by Father Joe Maier, C. Ss.R.
Our almost eight-year-old Klong Toey Miss Nong Ming made the Bangkok 10 o'clock night TV news a couple of nights ago. She shouldn't have though. In fact, it was "bad form".
True, the camera blurred her face, but, "darn it", for some dumb reason they blurted out her full name and showed the place where her family camped out under the tollway along with Miss Nong Ming playing with other street kids, recently off the street at a "family child protection centre".
Trafficked at seven and a half years of age, the TV showed her still pretty much forlorn, hungry, covered in months of grime, but in a clean uniform like everyone else in the place. She said she'd rather wear her Klong Toey street kid clothes, with those worn out flip flops. But no matter how poor and ragged, even a glance at Miss Nong Ming on the TV screen told you immediately that there is a hidden greatness in this street child - you just know she's going to be a star.
A thug, a criminal, she ain't. A trafficked child she is. Trafficked by her mum and dad. She's Klong Toey's best! Covered with mosquito bites, half a dozen bigger bruises, feet full of cuts and broken toe nails, but also good news. The medical people say no sexual abuse yet.
A trafficked child, where her whole family - the mum and dad thing - went terribly wrong. Like Miss Nong Ming being the number one money maker in her family instead of being number one in her first grade class. Mum said you go to school next year. Now you help me. And her dad too hammered all the time to notice.
Also, she's logged kindergarten time in a slum pre-school, plus maybe five months' first grade time in another social welfare home last year.
Her mum lied to the officials. Said all was fine. They no longer lived under the tollway. Dad had a job. They'd moved into a house. In all of Miss Nong Ming's life, they had never lived in a house. So mum's story was all lies.
The officials believed mum and she took her daughter home. Arriving in Klong Toey, mum didn't even give Miss Nong Ming enough time to say hello to her wildly happy stray dog named Dog. Within an hour, mum had dressed her daughter in her Klong Toey clothes, still unwashed after five months and Dog had been sleeping on them every night for a soft bed. Mum sent Miss Nong Ming off with her rag to pander and wash windscreens on that tollway exit leading down into the Klong Toey port. Mum was drug hungry and dad was booze thirsty.
No school for Miss Nong Ming because of a time conflict. School hours cut into her time washing car windscreens, begging and selling flower garlands.
Selling a flower garland? Easy. Doing a car windscreen? Almost impossible. Touching their car is a huge no-no. Drivers, even men, feel threatened. "Dirty kid. Don't get any closer! Get your dirty hands off my clean car!" The kids say only the kindest of women roll down their windows to speak to them - and give them some baht coins. Their best hope is to find men driving their own cars, who are slightly hammered. They give the most money.
Miss Nong Ming? She's a pro: 50-70 baht a day. She'd go out at rush hour when the cars are lined up, waiting for the red light to change.
Between rush hours, Miss Nong Ming helped mum sort through garbage bins, collecting second hand goods like thrown away cans, plastic and glass bottles and cardboard, scrap metal. At the junk dealers, Miss Nong Ming did the horse trading, as mum's mind was not always there because of the drugs.
Mum married young to a street boy. No wedding ceremony - that's for rich people. The dowry was 50 baht as mum was pregnant. Used goods.
Soon Miss Nong Ming was born. Dad got more into the booze, was a mean drunk and beat up mum constantly for money for more booze. Mum wasn't skilled at the occasional sex for hire business. She was too embarrassed. So she started doing small drug deliveries for a guy near the slaughter house part of the slum. She herself became an addict.
Times always change. The guns and motorcycle hit squads started shooting drug folks. The shootings did not stop the drugs in the least, simply caused adjustments. Prices skyrocketed. Everything became much more clandestine. Part time "occasional" drug runners, especially addicts like mum, were dropped. Now, only trusted clan members. Appearances are everything and to the casual observer, the problem had gone away.
But mum's addiction did not go away, and dad still had the shakes without his booze. The agent told mum to get lost or her five-year-old daughter might have an accident - even perhaps disappear.
So two steps down the food chain. Mum now used half an amphetamine pill when ever she could find the cash. Before in the good old days, it was two a day. Same with dad. Drink when he could. Now he bought his booze "re-packaged" at the local shop. Three shots poured into a local brown elixir pocket-sized bottle. The "eleven tigers" medicinal powder mixed with rice whiskey. Moonshine, the cheapest in the market.
Miss Nong Ming has never even slept in a house - only a shack. Mum and dad are total street/slum people. The best they had when Nong Ming was a baby was a small empty sea-land shipping container. Then the owner needed it, so back living under the Klong Toey five storey walk up flats. Thrown out of there for littering and making a general mess, they moved under the tollway. The camped out there, next to one of the large pilings. No roof, cardboard and a couple of large plastic bags, a partially burned mattress throw out by someone after a fire. Cooking with scrap wood. Toilet? Anywhere and everywhere. Most embarrassing for a four-year-old girl going on five. Buying water occasionally, at five baht per three gallon tin. They had a mosquito net, but Nong Ming slept outside the net with her stray dog. The two of them kept each other warm. Now there were no scraps for Dog, but she stayed anyway. Roamed during the day, but at dark, came back to protect Miss Nong Ming. Sleeping outside the mosquito net because Nong Ming was afraid of her dad in his drunken stupor and mum wouldn't or couldn't protect her.
Miss Nong Ming and mom collected saleable items, made maybe 15-20 baht for a whole day of scrounging. The exact price for dad's "re-packaged" brown elixir bottle of booze. The equivalent of three shot glasses. Dad? He guarded cars parked in the slum by night. Soon, mum forced Miss Nong Ming to beg from the cars lined up at the red light at the exit ramp. Collected 50-70 baht a day. That's what she told the TV camera. She also told the TV camera that she would always give all the money to her dad. But afterwards said "almost" - sometimes when she was so hungry, she would cry, and then hide seven baht so she could buy instant noodles. Eat them dry out of the package. Not even share them with Dog. She was that hungry.
They grabbed mum and dad for vagrancy, but nothing about trafficking their daughter was mentioned. They brought Miss Nong Ming to a respected government shelter where she sleeps safely, eats regularly, goes to school. With the new law for children, her mum can't just "come and get her and take her home".
Her parents must prove they can feed her, that she will go to school. They will not send her to beg or wash windscreens during school hours. There will be regular police visits, etc.
Tomorrow and the day after?
Dad and mum? His nights guarding parked cars earn him just enough to eat, but not much for the "eleven tigers" booze. Certainly not for buying cigarettes by the package. If he smokes, it's the loose tobacco hand rolled in newspaper. Thus, he has to make some choices. The police have warned him no more vagrancy. All of this will be as it will be.
Mum? We've cut a deal with her. Dad did agree. We will give her a hot meal each noon. She has to come and must eat here with us, so we are sure she actually eats the food herself. That should suffice as she continues as a bag lady. Another part of the deal is we will rent her a push cart at five baht a week. Miss Nong Ming, if and when she wants, can live with us, go to school. Mum can see her every day.
For Miss Nong Ming, she's brilliant. Today at the government home, she's clean, has clothes that fit her properly. The scars and scabs and broken nails have healed. Special shampoo removed the lice. Enough to eat. It will take her some months to finally believe that she doesn't have to gorge herself at each meal. It takes that long to realise her next meal is safe. She loves school. Top scores in mathematics. Slum street kids learn money counting as soon as they can walk! And as I said above, there are flashes of greatness in this child. She will be a star.
She is worried about Dog. We checked. A neighbour lady feeds Dog most days and Dog still roams, but wanders back to their abandoned camp site at dusk. Waiting for Miss Nong Ming to come home.