The Waters of Death and Life

Vietnamese children who live on the waterways of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong River have an intimate relationship with water. Supported by the Association of Southeast Asian Studies in the United Kingdom and Europe, I worked with illustrator Ben Thomas to convey this relationship. The issue of statelessness forces a necessary reflection on what children lack: legal rights. I was interested in this, but I also wanted to understand the everyday realities for children on the waterways. Sometimes children's experiences were hard to hear, and even harder to share. I have often wept sharing some of the stories told to me when conducting the research, which first sparked the thought of communicating them in different ways. Ben and I discussed how we could work together to share such difficult stories. This illustration was the first project we worked on, it is a section taken from a short essay I wrote for the worldwide report on childhood statelessness report. Gu's earliest memory as told to me was of the death of his sister. Gu was babysitting his sister and was cleaning the houseboat they lived on. To tidy inside, Gu placed the life jacket on his sister, who then took it off when Gu was inside the house. Tragically, Gu's younger sister fell into the water and died. This was Gu's first memory at 7 years old, shared with me during a timeline exercise. #watersofdeathandlife

Watch first. Read After

River Ghosts

Life and death on the river had opened up another relationship with water. Children were at times afraid of ‘river ghosts’: the spirits of those who had fallen. Faith was also a strong narrative in the lives of some children who spoke openly of their conversion to Christianity. Talking to children about their experiences of conversion, their use of prayer to still things like fear of water ghosts and the dynamics of converting outside of your family’s religion are things that for the most part, represent ineffable realities. Detailing prayer with text is possible but the representation of fear through text is challenging. Prayer was a key tool used by children to quell the fear of ghosts. The potency of children’s prayers and faith provided children with a basic yet fundamental need – sleep. 

Finding Faith

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Children's Christian faith played a significant part in their life. I conducted much of my research at a school known locally as the 'God School'. The God School offered free education to marginalised Vietnamese families. Parents who sent their children to this school consented to their children receiving a Christian education. Whilst attending the God School, some children would appropriate the Christian faith and Christian practices like prayer. Of course eyebrows raise when talking about religious conversion, especially the conversion of children. A critical conversation about power dynamics and the processes of conversion is imperative. Yet, this conversation should not shroud the possibility of children’s agency in their own choosing to convert. Capturing that agency through an image is possible, yet given the sensitivity of the issue I felt it important to combine text and image, utilising the power of an image to condense complex information, convey strong messages and the text to centre children’s voice. 

During the research children were often in conversation with their friends and parents about their change of religion. I wanted to draw these interactions through comic. I took a conversation retold to me by a participant, who was 13 at the time, about the reaction of her friends to her recent decision to be a Christian. It was important that the interview transcript used in my thesis was unedited and included. To this end the pictures were anchored in words. Working with Ben Thomas I shared a couple of photographs I had taken of the research area, and I described how I thought the scene should look. The way the interaction was described to me during an interview felt very much like a normal interaction among children. There was teasing, meaning making, and laughter. Of course, for the child being bold enough to explain her changing beliefs there was a little frustration that her friends did not understand something so personal, yet they maintained their friendship nonetheless. Capturing the spirit of the moment influenced the drawings as they developed.

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Baptism

For Christians baptism is a significant decision-point in life, it signifies conversion, as well as marking ‘belonging’ to the world wide church. Baptism not only expressed a belonging to a global community but also a new relationship with water. The waters of baptism bring new life I was told. At the God School baptism was a voluntary decision, it did not have a baring on receiving education and parents had to consent. Not all children wanted to be baptised, but for those who did It clearly had significant identity rich meanings. Emma explained to me what she saw as the meaning of baptism: “baptism means to go with God. If you are dunked in the water, you will leave your old body, you have a new body. When you go under the water your old self dies and when you are raised up from the water then your new self / being is alive.” 

The relationship children have with water seemed to express itself poignantly in baptism. Waters that, as Emma says, bring life were contrasted with the narrative of death as seen above.  

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