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Published: January 25th 2007
I know that it has been a while, but our site was down for a few days. This is what we've been up to since you heard from us last.
As some of you may be aware, we have been in contact with a human rights activist who has worked in Thailand with the indigenous Akha people. He has recently been deported, but asked us to check up on a place called the Akha Training Center (ATC), a place that takes in Akha children as part of a child sponsorship program known as the Children of the Golden Triangle (CGT). One of those things you see on TV, 'for just 30 dollars a month, pennies a day, YOU can provide food, shelter and education for a poor child like Annie...act now". And like most of the ones you see on TV, this was done in the name of Christian charity
I contacted the head of the CGT, David, and said that Oliver and I were coming through the area and would be interested in volunteering for a day or two, just to check things out and hopefully set up some sponsorship of the kids with people back home from our
church (ahem..). So after a bit of prevarication and delay on his part (suspicious) he said to stop on by and two days ago we did. We saw A LOT of crazy shit, so you'll have to bear with me on this, it may get long (though i'll try to hold down the ranting).
David had lunch brought to us when we first got there. Children served us the food. They had also cooked it, and they cleaned up after us when we were done. And when I say that the kids did all the work for the food, i mean all the work. There wasn't a single adult staff member or volunteer helping or directing. What we ate, as throughout our stay, was much much better than what the kids ate. The kids eat rice, broth, and cabbage, while the volunteers are fed fruit and meat. When I asked one of the volunteers about it, he said, 'yeah, it's sort of strange at first, but you get used to it.' and we eat different food 'mostly because they don't like the type of food we eat, and a lot of what they eat is too spicy for us.'
The kids do al the laundry (for everone) Many of the kids wet their beds every night
He meant to imply they wouldn't want stuff like toast and jam and we wouldn't want their spicy curries, but at the time he said this we were eating rice, stir fried vegetables, and curried pork (very thai) while the children were eating rice and cabbage (very bland).
Essentially, as we were later to find out, the kids don't do just the kitchen work, they pretty much do all the work. They get up at 5 am, in the dark, have christian devotionals, and then start to work for a few hours before they go to school. Over 1000 meals are cooked and cleaned up before 8 am. There is absolutely no adult supervision in the mornings (except for the two volunteers who wake up to wash the youngest, no one else is even awake). The older chidren wake up and direct the younger children. They can be found scurrying around in the dark picking up trash, cooking food, doing laundry, carrying concrete blocks, grouting, stuccoing, pouring concrete, tiling, and grinding metal stands for making wicker chairs. It is absolutely bizaare to walk around in the dark bumping into 500 children carrying wheelbarrows full of dirt, or huddling together
These are the conditions in which the kids sleep. The volunteers are not allowed in.
for warmth in the dark, or running around playing games without a single adult around. It appears as absolute chaos but amazing amounts of work gets done before any volunteer or staff is awake.
This work they do is way beyond basic childhood chores. One volunteer even made a joke that the children work for a few hours in the morning on the building and do twice as much as the volunteers do all day. There is a workshop there that the older boys work in for making beautiful wicker chairs, which are then sold for profit. The oldest kids only go to school one day a week, and then work at the center for the rest of the time.
There are over 500 kids there (we never got an exact number), but none of the volunteers were able to tell me how exactly the kids got there in the first place. 80% of them still have parents, but never to rarely see them after coming to the place. Everyone assumed that the parents left the children there because they were unable to take care of them, or that the kids were taken away by some unnamed authority because
Ever morning at 5 am (very Cold outside) the younger kids are wasched one by one in cold water.
their parents were drunks, abusive, and/or drug addicts. Matthew, the human rights activist who asked me to check the place out, suggested the kids are practically abducted.
Basically, by using the children as free labor, David is able to expand his business so that he can bring in more children (larger kitchens, dorms) and make more money. He keeps his overhead low by hiring very little staff and relying on volunteers and, mostly it seems, the kids themselves. At one point in the past, he said he had 52 volunteers there, all paying 'room and board'. At about $75 per volunteer per week, that is $3900 a week just from volunteers! Additionally, every child there was currently sponsored, at 30 USD a month. Which means over $15,000 a month from the children's sponsers, not to mention frequent bulk donations from organizations (they seem to be close with the rotary club along with a number of christian schools), and selling things that the kids make in the workshop. That is a lot of money, especially in Thailand.
They definitely have a good deal of money, with new trucks and extremely expensive personal computer systems and flat screen TVs. Suspiciously,
this is 'nap' time for the kids, no blankets or pillows, they sleep right on the hard floor.
the first camp was shut down (couldn't find out why), and local magistrates testified that David was using the kids for profit when they tried to expand their services to include adoption.
A number of the volunteers had come from a christian missions training camp before they got to the ATC, and were primed to think that they were going to do good works in the name of the lord, and were so BLIND to everything that was going on around them. They were obviously uncomfortable about a lot of it, but were unwiling to question anything and didn't know the answer to just about anything i asked about the kids. there is no excuse for such, albeit well-meaning, self-deluding stupidity. When the children are working so hard, they are described as merely 'industrialized', in an almost respectful, admiring sort of way, like how great these kids are that they work so hard! like gee, i wish my four year old got up at five in the morning to pick up trash in the dark and cook for other people...
The kids are truly amazing and fairly happy (for what one can see in 24 hours). They
everyone of the younger children had their heads shaved because of an outbreak of lice.
are very friendly, almost aggressive in their friendliness, probably because they are desperate for adult attention. It is true that the children are often very poor, but these children are taken away from their family and all that they know, deprived of real adult contact, only spoken to in English and Thai (which they probably don't speak at first), forcibly christianized, and made to work. Most of the work they do is done in name of job training, but since they are indigenous children without official Thai ID cards, they have practically no rights in the country and have trouble getting work or even moving away from their home village. David is convinced that the traditional Akha ways are the root of all their problems, not poverty or oppression from outside forces (no ID cards even for children born in the country, for example). He said that Akha ways were evil, and were killing the children. The only thing he feels is worth saving is traditional crafts, which can be sold to tourists for profit. He wants in no way to preserve their culture, only to destroy it and he is doing a good job. 100 more children come in
child with cup
he is very happy to have his cup! it is for their afternoon cup of powdered milk.
the spring, and he says he could get 500 more if he had the room.
i'm sure he feels totally justified to himself, that he is taking them away from a sick and destructive culture and christianizing them, westernizing them. how can anyone begrudge him a profit when he is doing such great things, how nice is it to be able to do such wonderful things AND make a living?
We left after only 24 hours, and even with some effort didn't remotely fit in with the other volunteers. I wouldn't doubt they were a bit suspicious, but we got a lot of pictures. Oliver was asked to help one of the volunteers with making an English-Thai-Akha picture book by taking pictures of things around the camp and got open access to everything, so hopefully in the hundreds of pictures we have something that can be used against the camp. We're also thinking of writing an article up on it, and maybe forwarding it to organisations that send volunteers to the place.
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