I could see them looking around for the rest of the house, where were the doors leading to the bedrooms and why was the toilet in the lounge room?
The room that we stood in, it was the house.
There were no doorways leading to other rooms because there were no other rooms. The house that had served this family for the past forty years was smaller than a single room of the homes we had left in Australia for all of those of us who now stood in this house. Not that the twenty of us could fit at the one time, we took turns.
We had walked through the narrow passageways of the slums of Khlong Toei to get to this house, but no one appreciated what lay on the other side of the doorways. Perhaps we weren’t looking into their homes out of respect, perhaps we were looking down unsure where to place each footstep.
Mr Bai was a 79 year old Thai man with silver hair and a toned body that portrayed that of a hard life of physical labour. He moved without the stoop of a man of his age which you might expect and his smile was customary of Thai’s. It was welcoming and one of deep appreciation for what lay ahead.
Twenty kind souls had travelled from Australia and New Zealand to be part of a Social Venture Program that would give them insights into resilience, compassion, influence and leadership, the likes of which they wouldn’t experience anywhere quite like what lay ahead for them. Walking out of their four star hotel in the business district of Sukhumvit in Bangkok, they were aware the day was going to be different, their hearts and minds were open to receive what lay ahead that’s why they had travelled to Thailand to be part of the program.
Now standing in the house on the creaky floorboards they were starting to absorb the absolute simplicity and nakedness of this house. But the rawness of the house was easy to miss when you first walked in to meet Mr Bai and his family. Laying on a mattress towards the back of the room was Mr Bai’s 64 year old wife. She didn’t get up to greet the guests who were now in her home, she didn’t bring her hands together in the customary Thai way to show respect or common manners, she remained on her mattress. Mrs Bai had suffered a stroke many years ago and was left permanently paralysed. She was incapable of feeding herself, she was incapable of caring for herself and was certainly incapable of welcoming guests into her home.
Mrs Bai’s existence was only possible through the love and devotion of her husband of fifty years and their 45 year old son who with a physical disability worked to support the family earning whatever he could, whenever he could.
The Bai family represent many of the one hundred thousand who live within the slums of Khong Toei a short taxi ride from the restaurants and bars of Bangkok. But the Bai’s do it harder than most, even of those living in the slums. Nobody cares too much for the elderly and the disabled, even in this culture who rely upon the extended family, it seems they are the silent ones left behind.
I watched as Tricia bent down to hold Mrs Bai’s hand, it seemed there was little else she could do. She stroked her hand and her touch replaced the spoken word. Mrs Bai couldn’t speak and she had no control over her arms or legs. More of her surrounds started to come into my field of awareness. I knelt beside her and became aware that under the floorboards was water. I could see that on the walls inside this room was evidence of water flooding this house. I would learn that in times of heavy monsoonal rain, thewater levels of the slums would rise and flood many of the houses, including that of Mr and Mrs Bai.
There was much about this family that we could never change. We couldn’t bring physical movement back into Mrs. Bai, we couldn’t correct the physical disability of her son but we could change their living conditions, that was within our abilities.
We gathered around the corners of the mattress and with great care and dignity Mrs. Bai was raised from the floor by the six Australians, six more than had ever been in her house before and she carried out of the home that had been her entire world for many of the last forty years. Out into the narrow streets of the slums she was carried and into her new temporary home. Already her living conditions had been improved ten fold. Her mattress was laid on the ground and the fan was adjusted to give her relief from the heat. I wondered what she must have been thinking. Did she comprehend what we were doing and why? Was she pleased to be out of the house or was there a touch of sadness in leaving what had been her home for the past forty years?
Then the removal of everything Mr and Mrs Bai owned commenced. The Australian’s formed a line passing from one to the other the possessions of this family until there was nothing left but the shell of the house.
It took two hours and that seemed a bit too quick that you could empty a house of its possessions after forty years and totally demolish the house down to the foundations that sat in the mud and water that had lay beneath the floorboards. But within two hours the house that was a home for Mr and Mrs Bai, no longer existed.
The visitors from Australia and New Zealand who were part of this Social Venture Program stood dirty, dripping in perspiration but pleased with their efforts. The smile on Mr Bai’s face told of his feelings. I guess that for many of the last forty years he had resolved himself to the life he was living and the conditions in which his family endured. He was content, of that I don’t doubt. But leaving a vacant lot where his house once stood he knew of what was to come.
Forty three days later and he and his family would move into a new home that was to be built by local trades people from the slums right where his former house stood. Funded by those who had pulled down his house that morning it would provide a level of comfort for him and his family. He would be able to provide his wife a level of comfort and dignity which previously he could not. No longer would the family fear the rains, knowing their home would flood.
The new home for Mr and Mrs Bai will be a modest one by our measures, but it will be their castle and for a family who had no means of bringing about such change, fewer prouder new home owners there will be.
And this was only day one of the five day social venture program. More information about future Social Venture Programs can be obtained by contacting me via firstname.lastname@example.org
We can’t help help everyone, but we can all help someone.