My name is Hester de Vries. I’m Dutch, I live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I am the mother of a cute baby boy named Frits.
Apart from being a mum, I am an activist with a heart for the people of Burma and work in the fields of women empowerment and higher education. I got involved in the Piglets for Progress project because of its focus on a community wide dialogue to help establish the communities’ voice concerning their own needs. This bottom up approach has my interest, in contrast to the more common top down approach to development work.
In a recent visit to the Mae Sot trash dump I witnessed the conditions in which people live and work there. On the Piglets for Progress website you can get a good idea about it. Health and sanitary conditions are very poor, there is a polluted lake that is used for fishing and washing, and the children lack in many ways. But instead of describing the families’ daily struggle to survive, I’d like to share my own, personal struggle that this visit unleashed.
Firstly, because I don’t want to evaluate the place where the families there choose to live and work although it’s obvious that it is not a great place, to understate it. Secondly, by sharing my own struggle I hope you can relate more to the story of the ‘Mae Sot trash dump community’ for which a driven friend is now campaigning to assist them with their great piglets business plan, developed by the community leaders themselves. My story is about the struggle between my identity as both as a mother and as a social activist. Just imagine in what state of mind seeing “entire families from Burma living in crude huts constructed of garbage, on top of garbage” brings you.
As a mother of a 3 month old baby, of course I want to protect him from any potential harm and diseases. As a social activist, however, I believe that ‘you and me are not different but we sure had different opportunities in life’. This means interacting the same way with people of marginalized communities as I would with any other person. Of course, keeping in mind that I clearly come from a more privileged place and am there to facilitate toward something better. I do not wish to make lives even a drop more challenging, especially entering the personal space of the Mae Sot dump community.
Before I go on about my personal struggle, I’ll give a little background information about being a mum of a newborn baby in Thailand. One thing I love about it is that with my baby son Frits it’s so much easier to make contact with the local people. Whereas before I was just another strange Farang, now I clearly have something in common with many of the Thais I meet: we are either both parents, or we both just love babies!
Everywhere I go with my baby son we receive a lot of attention. Firstly, because in Thailand babies are really viewed as a common good – they should be shared for everyone’s enjoyment seems to be the general idea! Secondly, with his white skin, blond hair and blue eyes in our Asian surroundings, Frits is just asking to be touched and squeezed in his little arms. Luckily he loves the attention, too. And my partner and I get to enjoy eating undisturbed in local restaurants while Frits is being held, usually by everyone on the kitchen staff by the time he comes back around to us. It’s great to have a baby in Thailand I must say!
So there I was with my baby on the dump, and at first not so many but then more and more people wanted to hold him and touch him. Yes, big internal conflict. Unlike my ideology, here our differences really do came forward. I managed to balance sharing my baby and feeling comfortable about his health, although that got tested. Believe me, I’m not afraid of a little dirt, on the contrary, I think it’s good for building up his immune system. The Mae Sot dump however, is another story.
The interaction between Frits and some of the children there actually became more precious than daunting as the day progressed. At the time Frits was just starting to babble in response to anyone that ‘communicated’ with him, especially to children. So, here I witnessed a great interaction in a communal baby language. I saw ‘toughened’ children ‘melt’ a bit, and act according to the ages they really were. I also saw children that were very shy come out of there shyness to play with Frits. As a social activist that makes me content. As a mother it made me proud of my baby son Frits to whom everyone is equally fun as long as they want to play and interact with him. Hopefully, it gave them a little fertilizer, too. As one of the community members said:
“I am so sad for children in the Rubbish Dump. These children are like plants, and I wanted to keep these plants alive. I am worried that these plants will be dried if they don’t get fertilizer. I really want to help, but I am struggling for tomorrow too.”
Sure, you can say “why did you bring your baby in the first place?” But actually I’m glad I did, as I think real social impact starts when we can share the ordinary things in life with people from different backgrounds. There’s nothing quite like meeting another mother with baby, and knowing that we know each other’s feelings even if we can’t speak a common language. I believe that I was able to have a social impact just by being me and sharing my vulnerable sides as a Western mother.
There’s 8 days left for you to also make an impact at the Mae Sot trash dump. Please learn more about the campaign at Startsomegood.com/pigletsforprogress, and enjoy the message from my Frits in the video below.
More information on the Pigs for Progress project: pigletsforprogress.org
To support: startsomegood.com/pigletsforprogress