Christine McNab, senior consultant in photography and communications for development.
First, there was Wandee. A baby girl, born in a wooden house as the rains receded from the rice fields, 55 years ago. Her mother was about 20. Her dad, 25. “My parents were very poor,” Wandee remembers. “But we could grow everything we needed on our land.”
Wandee’s family farm was nestled on the banks of a small river that emptied into the nearby Mekong, in Nakhon Phanom province in north-east Thailand. The river was a source of life. “When I was young, my father and I fished all the time in the river,” she remembers. “At night we would fish with a lantern on our boat. Sometimes, the Mekong current was fast and it was dangerous. But we managed.”
The river Wandee grew up on. It runs into the Mekong, just a few hundreds metres away.
There were many more children in Wandee’s family. And, much tragedy.
Wandee was not the first baby – she was the first to live. The year before, her mother had a baby girl, who died when she was less than one. She’d had a bad fever.
Wandee was born in November, 1960. “I was sick too. My mother says I had a high fever, and cried a lot. But, I survived.”
After Wandee came another baby girl. She survived for about a year. “There were a lot of mosquitoes in the village,” says Wandee. Malaria.
Then came Cee. She was born with a disability, but no one knows for sure what it was. “She couldn’t walk very well. She couldn’t talk. But, she could understand everything,” says Wandee. Cee lived for twenty years. Then, she took her own life. “She was lonely,” says Wandee. “She knew she wouldn’t have a normal life.” It’s a very sad memory.
After Cee a boy was born. He lived to be about 4, and died following a high fever. "I loved him so much", Wandee remembers. By then, at age 7 or so, she was old enough to help care for her siblings. “When he died they took him away, and I cried ‘where are you taking my brother?’”
I loved my little brother so much. When he died, I cried, where are you taking him?
In the meantime a new baby was born – this one, a girl. “She had a disability like Cee, but it was more severe and she was really helpless,” remembers Wandee. “She lay on the bed all the time and couldn’t do anything.” Wandee thinks she might have had cerebral palsy. She died when she was about five.
Then there was Chai – a boy who survived and now has a family of his own. He lives on the land where he and Wandee grew up.
Wandee with her brother Chai, her nephew Gong and Chai’s wife Mot, on the original family farm. Wandee bought a parcel of the land some years ago, and Chai farms it for her.
A new brother was born the next year. But he died too at about aged two. “Fever,” says Wandee. “Always fever.”
And finally, three girls in a row. Thai, Nom and Nim. All healthy, all alive and well today with their own families.
“By the time they were born, there were vaccines,” says Wandee. They were all vaccinated. That changed everything.“
In total, Wandee’s mother had 13 children. Just five of them survived to adulthood. "In those days, Thai women just had to be stoic, and continue their lives,” says Wandee. “My mother never complained. You’d have a baby, and rest for a few days, and then go back to work.”
Though Wandee says her mother almost died giving birth to her last baby, Nim. “I cared for Nim while my mother was in hospital for some time,” she remembers.
In total, Wandee’s mother had 13 children. Just five of them survived to adulthood.
Wandee says she’s grateful for the improvements to health she’s seen in her lifetime. “Now children have vaccines, there are clinics and health care, malaria isn’t such a big problem. Women don’t have so many babies.”
As Wandee was the oldest, and because so many of her brothers had died, her parents asked a lot of her. “I was like the eldest son, and the eldest daughter. I did everything,” she says. “I could fish. I could cook. I could plant the rice, and harvest it. I could sew and weave.” She stands about five feet tall as an adult, and as a child, Wandee would perch on the back of the family’s wooden plough, then take the reins to control the giant water buffalo pulling it. “The buffalo was so strong,” she remembers. “But I could coax it into doing the work. And anyway, I just had to. The planting had to get done!”
Because she worked so hard, Wandee’s father gave her the chance to do things girls in her village didn’t do. “I went to school,” she says. “My father knew it was important.” At a time when many kids, and girls especially, might have had just two or three years of primary school, Wandee had seven.
It cost a lot of money – 450 Thai baht a semester at a time when a farmer earned 10 baht a day (about 30 cents at today’s exchange rate). “That was a fortune to my family,” she says. But it was a good investment. Wandee was dedicated to learning. She remembers walking to school every day for about an hour, through the fields under a blistering sun. When she was about 10, her father bought a bike for her and her brother. “We’d fight over who could ride it to school,” she remembers. “As I was the oldest, I thought it should be me of course!”
Sending me to school cost a fortune for my family.
Wandee talks with a few of the teachers who now work at her primary school.
As she visits her old elementary school for the first time in years, she’s delighted to find the name of one of her teachers in a list on the wall. She spends time talking with a few teachers from the school, including two younger women. They say girls’ education is now a normal part of life and all the village girls attend school. Wandee also visits her middle school a few kilometres away. It hasn’t really changed at all. It’s all quiet as it’s a school holiday.
Wandee’s middle school.
When Wandee was about 14 she’d finished middle school, and that was the end of her formal education. Had she continued onto high school, her father said she’d have to pay herself. “I wanted to learn, but I didn’t have any money,” she says. “My father kept any money I earned for the family, in case there were emergencies.”
So she went to work – helping her family on the farm, and taking odd jobs. She once worked a light construction job where she carried loads of concrete and earned 400 baht. “I’d never had so much money in my life!” she says. “I saved most of it, but bought one badminton set for 30 baht. I worked two days for that. Chai and I would play badminton in the field by our house. My father was angry I’d spent money on that, but, we wanted to have some fun too!”
If Wandee were growing up today, she would have continued her education. She’s a fast learner, and she probably could have entered whatever profession she wanted. “A doctor, sure why not!” she says. But at 18, Wandee took a path similar to many rural Thai girls. She left her small village and travelled 800 kilometres by bus to Bangkok.
It was a risk. “My father didn’t want me to go, because some of the girls who went to the city took difficult jobs.” Massage parlours, strip clubs or sex work – still common today for girls from her region. Wandee convinced her parents that she would do well in Bangkok.
She got a job as a live-in nanny for a Thai family. “They were nice to me, and protective too,” she remembers. “They didn’t want me to go out in the city.”
“In that job I made 1000 baht a month,” (about US$ 30 at today’s exchange.) “I saved most of the money, and after a year, I went home with 7,000 baht for the family. They were so happy. After that, they encouraged me to stay in Bangkok.”
She returned to Bangkok where she’s lived ever since. She got a job with a German family, who loved the way she cared for the children. “There were five kids, like my own family.” She helped the kids with their homework, and in the process, she learned English and a bit of German. “I learned very fast. I even amazed myself,” she remembers. “When I met them I only knew a few words, and after two years with them I could speak English and understand German.” She laughs as she casts her mind back 35 years, and successfully counts out loud in German. Since she moved to Bangkok she’s worked with about twenty families.
She’s built a life in the city. She got married and had a daughter- who she helped put through university. A huge change in one generation.
She’s bought land and built two houses in Bangkok’s beautiful “green lung” – an idyllic spot on a bend in the river where the trees still grow tall, the birds sing, and the city feels very far away.
Now when Wandee goes home to her village, family and friends greet her warmly. She’s the girl who indeed could do anything – the woman who made good in the city and never forgot her family. She continued to send money home for years, and still does when it’s needed.
Wandee in her home province, on the banks of the Mekong river.
This blog and its photos are part of Christine’s series “A River Runs with Her”, and were originally posted on her own site here.