1978 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service
BIOGRAPHY of Prateep Ungsongtham-Hata
PRATEEP UNGSONGTHAM was born near the Bangkok slum of Klong Toey where she now lives. Her hardworking parents earned barely enough to carry the family through successive turns of misfortune. Her father, Pao Chu, came to Thailand in 1917 at the age of 24 from Swatow, China, and became a fisherman in Samutsakorn, 50 kilometers southwest of Bangkok on the Gulf of Siam. As was common among poor Chinese emigrés, he had left behind a wife and four children to whom he sent remittances. He later took a second wife, Thongsuk, of Chinese-Thai ancestry, who had also previously been married and had four children. When a tidal wave in 1942 washed out the fish stakes that were his savings and his livelihood, he emigrated to the capital city to find a new life. He brought his wife and two of his stepdaughters to Bangkok, leaving two other children with his wife's family in Samutsakorn. Arriving with only 34 baht (US$2.45), the family was taken in by friends living in the portside district of Klong Toey. Pao Chu took odd jobs and Thongsuk, using the 34 baht as investment capital, made and sold pork satea popular dish of marinated pork pieces broiled on small sticks.
After nearly four years the couple had saved enough to build their own house in the Klong Toey District where they ran a business of raising chickens and ducks. A son was born to them in 1948 and PRATEEP was born four years later on August 9, 1952. She was five years old when her father was again reduced to penury: all his chickens and ducks died of a sickness for which he could find no cure. Quick on the heels of this disaster, the Port Authority, as landowner, ordered all squatters to move from the area. PRATEEP remembers her father stoically tearing down their house, carrying the lumber to a new location in the neighboring Klong Toey slum and starting to rebuild. Although he did most of the work himself, he had great difficulty meeting the out-of-pocket costs of nails and other essentials.
The sprawling Klong Toey slum is a crowded collection of squatters' houses often built on stilts above swamp land. The houses are usually small but neat, and linked by narrow boardwalks perched above the filth and muck. Most of the squatters were originally village folk. About one-third of all persons living in the slummen, women and childrenwork, but their jobs are low paying, long houred, menial and irregular. The government has hesitated to supply municipal facilities to the areasuch as garbage collection, drinking water and schoolsfor fear of legalizing squatter title to the land.
Soon after they moved into their rebuilt house PRATEEPs mother undertook a new business, buying kapi (fermented shrimp paste) from her hometown and selling it both to neighbors and in the Bangkok markets. That same year, at age six, PRATEEP began earning her own pocket money, buying candies in the market at 20 satang (100 to 1 baht) each and selling them to neighbors for 25 satang. She recalls one older customer asking to buy four candies for one baht, but this calculation was beyond the young seller who insisted 25 satang must be given for each candy!
More familiar with Thai language and government regulations than her immigrant husband, her mother registered their house and secured for PRATEEP a birth certificate so that she could attend government school. When she reached age seven, however, and there was still no space available in the crowded municipal school nearby, her mother entered her in Panyawut, an inexpensive private institution located only a short bus ride from Klong Toey which one of her older daughters had also attended.
The education of their children was a controversial subject between her parents. Her father was willing to send PRATEEPs older and two younger brothers to school, but did not feel his daughters needed education. Her mother adamantly disagreed, and with proceeds from her shrimp paste business paid all the expenses for PRATEEP to complete the four primary grades. PRATEEP continued to earn her own pocket money selling candies before 7 a.m. in the slum, and to her classmates at school.
She remembers feeling lucky as she set out for school in the mornings knowing most neighbors could not afford this privilege for their children. At the school she saw privilege from another perspective, quickly noticing that the students divided into two groups, with those from "better" families looking down on those from the slum. More threatening to her sense of personal security, however, was the growing friction between her parents. Her father, after a period of again doing odd jobs and sometimes being jobless, started to make baskets and do a little buy-and-sell business in the slum. PRATEEP was nine when her mother began to stay most of the time in Samutsakorn; she has lived there permanently since 1961, coming once or twice a month to visit and see to the needs of her children who stayed with their father.
