New Internationalist

In the water we are all the same height

Issue 084

Poor and landlocked, Laos has always been at the mercy of more powerful neighbours. And since the takeover by the Pathet Lao in 1975 many skilled people have fled to Thailand in search of more lucrative jobs. New Internationalist correspondent Ruth Seitz talks to one family who stayed behind about what it takes to build a society that is poor but equal.

Photo: Blair Seitz
Children can help bring in the family food by fishing in streams and rivers. Photo: Blair Seitz

A Lao woman pulled fine weeds from a little patch of spring onions that she had planted along the shoulder of one of Vientiane’s busiest streets. She worked a long time on her prize bit of cultivation.

That is what the whole country of Laos needs - careful and steady tending. There are no instant solutions to the problems confronting the 3.3 million people in this landlocked Indochina nation.

American withdrawal in 1975 opened the way for unity and independence, but Laos is still recovering from the years of war that preceded. While the US-backed Royal Lao forces fought the communist Lao Patriotic Front, an estimated 700,000 persons were made homeless; a hundred thousand were killed; and millions of acres of rice paddy and forest land destroyed.

The Americans had brought in millions of dollars’ worth of aid but like the French, who colonized the Lao people for the first half of the century, they left few significant structures behind. National Road 13, the main artery through the country, is still impassable during the rains. There is no railroad. And health and education efforts had never been serious enough to cut through the preventable diseases and illiteracy among the poor. During the American presence health services reached only two per cent of the population. Khemphet Pholsema, a member of the Central Committee of the ruling party, told me that during the French period 99 per cent of the women were illiterate. By 1975 that was reduced to 70 per cent.

Bounma and Mok Luangrad and their ten children live in the tasseng (district) of Chinaimo about six kilometres outside Vientiane, the capital. Their wooden house is sprawling, raised on stilts with most of the living room on the second level. Traditionally animals sheltered under the house, but to keep the area cleaner Bounma pens their pigs.

Chickens scratch in the yard, and ducks paddle in the small pond created by the overflow from the outside tap.

On the main post of the bannister surrounding the balcony is a clay water pot. Family members - and any friend passing by - can help themselves to a cool drink. Bounma explained that their village has two water sources. ‘We get piped water from Vientiane, but there is only enough pressure late at night. We collect some then but during the day we draw water from the well.’

Since the well was dug in the dry season it serves the Luangrads and two neighbouring families all year. There was no stationary bucket on the drawing rope so I imagined that each family fastened its own. That practice opens the possibility of contamination from the ground and hands. With UNICEF assistance the Government is building new wells - a hundred in the Luangrads’ Province during each of the past four years - and they eventually plan to improve existing wells.

Water is not as important a concern for Bounma and Mok as keeping the stomachs of their ten children full ‘Rice is no problem since we organized our tasseng’s rice-land,’ said Pa Ma (as he is known with affectionate respect).

In 1977 the 10,000 people in Chinaimo marked off unused land and fields that had been deserted by Laotians who had fled the country as refugees. They plowed the area with water buffalo and planted rice - a one month job. Each family’s time was recorded and later the hours were transferred into points which became the basis for determining how many kilos of paddy each would receive.

Pa Ma’s work as production administrator for the tasseng left him very busy during the October harvest. ‘We give eight to ten per cent to the Government and keep some seeds for the next planting. The remainder is divided among families according to their work points.’ If one member worked every day during the peak periods, a family got at least 50 kilos. Even though the tasseng produces two crops annually, the Luangrads need more rice for their brood. As a government employee, Ma Pa is eligible to buy rice at 40 kip (20c) a kilo. (The market price varies between 200 and 400 kip, depending on the time of year.)

Ma Mok diligently raises vegetables, a traditional role for the Lao wife. Her raised, well-drained beds of onions, chills, lettuce and other greens stood out from sprawling pumpkin vines. Her husband cuts bamboos, and Ma Mok fences the beds to keep out the animals and children. Still the task is heartrending. ‘The birds and the rats,’ she shook her head. ‘I must shout and chase. And what can I do about the ants?’

