Father Joe's Articles
A poor scavenger in the slums, Miss Na went through life and into death without a name, writes FATHER JOE MAIER
Her nickname was Miss Na. She had to think twice to remember her given name, written down in some official ledger/computer somewhere. Everyone called her Na.
Na was the oldest daughter in a street family. She and her family actually lived under a grove of Sacred Trees, here in Klong Toey, in the crudest of shelters. There's maybe (if you'd buy it new from the store) 200 baht total worth of material in the three shacks. No electricity of course. Water is hand carried and bought, for 5 baht a bucket, from a slum lady about 100 metres away. They make their living as scavengers, but nowadays, with our economic boom you see lots of folks scavenging. The competition is fierce.
And of course, their lives are at the mercy of the whims of the going-bald fat lady who buys their scavanged goods. She doesn't ask questions about anything they bring, and of course, there's a price attached to her silence, isn't there?
You get a better price down the street, but then, there's always questions. Take your choice.
They've lived in the grove several years now. They feel safe there; that the spirits of the place protect them. The trees are old.
We're not sure, but they were probably planted over 50 years ago around an original temple here in Klong Toey.
With the development of the port, the authorities moved the whole temple to a more viable, accessible location next to a main road and out of the middle of the port area because it did not seem proper to have a holy place in the commercial setting.
But no one dug up the trees and they have flourished there for 50 years. They're special trees, that is, the type you plant around a temple. That's where Miss Na and her family moved after a slum fire some years ago.
She died - almost - in prison, but not finally until in the hospital. She was 23 years old. She was innocent. She did not use drugs, she didn't peddle drugs. She hated drugs, but was sitting there under the trees when the police came.
The whole place reeked of glue. The men in the clan sniffed glue when they could afford it as it's usually cheaper than booze.
A dragnet, they grabbed her also. Accomplice. It looks good in the records - the more you catch, the more rewards.
That junk yard dog bit one of them, when they made a move towards Miss Na. She ran in panic and they chased her down.
That's when the dog bit the policeman. That made him angry, and maybe that's why they arrested Miss Na too.
She shouldn't have run. They can do anything they want, you know. Everyone said she was clean.
So, she spent three hard years in women's prison and was going on four. I say "hard" because she had no money to buy whatever you need inside and to protect yourself from the predators.
"Almost" dying in prison means that three days before she died of Aids, she was finally shipped to a hospital near the prison. It's not good for prison records if there are too many deaths during any particular year. Goofs up the statistics.
So she died in a hospital nearby. There's a really good team of social workers, folks who care. They didn't know her, but stayed with her, holding her hand when she died.
It helped when they told her mom that her daughter hadn't died alone. Someone was there with her. And they could tell her that Miss Na's last word was "mom".
They phoned us. Did we know such and such a family living under the Sacred Trees in the Klong Toey Slum?
We found her mom and relatives under the grove of trees cooking plain rice, eating it with salt. Nothing else. Scavenging hadn't been good lately.
During those three years, her mom never visited Miss Na. Not even once. Mom didn't know the bus routes and didn't have enough money for bus fare even if she did. Besides that, Mom's documents were not quite in order. While she was a second generation Thai born, she never got her documentation in order as the dirt poor don't have money for such things.
Anyway, this team of really caring social workers came from the hospital and we led them to Mom and told Mom her daughter was dead.
They gave her the death certificate, and of course, it being monsoon season, the death certificate got wet in the rain. Plus, Na's brother, drunk on glue fumes, tore off the dry part of the document and used it for cigarette paper.
That afternoon, after the rain, Mom went with one of our social workers to the hospital, but she could not retrieve the body as there was no death certificate.
No documents equals no releasing of the body. Rules, you know. We tried with a copy, but that wouldn't wash. We needed the original.
But no matter, we had prayers at the temple and we made the donation to the monks. It's horrible to be so poor you don't have enough money for a religious funeral, so we helped, as did some neighbours in the slum.
There weren't the total chants and prayers. You see, for a full religious service, you need a body, and we couldn't get the body out of the hospital. So we prayed different prayers, quickly in front of the main, or the crematorium.
The monks at the slum people's friendly temple were kind. They always are. We prayed - as much as is allowed by custom - without a body present. Lots of neighbours came. Everyone had heard the story.
The next day we went to the hospital, although her mom didn't dare go, because as I said, Mom herself doesn't have any papers, and thus does not exist.
They cremated the body of 23-year-old Miss Na. Because it was a no name body, they put her in a new furnace which isn't yet tickety tickety boo, and which they still need a couple bodies to experiment with so they get the temperature right.
I recognised her picture. She had finished kindergarten at one of our slum schools. Although her mom didn't have a Thai ID card for this, her only daughter, she did have a picture and an ID card written in English from "the Store Front Church" down the street.
Her mom just sat there, rocking herself back and forth, saying over and over, like a chant, "Na, Momma loves you. Momma loves you."
Her real name was Bua - like the lotus flower - beautiful, pure, and reaching for the warm rays of the sun. Her little sister is now beginning kindergarten at 10 years of age, and maybe there is a chance she can get proper documentation. Her dad once had papers somewhere, in one of the remote provinces.
There must be a record, somewhere.