Laos is a country that historically has not had a high literacy rate and there are people, particularly in the rural villages, who have never seen never mind read a book. People who were taught to read at school, have almost never seen a book other than a text book.
This had created a country that where “people don’t read” according to the story of a wonderful charity that has been set up in Luang Prabang called Big Brother Mouse. If you want to find out more check out http://www.bigbrothermouse.com/index.html.
We find that that other than some text books there were almost no other books available in the Laos language and therefore Laotion people generally don’t see reading as fun and therefore the ones that could read lose the ability because they stop reading at an early age.
The charity has been working on writing and publishing basic books in Laos language and giving them out to local schools and villages to get the people to enjoy reading (this involved having to create their own desktop publishing Laos font because one didn’t exist). Its a remarkable charity and one that we were happy to help by buying a book from their shop.
As well as promoting reading, the charity also runs workshops to help local students that are learning English and are always looking for volunteers to help out. So with some uncertainty as to what we will be expected to do we decide to head over and help out.
We also find out that they look for volunteers to come in on an evening and help local students practice their english skills, so we decided to pop along this evening. Our experiences are a little different as Niki has a fairly in-depth conversation with some students about the finer points of the English language (like what is the difference between a synonyms and an homonym!) and I have a discussion about the political system in Laos and its difference to democracies with a group of novice monks.
A very interesting and rewarding evening that we reflect on over some street food and cold beer in the night markets. One aspect is that we realise that there was not a single women or girl at the sessions, but that the market stalls are almost entirely absent of men – this is despite the fact that the ratio of men to women going on to university is 60:40.
That night I fall asleep worrying that in 3 months time I might see ‘Democracy for Laos’ marches by monks in northern Laos on the news.