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Indonesia’s ‘silver people’ perform to make ends meet

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DEPOK, Indonesia – Indonesian single mother Puryanti bows stiffly like a robot, as she and her five-year-old son, their bodies gleaming in silver paint, appeal to passersby for an occasional coin at a busy intersection outside the capital Jakarta.

They are among a group of people dubbed “manusia silver”, or “silver people” who use the strategy to draw attention, while struggling to make ends meet after the coronavirus pushed Southeast Asia’s largest economy into recession last year.

“Some give, some don’t,” said Puryanti, 29, after three months of such daily performances, accompanied by her nephew Raffi, 15. “Sometimes someone gives enough.”

On good days, the Javanese, who was a housewife before her divorce, can earn about 70,000 rupiah ($5), enough to scrape by and pay the rent.

Puryanti uses a homemade paint, a mixture of screen-printing powder and cooking oil, to coat their bodies and add dramatic effect to the robot act. She says the silver paint causes no ill-effects.

“I am not ashamed to work like this,” she added. “The important thing is this is all for my children.”

The pandemic, which brought Indonesia’s first recession in more than two decades, with the economy shrinking almost 2.2% in the fourth quarter, has been tough for millions in the informal sector who need to leave their homes to make a living.

Puryanti, a 29-year-old woman, and her 15-year-old nephew Raffi, cover themselves from head to toe in silver paint to become 'manusia silver' (silver people), as part of their act to make a living, in Depok,
Puryanti, a 29-year-old woman, and her 15-year-old nephew Raffi, cover themselves from head to toe in silver paint to become ‘manusia silver’ (silver people), as part of their act to make a living.
REUTERS/Adi Kurniawan

Indonesia’s poor account for 26.42 million of a population of over 270 million, government statistics show, a number that grew by 1.63 million over the period from September 2019 to the March 2020 onset of the pandemic.

Puryanti has checked with the police that she can continue to work as a “silver person” for now, as long as she follows coronavirus measures such as wearing a mask, but she has higher ambitions.

“I want to have my own business,” she added. “I want to open a small shop but I don’t have money for that.”

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