issue 179 - January 1988
Bombs to blackboards
The war in Indo-China propelled Vietnam and Kampuchea into
the headlines. But Laos, on which the US inflicted the most intensive
bombing campaign of all time, largely escaped the world's notice.
Now it is quietly building an education system amidst
the debris of war. Wendy Batson reports.
In a small village in northern Laos, 30 kilometres from the Vietnam border, a Quaker aid worker sat recently eating dinner, proud of having arrived at such an isolated spot. An old man seated nearby remarked: 'We have many foreigners come by our village.' Surprised to find that he was not, after all, the first Westerner in this distant place, the traveller asked when they had last entertained outsiders.
'Oh,' replied the old man, waving his hand casually in the direction of Dien Bien Phu, 'it was after that big fight between the French and the Vietnamese in '54 - two wounded French soldiers came down our river on a raft looking weary. We all stood on the river bank to watch them float by.'
This sense of being cut off from the outside world is not uncommon in Laos, which remains one of the most isolated, poorest and least developed countries in the world. It is ironic, then, that this most retiring and least threatening of nations should have been more heavily bombed per head of population than country in history.1
Like most of Indo-China, Laos was a French colony. When the French departed in 1954 they left behind a feudal kingdom ravaged by civil war royalist forces battled the Pathet Lao, a Marxist-Leninist Party closely allied with the Vietnamese communists. As in Kampuchea, the civil war became internationalized as the war in Vietnam spilt over the borders and the US bombers dropped their deadly load.
Photo: Camera Press
The end result was the same as in Vietnam: the communists came to power, but with a terrible legacy. Laos was not just physically crippled by the war but was also handicapped by the loss of its most educated people - ten per cent of the population left in an exodus that included most civil servants, doctors, teachers and mechanics.
It is against this background that Laos' gold medal for improvements in education and literacy should be viewed. By no stretch of the imagination could Laos be called one of the most educated and literate countries in the world. But its achievements against the odds are still remarkable.
The French left little that was of any use. Few roads, an almost non-existent school system, and a clutch of Vietnamese civil servants. But despite all the difficulties, there is always the potential for development. A story in one of the new children's primers compares Laos to a locked treasure chest full of untapped resources - teak and rosewood, minerals including gold and semi-precious stones, hydroelectric power and the potential agricultural wealth of an underpopulated land.
But the keys to open that chest are missing. The Government hopes to create a new socialist citizen who will at last be able to fashion the necessary keys. This is why it has committed so much energy and resources to building an education system whose first object was to eradicate adult illiteracy, estimated at 65 per cent when it took over.2
The literacy campaign was one of the most popular measures undertaken by the new government Most people can now write their names and read simple texts. Literacy in the towns is now estimated at over 80 per cent2 and I have seen elderly women in the capital, Vientiane, demonstrate with great pride how they can now read the headlines of the Party newspaper.
But that newspaper is just about the only thing to read in Laos - and reading even this is a dubious privilege since it is an uninspired blend of translated clips from the Soviet and Eastern European press (of little interest to most Lao) together with endless speeches welcoming yet another delegation of socialist visitors from abroad. The only consistently avid reader I ever met works for the CIA.
This makes it difficult to judge how much literacy benefits a basically non-literate society. Making people literate was an important ideological goal for the Government, which believed it would help them contribute to development. But with such a severe lack of reading matter the new skills may simply slip away through disuse.
Of more long-term importance to the continuing development of Laos is the drive to create a school system where none existed before. The few secondary schools the French built were in the provincial capitals and serviced only students with enough French to study in that language. In 1975 there were only 2,800 secondary school students, the vast majority of whom were concentrated in Vientiane. Since then there have been impressive gains: according to UNICEF, the number of schools, students and teachers nearly doubled between 1976 and 1985.2
But such rapid progress has caused problems of its own. To have primary schools at village level you need to train the secondary school students who can teach in them. But the majority of would-be teachers live a day's walk away from the training schools. This means they have to live at the school - and a hard-pressed Education Ministry can only afford to offer them the most rudimentary instruction and very poor living conditions.
Most of these training schools operate double shifts because there are too few teachers and classrooms to cope with the enormous influx of students. Few students have textbooks. Most lack even paper and pencils, as such items must be imported at great cost to a Government with severely limited access to foreign exchange. Even the black paint for the ubiquitous blackboards that dominate every Lao classroom must come from Bangkok, Hong Kong, Moscow or Hanoi.
