by Jürgen Zimmer
Worawit “Cob” Padwong, six-years-old
An aid organization brought him from another province. Both parents had died of AIDS when he was a baby. His overstrained, aggressive and eighty-year-old grandmother kept him in an old TV packaging box. In this box he was living just like a captured monkey, was mistreated, developed symptoms of hospitalism, stopped being curious and was not able to remember things since there was nothing to explore and remember.
When he first arrived at the farm it appeared to him like a huge playground. Cob romped around and was hiding behind trees and bushes, peaked through and observed the new area. Gradually he gained confidence and chose Joy as his new mother and allowed her to carry him around. Leon, coeval with Cob and Joy’s daughter, had to learn to share her mother with the other kids and stop reacting jealously. She needed to see the other children as siblings and appreciate their company.
In the beginning Cob did not use the toilet facilities; instead every spot was good enough for him to do his business. Slowly we tried to accustom him to use the facilities and during the day he complied but not at night. There was an awkward smell in the dormitories Cob shared with the other children. Soon the reason for the rank odor was unveiled. Cob wrapped his feces into used clothes and stowed them in a hidden corner.
Attempts to send him to the kindergarten in Pongkum failed. As soon as he arrived he ran off into the wide world. After this happened a dozen of times the manager of the kindergarten proclaimed that the venue was not suitable to cover Cob’s special needs.
During the daytime Cob stayed at the farm. He watched the adults and older children riding a bicycle and whenever the opportunity lend itself he grabbed the bike and just pushed and pulled it up and down the hill. He ran down the slope with with the bike by his side and operated the pedals by hand, studied the breaks, the chain, the steering-wheel, the wheels, the laws of gravity and the inertia of the mass.
One day there was a small bicycle standing next to the big one. It was brand new with stabilizer wheels mounted at the rear. It was just right for a little child without any bike riding experience. Cob pushed the bike up the hill and asked an adult to remove the stabilizers. He examined the route and his small bicycle, he clambered on it and off he went down the hill without any help – proud as punch and as happy as a little pig in mud. He did not fall off and arrived unharmed at the bottom of the hill.
From now on Cob was riding the bicycle every day. He dashed into bushes and flower beds, fell and sustained several scratches and bruises but he never gave up and went on persistently. When it rained he stowed the bicycles in his room and slept close to them. Shine or hail, sunshine or rain, he was a happy little person, perhaps even in his dreams. Cob had found the entry point to a fulfilling and satisfying life.
The Poor Harry Potter
Parkpoom “Artchi” Thammegae, eight-years-old
His eyes blink behind big and round glasses. He has clamped them securely to his head and without them he is as blind as a bat. Whenever he laughs – gladly and whimsically – he turns into Harry Potter only he is not able to conjure.
The blind mother was guided by a neighbor and brought Artchi to the farm. She has kidney failure but dialysis treatment is too expensive. Now that Artchi is save and has a good outlook in life she can calmly die and hope for a better life afterwards.
For a while Artchi became part of the small community of the School for Life. We tried to raise money for his mother’s therapy but she died too soon. Artchi was examined by the personal physician of Her Royal Majesty the Queen of Thailand, a health assessment organized with the help of the German embassy in Bangkok. The results indicated that Archi’s increasing blindness was irreversible and the time left for medical intervention was very limited.
Artchi assisted his mother during the last days of her life. When she passed away and just about at the same time for Archi’s next medical assessment with the doctors of the Chiang Mai University his sister turned up who just had reached the legal age to assume custody. She moved with Archi to Chiang Mai and prevented him from receiving further help. Abandoned by her mother she decided to manage everything on her own without the help of doctors or the School for Life.
The Broom Seller
Tanakorn “Mod” Kaipanya, nine-years-old
At the age of nine Mod’s father died of Aids and his mother declined that she too might be infected with Aids. Nobody knows where she currently lives but probably she’s awaiting her last breath.
Abandoned by his parents his grandmother took care of Mod. Regularly he collected branches for his grandmother in the forests. Working as partners they tied together the branches and brushwood creating short-shaft brooms and earning 20 Bath a day (AUD 0.66).
One day grandmother was feeling as if she was going to die soon and approached the School for Life asking to take in Mod to assure him a good future.
Mod loves to draw and always thought he needs to be tough and strict to be able to cope with life. For that reason he initially wanted to join the army and become a soldier; however, since he lives at the farm his attitude towards himself and others seems to soften and he turns out to be more balanced. He now romps around like any little child and is gaining trust into his new life. Whenever he wishes to see his grandmother he visits her…
The Sixth Sense
Nattachai “Boy” Taisamoot, six-years-old
In the summer of 2003 Nattachai’s mother was in the last stadium of Aids and sent home from hospital. The father is mentally insane and not able to take care of Nattachai. As the last way out to save his existence his mother sent him to the School for Life.
According to Nattachai his mother sends him her sixth sense during the night. That is why he often wakes up crying, packs his meager belongings, waits until dawn and wants to walk to the village where his mother is living. We accompany him. His mother is breathing her last breath and she tries to explain to Nattachai that everything is going to be alright, he will have a good life at the farm. Nattachai responds that he doesn’t need the school as he still has 21 Baht and his mother another 60, they can easily live on that money.
He cries a lot and is very sad. The people on the farm hug him – often for hours.
In the spring of 2004 Nattachai and the other children visit his mother in the hospital for the last time. She is lying together with several other gravely ill patients in a big hall where every patient is just skin and bones, the skin is blackish and their eyes gaze. Nattachai goes to his mother’s bed, sits down, they do not speak, they do not touch each other, his glance goes to the ceiling. He just sits on the corner of her bed, motionless and waiting.
