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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
I spent three or four weeks in Bangkok preparing. I got to study English on Wednesdays and Fridays. On Tuesdays, I helped Auntie Non at the clinic, talking with younger friends about how to take they should take their medicine (ARVs) and  helping them get over their fear. I also spent time with Auntie Kib at the Thailand Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (TNP+) office, helping her prepare for the exhibition. I went around Bangkok by myself, taking the bus and the underground. Even though I got lost, I managed to find my way back to Auntie Kib. It was such a great experience. I was able to do things on my own and continue my duties as a student and get to work.

What have you been doing since you arrived in Mexico?
The first thing we had to do was prepare for the exhibition, but I got a fever so simply lay in bed for awhile. However, I recovered in time to attend the opening of the conference. I helped to distribute postcards inviting people to come to our exhibition. At our booth, we gave out books, a CD-Rom about our work and talked with visitors. All of them were foreigners and I could not communicate with them. So I had to ask Auntie Oui and Auntie Non for help. I tried to remember some words, and when the two aunties were in meetings, I had to manage it by myself using sign language. Some people tried very hard to communicate with me. Though I hardly understood them, they would not stop and kept on speaking to me. Sometimes, I simply spoke with them in Thai, or drew some pictures to explain my thoughts. 

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?
I had never seen this before. It was in the newspaper report that you read to me. I was so surprised that they could disclose their HIV status. This will never happen back home. I think they did that because it would have no impact on them. What they said was just identical to what we have said: ‘We are just like other children…We want to let you know we can do things, we have hopes, we have dreams just like other children do…We also want to be singers.’ Every word uttered was identical to what we said during our theatrical performance, ‘who am I, why am I here?’. Perhaps they face the same destiny as we do. They only difference is that they can disclose their status.

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?
In the beginning, I told everyone that none of the drawings belonged to me. I told them the works belonged to children living with HIV who I worked with. But later I started to forget and simply took people to see some of my own work. But it seemed OK to do that. And for some people, even though I failed to tell them I had HIV, I was sure they certainly knew about this, like my older Thai friends who already know that you (Aunties Oui and Non) are working with children with HIV. They even took me to have food with them in the canteen for people living with HIV. It was OK if they knew. So I began to feel more relaxed about the issue. Anything is fine as long as its not made known to the folks in my village.

What about your exchange with young people living with HIV from other networks?
I stopped by their booth, and you both asked if I was interested to exchange with them. I said ‘yes’, thinking I might have something to share with my group back home, for example how youth in other countries were working. I met four young people living with HIV from USA and the Philippines. They were all in their twenties. We talked about our daily lives and I learned that they contracted HIV when they were already grown up. I asked how they felt when they found out that they had HIV. Some said they thought they were going to die, but now they understand better.

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?
Many things. Upon returning, next week, we will have a camp activity at an HIV orphanage, right? Then I have to help you with the camps. And every Monday and Tuesday, I will help Auntie Non in the clinic. As for my education, I have applied to the Non-formal Education program and I am determined to complete my secondary education. I want to learn more and I will persuade friends who have dropped out to continue our education together.

Interview by the We Understand Group. Translated by Pipob Udomittipong




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