At age 10, having completed fourth grade, PRATEEP went to work since her family could no longer finance her schooling. She was now expected to help with household costs and pay for her own clothing. Nevertheless she had seen and learned enough to know that she must somehow continue her education on her own if she was to have a better chance in life. Her first job was piecework, packaging firecrackers, for which she earned 7 to 10 baht daily (one baht then and since equals five U.S. cents). Other work included chipping rust and painting and cleaning the funnels of cargo vessels in port for overhaul. For this her daily wage was 14 baht; polishing handles in an aluminum pot factory earned her 7 baht daily. An avid reader, she held out of her carefully eked out savings only enough to borrow from a lending bookstore the small illustrated books of the comic series "Noocha." These stories about a boy and girl who ran away from an oppressive stepmother magically became miniature, traveled widely and were befriended by animals, made her feel "tender and kind." In five years she had saved enough to attend the Pratoomwan night school for adults near Chulalongkorn University where the tuition was 180 baht for six months.
During her first year in the secondary night school PRATEEP yearned "to be like ordinary people." She had worked and saved and "wanted to try some luxuries like going to a movie or eating in restaurant." One day while she was indulging in the pleasure of a good meal in a market stall, a child came to ask for money. Identifying with the child whose poverty was similar to her own when she was young she willingly gave. When she had eaten her fill another child asked for the food left on her plate; watching the child eat hungrily, she felt "very sad." At 16 already matured beyond her years by the experiences of her life, she was prompted by these encounters to a searching self-questioning. Why, she asked herself, did she not go back and help these children? She tried to analyze "why most human beings when they grow up and have a chance, just think about themselves and do not identify with the mass." She read about and drew inspiration from Gandhi and his work, and felt increasingly that her life was with such children. She had contended with and overcome the hardships of slum life but knew that few poor children would have the opportunity she had.
Coming to know herself better sharpened her awareness of the influences of her parents. She "did not have selfishness in her mind because her "very religious" mother had taught her well the Buddhist philosophy of unselfishness and helping one's neighbor. Her mother's energy and determination had enabled her to go to school for the first four years and had been crucially supportive as she saved to continue her education. From her father came the example of working very hard at whatever must be done.
One year after attending the secondary night school and continuing to work at daytime factory jobs a compassionate gesture on her part indicated to her her true vocation. On a day off in 1968 PRATEEP took to her family's home and kept amused two small children she found in a neighboring house left alone by working parents. The grateful parents came to her that night offering her one baht a day each to watch their children. Soon 26 other children were brought to her and in two months the limit of 60 that could be squeezed into the five-by-ten meter downstairs room and the walkway of her two-story home had been accepted. Some parents did not pay, but PRATEEP, knowing she "could not let this thing pass by," kept their children anyway.
Her initial method of passing the day with group singing, storytelling and games proved increasingly inadequate. For children ranging in age from 5 to 14, the discipline of regular classroom instruction was required, especially in order to restrain unruly children from unsettling all the others. Within a year PRATEEP began to teach reading, writing and simple counting. Planks resting on boxes served as desks for children seated on the floor. Her only regular helper was a niece whose chief task was to guide the children's hands as they learned to write. She also trained literate slum teenagers as teacher assistants and paid them about 15 baht per day. Besides teaching reading and writing, she tried to instruct the children in nutritious eating, personal cleanliness and home sanitation. The children stayed in PRATEEPs "school" an average of one to two years. The turnover was greatest among older students; as soon as they knew how to read and write they left to take jobs as housemaids, baby caretakers, dishwashers, minibus ticket-sellers, or day laborerscarrying cement buckets on construction jobs or scraping freighters.
Still going to night school while running her slum day-care center/school during the day, she obtained her 10th grade certificate in two and a half years instead of the normal six. Now qualified to take the examination and enroll in a teacher training course when she could afford to do so, she spent the next two years managing and teaching at her school during the day and at night preparing lessons for the next day. By 1972 her school and income seemed steady enough for her to continue her own education. She studied hard for two months reviewing all subjects and passed the entrance examination for Suan Dusit, one of the best teacher training colleges in Bangkok. She had hardly settled into her classes in the college's "twilight" school when a crisis for her Klong Toey neighborhood confronted her with deepening new responsibilities both in the slum and at her school for slum children.
In 1972 the Port Authority again needed land for port expansion and ordered some 300 families2,000 peopleto clear their homes from the area; this included PRATEEPs home-schoolhouse. Officials were sent to enforce the eviction order, harshly if necessary, and slum residents prepared to fight back. By then a leader of a community committee of parents and neighbors, PRATEEP had the idea of informing the newspapers of the situation. The resulting press coverage ballooned the eviction order into a much debated issue.
