Thursday, June 21, 2007

MCC’s Global Family Project to Help Ethnic Minorities

Earlier this month, Khamseng and I (Phyllis) traveled to northern Laos to visit one of MCC’s Global Family projects. Khamseng has been working with MCC for 2 years as a translator and is also in charge of this project. We flew to Udom Xai and from there to a bus to Luang Nam Ta. This part of the journey had us within 20 km of the Chinese border.

Our purpose for going to Luang Nam Ta was to attend the graduation of 7 of our ethnic minority students from the Luang Nam Ta Teacher’s Training Center. While we were there, we learned that only 5 would be graduating because two students did not have sufficient credits to graduate.

We are confident that the last two can get those credits in July. The five students who graduated are pictured with Khamseng and me. All seven teachers will start their new jobs at the end of August.

Graduation at this school is a time for students and teachers to celebrate and families are not included. Below: The guys waiting for the ceremony to begin.

There were more women than men graduating. Below: The women look at their diplomas.

Not Quite Complete

Khamseng confers with the two students who need to take the extra courses during the school break before they can become teachers. It was quite a blow to the two women not to have graduated with their class. They will likely complete their requirements by the end of July and be ready to teach for the next school year.

There is More News!!

Si Pie and Khampone got married with a “small wedding” the week of his graduation from the teacher training center. He and his new wife are planning to have the “big wedding” in January of next year when they and their families have more money to celebrate. Khamphone is one of the students we sponsored and he married Si Pie who graduated last year. They are both from the Tai Dum ethnic group and the celebration was full of fun, food, friends, music and traditional ceremonies.

A Book About Gandhi

Phyllis with the Director of the School.

Quaker Service Laos, an American Quaker group who have been working in Laos for many years, recently translated a book about Gandhi’s work and life into the Lao language. MCC is helping the Quakers to distribute this book and so we gave 10 copies to the library of the Luang Nam Ta Teacher Training Center. The Director of the school was pleased to receive them because up to that point, they only had technical books in the library. He said there was a big need for storybooks and biographies in their library.

Ajan Somhak
While in Luang Nam Ta we also met with Ajan Somhak who is the liaison person between MCC and the Global Family sponsored students who study in Luang Nam Ta. As such, he keeps in contact with the students, gives them food money on a monthly basis and reimburses their health expenses. But he does more than just that. Ajan (which means teacher) is a busy man; besides his day job with the department of non-formal education, he and his wife own and operate a busy restaurant beside the Luang Nam Ta bus station and he also works unofficially as a social worker.

The first day that we arrived in Luang Nam Ta around supper time, we headed to Ajan Somhak’s restaurant. It was so full we had to go to the neighboring one – which was absolutely empty! The following day, we came for breakfast and sat down with Ajan Somhak. As we ate our eggs and bread, he explained that he employs people at the restaurant on a temporary basis based on their needs. As we were sitting and talking, he pointed to one of the workers and said “She is a teacher but now it’s holiday time and she needs some money before she goes back home.” Later he pointed out another and said she was a student who had no where to go so she was going to work there for a while. He also is employing one of the Global Family sponsored students, Jitapon, whom you will read more about in this newsletter. The only kind of people he will not help out are people who are lazy and don’t do their share of the work.

Ajan Somhak speaks positively about the abilities and futures of the students we are sponsoring. He thinks they will make good teachers and will help their communities. He looks to the future with hope and promise.

Meet Jitapon Jitapon, or just Jit as everyone calls him, is one of the two students who joined our sponsorship a year ago. He has always liked school and can’t name a favorite subjects because he likes them all. When he was in Secondary School he wanted to study English but there was no English teacher at this school. There was an English teacher in the district but to get to him, he’d have to take a boat and Jit could not afford the money for the boat ride.

Now that he is at the Teacher Training Center his life is different. He still finds he likes school and is enjoying lessons and doing well. However, dormitory life is the big change and happily for him, it suits him. He has many friends and finds they are able to help each other with homework, cooking, cleaning and other chores.

