Sunday Ramblings: Hey Petra

Hey Petra, Which Disney character would you be?

“Ratatouille. I like that he thinks anyone can cook although many cooks challenge that view.”

And fictional character?

“For some reason, I am thinking of Mitsoku from Deep River. There’s something very steely, very firm, very clear about her. And despite how she is interpreted – as a cold character – perhaps it is me romantising, but I sense a deep capacity for compassion in her. She is also very brave. This is a character who seduces a man who becomes a priest, and finds her meaning in a Kali temple where it is filled with the sick and dying.”

And if you could be someone in history who would you be?

“Someone happy, and hopefully, someone who could write well and publish widely. To bring happiness to others too.”

That is Petra, she thinks anyone can cook, despite whoever that may challenge her view, and while she is a romantic, and sensitive, there is a sort of resilience about her. Punchy, courageous and a slight tinge of cheeky. She is eager and willing to connect, to touch others, to converse, to be happy and she sort of scrambles into other’s lives with a certain energy looking, seeing the potential brewing underneath, no matter what the world thinks of them, hands on hips saying, “hey cook why don’t ya?”

And you do, because she is feisty, thankfully.

We have gotten into many conversations since we met, and there are some bits she has allowed me to share.

What is it about yourself that you 1) appreciate and 2) deplore?

“I appreciate that I have a flexibility and can accept sadness, even if these not strengths easily appreciated. I think I accept a view that the world is violent and I think my emotional sensitivity and that view would not sit well with many.

What I deplore? I want to be accepted anyway.”

What is one childhood memory you always think upon that has a huge impact on who you are now?

“My mum passing clothes and toys to the woman roadsweeper over the fence. I did not think, from the mothers around me that I knew, that people talk to persons ‘beneath’ them. The fact that she knew this woman had kids and a family was to me amazing. She also did it silently, I would not have found out if I had not looked out the window and saw her doing so. It was only after that I asked what was it that she had done and she explained. That taught me humility – you don’t have to shout your deeds from the rooftops if you’re sincere.”

What are you doing now?

“I am doing a masters in human rights and democratisation under the University of Sydney. Am formulating a self-care project (yoga, basic meditation, massage, art therapy, alternative healing etc) for human rights workers and trying to write my thesis on a topic related to street children.”


“I am doing this because I reached a point in my work when I was burnt out and it was no longer sustainable nor effective to continue. So I knew I had to get out to get the break I needed. By then I had tried everything to recuperate within the job. It was unfortunately impossible.

Doing this masters gives me the chance to take a practical break for myself, while also reflecting on my work theoretically to see if I can come up with anything new when I return to the field. Being in Yogya (Yogyakarta, Indonesia) particularly allows me the chance to compare and contrast how things are done in relation to Kuala Lumpur.”

(Petra is taking a break from her work as a social worker at a youth centre in KL. She shares an experience in a poem.)

What drove you to pursue a career in social and development work?

“I would actually call it social work or human rights work. My love of people. I love being in touch with them, observing, engaging, absorbing, changing. They are my greatest teachers.”

Tell us a little bit about the work you are doing now, in Yogya, as part of your masters programme.

“I am running a self-care programme for human rights workers across a few organisations: mainly a reproductive rights organisation that does research as well as outreach with various marginalised and vulnerable communities. I focus mainly on this organisation because I have the resources to offer them art therapy (which I don’t have for the other groups) and because we tend to focus on communities without much thought for the welfare of the human rights worker.

Through this organisation I began teaching yoga, meditation, energy healing and doing yoga with two groups of people, sex-worker rights activists who are themselves sex workers, and reproductive rights activists living with HIV.”

What is one revelation?

“I realise it is important to see them as activists doing vital work with individuals and communities first and foremost, before I see them as persons who are working in the sex industry or live with an infection. Because it is important to me, after all, many of us want to be remembered for what we stand for above what we do for a living or the fact that we are living with a disease.”

Is it difficult emotionally?

“It’s not hard emotionally with the groups I’m working with in Yogya. They are very intelligent and spiritually receptive, which makes explaining the holistic bits; particularly where the philosophy ties into their lives and work are involved and related through the body movement that is yoga, easier.

Scheduling the classes however is a problem, which is why the work with the sex worker activists group came to an end sooner than the others. I suspect this has to do with simple logistics. The class combines activists from different locations, whereas my other classes for reproductive rights activists take place where they work.”

What sorts of people are you drawn to as friends? Why do you think this is so?

“Older, intelligent people. People I can learn from, who are experienced in the fields that I am involved in, who read intelligently and who are socially engaged. You need courage to work in certain situations and it is difficult to connect with persons outside of these fields when you are seeking answers. People can also be mentally and emotionally scared, I think it boils down to courage.”

 So what do you want to do next?

“It changes. But I think it boils down to wanting to know more about the world, fulfill a life purpose and be a good person, whatever these mean.”

And then there is that poem Petra wrote which she sent to me. In the subject she typed Clumsy Poem for a heroin using mother. I will leave you with it.

Lament of a social worker by Petra Gimbad

You screamed, weeping
In your drug filled haze
We stood back, afraid

I tore him from you
Action and responsibility

I held your child all night
Under fluorescent lights, playing
Hospital ghosts licked his spit

It trickled down my hair
He slept, trusting, upon me

Doctors asked: is your child mine?
Intern doctors gasped

Feigning horror as they ran tests
Excitedly, delightedly
For TB and HIV
His TB saliva shackling my wrists

They said you were high on heroin
That you wept crocodile tears when he left
But give you a shot and a needle and you will right yourself again
I'll see. They said you never cared.

They say I am brave
But I have never sold my body
Slept with rats in the rubbish heap

Lost child after child
Finding solace in heroin
To wake reborn.

May 7, 2011

-Petra Gimbad is a keen supporter of WritersClubKL and also contributes to a column in The Sun Daily. Her latest article can be found here.

We had a cosy time at Readings 02. Readings 03 is brewing, and will be hosted by the warm Palencia family at Jen’s Underground Supperclub, so stay posted and keep in touch!