Tuesday, January 30, 2007

GAPE International and Enfants du Mekong

February 1

Today we met with the director of Enfants du Mekong, Benoit, based in Bangkok, to learn from him and see if there was some way we might collaborate our efforts. They are a respected and well-established organization, based in France, that has been helping children in this region for over a decade. They have an unusual approach, in that they use almost all volunteers to oversee their projects, and these volunteers raise their own money for this honour. They provide scholarships for children and also help with schools and some community projects along the Mekong River. A lot of their work is in Cambodia, but they are also working in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The main challenge, Benoit told us, was finding leadership--because their operation basically just funds local leaders with unique project ideas. This requires them to find highly competent local people to work with on the ground, because they are giving them money directly to run the projects. Quite a leap of faith! But they have a number of successful projects that attest to its value.

Happily we discovered that not only did we find Benoit's passion and love of helping children inspiring, we also discovered that we can help each other going forward. Their organization needs to find local leaders with the ideas and capacity to run strong education-based projects. Meanwhile, with our kindergarten school project going into its second phase now, capacity building (after its first, very successful phase, providing resources) Jai Dee Children's Fund is both building leadership in Laos at the teaching level and also we are personally searching out leadership at all levels of education, by constantly talking to people on the ground and learning all we can. So when we find great leaders with great project ideas in Laos who need more financial support than we can provide (likely with our current limited budget), then we can direct them to Enfants du Mekong! Very exciting stuff. More and more it is becoming clear that the way to make a difference is as part of a collaborative effort where we all work together toward the same cause--helping children.

January 29

We caught a tuk tuk to the office of GAPE International on the outskirts of Pakse where we met with Ian Baird, a founder and director of the organization. He's been working in Laos for over a decade, many of those years around Khong island, with projects related to the environment, education and retaining local culture. He had a wealth of information to share, so we were fortunate to have caught up with him. We are partnering with him in a small but exciting way—he has professionally recorded four CDs of traditional Lao music, stuff that you just can’t find anywhere else and is quickly disappearing here. We’re going to bring some CDs back with us to Canada to sell. The music is beautiful. Sales proceeds will support his projects, as well as ours, and still be much cheaper than your average CD in Canada ($10). So let us know if you’re interested!

We also met with the head of one of GAPE’s partner projects. Ramsey is creating a non-formal vocational style school in a village on a mountain near Pakse that will mostly serve the young adults of a minority ethnic hilltribe group who have otherwise very little education. It will teach resourcefulness and creative thinking, as well as handicraft trades such as weaving and soap making.

Our approach to helping others includes connecting and partnering with as many people as possible who already have a successful track record of working with people in development. We believe that the best way to make a lasting difference is as part of network, continously learning and growing in a flexible way.

Shawn & Thanou

Meet the People in the Muong Khong Neighbourhood

January 26 and 27

If we really want to help children get a better education, we not only have to help the teachers with resources and capacity building, but we also need to understand the environment and culture the children live in since it has such a huge impact on their level of learning. This does not happen quickly or easily, because it means connecting on a deeper level with the community--many, many hours of just sitting and listening to people, and of course winning people's trust. Thanou and I have made a daily effort to meet and talk with the people who live in Muong Khong, so we can begin getting closer to understanding what will really help the people here.

Health Issues

Something that has a huge impact on children's ability to learn here is that they are often sick. Almost every child we got to know had a continuous string of stomach problems, especially constant diarrhea. As well as the usual bacteria-related issues, there are two very serious parasite problems that exist here along the Mekhong. One is liver flukes, which comes from eating uncooked fish. This can cause long-term liver damage. The other is a parasite that lives in snails in the Mekhong. It burrows into the skin then causes extensive damage to blood vessels over the long term. If not treated it can lead to death. Many people have this but it takes years before the real symptoms appear and by then it can be too late. If left to long the only solution is surgery, which most people simply cannot afford and may not survive anyway. Children can catch it by swimming in the Mekhong and also by walking around with bare feet (it's spread through fecal matter, and since so many people have it and there are few toilets, it is a real problem). This is why it was so important for us to build proper washroom facilities with running water for the children to wash their hands (and feet). Another issue we have recently learned about is cultural, and it is something we plan to work on. Children mostly eat only noodles and meat, because it's believed that vegetables are not good for them until they are older. We hope to create an education campaign that will teach parents the benefits of encouraging vegetables.

