My stay at Baan Dada in May 2007

So here i am in Kanchanaburi, on the way to Bangkok, staying for a couple of days to re-acclimatise to real life after being at the Baan Dada children’s home for 2 weeks (http://www.baandada.org/). It was definitely a good thing to do for lots of reasons and its a shame more people don’t do something like it when they travel cos you get such an insight into so many things that you cant really come close to otherwise. Lots of voluntary projects charge quite a large fee though and i guess that puts some people off or they cant afford it – they didn’t charge a fee here, only about 2 GBP a day for food and accomm.

The home is in the sticks really, about 30 mins drive away from the nearest town, Sangklaburi, near the Myanmar border (formerly Burma – in fact I’ll say Burma cos that’s what most people there still call it). Not many tourists or travellers go to Sangklaburi – the handful of westerners you see there are either NGO or volunteer staff. There is another children’s home in the area too with 150 kids in it, and a hospital that uses voluntary overseas medical staff. Some westerners might pass through to get to Burma. There’s no landline phone (they have a mobile) or internet access at the Home. Baan Dada have a plot of land of maybe 1km square (i think? guessing) with a few buildings on it, an area of vegetables growing and a small rubber tree plantation they planted last year (it needs 6 or 7 yrs to start producing rubber to sell) a few wild fruit trees, lots of bamboo.

They have about 50 children there, from age 2 to 17yrs – 35 boys and 15 girls, including the children of 5 single mothers who also live there. The girls are all quite young and are relatively recent additions – it used to be a Boys Home. They get no govt funding – one organisation sends money every month i think, and they get irregular private donations. Money is a constant issue. They try to be as self sufficient as possible but they still have to buy most of their food in reality. Most of the children are “Karen” – a nomadic hill tribe from Burma and Thailand, who have their own language and culture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_people). A few are just Thai, or Burmese, and there are 2 Japanese/Thai brothers.

Karen people are persecuted in Burma and some flee over the border to Thailand and end up in refugee camps (some of the children have come from refugee camps). The Thai govt doesn’t recognise them as Thai nationals (same as the UK govt and asylum seekers basically) so they can’t work or benefit as a Thai national in other ways – they are allowed to go to school though. There are lots of Karen villages on the Thai side of the border also, but most of the Karen villagers cannot prove they have been in Thailand long enough to get citizenship unless they were born in a hospital, or have married a Thai person or various other routes. They’re kind of invisible technically. So the children, once they leave the home when they are old enough won’t be able to work legally unless they have Thai papers.

The place is run by two men from the “Neo Humanist Foundation” (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-humanism) who have projects in various countries. They have to train as Neo Humanist “monks” then they can choose to do community work like this if they want. They call themselves “Dada” (both of them – Dada1 and Dada2!) but also have Filipino names and monk names.

So that’s the background.

Some of the kids speak some English, depending mostly on their age but there’s still a big language barrier. Some of the younger ones (and most of the mothers) don’t even speak Thai cos they have only used the Karen language in their villages. The two ‘Dada’s” are Filipino. They speak some Thai and pretty good English. But communication can be hard work.

The older boys who speak Thai, some English and Karen end up being translators a lot which some of them seem to like and others are more begrudging! They employ a local Thai teacher, Kick (used to be a Muay Thai boxer), for the younger kids who speak Karen, to prepare them for school, who is there a few days a week, a carpenter and a gardener who between them also double as construction workers, electricians, plumbers, everything really.

They have a concrete building where the boys sleep – it’s supposed to have 3 floors but they ran out of money so its only got 1 so far. The older ones share rooms. The younger ones sleep in the hallway and office on mats. The girls and mothers are currently in the new and unfinished library – until recently they were in a bamboo hut but when the rainy season started it leaked so they had to move. The kitchen and eating area is adjacent and is just a roof on supports – open sided. the wood fired oven is built from clay. The little kindergarten school house, the library and the clothes drying/wood storage building are made from mud bricks – the soil round there is a dark red clay soil. They can make bricks out of it by mixing it with rice husk which they can get for free. They cut wood from surrounding forest for beams and support. and they use bamboo. When there’s no money available they have to look around them and utilise whatever is there. it’s really impressive to me, as someone from a country where you can just go and buy something if you need it.

Thankfully for me, there were two other volunteers there, MegaN and Dennis, who had arrived a few days before and showed me the ropes a bit. We slept in a volunteer concrete house at the top of the crop plantation – the other buildings were at the bottom. Basic – beds made of board with no mattress and a few blankets, electric light, cold shower, a veranda. Similar to the facilities the children and the Dada’s had but better really – more private, more spacious.

