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).