The Old Woman's New Outhouse

While walking around the community, we met a lady who was over 80 years old who had been given the materials to build an outhouse next to her home by the government--this is in response to the above-mentioned parasite problem. Unfortunately she didn’t have the strength to dig it and her husband was in the hospital in Pakse. Her body is tiny (around 4”4) and skeletal. She explained that she hadn’t been well, so we gave her some Vitamin B12 (something often lacking in elderly diets here). We helped start the digging then did our best to inspire the neighbour’s children to help her continue the work...and they did!

The Blind Man Who Had Given Up On Life

We also met a diabetic man in his 50s who is blind because of his illness. Part of this is likely diet related, since people here eat a lot of sticky rice, then sleep after they eat, so the starch turns to sugar. Diabetes is a big problem here. Also some older people are quite inactive. He was very depressed and had basically given up on life, since everyone had said only negative things to him and he had already lost most of his eyesight. He was starting to lose sensation in his fingers. We explained that he could improve his health by simply exercising twice a day, especially after eating, and watching his diet (less sticky rice, more vegetables and fish), and also by staying positive and not giving up on life. After that we came to visit him every day to see how he was doing. We found that he actually acted on our advice, and was exercising and more engaged in life as the days went by. When we first met him he had been slumped all day on a bed outside of his house, feeling down about his situation. It’s amazing how much you can help people with just a few positive words. Of course we aren’t doctors, but exercise and a positive attitude never hurt anyone as far as we know!

The Woman Who Wore Her Life Beneath Her Sleeves

Another woman we met was almost 90—tiny and frail, she insisted on showing us the many veins and wrinkles on her arms that attested to her long hard life. She had 12 children, she told us, and spent many years weaving fabric to make her own clothes (there was no such thing as buying clothes, she said). Unfortunately her memory was going and she often repeated herself, so we were unable to learn more. She lived with her daughter and son-in-law and their children, all of whom were laughing and running around in old, oversized clothes. They were very poor, living in a bamboo hut with no running water or toilet. The children were building a fire outside. But what I remember most is the gratitude that burned in her eyes when we told her we wanted to learn more about her history and the history of the island. She was so happy that we cared. She insisted on giving us blessings, tying spirit strings on our hands (a local custom), which are given with wishes of goodwill (may you be happy and healthy, etc.).

There are many more stories, but the important thing is that we are learning to connect with people in the community, to understand and respect them, to learn from them and use everything we learn to help inform the direction of our projects. We hope this will save us from making many of the mistakes that are unfortunately common in development work—where assumptions are made about helping, and the end result is not all that helpful or sustainable (we have already learned of a number of examples right here in Laos, and we hope to learn from their mistakes).

Monday, January 29, 2007

Building Fences...and Relationships

Jan 20

The Surprising Life of a Fence

Building a fence, we have learned, is the perfect way to learn about the intricacies of a culture and also of working in a developing country where resources are not always available. It’s also an education into just how much work goes into building something as basic as a fence. Finally, it taught us to trust that as long as we keep persevering and working with the stakeholders and the community, everything will work out in the end.

Day 1: We got off to great start. The contractor showed up early and started work on building the four concrete posts that would make up the corners of the fence. This is actually quite an undertaking, requiring two men to bend and cut (using the most basic of tools) the rebar wires that provide tension strength for the posts. But then there was no sand available left on the island to make the concrete, it had to be brought over from the mainland, so work stopped for the day.

