A hair-raising tale from Klong Toey
The "three grandmothers" is the most famous story in the old part of the slum known as the Klong Toey slaughterhouse. The kindergarten kids love the story and ask the teacher over and over to "tell us again" before their afternoon nap at school.
One of the teachers is the granddaughter of one of the notorious grandmothers. She’s the one who convinced Ms Joy’s mum to let her stay in school, and "was there" when Ms Joy needed to cut and sell her hair. But more on that later.
As a nine-year-old, Ms Joy had beautiful black hair which flowed down over her shoulders and to her waist. She'd recently moved into the slaughterhouse, which was illegal as she was from a village on the other side of the border. This is an account of her own saga and the saga of the "Notorious Grandmothers and the Slaughterhouse School".
Even Ms Joy’s mum knows that the "Shack School" is protected. And not only the school, but the teachers and children inside it are sanctified and safe by the prayers of the three grandmothers, now gone to heaven. They were tough ladies matured by 75-plus years of slaughterhouse living.
They once took away sacred Catholic icons from their bumbling, stumbling grandsons, who had pooled their money from butchering pigs to turn the unused meat-cooling room into a cock fighting/gambling pit with a "short time", pay by the hour "hotel" upstairs.
When the grandmothers heard, and fortified by their morning shot of local whiskey (“to get the early morning cobwebs out and the blood moving around in their veins"), they marched right into the homes of their two grandsons and took all the religious items. They said their grandsons shamed them and the religion. Only, and maybe only, when they reformed their lives, then the grandmothers might give back their religious icons. The grandmothers shook their fingers at them. Shame on you. Shame on you.
The three old ladies sat in the front row, attending the opening ceremony of the school, and "strongly encouraged" their adult grandsons to also attend. They made them kneel down and promise in front of the statue of Mary to protect the school. No more crazy ideas of cock fighting/gambling, plus beds upstairs.
That was a handful of years ago. Now it’s a thriving kindergarten with 72 students. And that’s where Ms Joy, the illegal refugee girl with the long, beautiful hair, goes to school, sitting right under the religious shelf, under the feet of the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other statues, plus a statue of the Buddha. Safe as safe can be.
The school is protected. There's never been an accident, never a problem, except once when the fumes from addicts smoking drugs next door kept wafting into the school. The fumes made the kids sick, but granddaughter teacher told her grandmother, one of the three. So once again, after the morning shot to clear the cobwebs and get the blood moving around, the grandmothers told the police "to make that smoke and fumes all go away".
The children loved watching the raid — said it was just like on TV.
Ms Joy seldom misses a day of school, even though her mum objects. Mum wants her daughter awake and alert early each evening to help mum wash pig entrails. Schooling plus homework, by day, and washing pig entrails nightly, sometimes past midnight, might be too much.
Ms Joy is healthy, but grew up hungry, eating lots of plain rice and salt, and not much more. Plus, even though the kindergarten is a five-minute slum walk away from her home above the pig pens, those five minutes are a risk for a nine-year-old girl with no documents. It’s safer now. Ms Joy can now speak Thai and knows the slum lingo. Also, to be blunt, she’s too skinny to be of much commercial value; her parents have no money, so frankly, she’s "not worth the bother".
Ms Joy and her family have no documents. You really don’t need them living and working in the slaughterhouse. But sometimes you do. Like when her dad got hammered a couple of weeks ago. He's a happy drunk, but much too loud in the early hours after butchering pigs. As luck would have it, a couple a policemen happened to be around. So to avoid problems, 1,000 baht (which is cheap) made everything go away, like it never happened.
It went down like this: Ms Joy was on her way to school when she saw the commotion and the gathering crowd around her hammered dad, sitting on the floor of the pig pen in front of the two policemen. So pretending to be very bold, she marched in and pulled dad to his feet, then translated for him. She told the police that dad was so very sorry and his legal papers got soaking wet and ruined in a recent rain squall.