Jit is a sporty person who enjoys soccer, volleyball and rattan ball. He placed second in the whole school for the half-marathon (21 km) that was held recently.

Jit works in Ajan Somhak’s restaurant when he has some free time. While at work, he gets free food plus $2 per day (a fair wage by Lao standards). His duties include preparing food, washing vegetables, cutting meat, washing dishes and clearing tables. He didn’t really know how to any of these things before he got the job but he’s an energetic and enthusiastic learner.

Some of Jit’s concerns about school relate to English and Math. He has never studied English before and would really like to learn it but the way the schedule is step up, he only gets it for 2 hours a week. In Math, this year he and his classmates were unlucky in getting an irresponsible and dishonest math teacher who was often absent because he was “busy”. This same math teacher then offered “math enhancement classes” in the evenings for which students must pay extra. Jit did not have any money for this so as a result, his math score has suffered. MCC intends to talk to the school authorities about this issue.

For the summer break, Jit plans to go back to his aunt’s village and live with her. Since his parents got divorced, he has lived with his aunt. He’s looking forward to coming back to school again at the end of August.

On the Road Again

We left the graduation party while it was in full swing because we wanted to catch the afternoon bus at 3:00 pm. We arrived at the bus station at 2:15 to learn that the bus had left without us about half an hour ago! A few minutes later, Khamseng negotiated a ride with a van driver and along with some other stranded passengers who wanted to go to Udom Xai. We arrived there around sundown and had supper at a restaurant beside the bus station there.
The Next Stage

Our next task was to get to Muang Mai, a district east of where we were and a place where MCC used to work. We headed to the bus station and got on a bus bound for Muang Khua which is about 75% of the distance but about half way there in terms of time. We had lunch in a restaurant called Han Sabai Sabai overlooking the Nam Ou (River). This was the view.

Then it was on to a different bus to go the last stretch to Muang Mai. It was slow going. The road was fairly rough. Along the way we passed 3 or 4 villages with signs indicating the MCC used to work there.

We got stuck within sight of Muang Mai and had to wade through some shin deep water.
Here’s the Guest House we stayed in.

KHAM – a name like no other

Just about all the people we met with in Muang Mai had "Kham" at the beginning of their name. I was traveling with Khamseng, our first host was Khammai, second host also Khamseng. [Photo Above: Khamseng and Khamseng.] At the Education Office we met with Khammoan and had dinner with Khamsai. We interviewed Khamsao. Before the trip was over, I was introducing myself as KhamPhyllis!

8 New Students

Since 7 students graduated and don’t need our support anymore, we now have money to sponsor 8 more students. So our purpose for being in Muang Mai was to affirm the selection of 8 new students. The Education Office found us 4 women and 4 men who are from 5 different ethnic groups: Tai Dum, Khmu, Pho Noi, KaBeet, and Tai Cow. (Don’t count on my spelling of the groups as being accurate. Additionally, the name groups call themselves is often different from the name others call them.)

This photo only shows 7 students. One of the women couldn’t meet with us in the morning but we visited her home in the afternoon.

Lots of Food

One evening, the group for the Education Office had a “small party” for us. It was a great dinner and lots of fun meeting new people. All of the food in Muang Mai was delicious and our hosts were all so warm and inviting. I really enjoyed their hospitality. If we ever ate on our own, I tried to eat only a snack because I always knew that at the meals we were invited to, there would be lots of food.

Of course, this being Laos, there was lots of drinking too: beer, home brew and one time some fermented embryonic deer juice! My “trick” was to accept a cup of whatever I was offered, toast everyone and then fake drink. Of course people soon caught on because my liquid level never decreased but everyone was very gracious and allowed me to play my little game. It just confirmed their belief that foreigners are a wee bit strange.

We were invited out for breakfast with this family (father named Khammao) on Sunday and served beer and home brew -- and lots of it. What a way to start the day!