Day 2: Still no sand. Also, we need 75 solid wood fence posts, considered quite a lot on this island—hence they are being gathered from around the island and beyond. But good news! We have been told that we should have 40 people coming from the community to help build the fence. Also, the parent-teacher association will cook lunch for everyone. This is excellent news because it’s important to create a feeling of ownership of the school within the community so they will continue to support it on their own.

Day 3: The sand arrived! We ended up with quite an interesting work crew--the contractor and his son along with the principal’s family (including three young children), and some of the neighbourhood kids. Thanou also pitched in, mixing sand and concrete. It was mixed on a flat section of the ground, looking very much like they were making dough for a giant loaf of bread. Even the youngest children (around 4 or 5) took turns mixing the ingredients.

Bonus: A Staircase for the School

Fortunately, there were some bricks left over from the building of the outhouse, so they started by building a small staircase for the school (the school was built with money donated from another organization, but it ran out, so it was never finished). Now the kindergarten children won’t have to wriggle onto the concrete platform on their stomachs just to get to class—they can walk up the stairs!

Next, all of the posts were successfully poured into the wood “forms” (wood boxes that shape the concrete). In order to create strong cement you need to have a “continuous pour,” so we had line up a bunch of buckets (transported via a wood wheelbarrow) and quickly dump them in one after the other. Also important is to keep the cement moist—the slower it dries, the stronger the cement, so the contractor will keep wetting it down for the next day or so. The wood posts still have not arrived.

Day 4: Free day! Attended an island fair rumoured to have been paid for a foreign Laotian, complete with song and dance performances and one children’s ride (a merry go round, powered by a man standing in the middle pushing it). The whole island showed up, many having walked 10 kilometres or more with seniors and children. They weren’t disappointed; everyone had fun, socializing, watching the show and eating local treats (fruit, rice crackers, boiled peanuts and corn, and various meat-on-sticks). I was the only foreigner in a crowd of about 4,000 people, so I got plenty of attention, especially when I started dancing to the music.

Day 5: This was supposed to be the fence building day, but it didn’t happen. The posts had not arrived, which was just as well since the mayor had asked that we push it a day forward -- many people could make it on that day.

Day 6: Fence building day! We arrived at 8 am to find women cooking, but no one else. The men started arriving at 9, and an hour later we had 21 people. The funny thing was that they had been told to bring either a hammer or a shovel, so you can guess how many people brought shovels—none! So we had to scramble to find shovels to dig the 75 post holes—which had to be 30 cm deep. Also, the men demanded that we buy them a bottle of Lao Lao (local whiskey) to pass around (an investment of only $1). This, we were told, was a community work event and they always drank ceremoniously together during such events. Though I must admit I had some reservations, we felt it was best to comply—it’s not a good idea to mess with cultural norms, especially when people are working for free.

The next challenge was that the men were not thrilled with me videoing and photographing them while they worked, saying they felt like they were back to working under the French (who occupied Laos up until the 1950s). Fortunately the organizer jumped in to explain that we were quite different in that we were there to help their children have a better future, and not for our gain, and that we had to document it for our donors. It helped that Thanou (who is Laotian, but is considered foreign since he grew up in Canada) worked hard alongside the men, digging and hauling posts, and I even tried to do a post or too, though must admit I was fairly feeble. The wood is mostly hardwood and it weighs a ton. But each of these experiences is invaluable as they teach us the importance of clear and constant communication, not to mention flexibility. History has not been kind to the people of Laos, and like all people, their beliefs, perceptions and ideas have been shaped by this history. We need to respect this and, of course, respect these people who have been through so much. We have much to learn from them.

One thing we learned was something the Lao people have known for a long time—that it’s always best to work together to accomplish anything. The first two sections (approximately 36 metres each) were completed by 11:30 and we found we had leftover materials to do a third side (which we originally thought would be too expensive). All three sides were completed by 1 pm. Then the women rolled out a mat and spread out various Lao specialty dishes (beef stew, laap and papaya salad) for the men to share. It was my job to walk down the line and offer each man a shot of Lao Lao, as part of the completion ceremony. Then we sat with them and ate—the women had kindly prepared vegetarian dishes for us (eggs and water spinach).

