Today, as we returned from a visit with a local NGO focused on public health, Ajaan Somphon summarized the most important part of the first half of our project: “See,” he said, “it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You keep adding pieces to get the whole picture.” The Pattanarak staff members, especially our supervisor Ajaan Somphon, are extremely dedicated to our learning. In addition to showing and explaining Pattanarak’s initiatives, by translating savings group meetings, giving us a tour of their model gardens, etc., Ajaan Somphon and the other staff members help us learn about the situation of the people who have been displaced from Burma.
Our formal education began with Ajaan Seri’s presentation on our first day here, which explained the challenges facing the Karen and Mon people living in this area. We focused on the issues that deal with our construction and gardening projects: the historical, legal, and cultural factors that threaten the food and financial security of the border communities.
Other learning takes the shape of cultural experiences. Each Thursday morning, for example, we wander through the fish stalls and clothing shops in the weekly market, looking for our favorite fried dough with sweetened condensed milk and sugar. We brought breakfast to the monks at the village temple on a Buddhist holy day, and we play volleyball with the Pattanarak staff and children at our village’s school.
Most of our learning, though, comes from simple conversations. On our second day here, we visited the headmen of four villages where we’ll be gardening. We’ve also visited two primary schools, the staff of Pattanarak’s drop-in center, migrant workers who attend Pattanarak’s AIDS/HIV trainings, an NGO focused on public health, and dozens of strangers whom Ajaan Somphon has marched up to and drawn into conversations. Each of these conversations and experiences gives us some insight into this community and the challenges the Karen and Mon people here face. Now, after three weeks of gathering information and perspectives, a picture of Sangkhlaburi is starting to come together.
These visits and interactions have sparked dialogue within our group. Last week, at the Pattanarak drop-in center on the Burma border, Ajaan Somphon set up a meeting with migrant workers from Burma. The Thai military turns a blind eye while these workers cross the border in the morning to work in factories in Three Pagodas town, and go back to Burma at night. We met with them when they came to the drop-in center for HIV education. Ajaan Somphon and the Pattanarak staff generously arranged a conversation between the eight of us and twelve people from Burma. Though we were interested in their perspectives, and grateful for the opportunity, many members of our group felt uncomfortable with the structure of the interaction. Our questions had to be translated twice, from English to Thai and from Thai to Burmese. We didn’t want to be intrusive or offensive, so we stuck to questions like, “how long have you worked in Thailand?” and “where do your kids go when you go to work?”. We stressed that they could ask us questions, too, but they learned our ages and not much more. We left the drop-in center feeling pretty uncomfortable, like we’d put those people on the spot…that it was an intrusion rather than an exchange. We had an honest conversation with Ajaan Somphon about that visit, expressed the conflict between our curiosity and discomfort, and reached no real conclusion…
For me, on top of these sensitivities about being outsiders, there’s the emotional dilemma of becoming more and more enamored by this community as I begin to understand the problems it faces. The magnitude and complexity of the issues we’re beginning to understand don’t sit well with the kindness and light-heartedness I’ve been so impressed with, or the incredible beauty of this place. As I hear more about public health issues, legal and political marginalization, and the lack of food security, I feel simultaneously closer to and more distant from the Karen and Mon people in Sangkhlaburi.
We’ve had some good moments, though, when these questions seem irrelevant. We’ve been working hard on the pig feed co-op, and this week we worked not only with Pattanarak staff and construction workers from the community, but also with women who are members of Pattanarak savings groups and part owners of the co-op. Getting dirty and exhausted with the staff and community members is rewarding and incredibly funny. We laugh a lot about the amount we struggle and sweat compared to the cool competence of the tiny women in their 60’s. Also, the construction workers who are about half the size of the guys on our team have at least double their strength. Although I didn’t witness it, I heard all about one of our tall, buff team members falling into the river when he tried to pick up a sack of rocks. Phi Joda, a middle-aged man who’s about five feet tall and extremely muscled, cracked up, threw the bag over his shoulder, and marched easily through the current. On Wednesday, on a break from work, the women shared their pomelo and friend bananas with us, and Alisa translated a conversation about our purpose in coming to Sangkhlaburi. The women nodded acceptingly.
Check out Pattanarak’s new Facebook site for pictures from the last three weeks: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pattanarak-Foundation/162469630486806
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