It was still school break so most of the kids were around and it was pretty busy. The younger ones started school while i was there after a few days. We got up when we wanted officially but if you got up at 5.30am you could help with breakfast and generally with whatever problem may have arisen before school. They left for school in the pick up truck (which was donated by a volunteer optometrist) about 7am. We all agreed to take it in turns to get up on “the early shift”. Otherwise we got up about 7.30 – 8am. By which time everyone else had been up for a few hours and the rush had died down. (the Dada’s got up at 4.30am to meditate). Actually while i was there i realised that i maybe had more energy all morning when i got up at 5.30 than if i dozed til 8am. No! – am i actually a morning person??!! Shock horror!

The three meals a day were all variations of boiled rice and stir fry veg and tofu – actually the vols got better food with more variety of veg and more tofu. No difference between breakfast, lunch and tea. Seemed weird at first but got used to it. No-one drank coffee or tea. Only water. No alcohol. didn’t miss that but did miss coffee – bought some nescafe which kind of worked…

They had fruit quite a bit too – picked from trees or bought at the market. they were always walking around with some bit of wild fruit or other – often you would have a piece of fruit thrust at you “you want Sidda?” (”Sidda” being their pronunciation of “sister” which is what they called us – and Dennis was “Brudda”). Much healthier than snacks for most western kids. Apart from the sugary acid on their teeth which were often not brushed especially the younger kids. I had lots of fruit there that we dont have like durian (weird), mangosteen (yum!), jackfruit (yum also), unripe mango (surprisingly nice), guava (like a boring apple), rambutan (like hairy lychees) and another lychee type thing i dont know the name of that looked like a miniature orange.

In cooking meals and washing up, usually the mothers were in charge, but the kids would help. They had a culture of everyone helping with everything. Whatever you were doing some kids usually came up and watched what you were doing and just started helping without even asking or being asked. And if there was no-one washing up afterwards, they had to do their own, even the 4yr olds. I was doing something on the plantation one day and a couple of boys aged about 7yrs walked past and stopped and copied what i was doing to help. (then they got bored and wandered off but its the thought that counts!). So when vegetables were being chopped they would often have 4, 5, 6 yr olds with a huge kitchen knife or hatchet, chopping away, usually quite ineffectually but i guess they were learning. their idea of health and safety was a long way from ours. I cringed to see those young kids with those knives but you have to just accept that’s the way they do things and who’s to say it makes less sense than ours. The older boys would help with whatever construction or gardening jobs were being done too; to learn these skills as well as to help out.

some time was spent just hanging out with the young ones who weren’t yet at school. a few of them just wanted to be picked up or cuddled a lot. There’s no doubt they are loved and cared for but the adults just don’t have time to give out much TLC and physical affection although they try to as much as possible. A few of them are pretty clingy and seem to really desperately want that close physical contact.

Apart from helping with these daily chores and general cuddling we also did stuff like;

– first day i was there, Dada realised the primary school opened the next day and most of them had not got uniforms. so i was assigned the job of finding out who had what already and who needed what, and having a record at the end in English of who had been bought what, for Dada to have. It was chaos and took hours but after we got a list together and went to the uniform shop with about 15 kids and the Thai teacher and one of the older ones to translate, we managed to go through each one and uniform them up. The uniform requirements were really elaborate. And the boys had to have a second uniform too – a Boy Scout one for one day a week. If they were Karen, they could wear a traditional Karen tunic on a Friday too so that had to be bought too. Most of the children at the local school were Karen.

– the school uniforms all have to have the name and grade embroidered on them. they all learn needlework at school but the younger ones cant really do it. we spent a good few hours helping with that – they had to be done in a particular intricate way – hard work!

– re-jigged a couple of funding proposals for Dada on his laptop- he had them more or less finished but some bits weren’t clear and i felt like this was something i was familiar with – writing stuff on a computer and having some general idea of how voluntary sector funding tends to work. He has to do lots of them, and finds it’s hard for him to focus on them, even though they are vital, and also English isn’t his first language of course, and most of them have to be in English.

– There was no waste collection whatsoever there by the local authorities- they didn’t have a composting system, and the kitchen waste (whatever wasn’t fed to the goats), plastic, metal, paper and glass waste was either being burned in the oven (paper and plastic) or chucked down a slope which went into the dry riverbed – soon to become a river again as rainy season has just begun. They have septic tanks for the sewage. We talked to Dada about the effects of burning plastic or burying it etc – which he kind of already knew but there’s only so many things he can focus on at once. By the time we left we had built a compost bin (which took ages cos we were trying to re-use stuff they already had (which meant finding nails and pulling them out of firewood, finding bits of unused wire, sawing bamboo, collecting rocks from the dry riverbed and grit for the path etc – also only limited tools so had to locate and borrow picks or shovels or buckets each time from the construction men who were finishing a building, worked out a set of rules about what went where (basically everything not compostable went in a pit: a mini landfill, batteries in a special bin to remain there until anyone had a better idea, no plastic to be burned, nothing to be thrown down the slope to the river). We did some picture posters with English and Thai writing and did a little talk on my last day there to all the kids before their tea – translated into Thai and Karen by two boys. Felt like that was a good achievement – if they can stick to it and someone keeps an eye on things.

