Wednesday, 28 April 2010
Snakes, sex education camp and sport....
The scene: the verandah, outside the girls’ dorm, after rain. Shoes are scattered all over the ground in haphazard lines. Enter Emily.
As I walked towards the door, there was a snake, squirming all over the doorway, trying to get IN TO MY BEDROOM. I jumped up on the seat. I yelled and yelled and yelled. My fear of snakes knows no bounds. Given, it was about 2 feet long and only about 2cm thick, but it was a snake. And it was brown. It squirmed all over our shoes and tried to hide in my sandals and then my friend Luke came running and scared it off with a broom. Since then, we have had a snake get into one of the girl’s bedrooms, hiss and raise its head at someone. We have also had a bug infestation. At night at the beginning of last week, some of us were scared to get up in the middle of the night, for fear that snakes had somehow got into our room... Even now, I look carefully where I step and my eyes sweep a room when I go in. I hate snakes.
Apart from this lovely occasion, I had a great week this week! Another challenging week, as the only farang in a foreign context. However, I think I managed better this time. This week, I was on Sex Education Camp. About 30 kids from a range of different hilltribe villages ranging in age from about 13 – 15 yrs, plus Thai interns, the Anti-Trafficking Project staff and me, travelled to a national park near Mae Sai (border town with Burma) to run a sexual health education camp. The rationale is that there is no standard syllabus for sex ed in schools – and it is up to the discretion of the teacher as to what is taught. Usually kids will learn about menstruation and some basic anatomy, but any further than that – e.g. STDs, condom usage, HIV/AIDS, sexual health.... is generally not taught. I finished a funding proposal regarding sexual health education for the European Commission the week before, so was feeling theoretically prepared for why camp was important. What followed was a range of workshops, covering in specific detail all the kinds of information that we take for granted in PDHPE classes in school in Australia. The kids were wide eyed, paying attention. Workshops were run about anatomy, puberty, diseases, STDs, condoms, contraceptives, and safe and unsafe employment as some forms of employment carry risk of sexual abuse or exploitation.
One workshop was a condom use workshop, and all the kids had to practice opening condom packets (some we surveyed beforehand thought it was ok to open the packets with scissors), and put the condoms on the right way onto specially carved wooden penises and a plastic penis imported from somewhere! What was really excellent was to see the guys helping the girls to do it. And vice versa! One of the guys had to go up the front to demonstrate in front of all the youth, and he couldn’t do it. So a girl got up to help him. I have heard that in Thailand, condom usage doesn’t really get discussed between the sexes, so to see people actually helping one another and talking about condoms seemed to be to be breaking new ground.
All of the workshops were exclusively in Thai, and thus my understanding was extremely limited! While I was there, I watched what happened in the workshops, tried to understand and wrote notes of evaluation to produce an evaluation report, which would also be useful for funding purposes, given this was a pilot project.
One night, we had a drama night, where all the leaders and youth had to produce a drama about a certain topic. The leaders all got together and we performed a drama about a young girl who falls in love, has sex, she gets pregnant, they get married, then the guy leaves her for a farang (myself) and she has to go to work in Bangkok, probably in sex work. It sounds like it is totally unbelievable, but the sad reality is that it does happen here. When people are vulnerable financially especially, sex work presents as appealing, as income can be generated quickly, and a different kind of lifestyle is available rather than physical labour in agriculture. Some of the youth performed dramas about the vulnerability of working in go-go bars, which are similar to pole dancing clubs, with optional prostitution. I was amazed by their insight. In the unsafe/safe employment workshop, forms of employment were openly discussed among the youth that were vulnerable to sexual abuse – including massage parlours, any work at night, housekeeping, go go bars and karaoke. Safe employment discussed included doctor, teacher, nurse, offshore worker. To me, it seemed that there was such a gap – between sexual forms of work, and careers requiring high levels of university education – surely, there is more middle ground... and hopefully, most of these youth will walk that middle ground or higher....
On my return from sex camp, the following two days were a huge carnival here. We had two sports days, with the staff, interns and volunteers all pitted against each other in teams of blue, orange and green. Everyone had to try and find clothes of their team colour, and we painted ourselves with war paint, and wore pipe-cleaners and bandannas in our hair. I was in the blue team, and we were the ones that danced the ‘hippo dance’ the most, to the sound of drums in front of everyone, because we always lost! Games included: three team soccer with all teams against each other all at once with three goals; volleyball, a game like hackeysack but with a ball over a volleyball net; volleyball with water bombs; a game where u had to use every piece of clothing/shoes/string possible your team was wearing to make a line, and a series of relays that involved eating and jumping in the pond of slime and disease. The best game, however, which I played, was playing three-way water polo in the sludge pond, upto our thighs in disgusting water, upto our ankles in slimy mud.