The other kids who accompanied him retreated a bit to permit Nattachai and his mum to have their last encounter in privacy but soon Nattachai follows them. The mother rises tediously and tries to hold on to a support frame but she is barely able to walk. Nattachai is waiting outside and then begins to play with the other children. Arriving at the door his mother turns to the right and leaves for the bathroom – she is gone. That was the last time Nattachai ever saw her.
Summer of 2004: Nattachai lives just like everyone else and does not cry anymore.
Preeyaporn “Nai” Tangswatdiwong (ten-years-old)
Nutpong “Long” Tangswatdiwong, (twelve-years-old)
Ratikan “Ching” Tangswatdiwong, (eighteen-years-old)
Approximately four years ago Nai, her brother Long and her sister Ching woke up and noticed that their parents had disappeared. Rumors say they left because of their desperate situation to find work in Taiwan. Others say they got murdered. One fact certainly is true though: They never came back.
An uncle took the kids in but tensions between him and his wife grew stronger. He already had to feed three children and soon it was clear there was not going to be enough around to feed a family of eight. Consequently Nai, Ching and Long woke up one fine day and again had been left alone. The uncle, his wife and their three children absconded.
Now Nai, Ching and Long had to take care of themselves. They lived in a small hut in the jungle and survived on leaves, insects and berries. They have inquisitive and strong minds and are not afraid of anything.
The village people eventually found them and mentioned to them the School for Life. Ching decided to bring her brother and sister to that place. Ching herself left but once in a while she appeared out of the jungle and visited her siblings. We asked her if she was not afraid to live alone in the jungle but she answered with a strong voice: “No, nothing can scare her.”
For quite some time Ching lived in the jungle all by herself. She borrowed a friend’s motorcycle to drive to secondary school in Doi Saket. When school finished she drove forty kilometers to Chiang Mai to work from six o’clock in the evening until two o’clock in the morning. After a very exhausting day she returned to the jungle. She repeated this process day in and day out until she arrived totally exhausted and tired at the School for Life and asked to be accepted as a boarder.
For one year she lived on the farm, drove to school early in the morning, returned in the afternoon and very lovingly and friendly took care of the other children. One certain day she learned that her parents neither were in Taiwan nor had they been killed but instead received a lifelong jail sentence for distributing drugs. Even their uncle had to leave because he as well had been wanted by the police.
Ching does not want to meet her father any more but liked to see her mother who is still doing her time in prison in Bangkok. And visiting her mum Ching did. She visited her accompanied by a tutor from the farm and the first time she saw her mother again after all those years, standing behind a glass pane and allowed to talk to her for fifteen minutes. Many tears were flowing and Ching’s mother asked for forgiveness.
Ching learned that their uncle actually was her parents’ boss, main dealer and pimp. The hut in the jungle was a hideout and the uncle is now living a wealthy live. He survived the government’s war on drugs and drug trafficking and hides his dirty secrets by pretending to be a ‘Guide’.
Today Ching is eighteen, has finished school and is deeply in love. Nobody was able to hold her back and as a result she is now living with her boyfriend in Chiang Mai. She found work in the city and occasionally visits her siblings and helps out at the farm. The farm became her home and she knows that the doors will always be open for her.
Nai (translated: “where are you?“) took over the big sister’s role. She plays classic Thai-guitar and wants to become a medical doctor. Long (translated: “lost”) as well would like to become a doctor. He loves to swim and masters the most important tasks a house husband needs to know in the jungle: looking for ant nests and eggs in the trees and cleaning up the dishes.
To and Fro
Piyawalee “Kik” Thalomkham, six-years-old
Piyawadee “Kuk” Thalomkhan, six-years-old
The twins Kik and Kuk might be infected with Aids. The first medical results were positive and the second results turned out negative. A third HIV test still has to be conducted. Kik and Kuk are very fragile and prone for diseases, especially cough and fever.
With the age of one they lost their father, he died of Aids. The mother subsequently disappeared because of shame. The grandparents adopted the twins and stated in their school in front of everybody that even if they would know for certain that their grandchildren are infected with Aids they would not accept the fact. The children’s karma – Thai call it “gram”- is positive and as long they are well they are normal kids.
At the beginning the grandparents prevented another examination – the shock about the first results still was sitting deep. They wanted to have peace of mind and let things move on as normal and naturally as possible. But finally they agreed to go on with another test.
If the third test delivers a negative result it would be the biggest present a person could get. Kik and Kuk will keep on living with their grandparents and are convinced that on the day they should pass away the School for Life will take care of their beloved grandchildren. Sometimes Kik and Kuk visit the farm during the day, on the weekends or during holidays.
If the test results should turn out positive we have already another plan of attack. A pharmacist, Krisana Kraisintu, has found a medication to help Aids victims in their fight against the disease. She developed a pill that might be able to combat the Virus. For 320 Euro (AUD 410) a year HIV-infected people can keep on living, Aids patients are able to leave their deathbed and start a new life. This price to pay for a Thai Aids victim for one more year of living is twenty times cheaper compared to Europe.
Not living and not dying
Titinan “Ti” Dato, eleven-years-old
Ti looks like a seven year old, small and lanky. Never ever he wants to have to go back on the street. Once he lived there with his family: four siblings, a pregnant mother and a destitute father. Most of the time they did not have any food or it was not enough to fill all the hungry stomachs. The father was trying to find work but kept on searching in vain. If he had some work he only made two Euros (AUD 2.60) a day. Even in Thailand six people cannot life of that.