– various practical problems like the fact that during the rainy season (which is starting now) the rain water runs off a sloping track into a big ditch = breeding ground for mosquitoes = malaria. Also just inconvenient to have a big ditch there. So Dennis did some shovelling grit and dirt and made it channel off down to the river instead. For now. They need to build a concrete track and channel really but that will cost money.

NB malaria is common in that area. Most of the kids have had it. Dada has had it. One of the mothers actually went into hospital with it while we were there. the local hospital is a malaria research centre. I ran out of malaria tablets just as i got there which i had been taking for about 6 weeks but the New Zealander volunteer doctor at the hospital said there was resistance to all malaria prevention medication in the area so no point – need to avoid bites instead. I got bitten quite a bit still. no malarial symptoms yet though!

– we did a “garbage game” – where about 20 of the younger kids got into teams and who got the most rubbish collected from the whole area got a prize. Good clean up strategy!

– did some gardening – training climbing squash and beans, disassembling the irrigation system on the plantation as its not needed for rainy season and they need to till the land between the rows. planted some shrubs. Moved some rocks around to thwart the erosion of mud slopes in the daily rain…

– Dada has started a weaving project with a local village under the Neo humanist Foundation – making traditional Karen bags and scarves. we went with him to a meeting with the weavers at their village in a bamboo stilt hut – they ended up doing market research on us – which would we buy, what else could they make, what did/didn’t we like. Again translated via Tea, one of the older boys from the home. And we tried to make suggestions as to how they could market them as at the moment many aren’t being sold cos there’s nowhere really to sell them that isn’t already saturated with other stuff. Then Dada made us go through them and pick out ones which looked faulty – “quality control” – which i didn’t like and felt like ‘the bad guy”. You can buy their products at www.baandada.org/projects.htm#Weaving.

– did lots of school runs driving the pick-up. they can get a lot of kids in the back of them – we usually had about 20 but apparently they can squash in about 40 – bit scary driving it feeling that responsible. but quite fun. Before they had the pick-up they used to take them to school on a scooter 5 at a time – gulp :-o

– drove one of the mothers to the local hospital – Christian organisation funded – nice place – basic but clean and peaceful – some volunteer medical staff and other local staff.

– Also Megan did English lessons (as she and Dennis had been teaching English in Japan for a year) and Dennis did art classes, mainly for Ramesh, an older boy who was really into drawing.

The last day i was there we went out for a sightseeing trip, me, Megan, Dennis, Tea and Dada1, to a couple of temples and caves and to eat Som Tam (spicy green papaya salad).

On the whole the kids are pretty happy and well cared for. They’re always singing and shouting and talking and joking with each other and playing games. They spent hours playing with marbles or spinning tops – no computer games for them which has got to be a good thing. They also had a drum set and electric guitars and bass guitars donated by a former volunteer and had a band and they practiced most nights, doing Beatles covers (and Westlife!) among others. They do concerts at a Guest House in Sangklaburi sometimes for donations.

Every day before the evening meal they go into one of the buildings and sing a song – the same song every day – someone plays the drums and someone plays the guitar – im not sure what the words meant but it’s a happy sounding kind of song. They really belt it out! It’s not compulsary but nearly all of them go and do that every day. then they all sit on the floor and have “meditation” for about 15 mins – some of them take this seriously and sit quietly and somberly, and others (especially the younger ones) throw things discretely at each other, poke each other etc.

They desperately need more sleeping space – the arrangement of the little ones sleeping in the hallway/office kind of works but they probably dont get a good nights sleep often as there are older boys wandering around til late.

They all generally get on well although obviously there are occasional fights. They might be better off in some ways than some other local kids as the area on the whole is pretty deprived. The younger ones look pretty raggedy but mainly cos they are always outside playing and getting dirty. Some of the older boys are essentially young men, and have squirreled away a few nice bits of clothing and generally look pretty dapper.

You do worry about how they will fare when they leave though. The big wide world. Most other people aren’t brought up to be as co-operative as them. And most of them will not have Thai citizenship. I guess they will always have the support and guidance of the Dadas though, in lieu of their families. Some of them do actually see their parents from time to time. But for one reason or another they cant look after them. A few of them are actual orphans but most have parents and know where they are.

I’m really glad i did it and I wont forget it. It was occassionally frustrating and a bit chaotic but the Dadas were amazingly chilled out and cheerful. Must be the meditation! And I’ve never “worked with kids” before. I’ll remember them all and their own little personalities. So entertaining. So clever and funny when they want to be.

The website has a “support a child” thing at www.baandada.org/support.htm

All the best to anyone who goes to have a go! Gemma, Sheffield, England, UK. June 2007

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