Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Other Side of the Mekong River

So many times this past year I woke up thinking "one of these mornings I'm going to wake up in my own bed in Canada and my time in Laos will be reduced to memories". At the time those thoughts drove me to live fully in the present moment and appreciate the gift that was each now day in Laos. Last Sunday, however, I woke up to the sound of silence. No chickens, no dogs, no crying babies, no gongs calling the monks to rise and go about their morning collection of offerings. I knew then that I was no longer in Laos. I am no longer in Laos. Not only am I beyond the Mekong River, I'm beyond the Pacific ocean too, with a continent or two in between me and the place I called home for one short year.

I've been in Canada for four days now and while so much of what I experienced in this year will always be a part of me, already Laos is beginning to feel as hazy in my mind as the mist that seeped through my window on cool mornings. Will my adventures continue? Most definitely. Particularly the kind of adventures that include trudging through knee deep snow on the way to classes at the University of Waterloo. Will this blog continue? Stay tuned to find out.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Empowering Lao Peacebuilders

MCC Laos' young peacebuilding team is excited to learn about the world of social justice and conflict transformation and to share their knowledge with their communities, but first they've got to get out of this knot!

Lately I’ve tried to take a supporting role wherever possible with our peace group, rather than being a leader or trainer, but with my sister Leah visiting as a new graduate in Peace and Conflict Studies and with a free afternoon on our group’s schedule, I agreed to help lead another peace training. We were given no direction as far as a topic was concerned and so as we sat in the shade of a mango tree on the pleasant grounds of a city temple, we wracked our brains for inspiration. What was the most important peace message we could portray to a group of Lao young adults in the span of a three hour workshop? The answer, we both agreed, was not to lecture as experts (which we aren’t), but rather to give the group some basic tools that could empower them to learn from each other. If we wanted to effectively encourage this energy of positive change, then we must give empower our Lao peacebuilding friends. And so, on the given Sunday afternoon, we briefly explained the difference between direct, structural, cultural and environmental violence and then handed the floor over to the participants with the question “how do you see each of these types of violence in Laos?”

A small group at the training prepares to make a presentation about where they see direct violence in Laos

I came to Laos on a field studies placement for my Peace and Conflict Studies degree, but when it comes down to it, I thought I was taking a year off from the world of PACS. It turns out I was wrong as wrong could be. As soon as I arrived in Laos and the MCC staff hear learned that I had a background in teaching peace to children and a degree in progress in PACS, I was put to work helping MCC’s fledgling peace group, and now, as my time in Laos wraps up, a Lao translation of the peace curriculum that I helped to develop for the Ontarion Mennonite Camping Association is underway. As I was writing that curriculum over a year ago, I could not begin to predict that it would someday be used to teach Lao children and youth, let alone novice monks. Now, our peace group has been asked to lead a training for 300 novice monks at a monastery next week, based on my curriculum. It looks as though I ran towards the world of PACS, not away from it. It may be cheesy to say this, but for me this has been much more of a "year on" than it has been a "year off", and I've learned every bit as much about peace from spending time with MCC's young Lao peacebuilders than I did sitting in a classroom back in Canada.

What would a gathering of young peacebuilders be without a little music? We begin and end each peace training with a song or two.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Summer Camp Lao Style

I may not be heading back to work at summer camp this year, as per usual, but teaching English at Ponsinuane Child and Youth Development Center's summer program is helping to curb my camp craving.
On International Children's Day, all the kids from the center gathered together for some wild and crazy games. This one involved digging an elastic band out of a bowl of flour using a straw held between your teeth, and then passing the elastic band from straw to straw down a long line of teammates.
Small class sizes at the summer program means that I can be that much more creative in my lesson planning. This week we learned about food and then set up a pretend restaurant to try out the new vocabulary. "What would you like to eat?"
To fill time one day I taught the kids "The Macerena'. It was an instant hit but I'm afraid the children are now under the impression that "the Macerena" is some sort of Canadian traditional dance!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sticky Rice, Superman and Saying Goodbye

Dear family, friends and readers of all sorts,

I'm afraid I have no tear jerking stories or exotic pictures for you this time around but I do want to update you all on what's going on in my life these days. Here's a rough overview:

At home (with my host family), my sister Mina is teaching me to cook all of my favourite Lao foods, filling my belly with sticky rice and stir fry as we talk about everything under the sun in our personalized blend of Lao and English. Five year old Isaac lives to swim. "Jessie, can we go swimming today?" he asks me when I wake him up ,while not to be out done , 2 year old Inam loves to show off his newest phrases: "Superman!" and "Jessie, I don't know!". And, with the constant coming and going of foster sisters (currently there are three 15 year olds living with us) life is never boring in our household.

My work continues to be varied and interesting. Teaching English each weekday morning to a small class of summer school students remains the constant, while the rest of the work week can include anything from construction work on our school's new library for peace, to interviews with cluster bomb victims, to leading training in conflict resolution to report writing at the MCC office. Someone once asked me how I keep track of all these different parts of my job and, after a few moments thought, I realized my brain handles it similarly to how I deal with taking many different courses at school.

As my final month in Laos begins in just a week's time I'm trying to balance feelings of anticipation about going home and, in the words of a fellow MCCer's dad, "seizing the day". After wading through a seemingly endless river of firsts for nearly a year now, I'm about to dive into an ocean of lasts. I think all I can do is take the plunge head first and try not to stand cowering on the edge for too long. Yes, my time here is nearly over, and true I never know when I am seeing someone or experiencing something for the last time but one month is plenty of time to deepen relationships and simply enjoy the "Laoness" of this place while I still can.

