24 October 2010

A Slum that Defies Expectations

We have been in Thailand for two months and right about now is when homesickness is starting to kick in. I find myself longing for my bed, garden and family. I think about the way my house smells when my mom bakes pumpkin muffins and how magical my backyard looks when the leaves change colors. I love the way the wood floor feels on my feet and how comfortable our front porch is. To me, this is home.

Our second unit was focused on Urban Trends. We spent our time exploring landfills, slums, and markets. I was especially excited to hear more about the organization of slum communities during the unit.

Before we departed for a visit to the slum I thought I should mentally prepare myself for what I was about to see. I envisioned us driving to a new part of the city where I had never been. We have lived in Khon Kaen for two months and I had not yet seen a slum. I just assumed that I was on the wrong side of town.

However, we were only in the van for about ten minutes before we arrived at our destination of the Non Wang slum community. To my surprise, I found myself standing in the shadow of the biggest commercial mall in Khon Kaen. I must have passed this area fifty times and never thought twice about these houses.

Many of members of Nong Wang are descendents of people who were once farmers but migrated to the city in search of economic prosperity. However, when they arrived, they took low paying jobs as construction workers for SRT, Thailand’s biggest Train Company. As their workers, SRT encouraged them to live near the tracks in order to be close to work and avoid transportation issues. As a result, many settled along the side of the tracks but received no land rights.

Although the construction job has been completed for decades, their houses still remain on the side of the tracks. Today, the government is planning to move this community and build a train station where their houses are currently located. The community is scheduled to be moved in November of this year about seven kilometers away.

While we were walking through the slum I expected to see despair and I found the opposite. We arrived around the time work was ending and everybody was outside relaxing. The houses were fairly well kept and the community was beautiful. Kids were riding bikes and running around. We were greeted with huge warm smiles by anyone we walked passed. It was clear they knew the land, their neighbors, and how to live together. This is their home and even though it was a slum there was a lot of joy in their community.

When I first learned about the relocating of the Nong Wang community, I immediately thought “They should definitely take the deal. Get out of here and start new.” But I was missing the point. Some of these families have been living in the same house for sixty years. This place is not just a line of houses. A home is much more than four walls. A home has memories, community, and gives people a sense of belongingness. To them, this is their home and their community. No amount of compensation can replace a home, or a tight community, even if they only move seven kilometers away.

Abby Bok
Hope College


Emily said...

Wow! It was great to hear your perspective on the Nong Wang community, Babs! One thing that I really connected with was your preconceptions of a slum community. I felt the same way when reading that you expected the slum to be far away from home and full of despair. I also enjoyed seeing so much joy in that community, but it made me think that I didn’t really need to go to Thailand to study slums; there are hundreds of them in my own backyard in Chicago. This thought really emphasized the classification of those people as the “periphery” to me and how they should be put in the forefront. Last, your conclusion also moved me. Personally, if the government tried to force me to move from the house that I grew up in to my neighbor’s house across the street, I’m not sure I would accept compensation either.

Jessica said...

I love your thoughts on what home is; as someone who spent their entire life until college in the same “home” this issue really resonated with me. Several generations haven’t occupied my home but I couldn’t imagine the idea of the only place and community I have ever known as home, suddenly being taken away from me.
I think Non Wang is a perfect example of how it doesn’t take much to see problems. Many of the realities of life are hidden from us. They appear far and distant and not a part of our lives, when in reality, they are right under our noses. The slums in Khon Kaen were so close to central and like you, I’d passed them many times without giving them a single thought. I wonder how many slums or problems are in my hometown and I’ve never known about them because I failed take the time to look or seek them out. How many issues never get addressed because people simply don’t take the time to acknowledge them?

Brett Srader said...

Babs! Over the past few weeks Nong Wang had begun to slip into that dark part of my brain where things tend to rarely return from. Reading your post reminded me of the heart-felt closing I gave at the closing of our exchange with them. I still can't fathom how the villagers view themselves as criminals for living on land that has always belonged to their people. Land that has only been divided, sold and titled for a minuscule period of its life. Ownership of land is an idea that really disgusts me. If land is meant to support life than how can one human being (or non-sentient multi-national corporation own it)? Same with the rivers that are now being clogged with concrete for the purpose of watering the land that no longer belongs to the people it is supposed to feed. We must begin to rethink the meaning of land ownership and the power it has to corrupt, disempower and destroy the balance that life so strongly depends on. Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth" speaks to the importance and limitations of owning land. It may seem to last forever but this assumes your descendants have not been corrupted by corporate capitalism and encouraged to sell it off to Monsanto or Cargill. Put land back in the hands of villagers and seek to established communal ownership. This is a strong first step all nations can begin to implement.

Maddie said...

Abby, your reaction to the slum community was very similar to mine. When we were told that we would be going to the slums I pictured over crowded alleys, and houses made of mud. I pictured myself eating bugs, watching rats scurry across the floor, or being caught up in a few drug deals. With these pictures in mind I was surprised upon arriving to the slum community. Yes, they may be a little tight on money, and yes, I may have woken up ten times throughout the night by passing trains, and yes, I met some of the happiest people I have ever encountered.
Although the slum community may be categorized as poor, the people of the community are rich in so many other things. They are rich in community. They are rich in love. And to me, the word slum is a bad way to describe where we went. It was here, in the slum, that I finally realized what it means to be a part of a community. Since being in Thailand, I have encountered many different communities: the community of our own ten-person group, and the many communities we have visited throughout the semester. A sense of communities around the world is important. It brings people together to talk, to laugh, to eat, and to smile. It’s about time that all communities of the world come together to create solidarity, and in turn, to create change in the world. The slum we visited is a perfect example of this.

Anonymous said...

It pains me to admit it to myself, but for so long I have taken my home for granted. I live a life of privilege. I have always been thankful that my parents were able to afford a house and successfully put a roof over my head. But I never understood what it meant to have a home until I visited the slum community. Living in poverty, the Nong Wang community is so appreciative of life and happy to be surrounded by friends and family. I was inspired by their dedication and passion. I want to live every day treasuring my surroundings. I need to acknowledge what it means to be involved and belong to a community. The Nong Wang villagers were rich in spirit, compassion, wisdom, and solidarity. In many ways, I envied their outlook and perspective on life. It was enlightening to share an evening exchanging words with the villagers. They have a lot to offer.