Turning Laotians Into Readers

On our first day in the town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos, we spotted a small book in a cafe that made a big impact on us. It tells the story of a local organization called Big Brother Mouse (BBM) that is doing amazing work introducing Laotians of all ages to the wonders of reading. (You can read it yourself, in about 5 minutes (PDF file).)

The headquarters of Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang, part publishing house, bookstore, lending library, and English classroom

Most of the books written in the Lao language that exist in this country are textbooks. Big Brother Mouse is trying to fill a void by creating books that children and adults can read for fun and making those books available in village schools.

We were captivated by the story of the organization—its grassroots beginning, its rapid growth, the way it nurtures the skills of its young staff members as well as of the students it serves, how it keeps finding new niches and filling them. (It reminded Chris of the group she volunteered with in Virginia, The Reading Connection, that focuses on exposing low-income kids to the joys of reading and giving them books of their own.)

Every day at Big Brother Mouse’s office and bookstore in Luang Prabang, there is an open session of English conversation. Local people who are learning English can sit around a table and talk with English-speaking visitors. Inspired by the work our friend AJ has done as an ESL teacher at home, we screwed up our courage and went to the conversation sessions several times, overcoming our shyness and that of the Laotians to have good conversations. We’ve talked with young monks, high school and college students, middle-aged women, and in the process learned about all kinds of people’s lives in Laos.

A Lao alphabet poster

With Christmas rapidly approaching, we were at a loss about how to celebrate it, especially about how to send gifts back home, given how slow and unreliable Laos’s mail service is supposed to be. After spending some time at Big Brother Mouse, we decided that we wanted to help them in their efforts to get books out to village schools.

So in the spirit of the holidays—and in honor of our parents, who first encouraged our love of reading, and our friends, with whom we’ve shared books and conversations about books over the years—we took the money we would ordinarily have spent on Christmas presents and made a donation to fund a “book party” at a village school.

On December 9, we got to go to the party! Although we were the donors, the event wasn’t about us. Our role was as observers (and, in Melissa’s case, photographer), watching BBM’s staff in action. We loaded a bunch of books and other supplies in a minivan, rode a small car ferry across the big, brown Mekong River, stopped to pick up an official from the school district, and then bumped our way for an hour down a dusty, red, rutted dirt road until we reached the primary school of Houy Mieng.

The school is a solidly built one-story wood and concrete building with four classrooms in a row, a two-stall toilet building on one side, a bamboo flagpole in front, and a big, dusty exercise yard on the other side. It sits midway between the two villages it serves, in walking distance from each.

There are about 100 students, from preschool to grade 5, and three teachers. The kids sit at long tables with benches, three to five kids per table. Blackboards cover the front of each room, and the walls are decorated with maps, educational posters, and children’s artwork. Nearly all of the children are from the Khmu ethnic group, who were the earliest inhabitants of northern Laos and now make up about 10 percent of the population.

The BBM staff started by teaching the students a rollicking song about books, then led them in some organized games in the school yard (for fun and to burn off energy, so the kids could focus better afterward). Those outdoor activities attracted some spectators from the local villages: four teenage boys (the majority of Laotians don’t continue past primary school) and a few women on their way to fish in the local river or to collect firewood or roofing thatch in the forest. What we were doing was something new and interesting to watch, a departure from the daily routine. Plus, although no one made a big deal out of it, we had to be some of the few Westerners to appear in those villages.

After the games, in each classroom, a BBM staff member did a wonderfully interactive read-aloud of one of the books, with different voices and lots of questions to the kids about what they thought would happen next in the story. A “lending library” set of books was given to each classroom, and the students got to sample them and sit quietly and read for a while.

During the BBM program, each kid got a nourishing carton of soy milk, a pencil, an activity workbook with word-related puzzles, and then a small book of their own to keep—in most cases, the first nonschool book to ever stay at their house. The teachers also had a meeting with the BBM staff to discuss ways to incorporate reading into the school day.

The girl in the back is making fun of Melissa’s glasses (which are rare in Laos)

After that, we went to one of the villages for lunch at the head teacher’s house. In honor of the school district official, the BBM staff, and us, a couple of ducks gave up their lives. We sat on mats on the floor around a low table and feasted on stewed duck in a sauce and grilled duck (both delicious), eaten by hand with balls of sticky rice and washed down (or, in Melissa’s case, sipped slightly) with a sweet homemade liquor.

After classes were dismissed, some students lingered in the schoolyard reading their books and workbooks
Chris was a dutiful guest and sampled the local jar alcohol (it was smoother and less potent than she’d feared)

School being over for the day, it was a long and convivial meal. One of the BBM staff members spoke enough English to translate for us a little, but mostly we observed and smiled and tried to do things the way our hosts did. After that, it was time for the long ride back to Luang Prabang. But on our way out the village, we were happy to see a few kids still engrossed in their new books.

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