Notes on my visit to a northern teacher-training school begin: 'Life is still very hard here.' And they end with the head teacher asking if I could help him get cement, roofing, wood, and nails to build wooden classrooms, a kitchen, a cafeteria and dormitories. 'And then', he added, 'perhaps you could send notebooks, pencils, a volleyball, mosquito nets, sweaters and blankets.'
The provincial government provides each student with 15 kilos of rice per month. But this is not enough and students must grow their own rice to supplement the government provision. Older students help teachers plant gardens, gather firewood and raise pigs and chickens. Drinking water is hauled from the river. Even with all this labour, both teachers and students are often hungry and cold.
The students try to study four hours every morning and afternoon, nine months a year. The school, however, is really a large village and, as in all villages, the business of feeding and sheltering the inhabitants comes first Very few of these schools have electricity, which makes evening study almost impossible.
Lee Chang-Yung /
Teachers trained in this way are slowly filtering back in to the countryside. But setting up a village primary school is no simple matter. Eager villagers have to put aside the unrelenting stream of tasks necessary to survival to build a bamboo-and-thatch schoolroom. And even then the teacher, depressed by the poor, bleakly furnished school building and lack of personal living quarters, will often refuse to stay. The teacher's salary is also an issue. Sometimes the province cannot pay. Then the already local poor people must feed and clothe the new teacher themselves, which is often impossible.
Sob Lab, a village perched in the northern foothills, is typical of this kind of Lao settlement. In these remote areas life has changes very little over the past 200 years, despite the revolution. But there is one aspect of village life which bears witness to the trauma of the recent past; the ponies drink from a trough made of bomb casing. War debris still litters the countryside, providing material not only for animal troughs, but for lanterns, cooking pots and utensils. I even saw artificial limbs for amputees made of aluminium scavenged from downed planes. And when I asked for a local technician what he most needed for his thatched hut production shop, he answered wryly, 'more aeroplanes.'
The school in Sop Lab is also typical. A simple structure with bamboo walls, it has rows of crude wooden tables and bamboo benches. A large blackboard, the only teaching aid in evidence, dominates the single room and the dirt floor has been packed down by children's feet. I have seen a buffalo walk straight through the walls of such a school, seeking shade on a hot day. This flimsy structure could serve as a symbol of education in Laos - impoverished and rudimentary but trying very hard.
Wendy Batson worked in Laos between 1981 and 1985 for the American Friends Service Committee and later for the United Nations Development Programme. She now lives in Maryland but revisited Laos in 1987.
1 The Air War in Indo-China, ed. Littauer & Uphoff, Beacon 1972.
2 An Analysis of the situation of Children & Women in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, UNICEF 1987.
In Nicaragua mass literacy was also one of the first targets after the revolution of 1979. At that point it stood at 60 per cent for women and 61 for men. The literacy campaign of 1980 used 90,000 volunteers to boost the nation-wide figure to 87 per cent On the wider educational front, the number of teachers has increased fourfold since the revolution while the total number of students has doubled.
Over the same period Madagascar boasted the biggest rise in the enrolment of children in primary school. That this figure stood at 100 per cent in 1980 and rose to 121 per cent in 1985 seems odd. But this is because enrolment is measured as a percentage of the people who are of primary-school age. In developing countries, where primary-level schooling is often the only education available, many children of secondary-school age will also attend.
Votes of censure
Elsewhere literacy rates actually fell between 1980 and 1985 in just four developing countries: Honduras, the Philippines, El Salvador and Rwanda. This suggests that literacy rates are some guide to progressive social policies in general, since all four countries boasted notoriously unpleasant governments throughout that period. In Honduras literacy fell from 62 to 58 per cent among women and from 64 to 61 per cent among men. Honduras has been dominated by the US for most of this century, by its multinational banana companies - and by its strategic military policy, which in recent years has forced the country to serve as a base for US-backed Contras at war with Nicaragua.
The literacy backslide in the Philippines from 88 to 85 per cent among women and from 90 to 86 per cent among men, was presided over by the infamous regime of Ferdinand Marcos. But his successor, Cory Aquino, has been too embattled or too lacking in commitment (depending on your point of view) to push through policies that would help the poor. Literacy rates may well continue to decline as a result.