His mother brought him and his seven year old brother to the farm and asked to accept them since there was no chance to survive on the streets at all; the boys would starve to death. Ti’s worst experience from the streets is to be hungry every day, a never stopping pain. Now, for the first time in his life he has enough food to get full, has a warm bed and a room.
Ti likes to ad lib on drums and is attending the Lanna-Orchestra for children. He wants to become a doctor and likes playing soccer. He is growing very fast and might become very tall.
Jamy “Jimmy” Jator, nine-years-old
When Jimmy came to the farm in April 2004 he looked like a six-year old but was already nine. He had a swollen stomach and his head became increasingly red. The adults thought he had worms but they were not able to explain the red face. The first days Jimmy tried to stay isolated from others hiding in out of sight places on the farm, on the field or behind the bushes on the Pickup’s parking lot. One day a farmer discovered that one of the Pickup’s wheels was unusually clean and shiny. At the second look he saw Jimmy licking the crusted red soil of one of the other wheels.
The following days the adults observed Jimmy wandering around looking for chunks of soil to eat. Soon we realized the problem: that was Jimmy’s way of surviving and not starving to death.
We tried to make him eat rice, vegetables and fish but Jimmy hang on to the soil. Therefore we had to guard him every day and night for two weeks to make him stop eating soil and offer him the food of the other kids. After that we left him on his own and a few days later he said he would not eat soil anymore. Spontaneously all in the group clapped their hands in joy and Jimmy got a big present. Finally his face changed from red to the usual light brown color of everyone else. Sometimes he has relapses but this happens only on rare occasions.
Two final journeys
Noppharat “Bill” Yaitong, thirteen-years-old †
As the dumbfounded police officer saw the rickety Pickup with no driver behind the wheel rolling down the country road he got on his motorcycle and followed it until he caught up. To his big surprise he saw a little boy sitting behind the steering wheel. He stopped the youngster and asked him if he was a little bit crazy. The little boy pointed at the backseat where his father was breathing his last breath. The Aids infected father wished to die at home and therefore the boy wanted to take him from Pongkum to Lampun. The police officer let them through.
That is how it came that Bill, at that time ten years old, drove his father fifty kilometers to Lampun. They arrived in the afternoon but nobody was there and his father passed away the same night.
Somewhere, far away, the Aids infected mother is awaiting her death, too. Once she had been a waitress but the last time Bill saw her she was relegated to the kitchen to clean the dishes. Her disease did not allow her to go on with her life and job as normal. But that was long before Bill attended the School for Life.
One day – Bill had already integrated himself on the farm – his mother appeared, battered and marked from Aids. Neighbors bad mouthed her; she was ashamed and wanted to take care of her son. As a result he moved in with his mother. They both received ongoing support from the School for Life. Bill started to attend the secondary school in Doi Saket. The school borrowed him two pregnant cows and after they had calved he returned cows and raised the calves.
His mother finally died in July 2004. When the ceremony was over Bill visited the farm on a Sunday, greeted all the members of his new family and stated that he only needed to get some of his belongings before he could take his old place at the School again. On Tuesday, early in the morning, Bill raced at a fairly high speed along the country road on his motor-cycle and tried to take the turn leading to the farm. He lost control of his motor-bike and crashed right into a telephone pole. Nothing could be done to save his life – he died at the crash scene.
Deep down inside Bill must have known, the tutors of the farm say. He might have felt his karma and just returned one single time to say goodbye to his big family.
Bill wanted to become a nature scientist and was a very talented flautist. He used to play the traditional Thai flute and was able to ad lib for hours on it.
How did he learn to drive a car? He learned it with eight years observing his father.
Death By The River
Once upon a time there lived a poor woman. Her name was Hom and she had four sons. The first son died of AIDS. The second son died of AIDS. The third son died of AIDS as well as did the fourth.
Hom’s first son, named Daeng, had a wife and a son by the name of Boy. Daeng was mentally insane, frequently disappeared into the forest and until his death was incapable of looking after his son. When Boy’s mum Nuan was diagnosed with AIDS in 2003 she sent him to the School for Life. In soft and gentle words she explained to him why he would have a good life at the School. However, Boy replied he did not need the School, he still had 21 Baht (AUD 0.70) in his pocket, his mum had 60 Baht (AUD 2.00) and they could well live off that money.
At night, Boy said, his mum was sending him her “sixth sense”. He then cried, packed his belongings, waited until dawn and was adamant that he was going to walk to the village where his mother lived. Boy was grieving. The children as well as the adults treated Boy lovingly and showed empathy. They hugged him when he was crying, often for hours at a time.
In the spring of 2004 Boy – then aged seven – and the other children visited his mother in the hospital for the last time. She was lying together with several other gravely ill patients in a big hall where every patient was just skin and bones. Boy’s mum’s skin had turned blackish and her eyes gazed into the void. She was far away and removed from this world. Boy sat on his mother’s bed side; they did not speak or touch each other. He only glanced at the wall. He just sat on the corner of her bed, motionless and waiting.
The other kids who accompanied him retreated through the door into the front yard to allow Boy and his mum some privacy, but soon Boy got up from his mother’s bed and followed them. His mother rose tediously from her bed trying to hold on to a support frame but she was barely able to walk. Boy waited outside and then began to play with the other children. Arriving at the door his mother turned to the right and left towards the bathroom – she was gone. That was the last time Boy ever saw her. His mother died a few days later.