Since returning from sex camp, I also began working on a number of reports: evaluation report of sex camp; overview report of the Anti-Trafficking Project; written summaries of projects and a report on the Mlabri community which will be submitted to a potential funder. The Mlabri report has involved breaking down some of the information from our surveying a few weeks ago, and breaking it into percentages and data, which my inner nerd loved. One interesting fact I found, was that 68% of the Mlabri community we visited was under 20 years old – which is incredible from a development perspective – as it presents a unique window of opportunity to influence the community through education. However, only 23% of eligible students attend high school. 81% of Mlabri families also owed debts to the neighbouring Hmong that need to be repaid.
Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Week 6 – Songkran
This part of the year is the hottest in Thailand.... and the past week has brought welcome relief. This week can be summed up with one word: Songkran.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the NGO was in shut down mode, and dedicated, purely and simply, to Songkran. Songkran is the Thai New Year festival, and has turned into a huge water fight that happens for days and takes over all other activities.
On Tuesday morning, we were told to arm ourselves with weapons, and we all clamoured into three separate utes to head into town (one without a roof, two with roofs). Packed into the back of the utes were about 9 or 11 people, a big plastic tub full to the brim of water, and our array of weapons – plastic buckets, plastic half buckets used to flush the toilets, and water pistols with special water tanks strapped onto backs. As we headed into town, people and children were clustered at points along the way in formidable armies with hoses, buckets and big tubs of water. Our driver would slow down and we were ruthlessly soaked about five minutes into our journey. We retaliated, scooping water out of the tub, yelling ‘LEFT!’ and ‘RIGHT!’ depending on where the next group of people were.
As we drove closer into town, the traffic crawled. There were so many cars, with heaps of people wearing Hawaiian shirts, which everyone dons for Songkran. I wore a pink one, as that was the kitchest I could think of. As we passed trucks, we would throw water all over people. Some sprayed us with powerful hoses. At ten metre intervals along the main street, group after group of people would throw water at you, and yell with delight especially if you reacted really well to the soaking.
As you went down the street, music would blare from little stages set up beside the road, and everyone would start dancing. The cars were so lined up that we would crawl up next to another car and dump water on peoples heads, and both trucks of people would be screaming with the water going back and forth. Beside the road, huge blocks of ice about 2 feet long were for sale, which you could put into your tubs so the water was extra cold. As we drove along, you could definitely tell who had invested in ice. It was sharp pain, slapping you across the back as we drove.
Eventually, we invested in ice of our own. Our truck broke down in the middle of the street, and we had to push it to the side, and while we were waiting for it to recover, went and bought a big block of ice. We ran out of water ‘may mii nam’ (don’t have water) and so we were going around petitioning other people for water. One girl told me, if you drink this whisky i will give you water’. I didn’t take her up on it....
Towards the end of the days of Songkran, the truck was filled about three inches deep with water in the back. As we drove home, the wind was so cold, and we would try and take refuge from people still on the prowl by appealing for mercy saying ‘may mii nam!! May mii! May mii!’ while chewing on lukewarm corn cobs.
Everything came to a total stop this week. In the middle of all this, I managed to submit a funding application which required signatures from people not at the NGO because of Songkran, which was a challenge....
This week, I go on sex education camp. The other day, I walked past my friend Bon, and said ‘khun tham aray?’ (what are you doing?) He looked incredibly sheepish. ‘khun tham aray?’ I said again. I walked over, and there he was with a machete, carving 5 wooden penises. I was like, um, what??? They are for our camp this week. Teenagers from junior high school are being taught about STDs and sexual health – something they don’t get taught in school. So tomorrow I head off to camp in the national park.... watch this space...
Tuesday, 13 April 2010
This week has been a much slower week – I have been working on a funding proposal to the European Commission for a sex education project. I have been working on this for a few weeks now.
As well, I have been teaching English to Koy (I was misspelling it Goi) and Manop...
