By Father Joe Maier
It's not one of Klong Toey's finest hours. In fact, it's an ugly moment -- a monster moment. Stray dogs attacked and almost killed a two-year-old child. This all began at midnight in a particularly dark alley of Klong Toey in Bangkok. Auntie Dang, a 62-year-old grandmum, got the call to go to work. "Come quickly," the voice on the mobile phone demanded. "The game is about to start. We need a dhon tang."
"Dhon tang" in slum slang is a "lookout lady". Dhon tangs are paid by gaCSmblers to watch for police or, worse, for gangsters who trash gambling pits and steal the money.
Auntie Dang is the head of a dysfunctional Klong Toey shack with no table, no chairs -- only a refrigerator, one fan and a single lightbulb over a squat toilet. This is where she lives and sleeps on the floor with her three grandchildren. The middle grandchild is Master Jai, the dog-mauled two-year-old. Also in the shack is Auntie's younger alcoholic sister. She has two of her own small children. Lastly, Auntie's own adult daughter crowds into the place every now and again. She does nightly service at a local karaoke joint that serves every need of its customers. A grog shop, they call it.
On the night in question, Aunty Dang hurried down the dark alleyway outside her shack next to the Slaughter House Flats. She told a neighbour that she'd gone out at midnight to buy a bowl of noodles. That's her story.
A nasty pack of dogs were there, gathered near the Slaughter House Flats. Auntie always carries a walking stick and she whacked the nearest dog -- just for good measure. Sent the dog howling.
Two-year-old Jai had watched her leave the shack. She swore later that she hadn't noticed him. Or maybe she didn't want to notice. No matter.
He was supposed to be asleep and stay asleep while she was gone. If he woke up, the blaring telly would keep him occupied. Or would it? He wet the bed and woke up soaking wet, smelly, hungry and, like every two-year-old everywhere, afraid of the dark. He chased after Auntie.
He cried out to her in the alleyway. She didn't notice, or maybe didn't want to notice. No matter. The gamblers phoned again, told her to hurry, hurry. They needed a lookout.
Jai couldn't catch up. She disappeared around a corner. He lost track of her, fell and began crying louder. Maybe he startled the dogs. No one knows. All we know is that a pack of seven or eight dogs savagely mauled a terrified boy. He was too young to holler "Help me, help me", so he screamed only "Ma, Ma, Ma".
Ma wasn't within earshot. She was already on patrol for the gamblers.
After midnight in the slums, residents turn an ear towards commotion. It jerks you awake, pulls you from your bed. There were screams as though from a baby -- "Ma! Ma! Ma!" -- and dogs barking, snarling, fighting. People emerged from their shacks and ran towards the commotion. They swung sticks, legs, anything to chase the dogs away. There was silence. Later, doctors would count more than 100 punctures on Jai from toothmarks and scratches too many to count. Jai's skin had ripped off him like peelings from an orange. Intestines were exposed.
The locals knew the boy and they began to shout for his auntie: "Dang! Dang! Dang!"
Through the din of gamblers she heard them. She arrived at the scene to find a crowd gathered around her tiny grandson. Her neighbours screamed at her, cursed her; some women even hit and kicked her.
Jai remained unconscious in the alleyway. Auntie Dang gathered up his body and looked around for help. A motorcycle taxi driver said he would take her for free to a hospital seven minutes away. Arriving at the hospital, she said she didn't have any money. The hospital treated the boy for free.
Miraculously, Jai didn't die.
UNIVERSAL SLUM RULES
Today Auntie Dang must wear her shame. Everyone from around the alleyway and the adjoining Slaughter House Flats knows what happened that night. Auntie Dang broke the rules. The universal slum rules on proper ethics and etiquette. Gambling scams and drugs are bad, but criminal neglect of two-year-olds? That's lower than the lowest -- the rock bottom rule to break.
Jai survived, yes, but we still don't know how his body will recover from more than 100 infectious bites. Some of the bites barely missed puncturing his left eye. He will see again, doctors say, but the eye will forever be scarred. As will Jai. No telling what nightmares await or how the vicious attack will affect his psyche.
So, this story is one to be told and retold. Mistakes become lessons in that way.
As for Auntie Dang, she's not yet divulged her role in the story. Her version of events goes like this: She took the expected call on her mobile phone. There were a couple of new players at the table, strangers flashing money. At the same time, there were rumours that that night's game could maybe expect to be interrupted by cops or gangsters.
The voice on the other end of Auntie Dang's mobile promised to charge the strangers a fee to join the game and that fee would become the dhon tang stipend. She sees nothing wrong with taking the job. In her mind, the consequences that followed are not her fault.