In the following years Boy lived just like all the other children and didn’t cry anymore. Only from time to time he got a bit sad and it helped a lot when we talked and listened to him, assuring him this way that he had found a new home.
Boy still had his grandmother Hom, whom he visited when the occasion arose. She lived outside the close by village of Pongkum in the forest in a small hut lacking running water and a toilet. The hut was standing next to a creek. Grandmother lived on a monthly 500 Baht (Euro 8, AUD 15) government pension. On August 3rd, 2010, with a pannier on her back she foraged for food and wild growing vegetables in the forests again. It was the rainy season and the creek had swollen to a raging river. When Hom attempted to wade through the waters she was caught by the strong current and swept off her feet. The following day her body was found, entwined in the brushwood on the banks of the river. Hom had drowned.
The neighbors agreed to display the coffin in Hom’s hut. As the hut proved to be too small two walls had to be removed first. The rain was pouring down when – sheltered by tarpaulins – the villagers, Boy and the children and teachers of the School for Life assembled in the evening in front of Hom’s house to attend her cremation. Getting to the village with the pickup-truck required to navigate a muddy forest track marked by deep ruts, pot holes and steep inclines. Mastering the track was like sailing on a heavily rolling ship.
The hut had been built on stilts. Together with their teacher Kruu Nui the children had prepared large flower arrangements which were now decorating the coffin. A picture of the deceased had been placed in front of the coffin and was covered in flowers as well. A loudspeaker produced Thai pop music proving instantly that a Thai funeral does not necessarily represent a sad event. Just the opposite can be true, the gathering happens in an up-spirit and positive mood celebrating the memory of grandmother’s life and showing love and support for Boy. Boy seemed to very pleased with the surrounding atmosphere.
When four monks coming from four temples arrived and the music ceased the official funeral celebration began. The cited prayers and songs were supposed to smoothen Hom’s transition into the next life. The day before sixteen boys from the School for Life volunteered to become novices for the occasion for a day. Their heads were shaven and they were greeted by the monks that evening. Boy too was amongst them. Joined by two of his friends he wished to carry the monks’ cowl not only for the occasion of the cremation ceremony, but also for the following three days in a meditative retreat in the local temple.
On August 6th the coffin was transferred from Hom’s hut to the village cremation area, a small hill enclosed by trees. In the center a cremation tower was rising into the air, a roof construction supported by high columns, with an opening in the gable allowing the smoke to escape. The base was a platform which could be reached by climbing a few steps. In the center of the base was a pit which was half filled with big wood logs.
The area is flanked by two open walled long halls where the villagers and students and teachers from the School for Life assembled. The monks were present as well, singing and praying. The mayor of Pongkum, a former monk himself, split a coconut in two halves above the coffin – a symbol telling the dead and the living to let go of each other.
In front of the coffin an easel was holding the flower covered picture of Boy’s grandmother and according to tradition children and adults alike positioned themselves either side of the display to get photo shots taken.
Now the coffin was carried to the base of the crematorium and lowered into the pit with the upper rim still just visible. The cover was removed and put aside. The dead body was wrapped in cloth. Again the picture was placed in front of the coffin and a guard of honor accepted paper flowers from a long queue of guests. At a small distance from the crematorium a pile of rubbish had been placed – this was the estate of the deceased person.
The village mayor, Khun Somjit, took over the reins. From a plastic bag he produced plenty of incense sticks and spread them all across the body. Then he emptied several bottles of methylated spirits over the deceased person. In the meanwhile two other men had foraged through the rubbish representing grandmother’s estate and had taken a box made from Styrofoam, some plastic buckets and plastic baskets. Those items were broken to pieces and scattered across the open coffin. As the last part of the ritual the mayor placed a strong, woven ribbon across the coffin which was handed to him by the monks. The air was calm, no breeze around, and the concerns about the mix of incense, methylated spirits, Styrofoam, plastic and a dead body creating an unhealthy concoction for the guests’ breathing apparatus proved to be unfounded.
When the mayor, an old friend of the School for Life, finally lit the fire and the flames went high, about a dozen or more girls clambered onto the first pickup truck and the fifteen novices on the other one. While the girls got a ride back to the School for Life the novices went to the temple and were looked after by the monks.
On August 9th, during the general morning assembly, the Thai national anthem was sung, the flag was hoisted and the somewhat too much paramilitary flavored event loosened up through songs and a meditative dance. Twelve shaven heads were amongst the crowd, three more – Boy and his two friends – were still at the temple.
Perhaps we will write a letter with the following contents to the mayor of Pongkum:
“Dear Mayor Somjit
Since the inception of the School for Life you are our friend, and we are delighted about you having been re-elected for so many times. We also admire the competent and friendly manner in which you conducted the cremation of Boy’s grandmother. The only suggestion we have is perhaps to re-think the burning of Styrofoam and plastic together with incense at the same time, a combination of materials which creates toxic fumes and does not really mix and match. Now during the rainy season the air is still clean, but during the dry season, when farmers practice slash-and-burn, visibility in the region of Chiang Mai is as bad as in Moscow during the Russian forest fires.
At the School for Life we practice the recycling of waste materials and if you remember 2003 and 2004, volunteers from the School for Life started a small recycling plant in your village proving to you that through the separation, sale and re-use of waste materials not only an ecological, but also an economic impact can be made.”.
Perhaps we will not write this letter but instead visit the mayor, praise him and invite him to join us in a project named “The garbage of Pongkum and how to make money on it.”
