EAST SUMBA — The island of Sumba, in southern Indonesia, is famous for its horses and regularly hosts racing festivals. In one such event last month, some 600 horses participated, as did a large number of jockeys — all of them children, some as young as four or five and none older than 11.
Among them is 7-year-old Ade, who doesn't even reach my waist. He's putting on a balaclava so I can only see his eyes and mouth. He's also wearing a small helmet and no shoes. He has a black eye from falling off a horse.
Ade doesn't own a horse, but he's here hoping someone will hire him as a jockey. A man has just come over and asked if Ade can work for him. He simply grabbed the boy by the arm and said, "I want to use him, I want to use him." Ade's father consented.
The horses here are small, about 1.5 meters high. But even so, Ade's father has to help his son climb onto the unfamiliar horse's bare back. "He has been working as a professional jockey since he was four years old," the father explains. "We started teaching him when he was three-and-half. Now he is seven and is a good rider."
And they're off â€¦
"How much did you get that time?" I ask. "50,000 rupiah again," or about $5, the father replies.
After the race, he picks up his son and carries him away from the track. The boy looks tired. "If he is strong enough he will just keep going," the man tells me. "He will race on more than 10 different horses in different races. If he has enough energy, he will just keep going. But if he's tired, he takes a rest."
Ade and his 9-year-old brother Enid, also a jockey, are the family breadwinners, their mother explains. "We can take home between 10 million and 50 million rupiah ($705 to $3,525) after being here for seven days at the races," she says.
That works out to about $1,000 for a week's work, a huge amount of money in Indonesia, where the minimum wage is just $50 a week. "If the races happen when school is on, we ask for permission from the teachers to pull them out of school because they have bosses here who want them to race," the mother adds.
"Isn't that a problem?" I ask.
"The boys understand that this is their work," she replies. "When the teacher asks them why they keep missing school to race horses, they answer, "Who would look after our mom and feed our younger brothers and sisters if we didn't?"""
It is illegal for children under the age of 15 to work in Indonesia, and by law children must be 18 before they are allowed to perform hazardous jobs. But the event organizer Umbu Tamba says his races abide by the law of tradition. "This is a tradition that has been passed down from our ancestors, so we are not breaking the law," he says.
I ask whether children are being forced to do this work and whether it's unfair to them.
"Whoever says that is just trying to be provocative and cause trouble," the event organizer says. "No child is forced to be a jockey here. Yes, it's true that according to national law, underage children are not allowed to work. But this is our cultural heritage. They aren't doing this for free either. Even though there is no official price that has to be paid to the jockeys, we care about them and we respect them and the job they do."
It's lunchtime and Ade's family sits down in the grass in the middle of the track. An uncle wants to talk tactics. "You've got to keep the left rein tight around the bend," he says.
But Ade isn't listening. He's busy boasting about his exploits to a crowd of boys around him. "I won three times, and came second twice," he says. "Yeah, I won three times, not two times, dad!"
Ade starts pulling his father, telling him he's hungry. His mother rushes over with beef sticks in peanut sauce, noodles and rice. Ade eats first. His mother and father eat what's left over.
"I have bought cows and am building a house for the boys," says his mother. "I am worried that when they get older they will ask me where the money they earned is. So that's why I have bought cattle for them and am building them a house. And if they want to go to high school or university, there will be money for that."
Ade will have to do a different job when he turns 15. And he already has some ideas. "I want to be an army officer," he says, laughing. "I want to fire a gun. I want to use a weapon. Pow, pow pow!"
With lunch over, it's time to race again. Ade mounts a new horse, and as it passes the stadium it takes a sharp turn and bolts off the field towards the entrance gate. The gate is closed and the horse rears up, throwing Ade off.
His mom rushes over to him. At first, I think she's kissing him on the head, but I'm told later that she's blowing the evil spirits away.
Ade seems to have hurt his leg. I ask whether they will take him to the hospital. "No, we never take them to hospital," his mother says. "If the leg is broken, we have to use local medicine. At the hospital, if they can't heal the leg they will straight away cut it off. That's what hospital people do. But that's not our way."
Ade pulls himself up and can walk. This time he has just bruised his legs. I ask his father if he's afraid to let the boy ride again. "We are used to it," he says. "This is our tradition, and way of life, so we don't have a feeling of being scared or worried anymore."
The father explains that Ade has fallen several times and broken various bones. "The more pain he feels, the braver he becomes."
Safety vs. tradition
Better safety conditions for child jockeys are actually something the local government has been looking into. Gidion Mbilijora is the regency head of East Sumba. "I have asked the organizers to pay more attention to the children's safety and also told them they must pay the jockeys a decent fee," he says.
"But according to Indonesian law, getting children under the age of 15 to work is against the law," I point out. "And here you have children as young as four and five working as jockeys."
"Yes, there are jockeys who are four and five," Mbilijora replies. "And yes, it's true that there is that law. But this falls into the category of local tradition. The government has to view this as part of cultural identity and tradition."
I press the official with another question. "I have met with children who have fallen off horses and broken their legs and split their heads open," I say. "What would you do if the central government insisted that this has to end?"
"If it was outlawed, it would make things very difficult for me," he says. "I would be swamped by protests from my community. Because the earnings from the horse racing are a key part of the local economy. Farmers incomes go up when there is a horse race on."
Back at the race, another horse owner comes over and tries to get Ade to ride again. But for the first time, he refuses. He looks exhausted and cuddles up to his uncle. "I've had enough," Ade says.
The day of racing comes to a close. Ade runs around the empty field trying to catch crickets. Some of the other child jockeys break out in a dance. Now they are free to be children. At least until tomorrow.