"Stupid brat." That's how she later referred to her two-year-old grandson. She says the mauling he endured was "his own karma" -- bad luck inherited from his bargirl mum and long-gone slum father. A neighbour recorded her saying it.
In interviews with police she skipped that part and said only that most nights Jai would sleep through all the noise of the slum and the loud TV. This would allow her to leave in the middle of the night and scare up some income as a dhon tang.
The fact Jai was mauled by a pack of dogs, blame the mother, she said. Her daughter should have been home watching Jai instead of working in a slum pub until the wee hours of the morning.
As a general rule, slum grandmothers who have lived all their lives on the far side of the law do not tell the truth. It can complicate life; make a mess of things. Usually, when you are responsible for this, that or the other, recounting the story exactly the way it happened would bring only more problems -- such as questions about gambling dens. That's the Klong Toey mentality. So grandmothers lie to avoid responsibility.
The morning after Jai's mauling, the Bangkok municipality collected 51 (yes, 51) stray dogs from the immediate area. But that is only a beginning; there are many left. People are now afraid to go out at night without a big stick for protection.
In the slums everyone knows who's responsible and who's at fault for Jai's near death. But in finer quarters of Bangkok, people only know what they saw in the papers and online: news of a dog attack and horrid photos of a child's face posted on Facebook.
Today, if you could see Auntie Dang at the hospital, you might not recognise her as the slum's dhon tang guilty of child neglect. In her new role as Jai's doting grandmum, she looks all cleaned up with hair freshly combed. You'd think she'd won the lottery. And, in a way, I guess she did.
The other day a well-dressed lady in high heels came into the hospital and asked where this poor granny was who had cared for the dog-mauled two-year-old boy. The pretty lady had seen the news and grim photos of the boy on Facebook.
She found Auntie Dang and handed her an envelope -- a well-endowed envelope intended to help Jai. Then the lady pulled out her camera phone and took a "selfie" to show her friends that she had actually delivered the donation for the dog-mauled boy.
This was the third such envelope of the day delivered to Auntie Dang. She'd received two other well-endowed envelopes the previous evening, but that money was gone. Lost them playing Hi-Lo.
Usually, when old ladies gamble, they do not play Hi-Lo. It's too risky a game for elderly blood pressure. They prefer a more mundane, genteel form of gambling. But Auntie Dang was feeling heady and lucky with her newfound "wealth". For a day she was a "player" -- not a slum dhon tang.
No matter, the money had been donated with singular intent: to help Jai. Naturally, Auntie Dang says her intention was to win and turn the donation into even greater wealth. But it's anyone's guess whether or not the money would have ever benefited Jai.
So, what of tomorrow? Well, Master Jai shall fully recover. Hopefully. Meanwhile, we can make sure all of the children crowded into Auntie Dang's shack go to school. This will inject a bit of regularity and food into their lives.
As for Auntie Dang, the police asked enough questions of enough people that they were able to stop the gambling. For now.
They also gave Auntie Dang a stern lecture about childcare versus child neglect. Will she listen and learn? She swears she will -- even swore in front of her Sacred Statues to love Jai with all her heart.
Do we believe her? No matter. For now she remains Jai's primary caregiver despite the obvious gamble.
Last Friday night our beloved slum beside the slaughter house burned down. Nobody lite a match, it doesn’t happen that way. However, Seventy year old wooden shacks – seventy year old wiring – over-loaded circuits. Lights left on in an abandoned shack. It was horrible. An area the size of two city blocks completely devastated. Nothing was left standing.
But our kids – now fire victims - are okay. All of them. No one hurt. No one had to go to the hospital emergency room. Some scratches, burns and bruises, but nothing worse. There won’t be any scars, except the fear, the horror and lasting night mares of the children.
It was near midnight. The electricity went out, and the only light was from the flames. This fire ‘hurt’ me, Fr. Joe, more than most. This slum is my home; where I grew up as a young slaughter house priest.
Those over 45 years ago, we all started with nothing, really. Our first make-shift chapel under a bridge next to a railroad track, then in a wooden, tin roof slum house, finally the second floor above an illegal school. In those days, our slaughter house kids were too poor and too much laughed at because they lived literally above and beside the pig holding pens in the slaughter house. No school wanted them, and those who did, our kids dropped out in weeks because all the other kids bullied them, scorned them. So we began our own kindergarten in a non-used pig pen, - anything to ‘get started.’
Yes, that was years ago, but these memories flashed through my mind, as I stood there, watching the flames. And the original community, with and wooden shack homes haven’t changed that much.
