Locations: Nabone Village, Nam Dua Village, Ponsay Village, Nam Thi Village and Lak Seep Village near Lak Sao, Bolikhamsai province, Laos.
Date: 27th November 2006 - 28th November 2006
On Monday the 27th of November we left Vientiane to spend two days visiting projects in the Central Eastern side of Laos. These projects were being undertaken in partnership with the Laos government and it was members of the local government branches that kindly showed us the project sites.
Getting off the bus in the dusty town of Paksan we walked to a hotel where we phoned Ms. Thongsakoun, the government co-ordinator of the project. Within a few minutes we were in a car and taking a short trip to the Provincial Education Centre were we met with governmentofficials employed in that sector including Mr Khamsy Ngommalath - deputy head of the provincial education service.After discussing the project sites we were to visit we got back in the car for the long trip to the village sites near the town of Lak Sao. The road trip takes in some beautiful scenery, with Karst formations on either side sloping down to narrow valleys and scattered villages. However, the remoteness of these settlements is part of the reason for their poverty, due to the difficulty of transport to and from the areas.
After four hours of mountainous road we reached Nabone Village. This village had been identified by ActionAid and the government as one of the poorest in Laos. Until recently, most of the villagers had been subsistence farmers with any extra income coming from selling surplus rice in local markets. The aim of the ActionAid project in this area was to introduce infrastructure and skills to allow the villagers to produce other products for sale. The needs assessment and decision process resulted in two different products being identified as suitable for this village - fish and textiles.
Materials for the building of small fish farms were provided and eight tanks were constructed in the village. Each tank holds a large number of catfish which are now bred by the villagers. The fish provide an extra element to their diet and an important source of income. There are not any large lakes in the area so fish is not widely available in the local market. Eighteen traditional style looms were also constructed in the village, along with other simple machines for silk and thread processing. The looms were constructed from simple wooden materials which are available in the area and have no motorised parts which makes their maintenance very easy. The local women were trained by a textiles producer bought in by ActionAid and now know how to make a variety of textiles, mainly the complex traditional pattern used by Laos women on the hems of their skirts. The sale of these textiles creates a profit for the village women who previously worked in the fields and allows them to spend more time caring for their children at their home. We were very warmly welcomed by the people of Nabone Village and they kindly presented us with some handmade textiles.
Next, we drove a bit further to come to Nam Dua Village. The assessment completed for this area had resulted in the construction of a goat farm. Similar to the fish breeding project in Nabone Village, the project aimed to provide an alternative source of income to the village from the breeding and sale of goats. 120 goats were currently on the farm and several kids had been born recently. This project had only begun two months before so no sales had been made yet. If the project proceeds well, there will be scope for the villagers to expand the trade to include milk and skins. The kindly folk here presented us with some Cambodian style headscarfs which will no doubt come in handy when we get there.
The last destination for the day was an education class in Lak Seep village, 10Km from Lak Sao town. This project had begun in 2004 and its purpose was to teach reading, writing and numeracy to previously illiterate villagers. The class members were almost all female and there are clear cultural reasons for this. There are no fees for tution of primary school pupils (up to age 9) although there are other fees (building maintenance etc.). After this, most female children are kept home to work in the fields or to help look after younger siblings while their brothers continue to go to school. The result is that many females never learn to read or write properly and their calculation skills are poor. This can cause problems for them later when dealing in the market place or travelling to other towns. The low importance attached to the education of females in South East Asia is a large factor in the gender inequality that is evident in the region, others include traditional stereotypes e.g. women do housework including fetching water and wood; women care for children; female children are less desirable than male children for parents; females tend to marry at a young age etc. Through the education classes, the pupils are taught literacy and numeracy using themes that are relevant to their lives e.g. health issues, agriculture, law, gender issues etc. There are three graded levels, each taking between 5 and 8 months. After reaching level 3, the students can participate in a skill-training exercise to learn an alternative skill such as weaving or fish farming. The education classes are conducted by teachers supplied and trained by ActionAid
and are currently operating in 15 villages in Laos with a view to expanding to another 10 villages next year. Of the 43 classes initiated, 18 have completed level 3 so far.
The next day we went to KamKueth District Education Office where we met government officials who informed us about the other sites we were to see that day. The first was Ponsay Village where villages were being trained in the art of rattan weaving, having completed their level 3 education classes. The rattan weaving trainer was supplied by ActionAid and had been teaching 111 students in 3 villages in the area. Rattan is a vine that grows in forested, tropical regions and is useful for making furniture and baskets. After 2 months of training the villagers could construct quality baskets and mats which fetch a good price. This however was only level 1 training and future training would give them the skill to produce more complicated and large furniture pieces. Rattan is available in the local forest and is easy to harvest. Weaving rattan is not widely done in Laos and it is a highly valued product in Vietnam so future sales should be good.
After this we visited a school building in Nam Thi Village which had been constructed with the help of ActionAid. The government education budget is not enough to provide schools for all villages resulting in some children having to choose between travelling long distances to a school in another village or not going at all. This building was being used as a day school for local children and as a night school for the ActionAid education projects.
The majority of the projects we visited in Laos are still in their infancy and it remains to be seen whether they prove to be successful long term. However, the signs are good and the government is showing enthusiasm and support which will undoubtedly make the expansion of successful projects easier in the future. The government employees we met were keen to help and seem dedicated to their work although they are hampered by a lack of funding due to the poor economy of Laos. This combined with the inaccessible terrain and lack of trained teachers makes education in Laos a difficult task but the work that ActionAid is doing is definitely helping some of the region’s poorest inhabitants improve their prospects in life.