But the main thing that has been happening here is a big slow down. The heat is quite bad. We turn on all the fans and try to avoid the sun. Today particularly is quite hot. Unlike Australia, where it will be hot for a few days and then pour and bucket down rain, here it is just consistently hot!
A lot of us have also been stopping work early in the afternoons to take part in early Songkran celebrations. Songkran is Thai New Year, and is famous for basically being a big water fight! It has evolved from its earlier traditions of washing an elder’s hands, into now targeting everyone with water. We have been dashing around the NGO screaming with buckets and bottles and getting people. I was drenched from head to toe twice in two days. On the weekend, we went into town, and as we passed through villages on the way in, the driver slowed, and the villagers poured buckets of water in the sides of the truck all over us. In Chiang Rai town, people are starting to set up little forts at the front of shops, with a hose, a big bucket, water pistols and extra water, and they squirt you as you go past, or if you drive past. I was with a friend making her way back home to Surathani and we kept crossing the street to avoid them! This coming week is Songkran, so my plans and operations will have to be raised. I have created alliances that have already been broken... so an alternative needs to be sought...
Also this week we had a party for the Thai interns. About 5 of them were leaving. They range in age – some of them are quite young (about 14) and stay for one month. The others are in first year/second year uni and stay for longer. My friend Ma was one of the interns that left this week. Again, it was heartbreaking. We had a huge party, with little bbqs made of terracotta pots, som tum (papaya salad), fruit, orange and green fanta and much more. We also had karaoke running constantly all night.... in Thai and English. The farang belted out such hits as ‘Can you Feel the Love Tonight’ and ‘I will Survive’. Afterwards, we had a bonfire out the back, where the Thai interns sang and we all chatted under the stars.
I love hanging out with the Thai interns, and have a good relationship with a lot of them. They always say I am ‘ting tong’ (Crazy). We also have private jokes because some of us were together in Mlabri. The favourite to quote in songtaaws is the Thai interns pretending to grab a tree in the air and yell ‘I’M FINE!!’. This was because as when we went fishing, we were walking down a very steep slope, and I was holding onto a tree as we went down. The dirt all slipped away under my feet, and I was left frantically grabbing onto the tree. “Emily, are you ok?” They asked. I was trying to get my footing and grabbing onto the tree all at once and yelled back, ‘I”M FINE!’
In other news, a big opportunity has presented itself to me here. A member of the Australian Bangkok embassy visited here the other day. It may be possible for me to work here for one year, under the AYAD scheme, where the Australian Government would pay for it. I am still considering my decision. There is a lot to think about.
Wednesday, 7 April 2010
Writing funding proposals
My past week has been filled with ups and downs. At the beginning of last week, I started working on a proposal for a sex education program for hill tribe youth. Poor sex education means that students are at higher risk of contracting STDs and HIV/AIDS. In fact, Chiang Rai has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of any province in Thailand, yet students only learn basic anatomy in sex ed in schools, and misuse contraceptives in a really dangerous way – for example overdosing on morning after pills (having 20 – 30 tablets) once they find out they are pregnant.
Writing this proposal has been great because I get to offer feedback on the project – and some of this feedback is worked into the project. Today we also discussed further changes such as advocating the provincial government to make a concrete curriculum for sex education in schools.
Teaching and modelling…
I was also teaching English last week.... as well as doing some modelling for e-Bannok, which is the small business run here making clothes and jewellery by the hilltribe women in a women's empowerment project. So I was the model! I did some last week too: last week it was in front of a white sheet with everyone watching me, which was so funny and a bit awkward! This week it was posing in front of buildings and trees. Hilarious.
Going to Mlabri
However, the biggest challenge of my week by far was going to Mlabri Village, which is in Nan province, about 5 hours drive away from Chiang Rai. This week I jumped in the deep end and went to Mlabri with eight Thai interns and three Thai staff from the Hilltribe Team of the NGO. The Mlabri people used to be hunter gatherers and lived in the forest in Nan, but less than a generation ago, moved to their current location in a village about 30 minutes inside the Nan border. Traditionally, they have been looked down on by other hilltribes as being ‘dirty’ and ‘primitive’. They used to wear banana leaves for clothing, however now wear second hand clothes. In Thai, they are given a derogatory name ‘spirits of the yellow leaves’. However they prefer to be called Mlabri. The village we went to is quite small – only about 125 people.
