John P. Walsh School
Phonsavan Say program brought wonderful results to people in Xieng Khoang, Lao. We had done a lot of works for the community. We distributed rice, salt, and clothes; dug ditches to bring water into the rice-fields; built water collector reservoirs; and built schools. The above programs had been reported in the New Year, 2005.
Following are the works we had done for Loong Hang village. It was an afternoon of the rainy season in September, 2005 in the “Elephant” country. While we discussed a plan to build a school in Na Khoi village, a Lao man about 55 years old came to meet a representative of EOCVN. It was Mr. Bu Thoong, the chief of Loong Hang village, Phu Cut, Xieng Khoang. From his village, Bu Thoong walked more than 12 hours to see us. Some people in the village told him that “Khong can xoi lua (a charity organization)” built a school for Na Khoi village. Bu Thoong woke up from 3 a.m., and brought sticky rice, a little salt, and lots of chili to eat to keep him warm. He asked us to help building a school for his village. He explained that for many generations, people in Loong Hang village often wished to have a school. He stayed with us that night and told us many stories. Bu Thoong told people in his village attended a wedding in Na Khoi village, and when they returned they told the story of “Khong can xoi lua (a charity organization)” EOCVN. After we heard Bu Thoong’s story, I decided after we finished the project at Na Khoi village, we would visit Loong Hang village to learn more about the people and their life situation. Bu Thoong wanted me to let him know when I visited Loong Hang village, so that he would have two guards carried AK gun to protect me. He was afraid that I would not be safe to travel alone by myself. I told him I could take care of myself, and once I visited a bandit den in Khet Phi Xet Xay Xom Bun (a special location in Lao) in 2002. I asked him if I could ride the motorbike to the village. Bu Thoong shook his head and said “Lot chac pay bo day” (The motorbike can not be ridden in there).
Two months later, Chuc and I rode the motorbike to Loong Hang village. People were very surprised to see us with our motorbike. We traveled 50km in the jungle by ourselves and it took about 3 hours. At some distances, we rode only 5km but it took about 1 hour; but if we walked, we might take about a day. We crossed streams and sloping roads. The motorbike died when we crossed a stream. We tried to cross a high sloping road which stood like a big wall. We pressed the gas pedal to the maximum and finally crossed the road after we had tried 6 times.
When we arrived the Loong Hang village, we were shocked to see its poverty. Houses were torn. Very few people had enough clothes. Many women wore only a sarong to cover their lower bodies, their upper bodies were uncovered. Most children were naked. Loong Hang village had about 50 families. People had lived there for hundred years however there was not a single sign of civilization. There were no markets, electricity, schools or medical clinics. People did not own a valuable thing except a small and torn shack.
The village people told they had no education, thus they longed for their children to learn “cai chu (alphabets)”. They did not need to worry about money and they could not do much with the money because there were no business dealings in the village. But they wish “the charity organization helps them to build a school about the size of 3 houses (5 stretching arms). It’s big enough for 100 children in the village to learn alphabets.”
They said they did not worry about starvation, because if they did not have enough rice to feed the family, they could eat wild fruit. They wanted to have enough clothes, because winter seasons were very cold and not everyone had enough clothes! They thought if their children could attend school, the children would find a way to help the whole village overcome the poverty. Many people in the Loong Hang village visited Vieng Chan capital and the old capital of Luong Pha Bang. When they returned, they said children over there could go to school, could learn reading, and had enough clothes unlike people in Loong Hang village.
While I worked in Lao, I had many happy and sad memories, and heard funny stories that I could laugh until it brought tear in my eyes. Once I bought vegetables for Vietnamese workers who were building a school in Na Khoi village. I met an old lady selling fresh vegetables. Each bunch of green vegetable cost 500 Kip (500 Kip = US 5 cent, US $100 = 1 million Kip). I bought four bunches of vegetable and paid her 2000 Kip. The old lady did not take the money. She kept shaking her head and said “bo day (no)”. We communicated with each other for a little while; finally I realized that she did not know how to count. I had to pay her 500 Kip for each bunch and I must pay one by one until I paid the last bunch. It was simple that I gave her 500 Kip, and she gave me one bunch. I had to pay four times to get 4 bunches of vegetable. It would not work for her if I took 4 bunches and paid 2000 Kip all at once. I had to drive around 3km to change 2000 Kip into four 500 money papers and came back to buy 4 bunches of vegetable from the old lady. When I returned, she was very happy and gave each bunch of vegetable to me and accepted 500 Kip. She said “men leo (that’s right)”!
While I worked on the trench in Na U village, I met a similar situation. There were tons of works but we had only eight Vietnamese workers. We must hire Lao people to transport cement, gravel, and steel and hired them to dig up the ground. Each Lao worker got paid about 10,000.00 – 15,000.00 Kip. It depended on their tasks and duties. After they finished digging the trench, I did the calculation, gave the money to the group leader and asked him to divide the money to everyone. The workers sat in a circle. The group leader held the money and handed a money paper to each person like they were dealing cards. After the leader divided the money to everyone, he was left with some money and he did not know how to divide this small amount to everyone. Finally the group decided to use the money to buy liquor for everyone. They complained it took them a long time to divide the money. They asked me that next time if I hired them, I should divide the money to each person. It made me think if these honest and rustic people could go to school, I would not see these funny scenes that could make me laugh to tear. I felt people’s happiness and saw practical results of building the school for Na Khoi village.
