Thursday, 31 July 2008 08:37
COMMENT: A Klong Toey woman with the odds stacked against her is not just a survivor, she's a hero
JOSEPH H. MAIER

MS Kanok-tip is President and Pioneer/Founder of the Klong Toey Slum Chapter of the Physically Handicapped (the Chapter), that is, the Five Kiosk Workforce. At 38 years of age, she's tough in many ways but very fragile in others. Never went to school. One leg gone from bone cancer years ago. Just recently her husband, while working as an assistant bartender, began a relationship with a short time girl from a remote province who hires herself out of the bar and he left Kanok-tip. One other thing: Tip is four months pregnant.

Pregnant Tip may be going through a bad patch, but she's a Klong Toey woman. Chances are she'll come out of it with only a few new emotional scars. She lives with her mom and 10-year-old daughter in the house her mom and dad homesteaded in Lock 1 in the Klong Toey slum almost 30 years ago.

Now Ms. Kanok-tip and her handicapped chapter control and manage the five kiosks on the main road running through the slum. They hold monthly meetings and make themselves known in the community. They have pride in what they do. Earning respectable livelihoods, they see themselves as first class (no longer second class) citizens. True, the sales of soft drinks and power drinks have plummeted since the drug wars started and killed off their night trade. But they keep trying.

These are fragile moments in Klong Toey society, where the most common New Years blessing seems to be ``May you be money rich''. Where interest rates are two percent per day, and perhaps on New Years day a moneylender in a weak moment of largess might say you don't have to pay interest today on your loan, but probably not. Where the respect you receive and the wai you are greeted with are based on money and power, not age or merit.

Folks don't wai Ms Kanok-tip very often. It's not terribly fashionable to wai the crippled poor. Plus the fact that Ms Kanok-tip is from one of those large old Klong Toey families that neighbors know only by first names. And even if they did know her last name, it wouldn't be an impressive one, at least not in a money rich way.

To say that the opinion of others - what they say or don't say about you - is not important, that's garbage. It hurts when people ignore you. And that's what makes Ms Kanok-tip and her Chapter so very fragile and so very important. Fragile, because it's next to impossible to survive economically on their five donated kiosks. And important, because their Chapter brings pride and self respect to the handicapped of Klong Toey and all other slums. They refuse to be ignored.

And they refuse to give up. The personal struggle to get out of bed in the morning, dress, struggle into their wheelchair, living not in handicapped friendly homes, but in Klong Toey Shacks. They negotiate inhospitable streets, and lanes and broken sidewalks, hand-pushing their wheelchairs every morning to get to work, put in twelve hours, and make just enough profit to restock supplies for the next day - day after day.

WE ARE KLONG TOEY

Economics aside, Ms. Tip and her Pioneer Chapter have made a quantum leap forward and are moving at warp speed. It takes great courage to make their own way in the slums and say, "Hey, look at us, Klong Toey. We belong here!! We can't read or write, and we can't walk, but we are Klong Toey."

You might wonder how they can they operate five kiosks if they are illiterate? But they can sign their names and they can count in every direction. (Ms. Kanok-tip learned how to count watching neighborhood women playing cards!)

As always, though, it's a fragile situation. With a wobbly government-issued wheelchair, bent crutches, no additional household income, no husband, no money in the bank, and no schooling, Ms. Tip is trying to make it on her own in her own way. To do that honestly - without selling drugs or the Three K glue in the green cans or the throw-away cigarette lighters that you sniff the gas from - that's extremely fragile. Meanwhile, she is raising a daughter who is near the top of her class in school and aspires to be a classical Thai dancer; and she's determined to give her second child a better future.

Fortunately, Ms. Kanok-tip knows how to sell. As a child, she always stayed at home with her mom, who sold cigarettes, one or two at a time, occasionally a full pack. Sold locally made booze, too, by the shot glass. Stuff that escaped the eye of the taxman.

Mom never sold food because her eleven children, including Tip who was number five, would eat all the food before she could sell it. Mom never went to school, but she could count. Seems all slum moms know how to count.

Tip remembers her dad fondly. He would gently pick her up every morning and place her in her wheelchair before he went off to the port to look for day labor, which usually involved carrying 100 kg. rice sacks up and down gangplanks. He told her many times, "Tip my beloved, special daughter, never give up hope. Never stop trying." She listened.

It couldn't have been easy to believe her dad. Imagine if ever since you can remember, it was drilled into you daily that your ailments made you second class and that it was your own fault, probably because of sins you committed in a previous lifetime. Brainwashed in this way, you become, you remain, always fragile.

It's surely worse for Tip since her husband walked. Back when she was 26, no one had ever told her she was pretty, so she was beguiled by a guy with a sweet mouth as we say in Thai. She got pregnant, her dad had a conversation with the guy, and he stayed. Later her husband learned how to be an assistant bartender, and left her.

 

But life goes on.


Current matters in the slums aren't helping business at all. Since the drug wars started, kiosk sales are way down. No one is around after dark to buy anything. People are afraid of strangers riding by on motorcycles. Mostly, they're afraid of the strangers' guns. So when the kiosks are able to stay open 12 hours a day, they average only150 baht total sales, and your profit has to come from that. Its pretty thin, fragile. Economically, it's the pits.

Yet somehow, fragile or not, Tip and her Five Kiosk Workforce are the strength of the new Klong Toey. They are more than pioneers, they are heroes. How does that story line from the TV show go? Something like ... they dream and go where no one else has ever dared to go. We, you and I, we the children born of lesser gods, cannot afford to lose them.

It's a sacred place, Klong Toey, (It means "Canal of the Pandanus Leaves"). It's a place where Ms Kanok-tip on her wobbly wheelchair and her bent crutches can not only survive but even prosper, albeit in a humble Klong Toey way. If you are passing by, stop and buy a soft drink. And if you wish, please do wish her and her Chapter a happy and prosperous New Year.