Thursday, 26 June 2008

Nan's New School

Mangorn and Mali make an offering for the new harvest.

Gong, Nan and Gi at their new school.

Our village far out on the rice plains of North Eastern Thailand has a cosy little school which I always enjoy visiting. With about ninety five children and classes of only ten it may be poor in material terms but it has a wonderful caring atmosphere. It’s a happy place the kids will remember all their lives and it doesn’t matter much if it fails to turn them into academic giants.

I often ask myself what the objective of education in schools such as this one should be anyway. Basic literacy and numeracy are essential but any striving for greater achievement will only take the children away from the village as there are simply no opportunities here.

If you want to get ahead you have to get away, rejecting the simple life of the rice farmer. Agriculture offers few rewards and so education is the answer for those who want to escape the rice fields. Ironically a really good school would thus only wean its best and brightest away from the community and so perhaps contribute to its ultimate decline.

Nan, Cat’s sparky little cousin who lives with us has recently finished at the village school and we had a long debate about where she should go next. The normal progression is to a secondary school a few villages further up the road but Nan is an able child and perhaps worth something better. We wondered about a school in Surin town but decided that one of the two schools in nearby Sangkha would be a more practicable choice.

She and her friends in the top class went ahead and sat the entrance exam and all of them failed to win a place.

We piled them into the pickup and drove in to the school to get the results, full of anticipation and excitement. All was smiles and laughter as they hopelessly scanned the list for their names. Cat then found a school administrator sitting behind a big wooden desk and a long parley began. I was in the dark as always and the outcome emerged only after a matter of weeks.

It’s no secret around here that the way into a good school is money under the table, usually about 5,000 baht which is a tidy sum. An English teacher friend then told me they’re cracking down on this and that it might not be so easy to find a way in. This proved to be true but in a rather different way.

It was not 5,000 baht but three annual instalments of 8,000 baht that they were now asking for each child.

Whether this was regular or not I have no idea, but it all looked perfectly proper. From what Cat was telling me, the school was resisting making classes any larger by taking extra kids and so were creating new classes to absorb the high demand. This imposes additional costs and Cat was given a sheet on which all the figures were efficiently laid out. The cost of three extra classes divided by the number of heads came to about 8,000 baht a year each so that was the key to gain admission to the school.

It seemed cheap at the price and I was perfectly happy to stump up for Nan as she’s worth every satang spent on her education. My problem was that it didn’t stop there.

In my new book, MY THAI GIRL AND I ’ there’s a chapter about Cat’s older brother, Mangorn and his wife Mali and about their tough life raising a family. For me they personify the fine qualities of the Isaan farmer, working hard and intelligently for very little reward. The big hurdle for them is now the cost of education for Gi and Gong, their strapping non-identical twins.

As a family they are very resilient but sometimes there are set-backs. Recently their cow house burned down and one of the cows was killed. Gong broke his knee very badly while working in Bangkok in the school holiday and the operations cost them a small fortune.

Gi had been awarded a scholarship to go to a school that would qualify him to be a sports teacher as he was a talented Thai boxer and athlete. After less than a year he suffered a serious injury to his eyes and the whole thing came to an end.

Both boys were drifting and Mali wanted to get them into the same school as Nan in Sangkha to give them a better chance in life. For two boys the cost in fees, uniforms, food and transport was prohibitive and one that few ordinary rice farming families with little land could possibly manage.

They’re delightful young men, polite and handsome so how could I say no. My hand thus went into my pocket again and I paid the first year’s instalment for both of them. I now wonder about the future.

Cat is in full time education too, and with Nan and the two boys I now need to set up a charitable foundation specializing in education! My miniscule pension based on ten years’ service at a university in England certainly doesn’t stretch to paying for all of them and I have to stop shelling out somewhere.

Mangorn and his boys thus need a stroke of luck. Where can we find funds that will pay for a few years of education for these two talented young men and start them out in life?

I have no idea but I do know that they’re worth it.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Who Ate My Pussy?

I wrote not so long ago about how Leo, our puppy, was knocked down and killed by an ice truck. Our pets have certainly suffered a high mortality rate as life round here in the village seems precarious for animals.

A month or two back, just as I was going to Bangkok to deal with the design and production of my new book, our lovely dog, Pepsi, suffered a major crisis in her nether regions. Since her last litter of puppies she’d been spotting blood from time to time but now was bleeding badly. She wasn’t eating at all and was looking very hang dog.

