Students at Ban Khun Samut School
I have always wanted to help students in Samut Prakan, but when people think about sponsoring school students, it is usually children from the Klong Toey Slums in Bangkok or the Northeast of Thailand. According to a recent report, Samut Prakan has the highest annual income per head for provinces outside of Bangkok. I wasn’t really expecting we would come top as the richest province, but I knew we wouldn’t be among the poorest. According to the report, the annual average income for our province is a whopping 65,966 baht. (This works out at about $157 per month.) I know there will be a lot of executives getting a lot more than that per month, so there must be many people earning way below this average. This weekend I unexpectedly met some of them.
One of my favourite areas in Samut Prakan Province at the moment is Cape Thunder to the West of the Chao Phraya River. The coastline here borders the Gulf of Thailand. As I have already reported, the communities here are suffering heavily from land erosion. This is partly due to the change in farming methods, but also to rising sea levels. Along this coastline, much of the mangrove forests were chopped down to make way for shrimp farming. This has now resulted in about one kilometre of land being lost to the sea. The most famous example is Wat Khun Samut Trawat in Ban Khun Samut Chin. The villagers have all moved their houses four or five times in the last twenty years or so. The only people left in the original location for this village are the five monks who are refusing to move. They have rebuilt their sleeping quarters on stilts. But, the only thing that they could do for the main temple building was to raise the floor by nearly halfway. At high tide, this temple is surrounded by the sea. If you go and stand on the jetty behind the temple and look out to the sea you will see a row of electric pylons in the water and a concrete structure. The pylons mark the route of the old road and the concrete structure was the water tank for the old school.
The school on stilts which is now sinking into the ground
The school was moved further inland in 1982, the same as most of the other houses and the village shrine. However, the sea water has already started to catch up with them during periods of times when the water is exceptionally high. As you can see from the above photograph, the school is built on stilts, but the playground is just a muddy mess. When I was there on Saturday, there weren’t many people around. However, there was a small group of students having special lessons with their teacher. We were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the school by the principal. Apparently, this once prosperous school now only has 30 students. Most of the villagers have given up and have moved away. Primary 1 alone has only four students. The ages of the students are from Kindergarten to Primary. There are no facilities for Secondary students, so they have to go to Samut Sakhon; a one hour journey by boat. There are no roads left in this area. People either walk or go by boat.
The school is now left with only three teachers who have to teach the whole school. There are nine grades, so some classrooms have two or three different age groups. In the picture below, Primary 6 is on the left and Primary 5 on the right. The teachers are obviously not skilled in every subject. Fortunately, the school is supported by the Distance Learning Foundation which was established in 1996 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of His Majesty’s the King’s ascension to the Throne. All the school needed was a small satellite dish and a television for each grade. These are often given free of charge to the thousands of schools around the country. It is pretty cool as many of the lessons are being beemed live from the King’s own demonstration school at Wang Klaikangwol. So the poor students from around the country are learning alongside their peers. Though they may be hundreds of kilometres apart. Basically, there is a tv channel for each of the grades from primary to secondary.
Students learn some of the subjects by satellite television
The English ability of the students seemed to be a bit limited. I asked one of the children “how are you?” and he replied “my name is”. He didn’t even say his name. I didn’t think much about it as he seemed nervous. But, then another student came up and said “my name is”. Then it dawned on me that it must be written in their books “my name is …..” with a blank. The problem is no-one told them that they should fill in the blank! I am thinking I will go back there during my school holidays during October to do some volunteer teaching. I work in a private school and our holidays don’t always match exactly. With any luck, I should have at least a few days of holiday when their school is open. I have thought before I would like to do volunteer work in the northeast or down south. But, it makes sense to do this on my own doorstep. A kind of way to give back to my community.
The school is certainly in desperate need of help. The buildings are literally falling down. At one end, the wooden pillars have been eaten away by termites. Some are no longer touching the ground. Others have big chunks missing. One of the teachers wanted to show us the damage more closely and took us onto a wooden bridge around the back. Unfortunately, the bridge couldn’t take the weight of the four of us and started to collapse on one side. We quickly scrambled off. Looking closely down below we could see that the termites had been at work here too. The teacher told us that the school had no money and that the parents were all poor. All they could do was close one of the classrooms and move the students away from the far end. With the school being attacked on two fronts, and with a dwindling student body, the future certainly looks bleak for this group of children. If there was only something we could do for them.