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Thursday, July 09, 2009
Heartbreak in the mountains
While we city parents complain about rote-learning in the education system which kills our children's creativity, the ethnic Karen forest dwellers in the northernmost mountains of Mae Hong Son suffer a different disillusionment.
"Schools have stolen our children," said Tabuko, the village head of Ban Nong Khao Klang, in Mae Hong Son's Tambon Huay Poo Ling.
Actually, it was much worse than that for Tabuko himself. His struggle to give an education to his daughter Apai has ended in a family tragedy. The city job did not rescue her from a back-breaking job: it killed her.
Like most Karen youngsters in the village, Apai refused to come home, thinking there was no future in the mountains. Not long after working in a factory in Lamphun, she suffered severe headaches from what a doctor said was a brain tumour. Apai was only 26 when she died.
As a village leader, a figure of authority, Tabuko tried hard to conceal his grief. His wife, devastated at the fresh loss, quietly curled up close to the house fire, her red, swollen eyes staring blankly at the flickering flames.
"The factory has a lot of toxic chemicals," he said. "I think that was why my daughter died."
Apai's death was just the latest incident which made the villagers at Huay Poo Ling question the false promise - and danger - of modern education.
"We're just peasants and we work very hard to send our kids to school," said Patuka, another villager. "Our only wish is that they return to help improve our community. But they don't. Once in the city, they no longer want to come home. When they do, they no longer know how to farm. Worse, they do not want to learn, thinking farming is below them. All they do is hang out together, listen to loud music and annoy people with their motorcycle noise.
"We parents cannot say anything because we're uneducated. The kids don't want to talk to us, calling us old-fashioned.
"More and more people in my village think it's no longer a good idea to send our kids to school and lose them forever."
They are not alone.
Ask any poor parents in the rural areas and they will say the same thing, although the concerns are more acute among the ethnic minorities because cultural erosion threatens their identity.
They do not only complain of the city-centred education that makes their children look down on parents and ancestral roots, they are also frustrated at the half-baked education for rural children.
Consequently, city kids continue to get top jobs while their children are stuck in the low-wage, high-risk work. The jobless ones, meanwhile, are lost in their own frustrated world of shattered dreams, alienated from their own culture yet unable to integrate into mainstream society.
This pent-up frustration is not only a social but also a political time-bomb. In the Muslim-dominated deep South, alienated kids are easy targets for militants looking for new recruits.
What is the cure? Patuka only knows what he wants.
"I want an education which makes our children rely on themselves, not on others," he says.
"It always perplexes me when I listen to the news about joblessness. Why jobless? Up here, we have a lot of work. You go out into the fields, to the forest, to the creeks and you never go hungry."
He also knows what he does not want: a school system which makes children look down on their parents, their way of life, and equate money with happiness and the meaning of life. Or the kind that destroys the kids' self-respect and cultural confidence.
"In the hills, we're not after cash, but we have enough to get by because we know enough," Patuka said. And without knowing who we are, happiness is not possible, he stressed.
Who can argue with that?
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