To keep you all up to date, here's what my schedule looks like until I come home in late July:

June 10th- July 3rd -Business as usual
July 4th- July 12th -I'll be travelling to Bangladesh to visit Steve
July 13th-18th-One last week of goodbyes in Laos
July 19th-21st -Flying to Akron P.A. via Bangkok, via Hongkong, via L.A., via Philadelphia
July 22nd-24th -MCC SALT re-entry retreat in Akron
July 25th -I'll be home in Ontario!

I hope this letter finds you all well and once again thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers.



Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Miracle at the Golden Stupa

When Leah visited me here in Vientiane several weeks ago I dutifully carted her around to all of the city's main tourist attraction. Over the span of her three week visit I can safely say that she saw more Buddhist stupas, shrines and temples than she had in the entire 22 years of her life up to that point. But, when it came time to visit the country's most sacred site, we got more than the Buddha images, insence and gold paint that we'd bargained for. We chose to see the entire afternoon as a minor miracle.

For as we approached the Golden Stupa (said to house a fragment of Buddha's breastbone) I felt a tug on my arm and I turned around to find the familiar faces of three of my English students beaming up at me. As it turned out, their house backs on to the stupa grounds. And so, for the rest of the afternoon we benefitted from the company of three oh so adorable tour guides, eager to tell us everything they knew about the sacred site, a place where their ancestors had been worshipping for generations and where, even on this informal occasion, they knelt to leave on offering of flowers and prayers before running off to play.

As for the other tourists at the site, I think we must have given them quite the shock as we marched around with these barefoot children, singing "If You're Happy and You Know It" and dancing the Macarena. My heart could not have been more full than it was on that lovely afternoon. I think Laos is turning me into a very sentimental person...

*To the best of my memory, Leah can take the credit for all of these pictures.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

“Many Have Died, Many Have Been Injured and Many Have Been Disabled”

Poma was 14 years old when her life changed forever. The year was 1971 and the Lao government required that every family in Poma’s village in rural Xieng Kuang province send one able bodied laborer to help with the construction of the village’s first ever road. As her family’s representative, Poma worked on the road each day, along with dozens of fellow villagers. One day, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, an American plane flew overhead and dropped a cluster bomb on the crowded work site. Poma’s leg was badly injured in the blast and she has never been able to walk properly since, but Poma was relatively lucky; four of her close friends were killed that day.

After the bombing, Poma continued to live the life of a rural rice farmer, but each day was a struggle. Due to her disability she could not walk far or do heavy work and so she was very reliant on her family to meet her daily needs.

Then in 2002, Poma’s life changed dramatically again, but this time it was for the better. A representative from the Lao Disabled People’s Association in her home province heard about Poma’s situation and suggested that she apply to receive training at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center in Vientiane. After having completed a six month training session, Poma now works at the center as a weaver, making handicrafts that are sold in Laos and also shipped to buyers all around the world.

Life still isn’t easy for Poma (in her words, “when I am at the center I miss my home in Xieng Kuang province, but when I am home I miss the center!”), but she now enjoys the privilege of being able to support herself rather than being dependent on her family or on the manual labor that is so difficult for her. As for cluster bombs, Poma is very clear that they should stop being manufactured. The American bombing of Laos may have ended 30 years ago, but as Poma says, “many have died, many have been injured and many have been disabled” since that time, as unexploded ordinance (UXO) is detonated again and again by unsuspecting farmers.

*this interview was commissioned by Titus Peachey Of Mennonite Central Committee to be used as part of a DVD and study guide for cluster bomb education and advocacy in the United States. Negotiations are currently under way for a world wide ban on cluster bombs. For more information visit bombs.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Muang Sing Market

"They" say that Muang Sing Market is one of the most fascinating in all of Laos;
"they" are right. There is much more to this market than neat piles of vegetables,
a riot of colour calmed by the early morning's mist.

We slurp our breakfast noodles quickly despite the chopsticks grasped awkwardly in our unskilled hands, while next to us an Akka couple breakfasts silently. She holds her head up high underneath her crown of ancient Piastres, strings of beads, jingling bells and next to her he seems nearly invisible in his simple cotton shirt and pants, dyed black with precious indigo. “Ethnic Restaurant” the sign proudly proclaims. Perfect. Because this town is known to have more ethnic diversity than anywhere else in Laos and for the last two days we’ve searched the streets, combed the rice fields for ethnic people. Ethnic.
By which we mean people that look very different from ourselves, exotic creatures in brilliant costumes. Ethnic. As if one must be “other” to have an ethnicity. As if our own ethnicity is the control group by which all else is measured. Ethnic.

So as we eat we also feast our eyes on the beautifully dressed women from a multitude of ethnic groups. The lone foreigners in this fascinating place, we feel that we are at a fashion show. Or a zoo. I try to brush that thought away quickly but it keeps popping back into my mind. In my defense, we receive as many stares as we give. "Look, the foreigners are working Lao skirts!" they whisper. "Listen, that one speaks Lao!".

We bargain and buy trinkets of cotton and silver more for an excuse to take photographs of the market women in their intricate outfits than anything else. "The Muang Sing Zoo", I think again. But suddenly a kind hearted woman in a brilliantly coloured headdress is talking to me in the broken Lao that is her second language. Soon we are joking and laughing together as friends and before I know it she is wrapping my head in a matching headdress of bright red and green embroidery backed by black cotton. "Take a picture!" she orders. "Now you belong to the Thai Dam ethnic group like me." And with this simple interaction everything changes in my mind. Each woman at the market, no matter how elaborate or unusual her style of dress may be, ceases to be a spectacle and instead becomes my sister, my mother, my grandmother.