I only realized how bad she was in the last hours before we were due to leave and she looked accusingly at me as we boarded the tuk tuk to go to Sangkha to catch the Bangkok bus. I really wasn’t sure I’d see her again and I felt sick at heart abandoning her like this.

Once in Bangkok I couldn’t get her out of my mind and I made Cat phone home for regular health bulletins which. The family found this quite hilarious but soon the news was better and they told us that Pepsi was now eating again.

On getting back to the village I insisted that we go immediately to Surin to look for a vet. Eventually we found a government clinic and went into a large office where officials were asleep at their desks and eating takeaway noodles.

One of the men looked up from his lunch and spoke at length to Cat in Thai. One word kept recurring… ‘chemo, chemo’. Pepsi must be brought in for chemotherapy he was insisting.

But why? There’s absolutely nothing to suggest she has cancer. Surely she just needs to be speyed to deal with her gynae problems and to avoid a prolapse and the risk of future cancers.

Can I trust these people to reach a sensible diagnosis though and not to kill her if we bring her in to be speyed?

Pepsi is now as bright as ever but I wish there was a vet I could talk to about it in my own language as I don’t know what to do. The local practice is not to do anything if your dog is sick and to get another one when it dies, but I want to do better for her than that.

Keeping your pets alive around here is even more difficult as not only do they die of accidents and natural causes but they also tend to get eaten. Everyone disapproves of this as it’s theft and only the dishonest will steal a dog... at least the neighbour who offered Cat a hundred baht for Pepsi was open and honest. Disappearances are common nonetheless.

Trucks occasionally come round buying dogs and they are shipped off by the hundreds to Sakhon Nakhon where there’s a large Vietnamese population. They’ll give you a plastic bucket or two for a dog and this is what happened to another puppy we had, also called Leo. She had killed a chicken so it seems she had to go. I was away in England at the time and I’m sure that was her fate.

I think Soda’s two cute little shi’dzoodle puppies were also eaten while I was away as Cat seemed reluctant to tell me what happened to them when I got back. I’m pretty sure the neighbours ate them both and that Cat knows exactly who did the dreadful deed, though she won’t tell me who.

The French eat horse and the Chinese eat everything but sentimentality readily gives way to the need for protein and those of us who shop in supermarkets should not be too judgmental. It does highlight the differences in our cultural assumptions though in a very stark way.

When an era ago I lived in Nigeria, I had an American anthropologist friend called Eugene Mendonsa. He’d earlier done research among the Sisala people of Ghana and when he was packing up he’d had to find a home for his cat. He’d given it away to a friend and the next day he was a little shocked when the friend handed him back the skin and told him how tasty it had been.

In my Thai village we’ve now had three generations of pussy cats all of them delightful, the friendliest cats I’ve ever known. Bee, our current year old cat, plays happily with the dogs and never puts her claws out when she’s mauled around by the children, though as somebody probably ate her mother and her grandmother, I fear we’re only feeding her up for the chop.

I hesitate to write about what happens to our pets again as it’s not a very upbeat subject. I’m also worried about my blog as when some months ago I wrote of the death of our puppy, the hits on the web counter fell by about thirty percent and I’m not really sure why.

Like every blogger I want my blog to be read and so I regularly watch my web counter with interest. Particularly fascinating is to click on ‘Referrals’ which gives the website links through which readers have found me. Many of these hits are the haphazard result of Google and Yahoo searches, some of them bizarre in the extreme.

I can’t help noticing the searches for ‘Thai girl’ or ‘Thai girls’ and I find this rather curious. What exactly are these people searching for?

I have a number of theories on this. First of all, I think they must be searching for the well-known novel of that name, though if not, the searchers could be young western women looking for a Thai pen friend.

I try to discount the thought that they’re solitary males as surely they would search for ‘Thai women’ and not for ‘Thai girls’ which is distinctly sexist. In any event, if that’s what they’re looking for they must find my blog very disappointing.

I’m wondering if I got fewer hits at that time because I wrote about a dead dog and so I'd now like to try an experiment. If I post this blog, ‘Who Ate My Pussy?’ what will happen to the hits?

If traffic increases, it must be because there’s a lot of cat lovers out there. In urban society dogs could be out of fashion and it’s 'pussy' everyone wants to read about.

So am I right about this do you think, or am I barking up the wrong bush?

If you get my meaning, that is!