Monday, October 25, 2004

Korat slum, 15th October 2004, Friday

The kids from the slum

On our last day in Korat, we visited a slum. World Vision does some work there, running a Children’s Centre, taking care of and teaching the kids, and doing some humanitarian work within the slum. The slum is located slap-bang in between some railway tracks, and people cross between the tracks with nary a thought. There is no set schedule for trains, so you don’t know a train is coming until you see or hear it coming. Fortunately, the trains are so LOUD there is no way you can miss them.

We were driven to the slum by a World Vision worker in the back of his pickup, and I enjoyed the ride there. It’s nice to sit al fresco (so to speak) and look around the town with an uninterrupted view and enjoy the breeze and the sunshine. Then we turned off the concrete road and onto a dirt track leading away by the railway track. We passed rows of makeshift one-room zinc and billboard affairs, and saw the occupants, who were in turn watching us curiously as we made our way to the Children’s Centre. We had entered the slum.

The Children’s Centre is better constructed than a lot of the houses, even if it’s a one-room wooden house. As we approached the doorway, I saw grey specks swirling in the air. Being warned earlier of lice and ticks, I was a little apprehensive. “Errr…”, I said to one of my teammates, “Is that what I think it is?” “Urr..I’m not sure,” she said, eyeing the specks nervously. On closer inspection, we found out it was just ash. Phew.

There were about 26 kids waiting for us in the centre, with ages ranging from 6 months to about 10 years old. They were adorable, and when we greeted them, all of them put their hands together in the traditional Thai greeting and bowed their heads, chanting in unison, “Sawadee kha/kap!” And with that, we were sold. We sang songs with them...

organised relay games for them…

acted mimes for them, made balloon sculptures for them, and distributed the little bags of toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and shampoo we had bought earlier on in the trip. We also gave out milk packs for them to share.

In turn, they blessed us with three dances and their ready smiles and infectious laughter. I was admiring some of the girls’ pretty highlights in their hair, and then suddenly realized those highlights weren’t the kind you get from a hair salon or even a home-dye job. Those golden streaks were from malnutrition.

While the kids were having lunch, we did a quick walk-around the slum. Some houses were more ramshackle than others, and some were more well furnished than others. One of them even had a TV in the room. That astonished me as it had been pointed out to us that the slum didn’t get any clean water. Whatever water they used was bought for them by World Vision, if not, they subsisted on the dirty, muddy puddles that surrounded some of their homes, opening themselves up to diseases such as cholera and typhoid. So if they couldn’t even afford water, how did this family get the TV? Perhaps it was a gift? And did they even have electricity?

Our final stop was to pray for a man who had HIV. He was an old man, wearing only some loincloth rags and lying on a platform in the front of the house. He was gaunt, and so skinny that you could count every single rib in his body; his skin had numerous sores with pus running out, and his eyes had a rheumy look. One look and you knew this man did not much time left. By his side, he had a dirty bottle of some sort of liquid. His grownup son moved to the back of the house quietly as we entered and did not attempt to talk to us. The moment I ducked under the shelter, I had to try very hard not to gag from the smell. The little space surrounding that man was just filled with rubbish everywhere. Months worth of rubbish, like empty bottles, paper, kitchen utensils were scattered everywhere, trodden into the mud so much that they formed a kind of floor. I felt so incredibly sad when I looked at the scene. What had happened to reduce this human being to this state? I couldn’t go in much further, so overpowered by the smell, and instead hovered at the edge of the platform. I am ashamed to say I was more aware of my surroundings and of the smell to really concentrate 100 percent on the man. One of my team-mates however, who is also a fulltime church worker, moved right in and despite whispered warnings from other team-mates, touched him gently while she prayed for him. We prayed for final moments of peace and a release of pain for this man, whose face betrayed no emotion throughout the session.

That is a picture I carry with me now that I have left Korat. The smiles of the kids and the joy they exhibit, while not far down the track, an old man lies there waiting for death on the platform in front of his house.