She explained that the children catch fish; and gather lizards and wild plants. Pakkhat, which tastes like spinach, is a favorite. A common meal is steamed rice and foraged greens. Padeck, a fermented fish sauce rich in protein, is the seasoning.

Since the Revolution Ma Mok’s life has been most radically affected by the opportunity to learn to read and write. ‘I go to school in the temple two evenings a week.’ For two hours she works with the delicate Lao script. Now she can read notices and the newspaper. Her classes include political education and history.

She talked about the contents. ‘They tell us of the goals of the Revolution. For instance, we learn how to do the three cleanlinesses - Live clean. Drink clean, Eat clean.’ For this gentle-faced woman, this meant stop chewing betel-nut.

The Government is also encouraging women to stop ‘going on the coals’ an unhealthy traditional practice after childbirth. A woman stays in bed and keeps a brazier of charcoal fire near her side for 21 days following the birth of her first child. The number of days decreases with each subsequent birth. The purpose is to shrink the womb, but as the woman rotates the coals, she sometimes blisters her skin and develops respiratory infections from the smoke and heat.

A more harmful aspect of the experience is the new mother’s diet during those days - only sticky rice and meat with no fruits and vegetables.

Ma Mok did not go on the coals after her last child was born. Her mother was very disappointed. Many of her friends still continue the practice. The Government says it encourages such social changes through education, not force. The family’s ten children enjoy school and village cultural activities. The oldest has finished high school and has been assigned to study communications in Vietnam for six years. This subject area was not his personal choice; it was determined by the Government’s personnel needs.

Photo: Blair Seitz
Posters around Laos proclaim the value of the 'Three Cleanlinesses'. This one encourages the people to 'Live Cleanly'. Photo: Blair Seitz

The development of Laos is severely crippled by the defection of trained people who cross the Mekong for a refugee camp in Thailand in hopes of going to a country - most likely the U.S. - where their professional skills will be better rewarded. From the beginning of Pathet Lao rule to the end of 1979, over 200,000 had fled to camps. As a result, there is an extreme shortage of capable people in trained positions. A few months ago four nurses left one hospital in a week.

Ma Mok and Pa Ma are concerned that their children remain committed to building Laos. ‘We attend any educational meetings and cultural promotions.’ The two girls in high school like to dance the boun, a graceful dance that becomes even more beautiful in the long woven skirt that is the national dress.

Bounhou, the eldest daughter, used to wear jeans, but now she dresses like all Lao women. Long hair is encouraged, but she has hers short. ‘I never wore makeup, and so I am in style now. The Government urges us to be natural.’

The middle children care for the younger ones during weekends, but on schooldays and during heavy work times in the rice-fields, Ma Mok needs some assistance. The Lao Patriotic Women’s Association has organized child care in the village. ‘I can leave my children while I work in the field.’ At present, this program is geared to free mothers for work rather than to foster development skills among the children. Programs to train child-care attendants are on the drawing board.

The Government has provided a structure for Lao communities to solve other problems. Ten or so households make up a nuoy, and a ban consists of several nuoys. The tasseng is the next larger category. The head of a nuoy calls a representative from each household when a need for decision-making by consensus arises.

For example, Teng’s going to study in Hanoi was discussed by his neighbors. When Bounhou meets someone she hopes to marry, they will submit a request for a marital permit to the Government. The nuoy will discuss the matter and give written consent if they feel the union will contribute to the progressive philosophy of Laos. The request and permit then moves on to the place where they work or attend school. Pa Ma explains that this system is similar to their traditional village practices. ‘We Lao always discussed family matters with the community leaders.’

Pa Ma talked more about the state of his country. ‘At the beginning of the Revolution we had much to tear down, especially the attitudes we had gotten from the imperialists. We destroyed, but now we must build.

It is not easy. We are very poor, and it is still a struggle to get food, but things are more equal. We have a saying, "In the water, we are all the same height." Now there are fewer differences. It is not only the rich who can read.’

Ruth Seitz in a freelance reporter based in the Philippines who visited Laos in December 1979.

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