Conclusion: So as you can see, you can learn a lot from just building a fence. We are humbled every day by the things we learn here, and we are working hard to integrate all this knowledge in such a way that the children and community can reap the benefits.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The News from Muang Khong

(written January 15, 2007)

We’re finally in Muang Khong! Here’s an update:


The teachers enjoyed their second (half day) of training and we had a meeting with the leadership at the school to learn how we could build on this new relationship. While visiting this school, we realized that if we really want to make a difference in education for children we have to provide consistent, quality training for the teachers. Just providing resources is not enough. This is especially important when you realize that most kindergarten teachers have only a grade 8 education or less.

So the current plan is to send all 4 teachers back to Vientiane for one full week of training (they will live, eat and teach at the Sunshine School alongside the regular teachers) in July when their school shuts down for a week. Then we’ll have teachers from the Sunshine School come down to visit the kindergarten here in Muang Khong to provide support and see how they’re doing. So essentially we’re creating a partnership between one of Vientiane’s most progressive schools (many of the city’s elite send their children there) with our school, which, as you know, serves mostly poor children with little hope for higher education (as it stands right now—hopefully we can change that). After this, we would like to turn the Muang Khong school into a model kindergarten school for surrounding villages to come to learn from them. Very exciting stuff!

Muang Khong: The School’s Progress
We drove south in a rented van, arriving after dark at the ferry station. The driver didn’t want to come over on the ferry as he had to go to Pakse, so we bundled all of our supplies, plus the teachers and ourselves, into a longboat, crossing the Mekong River with nothing but starlight to guide us. It was a bit like a scene from a movie, but we were happy to be dropped off right in front of our guesthouse (though we did have to carry the supplies up a steep riverbank). Welcome to the island of Muang Khong!

The next morning we had our first look at the washroom facility we built. We were impressed with the utility and workmanship—it’s right next to the kindergarten and has a huge wash basin where teachers can help wash the smaller children, and both toilets have water taps where children can wash their hands. Most importantly the children are using it, and they love it! So they should be much healthier now. Also, the children were moved into a new 2-room cement block school as the old school (a wood shack) was taken over by a nearby primary school. This school was built through the government by an NGO, but it was never finished as the money ran out (a common problem in developing countries, which is why we are handling the contract work ourselves). For this reason we are paying for paint for the outside walls and floor mats (the floors are dusty, uneven cement—bad for small children).

Also, we’re building a fence around the school to keep the children safely inside (they sometimes try to go home on their own, and primary school students come to tease them) and to keep the water buffalo out (so we can build a garden to create a food program and plant some fruit trees). We also need to build some cement steps since the previous builders didn’t get that far, and fix the locks on the school. So there’s still a lot to do, but it was great to see all the alphabet posters go up on the walls (in both English and Lao) and various other things in the classroom, such as the new chalk board, folding tables and stackable chairs (which they chose over wood due to a lack of space), and other educational items. It actually looks like a place of learning now!

A Welcoming Celebration
The principal organized a small ceremony formally recognizing Jai Dee Children’s Fund’s contribution to the kindergarten school. Jai Dee also presented the school supplies brought from Canada and purchased in Laos. Four officials attended and delivered speeches of gratitude. Also our third director, Greg Mackenzie, arrived in time to attend the event, so all our directors were there! The children charmed us with three adorable performances of Lao dancing (with a few modern moves thrown in) and had a great time eating the local cakes and cookies we provided. It was truly a magic day for all.

A Student’s House
Today we went to visit one student’s house. Her name in New-ning and she is around 5 years old (her parents don't have a birth certificate and birthdays aren't celebrated here so no one is sure exactly how old she is). She lives in an open bamboo shack, with her parents and seven brothers and sisters (the eldest is 21, and the youngest are twins, aged three months). It was heartbreaking to see the twins in small homemade hammocks, with no running water for bathing and no actual walls to protect them from the elements. The mother is 36, my age. She talked about how hard it is to feed her children (her husband works odd jobs for a dollar or two per day, when he can find work).