No one believed her, but it was enough. The police most sternly told her to tell dad "never again". But mum really needed that 1,000 baht for medicine for Ms Joy’s younger brother, who had a nasty three-week cold and flu that would not go away. Mum needed little brother healthy. He was an aspiring novice, so he could follow the monk on his morning rounds and get extra food. Little brother couldn’t do that if he was coughing and wheezing. He needed medicine. So, on top of the 1,000 baht that dad’s drunken behaviour had cost the family, there would be no temple food collected by novice little brother.
Ms Joy’s teacher, the granddaughter of one of the eldest of the three grandmothers, had come and talked to mum and asked her to allow Ms Joy to stay in school. That teacher-mum conversation left mum unhappy, but she didn’t say no. Although, after the teacher left, mum was not pleased.
She lectured her daughter: "Learning Thai, how to read and write, is not for we village folks. Besides, our own language is much more beautiful than Thai. Why would you want to learn their language? But if that will make you happy, you can continue to go to school. I don’t approve of such foolishness, but I won’t stop you.”
And then a new problem arose. Mum said: “You must cut your hair. We need the money.” Mum wouldn’t flinch on this one. “Daughter, can’t you understand, we need money for food. You must cut your hair and sell your beautiful black hair that is long, to your waist. We don’t dare go to the hospital as we have no papers. Someone might report us and we’d lose our jobs and be sent back to the border, or put in jail, or fined lots of money.”
Ms Joy panicked. Could she still come to school with short hair? She ran to ask her teacher, who said it was OK. Mum had said "teacher or no teacher, school or no school. We will cut your beautiful hair. We can sell it for maybe 400 baht to buy medicine for little brother."
Ms Joy asked her teacher to take her to the temple to ask the monk. He listened and said it was OK. Cutting her hair would not bring bad karma. The teacher, granddaughter of the eldest of the famous three grandmothers, whispered to Ms Joy: "Don’t worry. My cousin knows a TV actress and the beauty parlour she goes to. We will ask the beauty parlour lady if she will buy your hair and have them make a nice wig for the actress to wear on TV and you can be proud."
Ms Joy sold her hair to the beauty parlour lady and mum bought medicine. Her little brother is back following the monk in the early mornings as an aspiring novice. The family is now safe in Thailand — not comfortable, but safe. Her father helps in the butchering of the pigs. He's not very experienced, so he gets half wages. But that’s better than being shot at, on the run, always wondering if your women-folk are safe.
And if something happens, how would he protect them? The answer is he can't and they can’t protect him. He also ran the risk of being grabbed for military service and slave labour. With the help of a friend, they’d made it to Klong Toey where they found work. Dad was lucky. An extra man for butchering at the nearby pig abattoir and also a woman for washing entrails. The entrails have to get cleaned before they boil them down into lard.
Miss Joy helps her mum each night till sometimes after midnight, when the washing is done and the entrails are sent off to that lady down the alleyway who boils them down for lard every morning. She's a nice lady who doesn’t complain, even though mum sometimes doesn’t get everything very clean.
Ms Joy, mum, dad and little brother live rather hidden in one of the poorer makeshift shacks above an unused pig pen in the back of the slaughterhouse. In fact, it was abandoned. Someone was murdered there and the local folks said: “Give lots of space to the ghosts and do not disturb them.”
So the Chinese person who leases that particular pen told them: “You can live free — no rent. As long as you don’t make any trouble and do pay your respects to the ghosts. Don’t laugh at them. Ghosts don’t like to be laughed at.”
Mum says some naughty ghosts made dad get drunk, because sometimes, the naughty ghosts like to drink whiskey also — at least
in the slaughterhouse. So what’s for tomorrow?
Right now, Ms Joy is in third grade in school. Her beautiful black hair is growing back and her teacher says she looks better with short hair anyway.
Little brother also attends kindergarten after he serves as an aspiring novice early each morning with the monk. Mum continues to wash entrails with Ms Joy each night — dad has his job in the slaughterhouse and has not been drunk since the incident. The ghosts are quiet.
The favourite story of all 72 children is of the three notorious grandmothers, and they ask the teacher to tell it over and over. All believe that their school is the safest school on the planet, protected by the prayers of the three grandmothers.
And tomorrow is a new and glorious day.
Fr Joe Maier is the director and co-founder of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey. For more information, call 02-671-5313 or visit www.mercycentre.org.