I was sitting in a taxi on the corner of Kusuma Bangsa Boulevard and Ketupa Street, not far from where my family had lived. Traffic was streaming up and down the boulevard: buses, cars, rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians, as you would expect in a big city. Across the road a shopping mall spewed out people of every description: couples, businessmen, families with children, mainly Indonesian but also Chinese, Malaysian, European, all hurrying around like ants.

Where to? I wondered.

What on earth are they after?

It was 2001. My wife Jackie and I were visiting Surabaya in Indonesia where I had spent the first four years of my life. Jackie had gone to make a phone call. This was before mobile phones became commonplace in Indonesia. No unwanted ringtone to disturb my peace. No texting. It gave me a moment to indulge in nostalgia.

From family photographs I knew that as a toddler I took my first faltering steps under the palm trees of Kusuma Bangsa, anxiously holding my mother by one hand and jealously watching my older brother Carel skipping ahead . . . How different my life had been then!

I watched a gaggle of schoolgirls passing by, joking and giggling as they turned their heads to look at me sitting in the taxi. The taxi driver winked at them.

Why am I in this world?

Why me?

Why do I exist at all?

What makes me distinct from other people?

Who gave me my identity?

Where does my will to live come from? My fears? My endless search? My being myself?

My gaze caught a young Indonesian woman coming out of the mall. She was hauling a heavy, bulging bag. A little boy clutched the shopping bag at the other end. While the woman examined the traffic to find a convenient slot to cross the road, the toddler peered into her bag and fished out a bar of chocolate. He tore it open and took a bite. His mother turned as if she sensed something was going on but darling son quickly hid the bar behind his back.

Not for long. A stray dog, of which there were a legion in Surabaya, sneaked up, snatched the chocolate from his hand and scuttled away, its mangy tail twisting in triumph. The toddler yelled with anger.

A picture of life I thought.

I am intrigued by the fact that I was born in Surabaya. I know about evolution and all that – more about this later – but scientific studies do not take away the riddle of our human personality. They only deepen the mystery of it all.

For, believe it or not, I did not choose to be born . . .

Obviously I do not personally remember what happened during the year leading up to my birth but at the end of her life my mother filled in many colourful details. She spoke a lot about those early years in Indonesia.

Both my parents were young when they travelled to Java where my father, as a newly qualified teacher, had been posted by the Dutch government. The island of Java formed part of the Dutch Indies. Unemployment was rife in the Netherlands during the 1930’s and my parents had jumped at his appointment to Sragen as its first headmaster.

During the six weeks’ trip on the ocean liner that sailed from Amsterdam to Batavia, present-day Jakarta, they got an inkling of what the assignment meant. They heard veteran colonials whisper behind their backs: “Look, those poor sods, sentenced to go to Sragen!”

After disembarking in Batavia and surviving a tiresome two-day journey on a rickety old train, they arrived at their destination: a dilapidated station in the middle of nowhere.

My father hauled the luggage onto the platform and engaged a coolie to help him carry it to the front of the rickety old building.

“Mahu taxi!”, he shouted. “I want a taxi!” My father had begun to study Malay from handbooks he had acquired in Amsterdam.

“Ta’ada taxi”, people responded. “There is no taxi.”

“Mahu jalan hotel”, my father said. “We need to go to a hotel.”

“Ta’ada hotel, Tuan”, amused bystanders told him. “There is no hotel.”

So much for government advice as to how they should find temporary accommodation before renting a house!

Fortunately for my parents one of the bystanders was a friend of Pakubuwono the Tenth, the Susuhunan of nearby Surakarta, who happened to be in his summer residence in the village. The Susuhunan graciously welcomed my parents and put them up for some weeks in one of his spacious guestrooms. Soon they found a suitable home and my father set up a primary school for a handful of pupils, children of Dutch parents or of Indonesian officials who wanted their children educated in Dutch.

Sragen turned out to be a picturesque village surrounded by sawahs, rice fields, that descended on terrace after terrace from the slopes of majestic Mount Lawu.

Why I am so interested in Sragen you may wonder?

The reason is simple.

In Sragen the question of my existence or non-existence, my personal ‘to be or not to be’, first came to the boil. Decisions were being taken, totally outside my control, that would seal my fate –, or my good fortune as it turned out to be.

On 13 August 1934 my elder brother Carel had been born to my parents’ great pride and happiness.

So far so good.

What next?

The problem was: did they want more children? Or should they not at least space them out?

