Spreading light in a murky world
Despite her severely impaired eyesight, Bunsiri has had the fortitude to overcome physical abuse early on and tackle daily obstacles that plague visually impaired people. Now, she's focused on a new dream _ a centre to teach blind children how to lead similarly independent lives
Bunsiri was 15 when she ran away from home. Despite having only 20% vision she had been doing well at school. With the help of her stepfather Bunsiri had fought for years to go to school and had learned to read and write.
BIG WORDS AND BIG DREAMS: Bunsiri reads bilingual phrases in an extra large and high contrast font from a computer screen. She taught herself English and became an assistant teacher.
Bunsiri credits her stepfather with getting her out of the confines of the house and into school.
"The local government school would not take me. They said they couldn't look after me. I would be too much trouble. I was sad, but I understood. I couldn't see the blackboard, the teacher had 50 kids to look after and could not spend her time paying special attention to one blind kid."
Bunsiri said when she was 11, her village in Northeast Thailand decided to build a small dirt-floor, bamboo-walled school on local temple land. It gave her stepfather, a carpenter, the opportunity to apply pressure to the school to accept Bunsiri as a student.
"Pa said he would help build it if they took me in. I was 11. The teacher said she would give me a two-week trial. I could barely read or write.
"My cousins would recite their books out loud and I memorised them."
Bunsiri managed to fool the teacher for about two weeks, but was eventually found out when the teacher asked her to read at random passages from a book.
"She knew I couldn't read, but the teacher was impressed by my memory _ I was top of the class in maths _ I could recite all the tables."
The death of her stepfather, when she was 12, was a big blow for Bunsiri.
"I was lost without him. My stepdad was such a good guy. I missed him. He did everything to get me into school."
Despite her limited vision Bunsiri was doing well at school. She could read and write Thai, was top of the class in maths and she was able to navigate herself along the three-kilometre mountain track that took her from home to school.
"Our school was basic _ dirt floor and bamboo walls, but the teacher cared. That was important."
When she turned 15, Bunsiri's life took a turn for the worse when her mother remarried a man who would go on to sexually molest her.
"I was alone with my new stepfather, he was drunk, he pushed me down. I managed to grab a gardening knife [machete] _ I told him I would kill him. He said he was joking and pleaded with me not to tell mum as she was pregnant."
Bunsiri did not tell her mother of her stepfather's sexual attack. Before she had time to absorb the betrayal by her adult carer she would again be targeted. The next day, as Bunsiri was on her way back from school, her friend's uncle ambushed her.
''I was walking home from school. I was alone, my friend was sick. Her uncle attacked me. I could not recognise his face, but I did recognise his voice. He dragged me into the bushes and threw me on the ground. I wrestled him off and ran. He chased me and I picked up a large stone. I could hear him behind. I hit him in the face _ he bled everywhere.''
Bunsiri said she was fortunate she had someone she could confide in.
Ma Nut Khun Sanit, office coordinator of the Committee for Disability—Tak.
''Next day I told my teacher and she called the police and took me to an orphanage for my safety. Mum thought it was because of the second attack. I kept quiet about my stepdad for the family's sake. My stepdad wanted me to come home and I knew why.''
Bunsiri returned to the family home after a short stay at the orphanage, and attempted to tell her family about the assault on her by her stepfather.
''I told mum she had to choose between us. Mum ignored me _ she thought I was making the story up. I was upset. My grandma said if I left I would not be let back in. I ran out and cried all the way back to the orphanage.''
Bunsiri did not see her family for more than a year.
''Most kids went home for holidays, I didn't.''
Bunsiri was to stay at the orphanage for 12 years. In that time she worked in the laundry for seven and a half years, became a cook, housemother and looked after volunteer staff.
''I cooked for 50 kids. The gas was a problem, I nearly burned the house down. I love cooking. I don't need to see everything. I smell garlic _ fresh is different from cooked, but cutting onions makes me cry.
''When I started work at the orphanage I earned 500 baht a month. By the time I left at 27, I was getting 3,000 baht.''
