The Milk Maid’s Tale

As many of us ponder the ‘new normal‘, I would like to share an interview with Sister Joan Evans on her birthday. A woman whose everyday normal was nothing short of extraordinary.

Bangkok by Debbie Oakes

5.30am. 2012.
The alarm jolted me awake at that ungodly hour. Sleepily I slipped on a Tee-shirt, slapped on some flip flops and jumped in a Tuk Tuk to meet Sister Joan Evans in Bangkok’s infamous Klong Toei slum.

The Milk Run 
Morning’s first light reluctantly squeezed through Bangkok’s luxury condos, shining stupas and new-day smog. Less than 2kms from the shiny malls of central Sukhumvit Road I arrived just as the sun had begun shining harshly down on an altogether different reality.  Klong Toey Slum is dusty, ragged and rubbish strewn. Open sewers join the canal klongs, generously sharing noxious odours and fanged wildlife. Chickens crow, babies cry and there, amidst it all, chatting to spotless little girls with perfect pigtails, is Sister Joan.
Most of the approx. 100, 000 slum-dwellers are descendants of poor migrants from the countryside who came to build the ports in the 1950’s. They stayed to work as manual labourers, illegally occupying land owned by the Thai Port Authority. It was originally a win/win situation as employers had a large pool of cheap labour and workers had accommodation near their jobs.

ANZWG Members and Sister Joan by Debbie Oakes

21 years before, Sister Joan swapped the affluent pristine coastline of Western Australia for a wee house in the middle of the sweltering, sprawl. When I met with her she was 80 years old and a veritable force of nature. Directing, joking and protectively calling women by name. All patiently waiting in line with their babies. A well-practiced team from the Australian and New Zealand Women’s Group (ANZWG) swing in to action: distributing milk powder, new clothes, weighing babies and photographing new mums for ID. This is a well oiled and cheerful aid machine. As the plaited twins disappeared off to school, Sister told me candidly: “They don’t have any money for breakfast – I give them 20 baht to buy rice-porridge and water.” 

The Weight of Poverty by Debbie Oakes

Birth of the Milk Run
Over a cooing baby balancing on scales, Sister told me: “I originally came to Klong Toey for a meeting of religious women – to see what help could be offered. The plight of the
women and children really affected me
. I was approaching retirement from my job as a high school teacher, so I tucked away the idea in my mind of one-day coming back.”

When ‘one day came’, a house in the Slum was renovated and patched up “to prevent snakes coming in”. Sister Joan indicated for me to look in the direction of the nearby canal: “They caught a two meter snake in the canal there the other night.”

“Everyone Deserves a Fair Go” 

Bathtime by Debbie Oakes

“In the early days I was not exactly sure how I could best help. My Thai was even worse than it is now”, she laughed. “One day, as I was walking back through the narrow sois (alleys), I met a young lady with a baby girl. She had no milk and no money to buy it.” Mums who are carriers of Hepatitis or HIV, cannot breastfeed. Many suffer from hidden malnourishment. Their milk doesn’t come in because they are full with rice. So not hungry as such but lacking in the nourishment necessary for human development and growth. Vegetables and meat are expensive. Even when the husband is still around, the wages are miniscule and they can barely afford to feed themselves. So, I began carrying a few packets of milk with me wherever I was going.” That habit eventually became, the Milk Run. It was a huge need – and it still is a huge need.

If you are underfed and undernourished your brain cannot function. It handicaps people for life. I believe that every person has a right to a fair go- a fair deal.” 

Pulling out a large pile of immaculately kept books, Sister flicked through the pages telling me: “Every small amount is recorded – 20 baht, 80 baht 50 baht. “Most of my funds come from Australia. Mainly the families at the school I used to work for.

There are farmers who have suffered six-eight years of drought and are still putting something in. It makes me want to cry. Generally it is people that work very hard… as hard as the people in the slums have to. Normal people who are trying to bring up and educate families – just like here. It is valiant, so it is very important that the money I receive goes where it is needed. The children are given money for breakfast and lunch. I continue this right up to university. It’s a large number. Last year I think it was 79 families and 132 children,” she told me.

Sister Joan and Debbie Oakes

Change Is Possible 
Before I left I asked – if there was just one thing that could change – what would it be? “That every Thai should be treated equally to every other Thai. I maintain that these people are not made poor, but are kept poor… they also keep themselves poor. But malnutrition affects all aspects of life. I hope, in time, there is equality.” 

“Take care of yourself Dear!” She called out with a cheery wave that reaches through the years. In our new normal, wherever we are, it is time to care about equality. To believe we can make a difference and to know that we are all connected. It is time for, as Sister would say, a fair deal.

 • Bangkok slums developed without planning, adequate drainage, rubbish collection or clean running water. A maze of pathways linked houses with no play areas for the children, and few schools. Many non-profit, and Christian organisations are still working with the communities to improve nutrition, education and quality of life from within. The Thai Government recently announced plans to gentrify the whole area by razing it and replacing it with condominiums raising more questions than answers


2 thoughts on “The Milk Maid’s Tale

  1. A really beautiful tale and heartwarming, Debbie. I’m grateful to Yvonne for sharing it with me.


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