The publicity meant that PRATEEPs unlicensed school was discovered, but also prevented it from being closed, and her home became the community meeting place for planning strategy to be used against the Port Authority. A group of professors from Thammasat University, Faculty of Social Welfare, brought students to study the problems and themselves acted as peacemakers between the squatters and the port officials, with the result that the Port Authority agreed to give the squatters a new site.
The slum dwellers themselves decided how the new community should be developed, "where the bridges and walkways should be constructed and who should build their homes where. Half an acre of land was set aside for a new school." PRATEEPs school was still needed because the children of most of the squatters lacked the birth certificates necessary for admittance to government licensed institutions.
Among the newspapermen Sumit Hammasathorn became the champion of PRATEEP and her school. His articles and photographs in the Bangkok Post prompted donations of construction materials from the Thai-Italian construction company building the road from the port through the area that had earlier been cleared of squatters, and of 5,000 baht from the wife of the Japanese ambassador. Sumit arranged for PRATEEP to speak to the South Bangkok Rotary Club which gave 7,000 baht. A project proposal PRATEEP submitted to the Thai Farmers Bank produced further construction material. Slum neighbors offered their labor.
In late 1973 PRATEEP was able to construct two simple buildings on the lent property and to inaugurate the Pattana (Development) Village Community School on July 4, 1974. Building I housed the preschool, kindergarten and grades one and two, and Building II grades three and four and a small library. A third building was added in 1976.
At the beginning PRATEEP found attendance at the new schoolas distinct from the day care facilities of the preschool sectionerratic. Coming from the slum herself she understood the people: she knew survival was the overwhelming concern of slum families"just to have enough money for the next day." Though they loved their children, many parents felt they could not spare them from work for schooling. Children too young for jobs, or older jobless youth, were sent out to search for discards they could selllooking in garbage heaps and around markets for plastic bags that could be washed and reused or for spilled cabbages and other vegetables, and at factories for dropped coal. If no leftovers were found, some children stole.
Armed with her conviction that the only solution to a better life was education, she went to parents to explain how their children's time could be divided between work and school. They could forage early in the morning and then go to school; in the afternoon or evening they could clean and sell what they had gleaned. The children themselves she tried to attract to the school by music, song, sports, comics and cartoon books.
Meeting costs was a constant challenge, and PRATEEP was quick to seize opportunities to augment school finances. For example, in 1974 when Sumit Hammasathorn's book on Dr. Krasae Chanawongse was published in pocketbook edition (this doctor had won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1973 for "enlisting local support and bringing effective health services to a neglected and impoverished rural area"), PRATEEP bought some copies and Sumit donated others which were sold at a profit to the school of about 3,000 baht.
Other problems meanwhile had to be met at the school. Classmates who had volunteered to help entered into the spirit of the school without difficulty, but other teachers PRATEEP had to enlist from outside did not readily understand why slum children had to be taught. Teachers and students had to learn to make do with the chronic lack of basic supplies and furnishings. Some outsiders and government officials, apparently harboring a general suspicion of social workers, accused PRATEEP of leftist backing and tried to discourage public support of her project. As a result PRATEEP found it necessary to keep meticulous records of all donations of money and materials in order to have ready proof of the nonpolitical character of contributions.
In 1974 the Japanese Broadcasting Company (NHK) made a television film on PRATEEP's school and in 1975 a Japanese teacher of English and a reporter visited Klong Toey and invited PRATEEP to tour Japan to talk about her work. When she explained that she could not leave, they wrote her story and took photographs to exhibit around Japan. During their visit, which coincided with an election campaign, PRATEEP introduced them to the candidate who became mayor of Bangkok. The Japanese later returned and asked PRATEEP to accompany them to present to the new mayor a 240,000 baht share of their earnings from PRATEEP's story. When reporters have since asked how the Japanese gift was used, there has been no answer. Subsequently, however, a new school was built two kilometers away from Klong Toey with funds from the municipal budget. Like other government schools it was not open to children from unregistered homes in the slum who therefore lacked the required birth certificates.
In 1976 the Bangkok Metropolis Administration (BMA) finally recognized Pattana Village Community School as a government institution and allowed the birth certificate requirement to be waived. It put on the BMA payroll the seven diplomaed teachers of the then nine-member staff. Fifth and sixth grades were added. Private donations were sufficient for PRATEEP to construct Buildings III and IV to house classrooms and a small clinic that is kept supplied by the Bangkok Rotary Club and is served on weekends by volunteer doctors and nurses from different Bangkok hospitals.
