head and lopsided eyes, leans cross-legged against the wall.

– "Does Wawan have any hobbies?"

– "He sings" replies his mother. The whole family looks at each other and pull slow, soft smiles.

Wawan is suffering from a fever, and is not his normal, cheerful self. He subconsciously covers his head with his hands every now and then as if to brush away an irritation, and breaks out into quick smiles during the conversation before lapsing again into long, dejected silences.

Dede Koswara's friend Wawan at home in Bandung, Indonesia

Wawan at his house in Bandung, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Wawan's been known to break out into song during public minibus rides, and was the light of the party during the ten-day convention in Jakarta. He's even got a funny face that he pulls during the photo-shoots when the tourists aren't looking. But he's sad today, and he's got a sweat on. He's not talking.

– "Wawan's unpredictable sometimes", says Engkong. "If he doesn't get what he wants, he can start screaming. Aromatherapy helps. Incense works."

– "What does he feel when he's posing with the day-trippers?"

Engkong pauses.

– "Wawan's happy there, to be honest. He loves getting together with the group, and he enjoys being the centre of attention during the shoots. He's invincible."

"What are his plans for the future?"

– "He's interested in finding a girlfriend at the moment", says Engkong.

– "And what do his parents think about him going to far-flung places and having strangers stare at him for money?"

Wawan's father answers:

– "We're happy he's making money. We trust Engkong with him. What we really miss is watching him on TV. We don't have one, and we have to go 'round to a neighbour who's got a decent signal at the time. We missed him in Jakarta as the rains had just begun, and all we got was fuzz."

The family was moved to their present village by the government when the land they were living on was appropriated for a dam project. His parents were given limited compensation. Wawan was born soon after in the new village. His Mum had hoped he could go to school and learn to read and write but it proved too much.

As I'm crossing the verandah to leave, Engkong gives me a sly wink and whispers:

– "Maybe his Mum made love with a djinn in the woods".

Four hours away on the other side of Bandung lives Dede. Engkong smiles impishly in the car:

– "You should tell your readers we had to persuade Dede to canoe all the way down the river through the jungle for miles and miles just so you could photograph him."

He adds:

– "Or you could have him coming out of the lake like the Swamp Thing."

When I'd first met Dede in Jakarta he was dispirited and withdrawn, perhaps because of the fever and bronchitis he'd caught while sleeping on the roof of the convention centre to save on accommodation. On his home ground he's intelligent, and extremely softly spoken.

As I interview Dede in his living-room, his young nephews and nieces play around him, poking absent-mindedly at his arms or toying with his shirt. He gives them shining, gentle smiles.

The Tree Man of Indonesia Dede Koswara at home with his family in Bandung, Java

Dede Koswara and his family at home in their living-room in Bandung, Java, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

I ask Dede if it hurts.

– "It gets itchy sometimes", he says in staggering understatement.

There is a patch of maroon on the inside of his right elbow where he has drawn blood, and a corresponding patch on his left hand or wrist that he has been using to scratch with. At 37, he's been a member of the Association of Strange People for just seven months.

According to his father, Dede's condition started when he was 10 years old with a small, insignificant tumour on one of his knees. By the time Dede had met his wife and married "he'd only had a few spots".

The Tree Man of Indonesia Dede Koswara's hands

Dede's hands, covered with a bark-like growth caused by the Human papillomavirus and an autoimmune deficiency.

© 2017 Ubud High.

The Tree Man of Indonesia Dede Koswara's foot

HPV warts and tree-like growths on Dede Koswara's leg, Bandung, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Dede was a part-time farmer and builder. But after the birth of their second child the condition began to take a grip. His wife left him and took the children. When it got worse, Dede's family decided to take him to a hospital where he was to spend the next year and a half.

The doctors couldn't definitely say what was wrong with him, but they cut away as many of the growths as they could to make him more comfortable. When the family ran out of money, Dede came home. His condition returned with a vengeance, and has been growing worse ever since. His parents can afford to keep it under control now by taking a pair of scissors or a knife to the growths and cutting them off.

The Tree Man of Indonesia Dede Koswara with his parents in Bandung, Java

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

© 2017 Ubud High.

I ask his parents what they think about Dede posing for money.

His father replies. "All we want is for him to come back to us safe and sound. We know he's made new friends in the Association, and that's great for him – it's great for his spirit – but we just worry about him. We don't want him to come to any harm."

He and other members of the Association make about three million rupiah – about US$315 – per show after overheads have been taken off. A photograph with him costs Rp 350,000 – a little over $US35.

Enkong takes most of that.

– "What does Dede think about his condition?"

His father's eyes water.

– "He doesn't think about it any more – he just accepts it."

Dede has zips that his mother has sewn into his clothes so that he can change his trousers and shirt without getting them caught in his hands or feet. Every day, the family takes turns to clean him.

Dede's mother cleans him with an alcohol spray

Dede's mother cleans her son with an alcohol spray at their home in Bandung, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

– "He can't get wet or he smells worse" explains his mother, "so we fill a garden spray with 70% alcohol and use that. It usually takes about 20 minutes. We need to do that three times a day."

They also apply droplets of thick, scented Arabian oil to his arms and legs when they can afford it as it is the only perfume that can cut through the smell that clings to the air around him.

– "Neighbours are pretty much used to him around here, but they won't come 'round to visit," continues his mother. "Once he got on a public minibus near here and everybody else got off. We had to pay double. But now he just takes an ojek" – a motorbike taxi, door to door – "when he needs to go further away."

I ask Dede what his future holds.

– "All I want to do is to get better, and return to my life of farming and building."

Dede Koswara the 'Tree Man of Indonesia' walking near his home in Bandung, Indonesia

Dede Koswara – the 'Tree Man of Indonesia' – during a walk by the lake's edge near his home in Bandung, Java.

© 2017 Ubud High.

He's happiest walking alone on the shores of the nearby lake, so we take him down to the water's edge and hire a boat for the afternoon. Cloud turns to sun as we motor around. Fishermen stand ankle-deep on bamboo rafts as they throw in their lines, and miners patiently dig sand from out of the banks of the lake to sell on to Java's booming construction industry. The water, unusually for Indonesia, looks clean. When the wind gets up it's a sure sign that the afternoon rain is on its way, and we head back for the jetty and home.

The elation in Dede's eyes is astonishing.

– "Before we met Engkong," says Ryan the giant later, "some of the members wanted to kill themselves. But that's changed. We have a purpose now, and we can meet and enjoy each other's company."

Ryan adds:

– "You know, when you're this strange, it pays to stick together."

Dede Koswara the Treeman of Indonesia smiling in Bandung

Dede Koswara at peace on the lake near his home in Bandung, Java, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Update: 2016

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

Related Content: Dede Koswara: The 'Tree Man' of Indonesia: Part 2

Dede Koswara, the Tree Man of Indonesia, at a freakshow in West Java, Indonesia

Dede Koswara, the so-called 'Tree Man of Indonesia', at a sideshow in West Java, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

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

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