There is a short after story to be told. Last year, at the beginning of the rainy season we walked with all children and a large candle as a present in a procession to the temple near the village. The temple abbot, who had also been involved in organizing Boy’s grandmother’s funeral, welcomed us warmly. The reason for the visit was a festivity held at the temple at the beginning of a three month retreat during which the monks will not leave the temple area (Rain Retreat).
Once all 120 children had settled on the temple floor the abbot asked who amongst them was Buddhist. Only a few replied. When after that surprise he asked who was Christian about 100 raised their hands – approximately 90 percent of our children originate from ethnical minorities, which had been evangelized a long time ago. The abbot said that’s all right and started his sermon explaining the reason and purpose of the festivities.
Later this year, after sixteen boys triggered by the event grandmother Hom’s death spontaneously volunteered as novices, we discovered that about a dozen of them were actually Christians.
Many religious flavors mix at the farm; it is like an ecumenical melting pot, the fusion of what has been separated before. And such it happens that one spirit house shelters ancestors and good spirits, and another one – asked for by the abbot and soon to be built – will provide a resting place and a home for the restless and mischievous souls. The melting pot ensures that God, and Buddha and Allah and the ancestors of the Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Karen, Tai Yai and Hmong as well as the souls of dead mothers and fathers are still alive and present in the children’s minds. The American missionary preacher on channel 63 of SAT TV would have a very hard time at our place
From Bad Boy to Polo Champ
About seven years ago two advertisements were placed in the German journal “Kursbuch” (Timetable). One ad showed a comic figure dressed in a space suite and in a distance between small craters the space shuttle was visible. The text read: “In 2026 Tula Bpor-Wai is installing the first solar panels on the moon. Tula Bpor-Wai is one of the 60 Thai children of the School for Life…”. The second ad featured a comic figure holding a syringe. The text said: “In 2028 Darin Sri-ma develops the first cure for Morbus Parkinson. Darin Sri-ma is one of the children of the School for Life…”. Both texts end with an encouragement to support the project.
Even if Tula is not installing solar panels on the moon and Darin does not develop a cure for Parkinson’s disease both advertisements in their core express the purpose of the School for Life: Leading children out of the dark shadows of society and take them as far and ahead as possible – “the best for the poorest”.
Ott, aged 18, a ‘bad boy’, survived by stealing and dealing in drugs, but then attended vocational training to become a horse groomer, a development course offered by the veterinary faculty of Chiang Mai university in cooperation with the School for Life. He learned horse riding so well, that his employer, the high-class Thai Polo & Equestrian club of Pattaya decided to send Ott to Argentina for several months to develop his skills as a professional polo player. For the future the club envisages Ott joining the Thailand national polo team.
Ott’s friend Put, who at the age of 19 is already managing the horse grooming project in Chiang Mai will receive a scholarship to go to Germany for six months. He is planning to specialise as a farrier for show and racing horses.
Dominique Leutwiler, herself a passionate rider and General Manager of the School for Life, has developed the project. She still acts as a mentor and supporter. The demand for farriers is much higher than the number of boys and girls currently undergoing training. Program graduates earn as much income as a teacher after being only a few weeks in the job. The School for Life is the only institution in Thailand offering this particular career path.
In 1983 the number of Karen, the largest ethnical group living in Thailand, was estimated at 246,000. For centuries the Karen lived in Burma and started to set up villages in Thailand in the second half of the eighteenth century in remote areas close to the Thai-Burmese border. Their main problems are the same as for other ethnical minorities: Denial of citizenship, lack of access to higher education, lack off access to fertile land, cultural erosion and increasing poverty.
The village of the Karen is in such a hidden location that I permanently have to present the note written in Thai containing the name and approximate location of the village to shop owners, motorbike riders, farm workers, children and adults. A dozen of times I receive either correct, vague or wrong directions.
The village, let’s call it Baan Wiang, has 417 residents, most of whom are related to each other in one way or another. Many houses are made out of timber and built on stilts. Black skinned pigs and water buffalos wallow in mud, rice paddies stretch up to the far lying mountain ranges.
Yesterday two fifteen year olds let us name them Lek and Boy, have married. Lek is in her fifth month of pregnancy. Until recently she attended school but will have a one year break now to give birth to the baby. Lek’s mother is just thirty two years old; she married at the age of fifteen and gave birth to Lek, her first child, when she was seventeen. Boy attended school too, but he is delighted be able as a beckoning father to escape the academic pressure and join his father in law in building houses.
Tonight is party time, food gets cut, sizzled, prepared, and what I am seeing as clear water in a plastic bottle turns out to be spirits distilled from rice. The neighbours are warning me to stay away from whisky which is produced in some shabby shack. A man died a while ago drinking the stuff as the moonshine had been mixed with methanol.
The mayor and his wife, many adults, children and youngsters join the party. The noise of passing motor bikes, Thai pop and the growls of a fighting dog pack fills the air. I estimate the mayor’s age at 45, the age of his pretty wife five years less. I ask the woman at what age they married. „At the age of 15“ she answers and adds the prettier a girl is the earlier she will be snapped up. And her husband confirms that if you want to marry a pretty girl you have to be quick off the mark to beat the competition.
Boy has an uncle, a teacher visiting for the occasion. I like to know if there had been some sort of ceremony yesterday. The answer is „no“, a special ceremony did not take place. The Karen in this village prefer „free style“, everyone parties as he or she feels. I ask Lek’s mum if she had informed her daughter about the options to avoid early pregnancies. No, she didn’t she was working far away in Bangkok. Boy’s mother didn’t talk to Boy either. Lek only realised after four months that she was pregnant. She is joyful, self-confident and definitely not on the shy side. Below the house of Boy’s family a room was added between the stilts where the pair will live with their kids.
