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A tough homecoming to our Asian slum

“Ah, this is too hard. I can’t deal with this!” I said exasperated.

“It’s alright Dad. You go to sleep and we’ll take care of it,” Tom reassured me.

We’d just returned to Asia after three years in Australia. Despite having lived in Asia for almost two decades, and our being used to how things work here, my ‘homecoming’ was actually surprisingly difficult. I found the heat (mid 30s), humidity (80%), rubbish on the ground, smallness of our room (7 m2) and sheer number of people, pretty tough. Added to that, on the day we arrived, I still had a cold from the Australian winter, and very little sleep from 48 hours of travel. I’d hit my ‘wall’.

Thankfully, Tom and Cathy were doing considerably better, and were able to keep going with the cleaning and setting up of our room (it was pretty dusty after no-one had lived in it for a month or so), while their poor husband and dad collapsed in an exhausted heap.

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Cathy busy cleaning at the door of our home

Seasoned travellers to the developing world won’t see my difficulties as at all surprising. Finding the heat, noise, rubbish and crowds overwhelming is all pretty normal for first time visitors to the developing world. People call it ‘culture shock’ – suddenly being immersed in a context very different from your own. But it was surprising, and somewhat disappointing for me to experience culture shock again after all those years. It seems as though my three years in Australia had softened me up too much!

Cathy and I had come to Australia in 2019, intending it to be for a year, to get Oscar settled into Uni. Thanks to Covid, that one year turned into three years before we could return to Asia (in fact Oscar ended up completing his whole degree while we were there). But in July this year we were finally able to return to Asia. Cathy and I hope to be here for several more years.

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Me (Mark) in our small room
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Cathy in our small room

Thankfully, my culture shock only lasted a few days. While life here isn’t as comfortable as Australia (it’s still very hot and humid and there are daily blackouts), I am coping much better, and have started to do my primary role of supporting Tom and Cathy.

Tom has really hit the ground running. He knows many people from the community here, quite a few of whom he has helped significantly over the past three years. Thus now, on his return, he has several people a day asking for help. The help sought includes everything from assistance in navigating the hospital system, to getting a child’s birth certificate. The common factor is the difficulty ordinary, often non-literate, folk have in navigating a complex and hierarchical government system. I’m amazed at how much Tom gives of himself. The other day 53 separate people phoned him! These last two months watching him has confirmed my suspicion that he is generally a kinder, more generous and more effective community worker than I ever was!

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Tom giving training on how to teach literacy

Tom is also hoping to use this term to start addressing the corruption that affects many aspects of life here. The other day he helped a patient get surgery at the local government hospital for hydrocele (swollen scrotum). The surgery was successful. But as the patient was being wheeled out of the operating theatre, the hospital wardsman asked for a bribe. Tom refused, but the patient’s relative, fearing bad consequences if he didn’t pay, gave some money. These wardsmen are salaried and it’s completely illegal to ask for extra money from patients and their families. Despite that, the practice is very common. The wardsman complained that the money the relative gave wasn’t enough. At that point Tom said in a loud voice, (so as to be noticed by others), “Oh, you’re asking for money. I’ll give you Rs500 (a whole day’s wages) if you give me your name and designation!” At that, not wanting to be seen to be taking bribes, the wardsman gave the money back and scampered.

On the floor below, when the patient was being taken into the recovery ward, a different two wardsmen asked for another bribe. This time, Tom said in a loud voice, “Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t bring money to give you, but instead here’s my shirt!” and proceeded to take his shirt off to give it to the wardsmen (do you recognise that response?). Again, the wardsmen scampered and no bribes were paid. Tom’s reflection since is that he’s “won the battle, but is losing the war”, since he hasn’t been able to get the wardsmen’s names, or have appropriate action taken against them.

Meanwhile, Cathy is finding her feet in her tuberculosis (TB) role. While TB is virtually non-existent in Australia now, TB still kills millions here. Again, the system is not doing well. One woman Cathy came across, who was diagnosed with TB a year ago, did not get treated because she didn’t have the correct government identity papers! Such bureaucratic nit-picking is frustrating – for Cathy, but of course even more so for the patients.

So, life in an Asian slum has begun in earnest again. It’s exhausting, infuriating and very fulfilling – all at once!

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