Those kids, now adults, educated, send their own kids, even grandkids to our kindergarten, escaped with their lives and little more.
Forty five shacks/ homes, and seventy three families – over twenty children.
The house I ‘grew up in’ in the slums as a young priest – trashed…. The 2nd floor completely burned out, roof caved in, windows all broken.
Slum Fire is ugly. Not nice to anyone– doesn’t care: just burns and burns, till there is nothing left. And the wind –fickle: blows the fire this way and that. No favourites. Doesn’t really care how much you plead nor beg. After 3 hours, the wind switched back on itself, and the burning didn’t spread any further. But the damage was done; forty six wooden shacks and seventy six families.
I was there, a few steps away, in safety, holding a couple of six years old by the hand – to dry their tears. A boy was holding a charred statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary which he and his sister had run back into the flames of their burning shack to rescue. No mum to stop them as she is in prison.
I kept telling the kids: Don’t worry; we can build a new house, and in the morning, buy you some new school clothes so you can go back to school on Monday. And then they started to console me, as I ‘choked up a bit.’ They said … Don’t worry, fr. Joe, we will take care of you.
And as you know we NEVER close our schools. Our slaughter house kindergarten of course has moved out from that un-used pig pen of years ago to another part of the slum - small child walking distance, but safe from the fire area. Two of the fire victim families with no place to stay, came and ‘set up camp.’ A couple days in the school.
Now, they are with relatives near-by.
Together, in partnership, with district office, local police, army and hospitals and the temple and the schools our community will bounce back, that’s what we do here in the slum. The slum might look weak and fragile from the outside, houses made of rotten wood and families poorly dressed. But we are stronger that some might think – we have (unfortunately) many years of experience with fires and accidents and tragedies – HOWEVER we always come back and we will this time too.
Dear everyone. Blessings for Chinese New Year and the whole year of the Rooster.
Xin Jia Yu Yi Xin Ni Huad Xai
The Soothsayers tell us, that these are very special days.
Beginning with today, Thursday. The day we are to have paid all our debts and give red/pink envelopes to all the children and younger members of our family. The money is to be fresh bills, and of an even number, 40 or 60 or 80 Baht, and yes, they can go and buy candy, but they are supposed to keep the money, so that they will have money to use all year long. That means, here at Mercy, me being the oldest, and being “Father Joe” to prepare envelopes for everyone.
Then tomorrow Friday, is the day to pay respect to our ancestors and to make merit at the temple, or in Church.
Then Saturday, is the day to relax. No work. To go and visit near-by relatives. To have a special meal, already prepared by the grandmothers and mothers for weeks already. The annual house cleaning should already have been done. In the kitchen, the rice cooker is to be sparkling clean, ready to cook new rice, and thus have rice to eat for the whole year.
And to wear red clothing – the color of joy, of happiness, or at least a red ribbon, but certainly not dark colors.
Here at Mercy during Holy Mass we tell the children that they cannot say any bad words these whole three days , otherwise the words will stick in our mouth all year, and come out in our conversations, even when we don’t want them to.
And lest I forget, we must have firecrackers. Absolutely necessary to make noise, and frighten the nasty spirits back into the old year where they are caught, and thus we can begin the New Year happy and joyful.
All of us here wish you a Joyful and Blessed New Year.
Prayers – Fr. Joe and our 150 Mercy children, and all of our 33 slum shack schools and camp site schools, and 3,500 kindergarten kids and the sea gypsy kids and everyone.
It is a New Year and Mercy Centre is thriving as always with children’s play and laughter at every corner. The weather this time of year is pleasant, not hot not cold, no flood and no harsh sun. However, in the South of Thailand it has not been like this. Over Christmas the Southern provinces have experienced an unusual bad monsoon and almost half of the country has been flooded resulting in over 30 deaths, broken train tracks, collapsed bridges and closed airports. People have lost their homes and farmers have lost their crops.
Our Mercy home in Ranong was also hit but thankfully nothing more severe than a flooded 1st floor and some broken furniture.
Others were not that lucky and on Wednesday during the annual staff meeting we all gave donations to be sent down to help those affected in the Southern provinces.
Children’s Day (Sports Day)
Saturday 14 January is the national Children’s Day in Thailand and all over Bangkok there will be fun events and activities for our Klong Toey kids to participate in. This day is all about enjoying life as the young and celebrating the new generation – and our Mercy children will be accompanied by the house parents and travel to as many fun events they can manage in a day :)
Today Friday 13 January the Thai schools arrange their yearly Sports Day and all of our Mercy schools engaged with amazing outfits, happy songs and great enthusiasm to show their athletic skills and most importantly strong team work. We even had an Olympic Flame!