This evening the crowd is in party mood and at some point in time Iloveyou is dropping in. He is a farmer and as all the others is happily married. Most likely at fifteen as well. His English skills include six words: “I love you” and “one, two, three”. When he is passing by in the distance while I am sitting on the deck of my host’s home brooding over a report for a diploma of a far-away student in far-away Berlin, Iloveyou either shouts “one, two, three” or “I love you”, thus confirming the underlying root cause for his nickname.
There is lots of laughter this evening amongst the Karen. When I correctly recall the stilted wordings in the standard Hill tribes of Thailand tour guide it says that Karen do not divorce, not because they are ot allowed to but because they don’t want to. At closer examination singles only exist in the village if a partner passed away. According to western assumptions an early marriage has to be much less stable than a late marriage, but it is, at least for the Karen I know.
Another book about hill tribes highlights the matriarch structure of Karen society. I take two villages for comparison: the first one where electricity has not delivered TV to the local huts, and Baan Wiang, where Lek and Boy just got married. Baan Wiang is a village of interwoven time lines: tractors next to sickles; high school students who only come home for the weekend and do not speak Karen any more next to rice farmers using water buffalos to plow the field.
In the first village the women slog away on the fields while the men assume the role of babysitters being contempt with the notion of female dominance not at least through the fact of a much reduced workload for themselves. At Baan Wiang men and women share the workload on the farm and the dominance seems to have changed to create a balance of powers. However, generalisation can lead to incorrect conclusions. Intwined time lines and heterogeneity exist in both locations.
Inside the pretentiously designed opium museum near the Golden Triangle at the shores of the Mekong river a large wall covering map of Thailand shows many colour dots. Yellow dots represent Karen settlements. My villages are located in an area covered with red dots. As the map explains red dots are where the Mien live. However, I do not meet any Mien, but Karen and Lisu.
In the Lisu village „entwined timelines“ exist as well. Poorly looking huts, surrounded by plastic garbage, are the majority of buildings. One house has just been built, the concrete has been painted yellow, and the roof tiles are a shining blue. The roof above the deck is supported by blue baroque style ceramic columns. An older woman sits at the door sill tying colourful threads into thicker strings. A three year old in a camouflage dress plays with a plastic war tank. No, her husband is not with her any more, and the little fellow is her daughter’s son. And her daughter? She is in Chiang Mai and sends money; those funds have paid for the new house. What her daughter’s profession is? That she doesn’t know, the old lady says.
“Economics of love”: Ten years ago when I conducted research in cooperation with a film team to uncover the chain of infection for HIV in northern Thai villages we met girls who returned home from the Bangkok nightlife for one purpose – to die at home. They lived withdrawn from public, often meditating, with their families and were sidelined by the local community. Only after their death in the days before their incineration people got together again as if nothing had happened.
The young school- and family teachers, the School for Life mentors living in family groups together with their students, face a problem. The „little global village“ is growing up. Kids turn to juveniles. And because approximately 90% of the children belong to ethnical minorities, the Lisu, Lahu, Hmong, Akha, Thaiyai or Karen, the mostly Thai teachers are a minority by numbers, in fact however they represent the Thai population’s majority. And that majority, at least officially, thinks differently. A love affair? Only post studies. Who is caught earlier gets
relegated. A pregnant student is sent home until she has given birth and somebody else can take care of the newborn. Images as the ones I have seen during lectures in the seventies and eighties, a breast feeding mother or a knitting father, are unthinkable in Thailand‘s educational institutions.
But now we have them, the first couples, shy first, but also behaving natural. The ways of dealing with first love is different between teachers and juveniles are worlds apart. A mediation process is needed, rules can be negotiated.
A dozen of girls and boys have gathered in the School for Life’s farmhouse. I have invited them to have a talk about „first love“. Ratcha, a German-Thai is attending as well. Ratcha is living with and balancing two mentalities. In Germany she studies social sciences; in Thailand she is doing her practical at the School for Life. Ratcha is taking care of cultural translations and gentle shock therapy. When teachers ask what a German mother would do if her fifteen year old daughter would tell her she got a boyfriend, Ratcha answers that mum would take her daughter to a gynaecologist to get a prescription for the pill. The teachers react with disbelief and bewilderment.
The twelve girls and boys are Akha, Lahu and Hmong. There is no Thai attending. Between themselves the ethnical background is of irrelevance, therefore a Lahu-Akha or Hmong-Lahu couple is not an issue. One girl is fourteen; the others are fifteen years old. The majority of boys is sixteen or seventeen. To be a young couple does not necessarily mean sex is on the agenda, it means to have a boy- or girlfriend. Inside the farmhouse the couples don’t sit together. The girls are seeking partial cover behind the rattan furniture, while in some safe distance – extremely cool headed and avoiding eye contact with the girls – the boys hunker down.
Talking about love? Extremely difficult in front of such an audience. I remember my times as a secondary high school student – transferred from the public school in Lindau to Salem School for disciplinary reasons – when I attended a school assembly. The puritan school headmaster of the Salem boarding school asked who had hugged or kissed the opposite sex before. My misfortune was that the girl from a lower grade I used to date stepped forward, and I didn’t. When I recall history correctly this behaviour earned me a fifty kilometre disciplinary walk.
So, talking love? Writing is easier. We encourage the twelve juveniles to dot down their thoughts, emotions and feelings without writing down their names.
