Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Fruits of labour: schools for migrant children

A boy holds up an orange during a maths class at the orchard day school.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
I was in Chiang Mai district last week, introducing a group of Thai bloggers to UNICEF-supported projects for marginalised children. After our visit to the orchard night school (see part one of this blog), we went to see a day school in the same area.

We got up early and set off in our vans for an orange orchard outside Fang town. We drove through wide paddy fields, criss-crossed by irrigation canals and filled with a host of yellow grass blades glistening in the morning sun. Here and there, women in straw hats were working in the fields, breaking the earth with wooden hoes. The landscape was layered: beyond the rice fields was a line of low trees that marked the start of the orchards. Behind them, craggy mountains rose up with forested flanks. It was a beautiful scene, but Fang is not a tourist destination. Instead, it’s the centre of a sometimes harsh agricultural industry.

After a half hour drive, we arrived at the orchard day school. While the bloggers listened to an introduction from Khun Adun, Director of the local NGO Group for Children, I started to look around. The centre was larger and better equipped than the night school. It was a well-built wooden structure with three classrooms and a sleeping area, where blue mosquito nets hung down from the ceiling. There were also two outdoor classrooms, a kitchen and a play area for younger children, who were happily digging in a sandpit with plastic buckets and spades.

In one of the classrooms, a group of children were sat cross legged on the floor, with their shoes lined up neatly outside and their bags hanging from pegs on the wall. Some of the girls were wearing traditional Burmese ‘thanaka’ face paint, made from ground bark. It was a math class, with a difference. The teacher was using an object familiar to the children – an orange – as a learning aid. First, she peeled her own fruit and counted the pieces. Then she divided the children into groups, each of which got an orange. The children peeled the fruit and counted the segments. “Do you have more or less than I do?” the teacher asked, holding up her own orange. Afterwards, the children handed out the pieces, counting again, and ate them.

In another area, older children were learning vocational skills, such as hairdressing and making detergent. “These activities help the families financially,” explained UNICEF Education Officer Rangsun Wiboonuppatum.  “They can take the washing liquid home and borrow the clippers to cut their parents’ hair.” For me, this was a vivid illustration of the level of poverty faced by these families – that saving the cost of a bottle of detergent could make such a difference in their lives. I often stock up on household goods at Villa Market in Bangkok without even thinking about the price.

Joe’s story

Joe helps his mother to pick oranges in the orchard.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

At the hairdressing area I met Joe, a tall and lanky ethnic Shan Burmese boy in a tattered blue t-shirt. He was around 15 or 16 years old. Without a birth certificate, he didn’t even know his own age. I asked him how he had ended up in Fang. “We came here from Burma when I was seven or eight,” he told me in Thai. “My parents were fleeing the conflict there. We’ve been living here ever since. Both my parents worked in the orchard at first but my father passed away. Now I come to school during the day and I help my mother in the orchard at the weekends.”

I asked Joe how he felt about coming to school. “I like coming here,” he replied. “My favourite subjects are Thai, math and hairdressing. It’s good to get knowledge and it makes my mum proud. This year, I’ll get my Grade 6 certificate. I’m also glad to have some professional skills, which will help me when I leave.”

Adan came over and put a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe is one of our first batch of students,” he said proudly. “He’ll graduate in six months. His father was an alcoholic and at first his parents didn’t see the value of education. I had to visit the family four times but finally I persuaded them to let him come. Originally, we just had a night school. But then we asked the parents, if we opened a day school, would they send their children? Many of them said yes, including Joe’s mother.”

By this point the bloggers had finished looking round the school, so we went to find Joe’s mother, who was working in the orchard. As we walked through the plantation I was struck by how cool and pleasant the weather was, like a spring day in England. It was a pleasant change from the heat, humidity and pollution of Bangkok. The orchard went on for miles, with long lines of squat trees propped up with bamboo poles stretching into the distance. Green fruit clustered beneath their branches. It was mostly unripe but every so often I saw a bright circle of yellow or orange, like a tiny sun shining out from between the branches.

As we walked, we passed farm workers in face masks unloading fertilizer from trucks and spreading it on the ground beneath the trees. Eventually we found Joe’s mother, Baping, a tired-looking middle-aged Burmese woman in a hat and chequered jacket. She was trimming branches on the orange trees, and Joe picked up a pair of clippers and set to work to help her.

Afterwards, I talked to Baping. Initially I greeted her in Thai, but she smiled apologetically and shook her head. We ended up in a four-way conversation via Tum, who speaks English and Thai, and a teacher who spoke Thai and Burmese. “I'm really glad that Joe can go to school,” Baping told me via my two translators. “Before, he didn’t know much and was disrespectful. But now many things have improved. He can read, write and speak Thai. His behaviour has also improved. He helps out more at home, by cooking rice and cleaning. When I need to go to the doctor, he comes with me and helps me communicate.”

Return journey

Bloggers with bottles of washing up liquid, made by the children.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

After leaving the school, we had a quick lunch and made the return drive through the mountains to Chiang Mai, stopping off en-route to visit a museum about the Royal Project. This initiative was set up by the King of Thailand to support hill tribe communities in the north of the country grow and sell vegetable crops instead of opium.

I noticed one of our bloggers, Kafaak, sat in the back of a van with his laptop. Impressively, on the two hour drive to Chiang Mai he managed to write and upload a detailed blog about the orchard school project. “I work in a school in Bangkok and I can see the difference in the opportunities for children,” he told me. “I wanted to show the people who have everything that they don’t see the value of what’s in their hands. Look at the students here – their school is a hut and their books are photocopies. But they are so happy to have it.”

Read part three of this blog »

No comments:

Post a Comment