My mother had been the eldest in a family of nine children. Since her father had earned only a pitiable salary as a primary school teacher in Apeldoorn, poverty and near-starvation were the order of the day in her family. I recall my mother’s stories: how four of the children had shared one boiled sweet between them, each sucking it the distance it took them to walk from one tree to another on the way to school; how my mother had to beg other pupils in her class for the loan of a textbook because the family could not afford its 10 cent cost; how in the local parish church she had always sat behind a pillar during Sunday services because those seats were reserved for the poor; how as a girl of twelve years old she had been awarded a real porcelain doll at a competition in school – it was the first time she had possessed such a luxury toy instead of the dolls stitched together from old socks she had owned till then. Her brothers and sisters would take turns cuddling the doll when going to sleep in their shared beds, my mother told me.

Small wonder my mother had made up her mind that large families were not necessarily a good thing. She firmly stated that it would be better to wait.

My father did not agree. Not only did ‘waiting’ imply a total abstinence from sexual intimacy, considering the lack of acceptable contraceptives at the time. It also contradicted the Catholic moral principles of the day. This was the time when ‘to be fruitful and multiply’ was deemed a serious obligation for Catholic parents. Parish priests in the Netherlands would make pastoral visits to their parishioners’ homes to remind them of this duty. “Why is there such a long gap since your last child?”, they would bluntly ask.

My father pointed out to my mother that Pope after Pope had urged Catholics to ‘obey the laws of the Creator’, to ‘joyfully and gratefully accept more children as the priceless gifts of God in whatever number it may please him to send them’, that large families ‘create the ideal psychological conditions for the healthy development of children and the formation of saints’. The family of St. Louis, the holy King of France, had been made up of ten children. St. Catherine of Siena came from a family of twenty-five, St. Robert Bellarmine from a family of twelve, and St. Pius X from a family of ten.[i] My father clinched his argument by saying that he would not know how they could ever justify a one-child family to their parents back home in Holland . . .

Whenever my father and mother disagreed, it was usually my mother who prevailed.

Not in this case.

I do not know where they took the decision, whether it was while walking along the river Solo on a Sunday afternoon with my father pushing little Carel in his pram, whether sitting out on their verandah of an evening, lounging in rottan chairs and munching sateh, pieces of fried chicken skewered on short sticks, or in bed under their klambu mosquito net.

The fact is, against all the odds, I was conceived at Sragen three and a half months after Carel’s birth — during Christmas week of 1934 to be precise.

It is a sobering thought that on that occasion I outcompeted millions of other sperm also flowing from my father’s loins, to eventually fuse triumphantly with the ovum inside my mother, so completing the packet of genes that provided the blueprint for what I was to become.

Imagine the encounter.

The champ sperm had been forcefully ejected through the cleft of Venus up the slippery tunnel of my mother’s vagina. Vigorously whipping his tail he fought his way up against a rush of fluids, pushing rivals aside, struggling, wrestling, battling along until he reached the even narrower corridor of the cervix. Refusing to give up he lurched forward over the bodies of exhausted comrades, squeezing through gaps, thrashing his tail till the wide vestibule of the uterus opened up before him. Where to turn — in this vast hallucinating hall? Instinct drove him on. Keep searching!

Meanwhile the champ egg too had been making an adventurous journey. For months she had blossomed in a cosy antechamber deep inside my mother’s ovary. Abruptly she had been catapulted into the long slimy passageway of a fallopian tube. She had shrieked with delight as she slipped through the clammy channel like a girl slithering down a slide in a swimming pool. In the vast space of the uterus she had anxiously splashed around to eventually find a niche on one of its heaving balmy walls. And then the fun had started.

Weird puny creatures with hilarious tiny tails pressed up against her. They flogged her, scratched her, pricked her, tickled her membrane. She wriggled and giggled in response.

Then, out of the blue, the champ sperm pierced her membrane.

“Aauw!”, she screamed. “This is not fair! Aaaah!”

With a sigh of relief the champ sperm emptied his cargo of genes into her belly.

“Aaaah!”, she cried again. “Ooooh!”

The two sets of chromosomes merged. They cobbled together the design that made me, the design of all my genetic features, the blueprint I still carry in every cell of my body.

You see now why I talk of mystery . . .


Setting the scene


While my mother was nurturing me in her womb, my father had successfully applied for a transfer from government educational services to Catholic mission schools. His first appointment in this new role was as headmaster to St. Stanislaus primary school in the second largest city on Java: Surabaya.

The move was a vast improvement for my parents, and ultimately for me. For it made me urban and cosmopolitan from the start.