Despite the limited resources available to Bunsiri at the orphanage and besides working she was also busy learning.
''It was hard. I self-studied. My eyesight was getting worse. I learned to read and write English from foreign volunteer teams who helped out at the orphanage. I had no dictionary. I would write down English words I heard spoken and then ask for their meaning. I became the only one at the orphanage who could speak English.''
After she left the orphanage Bunsiri moved to Chiang Mai and worked as an assistant teacher in a bilingual school for two years.
''I did everything. I worked in the nursery for one month. It was a nightmare. I couldn't handle the vomit or the kids' poop _ it made me sick. I used to hose the kids down _ they loved it. The other kids would try to poop just to get hosed. They'd run and scatter like crabs, and my eyes couldn't get a focus on them.''
Bunsiri says the work and her time spent at the bilingual school were good times.
''The couple who ran it treated me like family. I had a good time there. By the time I left, my pay was 5,800 baht.''
Bunsiri described what it is like to have only 20% vision to rely on.
''I can see the outlines of big buildings, I can see faces, but no details. I can't see smiles, blinks or when people pull faces. I can't remember faces, but I do recognise voices. I can't see steps when I'm walking. I use my feet when I clean to feel for dust and dirt.''
Doctors told Bunsiri the damage in her eyes is progressing and one day she will be totally blind, but that did not stop her from applying to a degree programme at Khon Kaen University in 2009.
''I knew exactly what I wanted to study. I knew I would not fail. I studied hard. I also passed the entrance exam to study at a university overseas, but I could not afford to go to the interview in Bangkok. I only had 500 baht, just enough to get me to the interview at Khon Kaen University.''
In October this year Bunsiri completed her degree, majoring in English. She is one of 352 blind people to have attended a Thai university.
''I am so proud that Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn will present me with my degree early next year.''
Bunsiri is a small woman, but determined, despite the hard knocks she has endured, to achieve her goal of opening a learning centre for disadvantaged visually impaired children in Mae Sot.
''My life has been hard, but I wouldn't change it. My experience is precious. An easy life doesn't teach you anything _ usually it is all about you. My life has taught me that I don't want to be blind on the inside as well as on the outside.''
Bunsiri's record of overcoming adversity is proof that she refuses to give in or take no for an answer. Bunsiri says she has learned that it is critical that blind children learn to be independent.
''You've got to find a way to still work when life is s****y. Blind children deserve a chance to learn and lead full lives _ they love making friends, if given the chance, they're capable of getting through the apathy that surrounds them.''
BUILDING A DREAM
''If blind people can't help themselves they are lost to the world. They have to get out of the dark corners. I was told people used to describe blind people as 'dead bodies that can breathe and walk'. Blind people only have one choice to get beyond that discrimination _ education.''
Bunsiri explained that it is hard for parents, especially poor ones, to work and look after their blind children.
Health workers in Thailand say many blind people have to depend on family or neighbours for help. Bunsiri agreed and said it is rare for blind people to be properly trained to become independent.
''I've been told of cases where there is no one to stay and look after a blind kid, and people have tied them up and left them with rice and water while they went out or to work. It's done to stop the kid from getting hurt. The blind don't know what to do and the ones with sight don't know how to help.''
Bunsiri said that being blind in rural Thailand is especially tough.
''Blind kids are either ignored, shoved in a corner or over-protected _ even the big kids, their parents carry them everywhere. This teaches them nothing about how to live functional and independent lives.''
She said it is still difficult for her to navigate her way around her own home. If keys are moved or new objects left on the floor, it presents problems, and fans, gas cookers, fires, candles, finding and pouring water all present special challenges. ''It's labour intensive. For the uneducated, it's hard getting started,'' said Bunsiri.
A casual walk around any Thai town quickly turns into an obstacle course even for those with perfect sight and nimble feet. Crumbling footpaths, missing drain covers, motorbikes, food vendors, hot oil filled woks, boiling soup pots, haphazardly erected signs, stray soi dogs, tree roots and pot holes all test the most able-bodied of walkers.