One of the many sad things we saw on the way was the increased extent of deforestation. It was really sad to see how many hillsides were denuded of trees. One morning we climbed up a road build by a company that is planting rubber plantations in the area. First they cut down all the old growth forest and then clear the under brush. Then they get the villagers to plant the trees.

When we first arrived, our hosts told us that they would be taking turns hosting us because they had to work in their “gardens” on the weekend. It turns out that the rubber company made a deal with some higher level of government that the villagers and the company would share the project 50-50. This sounds good but when you learn the details, it doesn’t work out to be fair or equal. (We met a foreigner who explained how the company worked the deal. Lao people would not explain this to me, a foreigner, because it might be seen as being critical of the powers that be.)

The company and the villagers will each own half the area and half the trees. For the trees planted on the company half, the company will pay villagers to plant, weed and maintain the trees. On the village half, there is no remuneration. So the villagers are happy to work on the one half but unwilling on the other. Therefore the village has imposed a fine of $50 on families that don’t work in the plantation. That’s a tremendous amount of money for a family in Laos. In many years time, when the trees are old enough to produce rubber, the company's half will be strong and healthy and the villagers half may be weak and sparse. The villagers had no say in the contract; they have never seen it. The deal was made at some higher level of government.

MCC’s Past Work

I mentioned that we passed villages with signs indicating that MCC used to work in them. We also heard from many people that some things MCC started were still going on. Rice banks and revolving drug funds were continuing. In more than one village pig lending schemes continue. We saw water running from irrigation systems in a few places.

We heard stories about the good old days when MCC worked there. People talked about learning tours they had been on with MCC. One former counterpart said he had been to Thailand, Vietnam and southern Laos with MCC tours. If it were not for MCC, he would not have seen those places. He was very grateful.

People also spoke fondly of our MCC co-workers in Vientiane and sent gifts back for them with us. Because Muang Mai produces a lot of top quality honey, that was the gift of choice. Khamseng had to haul more than 13 kg of honey on the back home journey.

And Back Again

We retraced our steps and got one crowded bus after another. On one there were seats for 20 and we had 33 passengers. Eventually the driver’s wife, who was collecting fares and generally organizing us, wouldn’t open the door for any more passengers.

NOTE: Some of the pictures are Khamseng's.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Going for a Walk in Our Neighborhood
It's about a one kilometer walk from our house to the mini-mart.
This photo essay will orient you to our neighborhood.

Of course, you don't need to walk because there are

many tuk-tuks whose drivers would be happy to take you.

Or you could bike with Erik on our side street.

Food on Display at the Vietnamese Spring Roll Shop.
Inside the Vietnamese Restaurant.
The people who run this meat-only restaurant
set up their charcoal bar-b-que grill each evening
on the edge of the sidewalk. Arthur and Conrad inside one of the 15 sit-down
restaurants. Only 2 of them are indoor restaurants.

Steak and fries with a salad garnish.

Goodies at the Cake Shop

Phyllis at one of the 5 clothing shops on the way.

A Beauty Shop
There are 3 Beauty Shops and 3 Barber Shops.

Auto Repair Shop

This one specialized in Jeeps but there are 4 others.

The Dental Clinic.

A Street Vendor Selling Baked Goods

A Pharmacy
There are 2 on the way.

The Stationary Shop

There are 2 others.

Here we are at our favorite Mini-Mart.

Outside the mini-mart, the JOMA bakery truck.

We'll go back the same way we came.

Judging by all the motorcycles outside,

here's a store that's quite popular.

Looking down a side street.

The clinic where I have my physio therapy.

I used to come here on a daily basis.
There is another clinic down the street.

One of the two temples.

Basket Shop Number One

Basket Shop Number Two

Picture Framing Shop

Art Gallery and Shop

One of the 6 stores selling drinks.

This restaurant is still open, even with the construction.

The MCC sign indicating that this is our side-street.

The street where we live.