In 1977 Buildings V and VI were constructed to provide additional room for the kindergarten and grades four and five. That year the BMA increased the teaching staff on their payroll from seven to nine and in 1978 to thirteen. Early in 1978 Building VII was completed enabling PRATEEP to arrange a better separation of classes and functions. Buildings III and V are used exclusively for preschool and kindergarten, accommodating 218 children out of the total enrollment of 694. Building I has grade one only, Building II grade two and the library, Building VI grades three and six and Building VII grades four and five. Building IV remains the clinic. Until funds permit construction of additional space, the rudimentary vocational classes in sewing and handicrafts have been assigned a corner of Building VI.
In addition to the 13 teachers now paid by BMA, PRATEEP pays from donations another 12 teachers who are all from the Klong Toey slum and have finished the tenth grade but have no diplomas. These teachers are paid 700 to 1,000 baht monthly depending upon how long they have been teaching. BMA salaries for teachers with diplomas range from 1,200 to 1,700 baht per month according to the level of educational attainment. PRATEEPs diploma entitles her to 1,500 baht.
PRATEEP received her diploma in early 1976, completing four years of teacher training in four and one half years of night school and earning a 2.7 (C+) average. For the next two years management of the expanding school and teaching demanded her full attention. In June 1978 she enrolled for training in education administration at Ban Somdej Chao Phraya Teacher's College. Attending Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights at a tuition cost to her of 400 baht for three months, she is studying toward a higher degree that will merit a salary increase of 200 baht monthly.
The donations PRATEEP depends upon to pay teachers not on the BMA payroll (preschool and kindergarten), maintenance and other costs of the school, come from monthly payments committed for one year at a time from such donors as the Austrian Embassy (3,000 baht), Thai Farmers Bank (1,700 baht), Bangkok Commercial Bank staff members (800-1,000 baht) and a daughter of the owner of the Bangkok Bank who pays for one teacher (800 baht). Other contributions in money and kind have come from the Japanese and Belgian embassies, the Swiss and International schools and wealthy Thai families. An American farmer from Kansas who visited Bangkok in late 1976 read of PRATEEPs work in the newspapers, went to Klong Toey to meet her and see the school, and has since been sending US$20-30 monthly.
The school has no principal or headmistress though PRATEEP is the effective executive. The books are kept by her and two other teachers. She signs all formal papers and money receipts, and authorizes all payments. After a meeting of the staff she makes assignments. The 13 teachers under BMA are given their orders through her.
In 1974, after Pattana School began receiving regular donations, PRATEEP discontinued the one baht per student per day charge. When the BMA recognized the school in 1976, it required that a hot lunch be served the children in primary school but, citing lack of funds, gave only two instead of the customary three baht per day per child allotment for this purpose. Since two baht were insufficient to cover the cost of a meal of rice, vegetable and meat, fish or fowl, PRATEEP reluctantly reinstituted the charge of one baht. Finding that families with four children in primary school could not afford four baht, she began charging 20 baht per month per family, with the provision that parents must take turns cooking the food two days each per month. All children are served the same nutritious meal. The BMA gives one uniform per year per regular school student and PRATEEP gives another.
The kindergarten charge is 60 baht per month for 22 school days so that milk and protein-rich snacks can be given to the often undernourished preschool children. Families can pay this charge because the kindergarten releases the mothers to work.
Summing up her experience, PRATEEP has found that about 50 percent of the children enrolled appreciate school, want to study and continue as long as they possibly can. Most of these children, still lacking birth certificates, cannot go on to secondary school elsewhere, but only a few could afford further education even if admission were open to them. Another 20 percent "just play around and go out whenever they want but keep coming back." For these she arranges weekend sports and educational games and has now enlisted several university students to form a group that comes to Pattana School and other slums to organize games. She depends on the wholesome interaction of basketball and other sports to allay the slum dwellers' suspicion of outsiders. The remaining 30 percent are the fast turnovers, taken out by parents and sent to work, or intransigents unable to accept school discipline.