For more great pictures and a video from this super fun day see our YouTube and Facebook
This year, 2017, it is 45 years since HDF Mercy Centre opened their first school doors and the first set of children’s feet were skipping of excitement and loads of energy to start learning writing and arithmetic’s; and grateful parents that finally had a place their children could be safe, fed and cared for while they worked.
50,000 Kindergarten graduates later HDF Mercy Centre will be hosting a series of events and activities throughout the year. To honor the ones who have supported us and made it possible to continue and expanding for the last 45 years; and also to invite new members of our extend family to join us and help us spread the word of the children and every partner we have in the shanty slums of Klong Toey and Bangkok. Please do join us to show the world who we are and most importantly how amazing our children are and that we will continue to work in partnership with the poorest of the poor for many more years to come – our job is far from done.
Stay tuned for more information of upcoming events!
Happy weekend to you all
We are somber but joyful today. Somber because of the Passing of His Royal Highness, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Yet joyful because of his 70 years as Father of our Beloved Land. We miss him, and as one hears on the streets, the Thai expression goes:
Our Beloved dad has died and then they all continue: but don’t worry, we his children will look after the house and our home.
And that is what today is exactly about. We are looking after the house, even though there has been a death in the family. Life goes on.
- Right now the best way to show loyalty and to mourn is to pursue the King’s teachings and we in the shanty slums of Klong Toey will do exactly that.
Also joyful today because we are celebrating this wonder of life with three hundred & eighty elderly folks – mostly grannies who care for our school children. Officially it’s National Welfare Day here in Thailand and Klong Toey, and usually we would have a big party. Today we celebrated in honor of His Royal Highness – we are all wearing black (we wear black every day but today we wore an extra nice black shirt), we said a beautiful poem about our deepest respect for His tireless work. And that we will continue to honor his name by doing our best for the country, for the people – and we had 99 second of silence, in remembrance of Rama IX.
Our staff and 10 of “our” street kids handed out bags of rice, noodles, canned food, cooking oil and hygienic products to our glorious grannies. National Heroine day would be a better name. Where our grand ladies - wrinkled and grey. However, as the wonderful French expression goes - the BLOOM IS NOT OFF THE ROSE. Our grand ladies with their five & six year olds. Look after as best as they can; that the kids do their homework, that they shower in the morning and that they remember their backpacks when they are picked up in the afternoon. These lovely grand ladies do all this while the mums are working or missing and they are reasonably nice to the dads when/if they come around sometimes.
So yes, there is rice and cooking oil, but also a bit of candy for their grandchildren whom they care for – make a home for.
Our school here at Mercy Centre normally has 350 children. Today there are about 100 as it is October School break, and most of the children are with their older brothers and sisters, also out of school for a few days, or have traveled to the Provinces to be with relatives who work the rice fields. But we keep school open for the remaining 100 who have no other place to go during the day, except our school. So yes, we have school, but more games and sweets and some nice person just gave us enough teddy bears…. About 100 teddy bears so there is enough – one for everyone. The same for the slaughter house school - they need a place and we give them a place – A home. And all you good folks who are reading this, share in this ... are giving our kids a home and a teddy bear.
And together with the grannies and the kids and the teddy bears we will continue our work in celebration of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 70 year long reign - His Endless Mercifulness is Imprinted in Every Thai Heart Forever.
Fr Joe & all the kids and staff
We asked our slum kids for their version of our Christmas legend. To write us a song of Baby Jesus and Klong Toey.
Their own song also tells of the old proverb: Those in power write the history, and those who suffer write the songs.
Of course, our kids love the traditional account of Blessed Lady Mary & Joseph and Baby Jesus, who came to Bethlehem. Of Angels singing in High Heavens. The Star shinning in the East, guiding the three Wise Men and the Shepherds: the Birth of the Son of God.
Their song begins when Pregnant Lady Blessed Mary had to leave her home in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem.
Why did she have to go? She just had to. Joseph had to go to follow government regulations to pay his family tax, and she had to /wanted to go with him.
So back to Klong Toey, our children pooled their lunch money for ‘instant noodles’ for pregnant Mary to eat along the way. Plus, some cookies which you can buy in the fresh market. Cheaper than the store.
As the three day journey to Bethlehem was certainly dangerous, the children didn’t know exactly what to do about that. But they decided to give Blessed Mary some money for her Sim card for her phone... in case she ran out, and maybe if Joseph needed to call for help – he could even our kids and they, for sure, would come to scare away the bad guys. And our kids would buy Joseph a whistle that sounds like a policeman’s whistle to blow also.