I arrived at the Nong Tao Children’s Dormitory on February 23, 2016 to oversee the repair and construction of two new hong nams, (bathrooms). Eric Fietz, has once again donated funds which are being used to cover the cost of these two structures. It is a well known fact that when people live in prolonged poverty; the ability to maintain health and prevent disease are directly related to adequate sanitation facilities. Confronted with limited funds it is often an area which receives the least attention thus the continuing cause of many deaths in poor mountain communities that also do not have access and/or the means to adequate medical attention.
Last year Eric generously donated funds to improve sanitary conditions in Mae Ra Ma refugee camp. With his donation we were able to build a new bathing house for a group of female orphans between the ages of 14 to 17. The students have very little support as they are not registered with the United Nations and therefore are not entitled to the rations others receive. We were also able to rebuild the orphan boys toilet and shower room.
Due to military restrictions we were unable to return to the camps this year. Thailand is currently under military rule, and the controls have been increased over the past year. New laws are strictly controlled and enforced by the military. The current cost to travel and enter the camps has doubled. Considering the amount of funds, about one third, that would have to be spent to cover military fees, I decided it was not the best use of this donation.
After much thought I decided to turn towards the needs in need community dormitories in the Karen hill tribe areas. The call went out to see who was in the most need and the Nong Tao Children’s Dormitory was first in line.
The dormitory is under the direction of Mr. Ajan Chantip and his wife. I have met this couple many times during the course of my travels and know that they are dedicated and caring houseparents to forty-two children between the ages of 5 and 12. The children come from hill-tribe villages in the area. Chantip is a Karen man, whose work also takes him into hill-tribe communities addressing the needs of the disabled and elderly. His daughter Wannapon lived at Jen’s House during her high school years and is now studying at Rachabaht University. She would like to be a teacher and volunteers part-time at the school in Nong Tao with the kindergarten teacher.
This morning, as I sit writing I’m enjoying the chatter and laughter of the workers who have arrived. Karen people have a work ethic second to none, but they approach their work with a light-hearted attitude joking and teasing and today is no different. Other local men who know the work is under way today come to have a look and supervise. An older man arrives with his grandchild strapped to his waist. As he balances his motorbike and tries to untie his charge he looses his balance and I jump up to help to re-balance the bike. It’s then that he decides to put the kickstand down before continuing to untie the child.
One of the workers is using a sledgehammer to remove the broken down concrete walls and floors, another is mixing new cement and a third is working on the housing for the new frames and doors that will be installed. The concrete man, I’ve decided he’s the heavy labour guy, loads his wheelbarrow with the small rock sized pieces of concrete. He drags it out to the road and dumps it into the holes in the bumpy road that leads to the dormitory. In the rainy season the road is a slippery, muddy mess.
The broken down door of a third bathroom, which is getting a bit of an overhaul, is removed and the framer sizes up the old structure to assess the repair work that will be required. Measurements complete, he takes out an old skill saw and cuts along the line he’s made to increase the size of the opening to house the larger, new door. It is the only electrical tool that is used in the whole endeavor.
Out back, most of the old cement has been removed from the first toilet room and work begins on removing the cement from the second one. Construction is well at hand so I decide to take a walk to the school and give Wannapon a hand teaching her students some English.
On my arrival Wannapon is not there but I am quickly re-directed to an older teacher of a combined Grade 4-5 class. As always I am met with a warm welcome and chat for a while. It’s not long before I am requested to teach English in the afternoon to her students, it’s lunchtime and I join the staff for lunch of what else, rice with vegetables. At the end of the lesson I am driven home by the same class teacher. The students are left behind to tend to themselves, the norm for village schools.
Registration is down at the Nong Tao school, with the population of students at the Nong Tao dormitory making up almost half of the 100 students. The government is struggling to keep the school open, so has offered to sponsor some of the children from the mountains in order to increase their numbers. This, of course means an increase in the number of students who would live at the dorm. Additional support will be required to care for more students.
When I arrive at the dormitory the workers are still at it with soft music playing as the day wears on. It’s 3:15 and the children will be heading home soon. The work will continue until dusk.
The children arrive from school, it’s 4:15 and those with chores immediately pick up brooms to sweep the leaves that collect in the yard daily. I guess it would equivalent to racking the yard. Two volunteer university students who arrived have been waiting for the students since about 1:00. They are from Lampang and will stay for a two months to complete the community work that is required for their studies. They tell me they are in the last year at university, studying social work and social administration.
The dorm is a busy place after school. The older girls head to the bathrooms to bath and wash their hair before the chill and darkness of the evening arrives. After that they head to the laundry area with large pans of clothes, which they will wash and hang to dry. The older students that came before them washed their clothes now it’s their turn to wash the clothes for those coming up behind them. Before dinner the girls line up in from of the housemother to get their standard grade school haircuts carved. The girls wear their hair cut just below the ears, around in a straight line carved from ear to ear. Conformity is the order of the day at mountain village school. Individuality is not encouraged.
The boys have more important things on there mind. As soon as they have changed their cloths and investigated the work being done on the toilets it’s time for soccer.
At 6:00 and the last of the workers head home for the day.
Dinner’s a bit late tonight due to the number of heads that had to be coiffured.
A couple of the boys have picked up their plates and are carrying them around indicating in anticipation of the the evening meal. Dinner is simple, a large scoop of rice in one side of the plate and an equal amount of flavored noodles. Some children pull out a small parcel of dried meat that their parents have given them from home.
The two university students that have slept in the girls dorm land on the porch outside my room. It’s 6:30 and the morning bell rings out in the darkness. It’s not intrusive, it’s a gentle clear tone the marks the beginning of another day at Nong Tao Dorm. The first sound I hear is the sweeping sound of a straw broom on the hardened earthen ground. It’s not long before the movements of 42 children rising take over the stillness. As it is with children, when they are awake, they really are awake, pure energy.
The workers have all ready arrived and will work through the day in an effort to complete the new toilets, showers and doors. The grand finale will be the placement of a small name place that came from Eric’s father. After much discussion a decision is made and the Fietz Bathrooms for Boys are officially open for business!