Luang Prabang, Laos
Yesterday was December first, which for us would usually mean putting up the Christmas tree. It is a much-anticipated tradition, and one the children were feeling a bit disappointed about missing…..until…..they saw, late in the morning, the smiles broadly stretched across the faces of children in a village receiving their first ever colourful picture books. There are no words to describe the sitting-on-the-edge-of-their-seats anticipation, their eagerness, their enthusiasm, their gratefulness at being given, not only a fun morning, a “party”, but also a book to take home to read, and then bring back to school to swap with a friend. I had known this is exactly what was going to happen, so how do you explain the lump I got in my throat as I watched?
We had driven about 40km north of Luang Prabang along a not-entirely-potholed main road, and then turned off onto a dirt track. Between bamboo huts and vegetable gardens we rattled, stopping to ask directions to the village’s four school rooms, which turned out to be situated at the top of a fairly steep hill. Voices chanting in unison wafted from the open-shuttered glass-less windows. Quickly bodies followed the voices out to the dirt patch in front of the flag pole and assembled themselves in straight lines. Listening attentively, answering questions enthusiastically with one voice, pointing to their own eyes, noses and mouths, these children soaked up the simple instructions of how to draw a face, then dispersed to their multi-aged classrooms where they were gifted a piece of paper and a pencil. Our children were welcomed into spare seats and joined in the drawing. Just like in any classroom, some children were quicker than others, most followed the instructions and one sweet boy spent his allotted time perfecting a three-dimensional tin can.
I noticed my seven children who drew, all added their name to their paper – none of the Lao pages had any writing on them at all. Not sure what that says, but it did strike me as interesting.
The rooms emptied again and everyone gathered in the open area – and not just the school-aged children. Grandmas and mothers with babies and toddlers congregated around the children, even some men came up from a field to see what was going on.
And what was going on?
There was much laughter, mirth, hilarity…balloon-popping, mask wearing, jumping, dancing, face powdering (I didn’t get the significance of that one!), clapping in time to a drum beat, singing….in short, it was a party. And there was even party food – one orange and a cup of juice for each person.
In single file, the children refilled their classrooms and took their seats. Non-school-attendees draped themselves over windowsills and darkened the doorways, such was the interest. Stories were told and read, a couple of songs about how to care for books were taught, it even looked like a writing lesson was given (but I really couldn’t be sure about that one, having only understood numbers and the word for eat)……then the new books were spread out on a table.
As the Big Brother helpers gave a summary of each book, children surged forward, unable to contain their eagerness. Each time one edged closer to the books, they were gently instructed to return to their seats. The moment arrived; each child was given a pencil and three sheets of blank paper, and then in quiet orderliness they came forward to choose the prize gift – a new, colourful Lao story book. These children immediately started to read through their books, some not moving away from the table, others finding a bench to sit on or a shady spot under a tree. They fingered the pages, chuckled at the pictures, compared the different stories.
There is something simplistically humbling to see a child take such delight in things that we westerners take for granted…to see the joy radiate on these faces was priceless. I can only pray for the seeds that may have been sown in the hearts of our own children as they were part of this experience. May they always retain the ability to step back from their ‘normal’ world and look for ways of serving others. We asked them if it was worth coming and being part of the book party. Without a moment’s hesitation, a resounding YES left their lips; they thought it was even better than putting up the Christmas tree. We asked them if they would want to sponsor another book – ideas flowed over dinner about ways they/we could do this.
One idea was to encourage others to get behind Big Brother Mouse. Sometimes when you see something on the internet you have no idea if it’s a shonky outfit or something worth dedicating time and money to. BBM is definitely the latter. If you are travelling, drop by Luang Prabang, buy some books and give them to your tuktuk driver and guesthouse owner – or just give a donation! You can help out with English practice in the morning or take an evening tour of the “business”, or for a small fee, you can even join the workers for lunch. It won’t take long to see these guys are for real. If you’re not in the neighbourhood, you could pour yourself a cup of coffee and spend an evening looking through their website. It would be time well spent – and who knows, you might even find a book you want to sponsor!
As for us, we are so pleased one of Rob’s colleagues sent him the link to BBM, which totally changed our itinerary (we had no intention of ever coming to Laos!) Now the children are dreaming of new coast-to-coast walks and bigger silent auctions than our last one……and in the meantime, they’ll go back to the office to help out with a wee dictionary project. This Christmas season, we will not have a tree or tinsel or fruit mince pies, but we will have time to consider every day how to show a little love in the world.
Tags: book, justice, learning, money, postcard: Laos, sponsor