“If wealth doesn’t give us happiness what can we expect from poverty?” these words come from someone who has no financial problems, somebody who knows the power of money very well. I was thinking about these things going to see my parishioner in Mankhaw, the village up in the mountain where I work. Walking on the dirt road among the bamboo houses, I could not but consider how my parishioners are poor and the conclusion was very simple: poverty is not something desirable. The kind of poverty that doesn’t allow us to eat every day, or obliges us to walk to the distant fields, that prevents us from going to the doctor when you are sick. Poverty is not at all a blessing. Live in poverty has some meaning only for one who choose it as way of life – I thought during my trip – in this case it gives dignity because it helps one to be detached from what is not necessary and it make him free. This poverty is a blessing – for the people who are able to live it – not when it becomes a struggle for survival.
When I arrived at door of my parishioners these thoughts evaporated because time had come to meet them. Before stepping into the house I took off my muddy boots and, barefoot, I walked on the creaking bamboo floor. The couple was sitting in a dark corner of the big room, I approached them and I set on the floor near them. Looking at the room I noticed that it was too big for a lonely couple and this filling bother me and made me curious. In the meanwhile we start to speak about health, of course, and the small illness that make the life of old people quite unpleasant.
NAI CHEAN e NANG KEN had a difficult life, they had to struggle in order to survive. They are refugees. They experienced the suffering of “refugee camps”, the indifference of the government, not interested in their fate. They are around 80 years old, but they don’t know when they were born. After living almost 13 years of their long life in tin barracks around Thailand, the government sent them to Tap Beak, but the people there refused to accept them so they had to move deep into the forest. SEN, the couple’s daughter, said: “That was the most difficult time of my life. We had nothing. Nobody took care of us. The government gave us a little money and we had to survive. Often we had nothing to eat, we had to go into the forest and find any kind of food there, but sometime we didn’t succeed. My sister had to live the family and go to work in the city in order to send us some money.”
NAI CHEAN e NANG KEN didn’t pay much attention to the daughter’s remarks, they were more attracted by a little girl who run up and down the different levels of the big room. Seeing this I could not but ask who the young girl was and this question open a new and more interesting conversation for the old couple, finally they could talk about what really matter to them: their family.
“We have eight children, three of them passed away already, life was too tough for them, but still we have fifteen grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. All of them live not far from here because, in our culture, when the daughters get married they settle with the parents and we have a lot of daughter. We are a unite family and we never quarrels” said NAI CHEAN and then he revealed me the reason why his house is so big. “This house – he continue – has nine rooms build little by little, one is for us the others for our children. Many years ago we lived all together here and we needed some privacy. We also needed a big space where to gather and eat together”.
Now the big house is empty, but the visitor has still the impression of seeing the kids playing around, of hearing their joyful noise. That house was not only a place where to live together, but it was a place to forge relationships, it was a school where the people learned to become more human. In the most crowded years the inhabitants of the house had to live according to the rule of respect, esteem of each other, understanding, they had to overcome their egocentrism and learn how to quickly dissolve tensions. There could not be bitterness, envy or selfishness because the price to be paid would have been too high. “In our family we take care of each other” said NANG KEN and I am sure that such a sentence came from a long life training in living close to each other. “But now, everybody has left, you don’t feel lonely?” I asked earing the silence among that walls of the house now. “Not at all – NAI CHEAN said – we are old people and we need some peace, but here silence is never oppressive because our children and grandchildren come to visit us, they bring us something to eat every day and their presence breaks our solitude. When I see them I feel like a progenitor of a dynasty, I am proud of what I have done”.
I spent some time with them, listening their stories, their interesting experiences and after I went back to the church. On my way, while my boots sank into the mud once again, some flashback of the village life came to my mind: mothers and fathers that took care not only of their children but also of their neighbor’s children; couple that welcome in their house kids neglected by their parents; old people that know the names of all their mates together with their stories. I had the impression that this village, Mankhaw, is like a big family, as in all family there are problems, tensions, of course, but a poor life compels these people to enjoy what is essential, to stick to the values that sustain the human life.
SEN told me that the situation has improved very much in these last few years, they can work now and money come in, but things are also changing in the village. The young couples go to work and receive a good salary, they can build their own house, but the families becomes smaller and dissatisfaction seems to spread.
The world is changing also in Mankhaw and nothing can stop this trend, but NAI CHEAN e NANG KEN story makes me happy filling my heart with hope. Poverty is not a blessing, but also wealth can be a curse.