I told Mr. Minh and Ms. Lien about what I had seen and heard from people in Loong Hang village. Ms. Dieu Lien actively raised money and worked out a plan to fulfill the people’s wish. Early 2006, Mr. John P. Walsh , an American benefactor from Westlake Village, California, decided to support building a school in Loong Hang village and to help poor people having an opportunity to go to school. Before the construction began, we worked with Lao government and Phu Cut municipal about transferring teachers to the village. The municipal agreed to send 3 teachers to the village. Each teacher would earn about 200,000 Kip (about US $20.00) per month. People in the village had meetings for many nights, and eventually they decided to build the school on a large, even and nice piece of land locating in the centre of Loong Hang village.
The construction had many conveniences but besides there were also difficulties. It was difficult and very costly to transport materials including cement, aluminum roof, wood, and gravel to the village. The transportation distance was about 50km and it cost 2.5 million Kip (about US $250.00, it costs only US $30.00 in VN). It took about 3 hours to drive 10km distance. The truck could not finish the last 10km distance; we had to hire two people to carry bags of cement to the village. Vietnamese workers worked very hard, but I had never heard their complaints. They worked through the nights to finish the works so that they could go home sooner to help their family with the harvest
I had never seen a place where people carried guns to guard the workers like it was here. Although bandits had yet attacked us, everyday militiamen guarded the construction area. When I had to go to town, the village people ordered two militiamen carrying AK 47 to protect us.
While building the school, we built two water collector reservoirs. Each reservoir was 6m3 and cost US $1000.00 (including cement, water pipe and labor wage). We used water pipes to bring water from creeks in the jungle to the reservoirs. We also received the support from Mr. Le Khuong Cnd $100 and Mr. Hoang Luan Usd $100. The money was used to buy 100 white shirts for students. Usually schools begin in September, but the village students started school in April to celebrate the completion of their first school. Six years old students and much older students would be put in the same class.
Before, Loong Hang village had a number of students. The students must travel about 10km to the school or they lived in Khang village to attend the school. Two students were lost in the jungle a few years ago. People in the village believed the two students were eaten by a tiger and since other students did not dare to attend the school. Most students were in school up to grade 5. Some families could afford to support their children attending high school and college. There were 5 students from Loong Hang village and now they were teachers teaching at other villages. When the school completed, the education board would transfer three teachers to Loong Hang village. Lao people did not think much about money. Even though teachers earned only US $20/month, they were still happy to keep the job. Although the school was still under construction but we saw teachers were excitedly waiting to start the lessons.
People in the Loong Hang village were sincere and honest. We did not need to worry about the building materials to be stolen. My motorbike left in the wood for a few days but no one touched it. People said there were no thieves or robbers in the village. People did not need to lock the houses. Grains and rice were left in the forest’s edge but no one stole them.
There are lots of snakes here and they are black about 4 meters long and about the size of a person’s calf. Mosquitoes are abundant and a lot more than Dong Thap Muoi. There are places that mosquitoes bunch up like a bee nest. When it gets dark, people must stay in the mosquito net. Mice are plenty in the village. At night mice run around the mosquito net like they are marching. They gnawed my feet and nose.
When the school was complete, I could not find words that described the happiness of people in Loong Hang village. The day the school was open to the public, the whole village was bustling with joy. Everyone took off work and gathered at the school to share happiness. They watched their children wearing the new white shirt and studying in the new, clean and spacious classrooms. More than ten militiamen carried gun and walked around the school to guard people. They were so happy and some people cried, held our hands and said “Khop chay lai! Di chay lai! (Thank you very much. We are very pleased)”. After that, people organized a ceremony called “Xu Khoan”. “Xu Khoan” is a formal ceremony in Lao. The ceremony expressed the village people’s respect and love to those people who wore strings around their wrists. Vietnamese people called it the “string binding around the wrist” ceremony. After the ceremony, Lao people tied many five color strings to the people’s wrists whom the ceremony was held for. The whole village took two days to organize the Xu Khoan. They invited a master to conduct the ceremony for us. All people in the village tied the five color strings to our wrists right after the master finished the ceremony. After the Xu Khoan they treated us as their brothers and called us “Xieu” (best friend, brother). They believed “Xu Khoan” brought us luck and drove away our bad luck.
In the ceremony, there were a number of people came from two other villages. The two villages were about 20km to 30km from Loong Hang village. Before they left Loong Hang village, they pleaded us to help them built a school and two water reservoirs for their village like we did for the Loong Hang village. They said they were poor as people in the Loong Hang village and no one had helped them yet. People in the Loong Hang village wished we could build a medical clinic so that the municipal could send nurses to the village.
We were very happy and touching when the whole village showed their concern and love and treated us like their brothers. When the Xu Khoan ceremony finished, they gave us little gifts made by people in the village. The village people gave two skirts to Ms. Diep Yen Binh and Ms. Dieu Lien. The skirts were made from raw cloth and made by the most skilled lady in the village. She took 20 days to make the skirts and gave them to Ms. Diep and Ms. Lien to express their great appreciation. They commented that although these two ladies had never met people in Loong Hang village, but they helped and showed their concern to the village.