''Pavements are a nightmare. Some people just don't have a clue even if they have a heart to help. Car drivers flash their lights, but blind kids can't see.''
Bunsiri said many people, when they realise she has limited vision, do try to help.
''Shopkeepers and market sellers are helpful, but you do have to know your own limitations, how far you can push it and to ask for help when you need it.''
Bunsiri says it is important that blind children are taught how to tell their right from their left.
''Learning to use a stick is important, as it tells you where the drains are, it tells drivers to slow and where hazards are.''
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE
Bunsiri's slight frame is not in proportion to the courage or the strength she has shown in battling and overcoming the many hardships life has thrown her way. But now she faces her stiffest challenge as she reaches out to her dream of opening a learning centre in the Thai border town of Mae Sot to teach blind children how to lead independent lives.
''I've got the house, I'm now looking for staff. It's not softness I'm after, many blind kids get that already _ they need to be pushed. I've got enough funding to start. I need about 34,000 baht a month to keep it open for eight live-in students.''
Bunsiri insists all children attending her centre will undergo a stringent health check to make sure that their visual impairment is given every opportunity to be treated.
''At 16, I was told by a doctor that it was too late to get corrective surgery _ I don't want other kids to miss out.''
World Health Organisation Fact Sheet 282 on blindness backs-up Bunsiri's judgement on the necessity of having health checks. It states that ''uncorrected refractive errors are the main cause of visual impairment; cataracts remain the leading cause of blindness in middle- and low-income countries ... 80% of all visual impairment can be avoided or cured''.
Seeing is Believing, a UK-based organisation that delivers eye care globally, estimates on its website that ''there are about 150,000 permanently blind people in Thailand. The main reasons for their blindness are cataract, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. Access to affordable surgery is clearly an issue in Thailand. There are 6,000 patients waiting for surgery, yet 175,000 people are visually impaired people in the country _ many of these are in need of surgery.'' The organisation is a collaboration between Standard Chartered Bank and the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness set up to help eradicate avoidable blindness around the world.
'WE CAN'T DO IT ALONE'
Well-fed stray dogs mark off territory in the grounds of Wat Luang. Attached to the side of the main prayer hall, a small sign at the back of the room indicates that this is the office of the ''Committee for Disability _ Tak''.
Behind a polished wooden desk sits Ma Nut Khun Sanit, the office coordinator and volunteer who explains that he runs a ''one-stop service for people in five local districts with disabilities''.
The office is sparse. A pink telephone sits alongside a battered radio on the desk. Numerous photos line the walls. Mr Ma Nut detailed how he helps local people to register their disability, find wheelchairs, walking sticks and explain to people how to apply for government benefits and pensions.
The Office of the National People with Disabilities (Thailand) states on its website that there are 6,795 people in Tak province with disabilities and 544 of them are blind. Mr Mr Ma Nut has been legally blind for 34 of his 76 years after losing his sight in a car accident.
''I was a public servant in Bangkok. I lost my job when I lost my sight. It took me six years to accept that I was blind. It was hard, and I was frustrated, but I was not alone. There are many people who are blind. It was hard on my family. I had four young kids, that drove me to get up and fight and to stop feeling sorry for myself.''
Mr Ma Nut strongly supports Bunsiri's desire to open a learning centre for blind children.
''Loneliness is the biggest burden for the blind, being left at home alone and not being able to mix with people. Blind people need to be self-reliant.''
Mr Ma Nut says what Bunsiri is doing will be of benefit to the community.
''Bunsiri could be the beginning. If she is successful, it could open the way for the government to do more for the blind. Thai people have to support her.
''Local blind people need help, we can't do it alone.''
DISCERNING SHOPPER: Bunsiri tests fresh produce like these chillies by feel and smell to make sure she gets top quality goods. Despite her sight limitations she is extremely independent.
URBAN OBSTACLES OVERCOME: Above, Bunsiri is all smiles as she takes a break to enjoy a drink and chat at a local tea shop. Top, buying vegetables at the market.
About the author
- Writer: Phil Thornton