Talks with her students have shown that parent behavior is a frequent cause of the children's disturbance. "A father who cannot find work or do well at his job commonly takes out his frustrations on his wife and children. Abuse breeds violent feelings in children who then may react to an accidental slip of an elbow with an outbreak of suppressed anger or may lock their resentment inside and become slow learners. Feelings of being left out by parents lead to early marriage and at worst to joining gangs where the superstition that the tattoos members get are protection against harm encourages them to work out their hostilities in knife fights and they end up dead."
Toward fulfillment of her dream that Pattana School will become a community center and an important force to improve the quality of life in her slum, PRATEEP instituted meetings of parents to discuss what to do about their children. In order to attract and keep family interest in the school she concluded it was necessary to provide work and education for unemployed mothers. As a first step Building VI, where a space is allocated for vocational classes, was made available after school hours to women coming to make paper funeral flowers, macrame flower potholders, or weave palm leaf sheets used in making handbags and slippers. Buyers have been discouragingly few, hence classes in dressmaking have just started which will benefit the families directly. While the women work, talk is guided to economic and social conditions in the slum and ways the women themselves can ameliorate them.
PRATEEP describes her 10-year crusade to bring the opportunity for education to children of her slum neighborhood as "at first all illegal." Her home was on illegally occupied land, she was not a recognized teacher and the children had no birth certificates. When government opposition developed in 1972 she "tried to show that laws and social structure sometimes go in opposite directions." At the same time that she turned to the newspapers, she went to high-ranking officials to explain what she was doing and "how it is good for slum society." To them, observers from various United Nations agencies, and others who have since studied her work, she has repeated: "It is not enough to advise or give as an outsider. Work to succeed in the slums must be clearly defined and the people must join in doing the work. To teach and then leave slum dwellers to do the work themselves also is not enough."
"Slum people," she stresses, "usually do not understand what the government is trying to do. Officials who come in and say do this or that without being prepared to stay with the people cannot accomplish their purpose. Outsiders fail to realize that the people inside the slum do not see why they should cooperate with the government in its good works when their concern is the more immediate and consuming one of having enough money for the next day."
PRATEEP likens her own accomplishment to "washing a black cloth to make it grayit will not be white but at least cleaner." As one measure of this "graying," she cites government recognition of the some 300 Bangkok slums where over 800,000 people live which before were ignored. A survey is now being made and officials are being sent to the slums to issue birth certificates. This activity has slowed because of the large influx of refugees from Laos, Vietnam and Kampuchea and the risk of registering aliens, but the precedent has been established.
Other advances PRATEEP cites pertain to the neighborhood her school services which, she is careful to point out, represents only a small portion of the Klong Toey slum with a total population of over 42,000. Her records show that more parents are letting their children attend school, and more children are voluntarily comingboth to study and to help. She has no statistics, but neither are there any reports of Pattana School students or graduates being involved in drugs or crime. Public support has been sustained and has grown.
Renown has not altered PRATEEPs sense of herself as "just a slum girl who wanted to do something for her oppressed society." Faced with a problem she tried to solve it. She explains her approach to life: "One must have an aim and keep it. Problems will follow problems and if they are avoided one cannot get through. Have an aim and keep going. Stay and face all the problems. Do not back away."
"Aid for slum pupils," Bangkok World. May 30, 1977.
Bangkok Post. November 16, 1972; July 29, August 1, 2, November 7, December 4, 1973; April 20, May 19, December 29, 1974; May 4, 1976; May 19, 20, 23, July 11,
December 18, 1977; August 11, 26, 29, 31, 1978.
"Crusading Prateep eyes the adults," Bangkok World. June 13, 1977.
"Gifts for slum school," Bangkok World. November 18, 1977.
"A loan off her mind," Bangkok World. May 31, 1977.
"A short autobiography," The Nation Review. Bangkok. August 11, 1978.
"Skills for Klong Toey slum youths," Bangkok World. November 18, 1977.
" 'Slum Angel' Prateep tells her story," The Nation Review. Bangkok. August 11, 1978.
Thailand national education scheme. Bangkok: Ministry of Education, 1977. Pamphlet.
Ungsongtham, Prateep. "Development of education and welfare programmes for children in Klong Toey Slum, Bangkok, Thailand." Prepared for the United Nations Children's Fund Special meeting in Bangkok on the situation of Children in Asia with emphasis on basic services. 1977.
Interviews with Prateep Ungsongtham and persons acquainted with her work and visits to Klong Toey.