The city of Surabaya lies on the floodplain of a the rivers Brantas, Mas and Pegirian, turbulent rivers that have deposited layer upon layer of volcanic ash, grit and mud from Mount Kelud. In this swampy and mosquito-ridden coastal land Hindu rulers of East Java founded a small fortress against invaders from Bali and Madura which they gave the Sanskrit title ‘Sura-bhaya’: ‘brave in the midst of fear’. The local Javanese interpreted the name as referring to suro (shark) and baya or boyo (crocodile) and claimed that this was the spot of a ferocious fight between a shark and a crocodile that led to a permanent division of territory: sharks dominate the sea, crocodiles the rivers.

In the 16th century the Portuguese placed a trading post here, then the English. But from 1617 the Dutch East India Company took control and Surabaya remained under Dutch rule until after the second world war. When my parents came to Surabaya the city already had half a million residents. By now the port facilities had been greatly improved, with shipyards, marine workshops, naval training schools, and a cantonment area for naval personnel. The town centre prided itself on its imposing government buildings, shopping streets, markets and cinema halls. Large industrial areas accommodated factories and workshops of every description. Surabaya was trying to become a world city.

I say ‘trying’ because until shortly before I was born, the residents lacked many basic amenities including the supply of safe drinking water. People would scoop up water from the muddy rivers, then make it to stand in a large jar till the heaviest sediment had settled. The top layer would then be scooped out from the jar, filtered, boiled and filtered again till it could be safely drunk. The rich could buy barrels of water that had been collected from a spring in Pasuruan and transported in boats down the coast to Surabaya. Small wonder that epidemics of cholera were a regular occurrence. Only from 1903 clean water began to be piped down to the city from springs high up in the mountains.

In time for my arrival.


Dawn of life at dusk


I was born on a hot steamy monsoon day in St Vincent de Paul Hospital at Surabaya. The date was Monday 30 September 1935. My mother always suffered a lot when delivering babies. She partly blamed her own mother for this who had given birth to nine children and three stillbirths and who kept telling her: “Having a baby is sheer hell. Like a hammer drill bludgeoning a path out of your womb. You’ll never get used to it!” Hardly reassuring comfort to prepare your daughter for an event that is an ordeal for most women even in the most favourable of circumstances. And Surabaya of 1935 offered little comfort to a mum of 28 about to deliver her second son in a hospital where sedation at childbirth was not an option.

My mother, who had been in labour all day, was finally wheeled into a small delivery room. There I saw the daylight at 7 pm. I say ‘seeing the daylight’ metaphorically speaking, of course. For Surabaya lies almost smack on the equator and night falls promptly at six. At the hour I was born, the world around me lay wrapped in darkness. All I could have seen, if my eyes had been geared to seeing, was an electric bulb swinging from the ceiling, faintly illuminating my mother and the religious sister who acted as midwife.

My mother remembered my birth very well. For one thing, she told me, it had been a comparatively easy birth. My older brother Carel had been pulled out through the narrow birth canal with the use of a forceps. It deformed his skull for good, leaving his head elongated as you see among some tribal people in Africa. The next son to be born after me, Niek, refused to breathe for ten minutes after his umbilical cord had been cut. He turned blue and purple, my mother said. He was suffocating before her eyes. A doctor saved his life by literally swinging him around like a cricket bat. So I was lucky, and there was more.

Whereas all her other four sons had looked rather dazed after coming out of her womb, I was different my mother assured me. As soon as I had been given my first preliminary wash, I looked round with fierce blue eyes. I was taking in the whole scene! Making sure none of my rivals had made it perhaps!

When my mother had been wheeled back to the ward, she requested to be brought holy communion next day as was her custom. My parents were devout Catholics and daily communicants whenever possible.

“Out of the question!”, the religious sister in hospital stated, refusing to put her on the list for holy communion. “You have not been churched!”

Those were the days when ‘churching’ was still practiced by Catholics in many countries. This atrocious custom was the outcome of ancient fears surrounding childbirth joined to medieval prejudice based on   Leviticus 12,2-8. After childbirth a woman was deemed unclean. A young mum would present herself forty days after delivery at the church door with a lighted candle in one hand and an offering in the other. Only when a priest had blessed her, thus purifying her from all menstrual stains could she again participate in the eucharist. It also meant that a mother was usually prevented from attending the baptism of her newborn child which took place in church soon after birth.

My mother who had seen her own mum being churched many a time, had sworn she herself would never submit to the rite.

“I don’t want to be churched”, she asserted.

“But you’re unclean. You don’t want to disgrace the blessed sacrament do you?”

“I’ve just done the most wonderful thing in my life and given birth to another child”, my mother retorted. “Why would I need to be cleansed?”

The Sister did not want to give in. Nor did my mother. She insisted that the parish priest be called. Father Jan Zoetmuller of Sacred Heart Parish dutifully arrived.

More words followed as he too tried to persuade her.

