Joan Evans, the Aussie nun celebrated for her work in the Klong Toei slum, has returned to Perth, but in ‘Rong Moo’ she will not be forgotten
Sister Joan Evans took one final walk around Bangkok’s Rong Moo slum last week, to distribute provisions in the poor and crowded community she called home for the past 25 years. Crammed into her old wooden house, her small team of workers were chatting about repairs to the back wall, lost to a fire that swept through three weeks earlier.
We had shared many hours talking in that kitchen, while people came to her door seeking handouts, mothers with children needing help with the bills. They all got money, or a date to come back to resolve their woes – with a trip to the hospital, a visit to the market for shoes and a new school uniform.
For a woman of 84, Evans looked surprisingly steady and relaxed; determined to do what she could, right till her final hour.
She had spent the week handing out clothes, towels, linen, household utensils and other small gifts, looking for the faces of key people – the young, the very old, and ones in greatest need; those whose plight weighed most on her heart.
Her neighbours in The Slaughterhouse – named for the abattoirs that operate in this section of the huge Klong Toei slum at night – were hit by a savage blow several weeks ago.
At least 40 homes were engulfed in the fire on January 27. It was a Friday evening, around 8pm. No one was killed or injured, but dozens of families lost even what meagre belongings they had.
Fires are the constant fear in these neighbourhoods, so people are always ready to run. We had spoken of it many times. But for Evans, this was the closest the flames had ever come.
In the first part of her life, she taught at a private Catholic girls school. But on retirement she left Iona College, in a beautiful and affluent part of Perth, for Bangkok’s crowded port, where tens of thousands reside.
Inspired by a talk by Father Joe Maier, the American missionary renowned for his work in Klong Toei, she came to Thailand to become “immersed” with the poor, walking with the needy and sharing their daily struggles.
Her wooden house was nearby the one Father Joe occupied for many years, down a narrow winding path past doors open to people eating meals on the floor or lying on their beds. The floor sits unevenly on pilings sunk into the Chao Phraya’s tidal wash. After heavy rain a sea of rubbish collects underneath.
This was an area of serious need in the ’90s. In 1991 more than 60 people were killed and over 100 injured in a gigantic blaze marked by huge explosions and mysterious toxic fumes. Survivors battled the Port Authority for compensation for more than a decade.
Then, in July 1997, Thais were hammered by a financial crisis that saw the baht plunge and national reserves wiped out. The boom years came to an abrupt halt and the country was forced to accept a $17-billion bailout from the IMF.
Arriving in its wake, Sister Joan was unsurprisingly inundated by mothers with infants, queuing at her wooden shack for the fortnightly “Milk Run”. Each was handed a free box of powdered milk with the corners cut open, to ensure they would go to the babies they held, not for resale.
Evans’ focus was mothers and children – staving off malnutrition and getting kids to school.
“Education is the only way” out of poverty, she said: Pay for their lunches, for their uniforms and even for their transport to school.
But handing out money in a slum day and night has to be done with great thought and care, since such generosity comes with serious inherent risks. For the past 17 years I have lived just 10 minutes away, and there was rarely a time when someone was not outside her door, early in the morning or late in the evening. Evans had to tiptoe around after waking just to enjoy a cup of tea in peace.
Sharing the burdens of the poor was not easy, but she relished the task – delighted at the little kids who tapped on her door for free chocolate milk, or explaining quietly but firmly to suspect characters that it might be best if they came back in two weeks time.
She handed out millions of baht every year. A colleague who helped Evans with her financial records said she gave out over A$500,000 (Bt13 million) in 2002 alone. A lot of that came from donors in Western Australia, plus former students she had taught, or dedicated supporters such as the Australian and New Zealand Women’s Group in Bangkok.
“She made schooling attractive, affordable and possible,” Father Joe said last week. “Parents were always in trouble [financially]. She’s put a lot of milk in a lot of babies who would otherwise be getting sugar water. And it’s changed a lot of lives. Two to three thousand kids.”
People in Rong Moo realised they had to look after her, and watch that no one broke into her pickup. In the years since she arrived, that part of the slum has been transformed. Some families are paying off cheap two-storey homes built by the state housing body on what used to be an old truck stop. And several dozen children here have gone on to earn degrees.
In recent times supporters have expressed concern about Evans’ health – her struggle to find the right word and frustration at losing her line of thought has slowly become more obvious.
For many years she said she would be happy to die here, but in the end the Sisters at Iona called her back. She had been in Perth when the fire broke out but returned this month to tie up affairs and say goodbye to friends, neighbours and supporters. Sister Kathleen, head of the Presentation Sisters, accompanied her – to ensure she didn’t change her mind, some whispered.
A reception in Evans’ honour was held at the Australian Embassy in Sathorn – one of many over the years, as the spouses of ambassadors have often backed her work. It was a happy event that demonstrated how important Sister Joan had been for many expatriate women living here – like a beacon of light and love people wanted to be near.
Walking around Rong Moo one last time, there were more hugs and smiles – “a lot more emotion than usual”, she said. Her neighbours are rebuilding, with donations flowing in from Father Joe at the Mercy Centre, local temples and others. They should get also financial assistance from the government in a few months.
Volunteers – the ever-cheerful Milos and the Aussie women – are continuing her good work, handing out 5-kilo bags of rice very fortnight and operating the “Milk Run” that draws mothers, grandmothers and toddlers from all over the slum.
The elderly nun is back home now, but she has inspired a new generation of carers to take her place. Humble and caring, she is a rare and extraordinary woman.