Educating Girls In Northern Laos

Reading opens up the gates to learning, to the internet, to health, to self-esteem, and even to a degree of power over our own destiny. Try to imagine your world without reading. Northern Laos still has lots of communities where there have never been any schools at all, for neither boys nor girls. And, then try to imagine living in a culture where girls and women have learned to be afraid of public interactions like going to school with boys. Wonder a bit: What must be involved to produce such reluctance? How about having your kids imagine working on a blackboard made out of boards and black paint: see the picture!

What can you do about this? If you are able: try to read some stories with some young kids. If you are a parent or grandparent—try to read to the kids before they go to bed at night. I think it’s a more precious gift than we realize. Someone told me once that when dads read to their young daughters it has a long-term, positive self-esteem effect on the daughters.

The story that Ann Thomas tells about the people CRWRC (soon to be World Renew) works with in Mai District of northern Laos is actually a powerful tale of change. There are some people in the story who show the courage to face a negative aspect of their own cultural environment. There is an old man who shows leadership in advocating for change. Thanks to Ann for sharing her literacy expertise and this write up as a consultant to CRWRC.

Thanks for reading this,
-Tom Post

New Class at Dawn on the Mountain Ridgetop

-by Anne Thomas

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Spools of newly spun thread line the shelf behind mother and child. The baby carrier and hats are made of homespun.

Ping Ping Ping’ sounded throughout the cold night air in the mountain top village. It was not yet 5 AM, with still at least an hour until dawn. The stars shone bright and crystal clear against the dark sky. Soon a new day would be dawning in Phia Lo Kao village, a large Akha village situated high on a mountain saddle at just the right place to catch the cool breezes. Akha women were bending over tiny kerosene lamps, using a taught rope made of vine to fluff the cotton balls which they would spin into thread throughout the day as they walked forth on mountain trails to their distant fields. They then store the thread on the small wooden spindles, before weaving the homespun cloth which they dye a deep indigo blue.

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Typical Akha ridge top hamlet in Phongsaly Province

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Views from Phialaokao village school over the distant ridges.

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Views from Phialaokao village school over the distant ridges.

The two Parent Teachers’ Association women of Phia Lao Kao village, ‘Nang Jae Tall’ and ‘’Nang Jae Short’, arrived at the literacy classroom at dawn, bringing with them seven teenage girls. Most were age 14 to 16, although they look much younger due to malnutrition. The previous evening the PTA had taken action when it was discovered that there were over a dozen girls missing from the literacy class because they lacked the confidence to enroll. The class was full of boys who had been studying for over a month, but no girls. The solution: the PTA women would bring the girls to a ‘make up’ class to be held at dawn for the reluctant enrollees: seven teenage girls who had never attended school before.

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Parent Teachers’ Association women of Phia Lao Kao village, ‘Nang Jae Tall’ and ‘’Nang Jae Short’

The two PTA women led the girls to the waiting teacher and watched while they got started with their first day of class. The girls were too shy to sit in the literacy classroom, and formed a circle outside. The photos show the progression of the class over six months.

Dec 2010

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Six of the seven girls in their first literacy class session. Teacher Khamchan shows them how to hold chalk and slates to form letters.

May 2011

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Teacher Khamchan stands at the blackboard with a student

Book 2 lesson 46
Teacher Khamchan stands at the blackboard with a student who confidently holds a flashcard and counts the number of times the new ‘key word’ appears in the lesson.

May 2011

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The newest pre-literate class swelled from 7 to 12 students, all girls.

The newest pre-literate class swelled from 7 to 12 students, all girls. New students enrolled when they saw the success of the original seven. They write their names and ages on slates and shyly hold them up. Most are age 15 to 16.

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Nang Jae Short and Nang Jae Tall

Nang Jae Short and Nang Jae Tall proudly observe each of the three beginning literacy classes held in the wooden community building which serves one-room schoolhouse. A visiting Ministry of Education official (pink shirt) tests the students with flashcards. This class pictured is one of the more advanced classes. Although most cannot read and write themselves, members of the Parent Teachers’ Association (PTA) visit the classes regularly. They also make sure that the teenagers who should be in literacy class have enrolled and are attending.

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Mr. Pha visiting the school. He is one of the oldest men in the village at age 69.

Mr. Pha visiting the school. He is one of the oldest men in the village at age 69. He regrets having no opportunity to learn to read in the village when he was young. Now he feels he is too old, but he says he will do everything he can to ensure that the younger generation in his village can access the education which he never had a chance to get. As a PTA member, Mr. Pha visits both the evening literacy classes and the new primary school, to ensure classes run smoothly.

Flashback: Dec 2009 and January 2010
In PhiaLao Kao village, none of the nearly 100 women and girls between the ages of 15-45 were literate when the Lao Literacy Project started in Dec 2009, and only about 20 of the 98 teenage boys and men were semi-literate. The few men who had been to school were recruited as the literacy teachers. Nang Jue Tall, who in her late 20s was the youngest of the PTA members, attended literacy classes. She had the distinction of being the first married woman to participate in literacy classes in 2009.

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Teacher (center w cap) and PTA members Nang Jue short and Thao Pha pose after class with the studen teacher (blue hat).

The enthusiasm of the new readers, together with the active support of the PTA, has impacted Phia Lao Kao. More pre-literates were motivated to enroll after they saw the success of the preceding classes. PhiaLao Kao village started two new classes of preliterates in January, 2012.

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Where is Loas Phongsaly Province, Loas?

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How You Can Help

I hope this story also leads to a deeper gratitude within all those who read it. (I think that there is even a spirituality of gratitude.) And if you find that this work of opening up the world of learning for marginalized people invites you to participate—-we need your financial help. You can contribute to this good thing the Lord has given us to do!

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