A girl writes „I feel like I am happy to have a boyfriend because this is such a nice experience.“
Another note says short and sharp: „Love cannot be disallowed. I feel wonderful. “
Another contribution, supposingly from a girl, says: „Our relationship is not as the teachers think it is. It is not true that our relationship is marriage like and not based on partnership. We talk while sitting around the family table and not in dark places. Some teachers still don’t like it. Love is wonderful.“
A note says: „Being together means being there for each other. If we face problems we try to resolve them together. I feel much better now.“
The twelve juveniles are asked to note a number on a different piece of paper. The question is in their opinion from what age they should be allowed to have sex. The majority votes for eighteen years. The result is a surprise because according to their village traditions they could have nominated a younger age.
We talk about avoiding HIV and about unplanned pregnancy, and when I ask the boys about their understanding of a woman’s monthly cycle the answer is zilch, null, nothing, that’s none of their business. The same question tabled for the girls renders the same result. Ovulation, conception? Never heard of it. Now we have a topic for the next mediation meeting with the teachers.
We agree on how to proceed. The twelve juveniles will formulate their own rules; the teachers will do the same in the next round of talks. In the third meeting both groups can then get together to agree on a consent.
The teachers straight away present a notion when they meet without the twelve juveniles at the farmhouse. Firstly, no sex and no exchange of affectionate behaviour as long as the students attend the School for Life. Consequences in case of non-compliance: first offence carries a warning; second offence relatives get called in, third offence suspension from school for one month, fourth offence disciplinary transfer to another school.
The teachers follow the strict line of supervision – suppress and sanction. However, which relatives should be called in if for instance there are no relatives or if the family previously had contributed to the traumatising of the children? Where are suspended students supposed to go – life on the streets, child labour or rubbish tip? And which other school could accommodate the young wild youngsters, who despise boring lecturing and have a special knowledge of „survival and life skills“? Just applying the official school code of conduct would not hit the target.
The teachers too write down numbers on pieces of paper and answer the question about the age juvenile sexual consent. The majority votes for an age of 21, some even go higher and favour 26. In Thailand this is the tradition. One has to wait. Love affairs during school or university? Never ever.
However, we are not living in some sort of Emirate, but we live in Thailand. And results from a paper comparing the sexual behaviour of Thai and Californian juveniles paint a different picture. According to the researchers the average age of first sexual contact lies in Thailand at 16, in California at 17 years. Looking at the variance it can be assumed that juveniles of ethnical minorities have their first experiences at an earlier age than juveniles coming from a pampered middle class environment.
When a while ago a consultant from the Ministry of Education conducted a seminar for sex education at the School for Life he signalled a change of attitude and direction can be felt at the Ministry. Not the prevention of sexual relationships can be a realistic aim, but the prevention of HIV and teenage pregnancies. I wasn’t present at the campus during his seminar, but I would have loved to ask him the question why after his workshop the girls and boys still did not know anything about the female monthly cycle.
Even if the Ministry in distant Bangkok would think in such an open minded fashion this would not automatically included a change of thinking at the local provincial school administration level. Any school tolerating sex amongst 16 to 18-year olds would face closure. That’s the end of the line, and as a result no mediation process could come to the conclusion to sanction relationships starting at the age of first sexual experiences. Actually the discussion is not about condoning free sex, but tolerating first love.
For our students – whose childhood often was tarnished and overshadowed by extreme cases of distorted relationships, personal loss and abuse – the creation of reliable and strong relationships and friendships within the new campus family groups, the peer groups is of extreme importance. However, the discussion with the teachers in that regard always hits the concrete wall called “Code of Conduct”.
As a result we live within and alongside cultural and normative discrepancies, fixated by the uncomplicated practices of ethnical groups, the reality-removed imaginations of a provincial school board, the insecurity of local teachers or the actual behaviour of Thai youngsters.
The twelve youngsters, the school teachers and the family teachers as well as the new Head of School meet for a round table talk. Agreement is achieved on the following lines: From the age of 16 it is permitted to have a boy- or girlfriend. At 8pm everyone has to be back home. Room visits to/from boy- or girlfriends younger than 18 are not permitted. A violation of the new rules will not automatically draw penalties but will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Another workshop will be organised to discuss and touch on topics which were not covered by the visiting external specialist for sex education. This time the workshop will be organised by the School for Life.
Is this the end of the story? I don’t think so. Because if two seven year olds come along and think they are also friends referring them to the new age limits of 16 years is not the solution. I also recall the behaviour of the Salem secondary school students who to meet their mates at night time abseiled from the windows of the old abbey turned school risking crashes and hard landings. And I also remember the twelve year old who several years ago was stopped at night time on the School for Life campus en route to the girls‘ quarters. Asked the question what his intentions were he replied he was about to try out what he had learned from his teacher during a sex education lesson the day before.
I am rather expecting a continuous and ongoing story to unfold, a story we grown-ups hopefully will be able to influence, shape and form with dignity and wisdom based on the knowledge and memory of our first love.
The transporter with barred windows slowly backs towards the prison gate. A hatch opens. A female prisoner in a blue gown and supported by another prisoner tries in slow motion to reach the vehicle. Her legs and arms are emaciated and show the contours of her bones. She can‘t make it. She sits on the lower step and gets pulled up by the other prisoner. Two female wards in fancy uniforms look on. This will be the last trip for the AIDS infected woman. She is not supposed to die where all other prisoners live.
The women’s prison of Chiang Mai houses 1,400 prisoners and 140 women have to share a single room. Privacy is impossible. The lucky ones can afford a mattress. All the others have to sleep on the naked floor. It was hell a Canadian ex-prisoner reported. She had shot her husband on the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar and was released after only three years of incarceration.