I significantly struggled with not understanding Thai for four days – as conversations went on around me and over my head. It is amazing how much not grasping language impacts on you – it affects your confidence, ability to be yourself and your ability to participate. It seems fitting that I struggled with these things while in Mlabri, which is a village of a group of people whose language is spoken by roughly only 450 people in the world.
Fishing in Mlabri
Still, one day in Mlabri, we went fishing. The team said to me - ‘we’re going fishing, do you want to come?’ I said ‘Yes, I’ll come watch’ – imagining that fishing was - fishing - on a stick, with a rod, and string, and a hook. We went down to the stream with some people carrying hoes and it turned into a massive adventure. People started hacking madly with hoes in the scrub, and created an alternative channel for the stream through the bushes. We scrabbled around for rocks and started building a wall, filling it in with huge chunks of dirt that we passed along a line to fill in the wall. The water was all diverted to further down the stream.
With our hands, we started scooping out the water from the pools the stream left behind, trying to find shellfish, fish (plaa), crabs and freshwater prawns (goong). After a few minutes, someone called out ‘there’s a snake!!’ I jumped up immediately, and people were pointing to the pool, where I just had my hands! There was a snake in there! One of the little boys who were with us (there were about three of them, about seven years old) fished around for it with his hands, picked it up, played with it in his fingers and said its good food... And we went straight back to the pool.
It was amazing. We were there for a few hours, bailing out water with hands and buckets from about fifteen metres of stream stepping through squidgy mud. All the time people were calling out PLAA! PLAA! PLAA! GOONG! GOONG! and you would see a fish suddenly slapping about on the rocks and run over, scoop it up in your hands, run back and throw it in the bucket, hoping it didn’t pop out of your hands on the way! I started to be really good at finding the goong, because you can see their antenna floating on the water. I was a bit scared at first to pick them up because in Australia they have big pincers. (here they don’t) The little kids were mad little machines, running around putting their fingers into every nook and cranny, their fingers emerging thick with fish. Afterwards we returned to the Mlabri village and the little kids ate all the fish with us.
Fieldwork in Mlabri
I will be writing a funding proposal collating what we learnt in Mlabri to a funding organisation to get funding for a project to assist them.
While we were in Mlabri, the Thai interns went around doing field work, and I watched and listened to them - asking questions in Thai to each family, about who lived there, and what languages they could speak/read/write, and information about the debts that the Mlabri owe to the Hmong. Most of the Mlabri could not read or write in Hmong or in Thai. All of their business transactions with the Hmong were purely oral – in a language that was not the first language of the Mlabri.
The Hmong are a different hilltribe group that live in the village just 500m down the road from the Mlabri. They own the majority of the land surrounding, and the Mlabri have just a tiny slice of land for themselves. Therefore, the Mlabri have to go and work in the Hmong fields – they rent the land from the Hmong, plant corn from corn seeds sold to them by the Hmong, reap the corn, and sell it to the Hmong using transport they have bought from the Hmong. The Hmong, as far as I can understand, take undue advantage of the Mlabri – and have used their vulnerability to benefit themselves. The Hmong live in beautiful dark wood homes – simple, admittedly, but good wood homes. The Mlabri live in bamboo huts with banana leaf roofs. The floor is the dirt ground with thick cracks in it. In the wet season, the people must live in mud.
On our first night, a girl called Dian was crying, because of the problems facing her family. Families are indebted more than they can afford to pay back. After the harvest season, and they had paid off some of the debts, her family were still 20,000 baht in debt to the Hmong– and only had 2000 baht (under $100A) in cash for the family to live off for the next year.
One instance which I found particularly unsettling there, was just after sunset one night. It was dark, and we had just been interviewing family after family about the debts that they owed. I was standing with one of the interns, who was my main translator, among houses at the top of the village, and we could see a neon light on a hill in the distance, and hear singing echoing across the hills. It was the Hmong village, singing celebrations into the night. There was such a deep contrast.
It struck me, that it was so unfair, that the Hmong could have so much and the Mlabri have so little, right next door to each other. It seemed so unfair that the Hmong could be singing and happy for all the things they had, when they had earnt it off the backs of the Mlabri. And then I thought to myself – is it such a different picture back home? Of the West, so rich, and so well off, and their relationship with the poor? Is this picture, of the Hmong and the Mlabri, side by side, a much more obvious picture of what goes on every day all around the world... and are we like the Hmong singing ignorantly on the hill in the dark?