While rocking her babies to sleep in their hammocks she looked out through the gaps in her bamboo walls. “I will fight on,” she said, shaking her head, as though wondering exactly how she would manage. We gave her some (of our own) money to meet the baby’s needs, but the only thing that can really help is if their children can get an education—then they can support their parents as well as themselves. Tomorrow we will go back to film a video of a day in this student’s life so we can share it with all of you, and you can feel what inspires us to work so hard for these children.

January 18

Right now we're in Pakse, where we finally have real internet access (it's impossible to post on the blog in Muang Khong as the server is too slow). We were supposed to meet with a local charity that works with schools but the timing didn't work out for them (they're in the field). So hopefully another day. We also changed some money to pay for the new fence for the school, which we hope to have up before we leave. On a more casual note, it's hot, hot, hot here!! Really hot. Hard to believe that it actually gets hotter in another month. But guess we can't complain since it's about -20 in our hometown of Toronto, Canada. That's all the news for now!

Shawn & Thanou

Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Teachers Arrive in Vientiane

The principal and one teacher from Anuban kindergarten school arrived today, happy but sleepy from their 18-hour bus trip from Muang Khong. We held a pre-training meeting where we went over the schedule for tomorrow, and also discussed the progress of the improvements at the school. They were extremely happy about all the changes and said the community and the students are all looking forward to the completion of the project. We were very impressed with the level of leadership and accountability they have shown on this project--they and the other teachers did some of the work themselves (such as painting) and tried to get the community involved as well. They also made sure to keep the costs as low as possible, accounting for everything.

We still have many things to work on together--such as creating a fence around the school to protect the small children and allow them to grow fruit trees and other things (right now the wandering water buffalo would eat them!). Tomorrow we will be leaving at 6:30 am to go to the Sunshine School. We may have a meeting on Tuesday with another person running a charity here, but will have to see how the timing goes. For now...must get to sleep! It's a full day tomorrow!

Shawn & Thanou

Friday, January 5, 2007

Making Connections in Laos

Today we met with Concern Worldwide’s country director for Laos, Phillip Miller, to learn how they approach their village projects and learn from their expertise. Concern is an international charity working to eradicate poverty in 30 countries, with a number of projects in Laos. Phillip, an Australian who has worked on development projects all around world, was incredibly generous with his advice and even gave us templates on how to set up our project reports and measurements. While we are in Laos, we plan to meet with as many experts in the field as we can in order to make sure we are developing schools in the most useful, sustainable and measurable way possible.

We also met with Rassanikone Nanong who trains village women in advanced silk weaving, then sells the resulting products around the world. The women are paid higher wages than regular weavers, and there is an environmental focus—all the dyes used are naturally sourced from roots, bark, etc. She won a United Nations award for her work. We met with her to discuss the possibility of selling the scarves in Canada to help raise money for the charity. This way we are helping the local women to build on a marketable trade and also helping the children at the same time (and providing our supporters with stunningly beautiful silk scarves at below retail prices!). For now, we only bought a few scarves to see how it goes. These scarves are made of the highest quality silk and the weaving is intricate. All woven silk scarves made in Laos take about one week to complete on a hand loom.

Finally, we spoke with the kindergarten director, Jok, at the Sunshine School, where we will be doing capacity development training with the teachers and everything is arranged. We have a full schedule running from 8 am till 4 pm on Monday and Tuesday, visiting classrooms and meeting with teachers and administrators. The teachers will arrive in town this Sunday evening. Also we have rented the van and driver that will take us (and the school supplies) down to Muang Khong on Wednesday (we’ll be leaving at 4 am!).

All is on track and we look forward to bringing you more exciting updates in the days to come!

Shawn & Thanou