The prison located in the historical quarter of Chiang Mai looks like a colonial fort. The exterior walls are coated in white and bear images of hand painted flowers at the front wall. In front of the prison market stalls offer fruit, junk food, clothes and sweets. The market is a business run by the prison authorities. Goods purchased from the stalls can be delivered to the inmates by the prison administration.
We are accompanied by Namsom, a nine year old girl from the School-for-Life, whose mother was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being caught dealing with two thousand Yabba tablets. Yabba translates as „the medicine making you crazy“. When you take it you stay awake for an extended period of time. So far Namsom’s mum has done three out of the 25 years.
Namsom’s mother Na-ü is from Burma. She fled the country as a nine year old and fell pregnant the first time at the age of fifteen. At nineteen she gave birth to yet another man’s child and named the baby girl Namsom. When Namsom turned three she was abandoned and left at the gates of the School for Life. A birth certificate was left with her declaring her as „stateless“, with the hospital where she was born listed as her home address. Namsom’s mum had been hiding that day behind bushes and waited until two School for Life farm workers found Namsom and took her in.
Three years later, when Namsom had turned six, Na-ü visited her at the School-for-Life. Namsom developed in her own ways: Until lately she could not be moved to learn reading or writing. Namsom is now at the age of nine but is still only visiting grade two at school. However, in the development of life skills she is top-notch. And she can be a pain in the backside with all the questions she is asking. This is her way of exploring the world and teaching herself the skills she wants to acquire. Basically and unknowingly she is a practicing disciple of the de-schooling debate. The concept was published in the early seventies by the Mexican priest Ivan Illich in his book „Deschooling Society“, a radical critical discourse on education as practiced in “modern” economies. Giving examples of what he regards as the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education, Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements.
Namsom decided on her learning topics by herself. If she wasn‘t in the mood or convinced, any attempt to get her to contribute to or participate with class activities was futile. However, now there is a change happening. Namsom wants to learn how to read and write. Her mother has sent her a letter from prison and asked Namsom to write a letter in return. Na-ü has dictated her letter to a friend and – as can be assumed – had to provide a service in return for the favor according to the prisoners’ code. Na-ü is illiterate and Namsom decided that in the future she does not want to have to dictate her letters to somebody else.
At 8:40 am we are allowed to enter the prison together with twenty other visitors. Personal items have to be placed in security lockers, ID’s have to be handed over to the authorities and forms have to be filled in. The total visiting time is limited to fifteen minutes. A group of people who had entered before us is returning. We have to stay in a waiting room. A TV is running. Finally our number is called up and we are permitted into the visitor’s room. The room is separated by a semi-height wall topped with glass panels. On both sides phones can be used to enable communication. Namsom take a handset and waits. She is standing directly in front of the glass panel; another row of visitors behind us has to communicate across a wider distance. Noisy chit-chat and talking now fills the room.
Namsom’s mum appears, she is beaming and talks to Namsom who is just tall enough to reach with her head above the brick part of the separating wall and see through the glass. Namsom asks her mum if she is getting out next year. Na-ü says no. We ask her about her lawyer as we feel twenty-five years of imprisonment are too harsh a sentence according to European standards. But Na-ü doesn’t know her lawyer’s name or phone number. Most likely he was just a court-appointed lawyer who disappeared after the judge’s verdict was announced. Replying to the question if she has a need for certain items Na-ü answers she does not possess any underwear and no pyjamas. We tell her we can take care of that.
A shrill ringing bell announces the end of visitor time. Namsom’s mum is still beaming. Namsom is the only person visiting Na-ü. Namsom knows what a prison is and she is aware of the fact that her mother has done something illegal. However, she tells us later, she is happy about her mum, at least she has one. Many of the other kids don’t.
Because of that reason mother’s day, which is celebrated in Thailand on the Queen’s birthday, can turn at the School-for-Life into a day of remembrance, sadness, melancholy and sometimes tears. “This is our home. This is our family. This is School for Life”. These are the last lines of the school song.
We leave the visitors area and say good-bye to Na-ü. Outside we buy three pounds of fruit, three knickers and a pyjama. More items are not permitted. Everything is registered, packed and a label with the recipient’s details attached. We also hand over 1,000 Baht (approximately 30 dollars) to make sure the prisoner can obtain some most needed items on the inside. Na-ü’s health is not the best, her blood pressure is too low, and she quite often gets dizzy.
The strange thing is –or perhaps not – that the limits for handing over cash are much higher than for instance the limits for buying fruit. Prisoners are allowed to receive up to 100,000 Baht (approximately AUD 3,300). It is easy to imagine and has been confirmed by ex-inmates what happens to the funds. The prison turns into an enterprise with a number of beneficiaries, money queens who keep a „royal household“, and wardens who can fulfil their dreams by creaming off some of the funds.
If we would have a magical wand enabling us to break down thick walls we would say „Khun Na-ü, pack your bags and come to live at the farm with your daughter Namsom. Three years in prison and living in pre-hell to pay for having lost your bearings after your escape from Burma is enough punishment. You have learned your lesson. Now it is time to be a mother, to learn how to read and write and develop some bearings for the future.“
On the days following the visit Namsom is much more bubbly than usual. She romps around, plays dress-up and wants us to take photos. Together with Namsom we will visit Na-ü regularly, and we will try to source a proper legal representation for her. Perhaps the twenty five years will turn into ten, but even that would be too long.
Taken from: Betrifft Kinder, 2010(Re: Kids, 2010)