Interview: A Thai youth at the International HIV/AIDS conference in Mexico
August 2008 - Nok Noi (‘Little Bird’) is one of 17 Thai young people with HIV involved in art activities organized by the We Understand Group, a Thai non-government organization (NGO) that runs art and drama activities for children living with the virus. In early August, he traveled to Mexico City to attend the XVII International AIDS Conference, 3-18 August, after being chosen by other children to present their art work at the conference’s Journey of Dreams Exhibition.
He was accompanied to Mexico by Ms. Chutima Saisaengchan (‘Auntie Oui’), Project Manager of the We Understand Group, and Ms.Sudrak Lakhonphon (‘Auntie Non’), Psychosocial Coordinator, SEARCH, Thai Red Cross AIDS Research Centre. The trip was made possible through funding from UNICEF Thailand, ART AIDS, a Netherlands-based international NGO that employs art for raising consciousness about HIV/AIDS, and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO).
Nok Noi, who is from the central region of Thailand, is 18 years old. As a child he was often unwell, and when he was 13 years old he ordained as a novice monk because his grandfather believed the ordination would help improve his health. But due to his frail health, he dropped out of school in grade 7, and it was then that he learned he had HIV. Through treatment with anti-retrovirals (ARVs) his health improved, and when he was 15 his father asked him to leave the monkhood and come live with him and his step mother and two younger brothers.
Since 2004 Nok Noi has been participating with other young people living with HIV in art and drama activities. He is one of the core leaders of a volunteer youth group working with the We Understand Group and the Thai Red Cross AIDS Research Centre on counseling children living with HIV and supporting prevention and awareness campaigns.
On the last day of the exhibition in Mexico, Ms. Chutima and Ms.Sudrak interviewed Nok Noi about his experiences. The following is an excerpt from the interview.
Tell us about your preparations for travel
What have you been doing since you arrived in Mexico?
I found people here very friendly and kind to me. They were so humble, and while sitting there people would hand me some sweets, water, etc. They even gave me and the aunties some T-shirts they were distributing. And I got a lot of condoms, too. The Thai fellows often dropped by to give me things to eat. On some days, people were queuing up to talk with us, and buy the drawings and the souvenirs we brought for sale. They asked to take photographs with us. These people really liked to hug. They bumped their cheeks on mine, cuddled me and chatted with me. Then they cuddled me again. So I started to imitate them and it was fun. It was strange but cool.
I met Mark and Dave from AFAO, and Auntie Oui told me they supported our activities. At first, I thought these sponsors must be some serious looking guys. But when they sat and talked with us and helped me distribute the books, they looked very friendly. And there were a couple of people who, as I was told by Auntie Oui, had visited our exhibition in the previous conference. They recognized us and were very happy to see us here again. They came to greet us and ask about our work. It was like meeting members of our fan club. I also stumbled on the Director General of Thailand’s Disease Control Department. I took him around to our exhibition. He gave me big moral support.
How did you feel about the young people living with HIV disclosing their status and giving the opening address at the conference?
If I was offered such an opportunity to speak on the stage, I would take it since it would be useful and help encourage people not to discriminate against us, not to look down on us. But I would speak only on the condition that no one in my village, including my brothers, would find out that I have HIV. I do not want them to know this as it would make things very difficult.
Before going on this trip, you were told that whether or not you wanted to reveal your HIV status was up to you. When visitors came to our booth, we simply told them that you were a volunteer working with the We Understand Group. Some visitors asked if your work was presented here. To some, you said ‘yes’, but to others you said ‘no’. Why?
What about your exchange with young people living with HIV from other networks?
They look like us, though they are slightly bigger. They did not have HIV when they were young, but we did and thus our growth has been impaired. Unlike us, they did not have to take medicine since they were young. They all try to campaign in public to build up understanding, just like the way we work. We also exchanged addresses at the end for further contact. And they thanked me for taking time to talk with them.
Was it useful to join such an event, and do you think it is proper for children to join events like this? What are your suggestions for them?
It was good to come. We get to see many things we don’t see at home. We get to see how others are working and we can then share this information with friends at home. My suggestion is that we bring a lot of instant noodles here and get our health strong. We have to help with activities and try to adjust to the environment. Our aunties will not know everything and we all have to help each other. Also, it is good to study English beforehand. It helps us when we have to communicate, makes it less frustrating for us and we can go about by ourselves.
What are your plans after getting back home?
Interview by the We Understand Group. Translated by Pipob Udomittipong