To no avail. My mother insisted that he bring her communion as before.

Next morning on Tuesday 1 October 1935 my mother received holy communion as usual. Afterwards she was present when the parish priest baptised me, not in the parish church but in the small chapel of the hospital.

Later that day my father reported the fact of my existence to the relevant official at town hall. I was entered into the registry as Johannes Nicolaas Maria Wijngaards, legitimate (!) son of Nicolaas Carel Heinrich Wijngaards en Lamberdina Carolina Maria van Hoesel. My legitimate birth from Dutch parents gave me the status of being a citizen of the far-away Netherlands.




Both my parents were extraordinary people. But I will here focus on my mother since she, after all, played the key role in my birth and during my early years.

My mother combined indomitable strength of character with tenderness and care. Our home in the Ketupa Street, for instance, was just a block away from the marine barracks in Surabaya. Every day precisely at noon a naval gun was fired on the barracks’ parade ground presumably to intimidate the Indonesian population of the whole city. The boom would shake our house.

While my older brother Carel took this in his stride, I would go white with fear, look around in panic and tremble all over. So my mother got into the habit of lifting me out my cot just before twelve o’clock and cradle me in her arms to dampen the shock. I was fortunate to have a caring mum like that. She really was ‘class’. What about her family?

My mother used to say jokingly at times that through the Van Ditshuisens from whom she descended via her grandmother, she was distantly related to Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma. Now, to Dutch ears, this is hardly something to be proud of. The Duke of Parma (1587-1592) was the military governor in the Netherlands for Philip II of Spain. The Duke is remembered for ruthlessly suppressing nationalist Dutch uprisings while enjoying the amorous advances of local noble ladies. Historians claim that he descended from an illegitimate son of Pope Paul III and an illegitimate daughter of the Habsburg Emperor Charles V.

My father’s family can trace its roots back to a 13th century homestead near Heerlen in the south of the Netherlands. The smallholding included a vineyard, which was an oddity for that area. Thus the farmer acquired the name ‘Wijngaards’ = ‘of the vineyard’. The country road that leads to it is still known as the ‘Wijngaards Street’. The Dutch archeological society lists the old farm itself, the ‘Wijngaardsboerderij’, as a protected monument.

How much further can I trace my origins?

As a regular subscriber of The Scientific American since 1975 I am familiar with all we now know about the history of humankind and evolution. Let me just sketch some intriguing facts.[ii]

All present human beings derive from a band of homo sapiens sapiens who migrated from East Africa some 100,000 years ago, possibly to escape from a severe drought. They had developed from a tree of hominid and hominoid species, and ultimately from apes. The drive towards human traits began some eight million years ago.

Geological upheavals caused the continent of Africa to split into two halves: the western half retained lush, tropical forests; the eastern half turned dry and semi-desert. What was the result? The apes in the western part continued in their fixed life style. Today’s chimpanzees in Rwanda and Zaire are their direct descendants. But the apes in the arid savannahs of East Africa were put under increasing duress. No trees to hide in. No fruits to collect. No safety from predators on the flat ground. It was the need to survive such new demands that led to those apes developing the traits that would gradually make them hominid, then human. It was the tormented, struggling, hard pressed apes that, by the unexpected discovery of new opportunities, found the way to human intelligence.

But why stop there?

We carry in us genes from all living things on our planet. We are related to the earliest cyanobacteria that began to live in the oceans.

And what about our earth?

When the earth formed from a swirling cloud of dust 4.5 billion years ago, it received all the many atoms we need in our bodies. Many of those atoms had been forged in the nuclear furnace of ancient stars or in the explosion of a supernova. For instance, the iron atom in each red cell, haemoglobin, in our blood, so essential to transport oxygen from the lungs throughout the body, originated in such ancient cosmic fireworks . . .

So where lies our deepest origin?

We can continue to point back from how one thing derived from another, but does it really explain existence itself? Or how these primordial sparks contained the prospect of human intelligence, of my personal identity?

It remains a mystery.

I am grateful to my parents for giving me life and so much else. Even more I owe gratitude to God, the ultimate source of all existence. Ultimately it is God who through the violent upheavals of evolution and the chaos of human history, in spite of seeming coincidences of family and the erratic dance of sperm and ovum, created unpredictable me, a joke perhaps in cosmic terms, a gift to me.

[i] The traditional view was still strongly expressed in Pope Pius XII’s speech on ‘The Large Family’ in 1958.

[ii] The figures and dates given do not intend to reflect the latest accurate findings of science. The theories are just outlines. Everything I say is approximation, painted with rough brush strokes.


John Wijngaards, My Story – My Thoughts, Origins