Walking into a brick factory in the Vinh Long region of the Mekong Delta unveils a rudimentary yet productive system to produce bricks for construction all over Saigon.
The riverbanks are lined with beehive shaped furnaces. These twenty meter high kilns sit amongst rusted and dilapidated corrugated iron sheds puffing black smoke into the blue skies of Vietnam. There are estimated to be around 10,000 of these kilns in Vietnam.
The shed I entered was producing 25,000 bricks per day. I was surprised at how few workers were involved in the process that started with blocks of clay being unloaded from boats which chug up and down the Mekong. The factory then sets to work passing the heavy raw material through a basic shaping machine to clean out impurities, pushing out a long sausage like brick which is cut, dried and fired in the coals from a blazing fire of rice husk.
Crossing the border from Uganda, travelling east of the Congo, high in the night skies of Africa, I leaned forward in my seat. I looked down from my flight to the twinkling lights, thousands of feet below. The distance of altitude and the darkness between us seemed to amplify my feeling of uncertainty for what lay ahead.
My detached perspective was short lived. Over the next week, I joined Duncan Ward the founder of Classroom of Hope, and two other team members on a mission to explore the standard of children’s education in the most remote areas of southern Rwanda. This trip would lay a foundation for a program to improve access to, and quality of, education for thousands of children.
John Kalenzi is the director of AEE, a local organisation that has been supporting education for children in Rwanda for over twenty years. As our Rwandan host and guide John was our conduit to the harsh reality of his country’s struggle. His stories of the past and view for the future helped us to form an understanding of where the needs lay and what impact we could have.
Landing in Kigali the genocide weighed heavily on my mind. I didn’t know what to expect and I searched for insight in the faces of the people I met. A calculated slaughter that began in April 1994 and took the lives of one million people in just three months. Now in 2014 stories of reconciliation and unification left me questioning how a society could overcome such a horrific episode in just 20 years.
I was provided a first hand introduction to this when I met the two men below. The man on the left is Theo. He sits at lunch with his friend and colleague Adalbert. Theo lost his entire family in the genocide. Everyone he loved was killed, parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents, and siblings. He was taken into an orphanage.
Twenty years on, both Theo and Adalbert are drivers at AEE. It is not only their profession that these men have in common. There is a darker connection they both live with. It was Adalbert’s family who murdered Theo’s loved ones.
In a country where millions can share stories just like this, we were left in awe of a society that has made such an inconceivable transition from ethnic genocide to unification within one generation.
An excellent report recently released by the BBC highlights that international understanding of what happened before during and after the Genocide is far from reality. There were extreme killings on both sides of the conflict, many of which have been denied and had remained unexposed over the last two decades. The political situation currently is not as clean and progressive as it appears and the image of a corruption free and democratic process is only a well-constructed PR story.
However, regardless of the allegations and speculations surrounding the genocide and the following years, regardless of the current leadership, and regardless of institutional politics, there is no doubt in my mind that the survivors of this tragedy have demonstrated an unfathomable personal will to change their future.
It was this future we looked to in the faces of the children we met in Rwanda; a future where quality education would provide children with choices and the confidence to create their own path.
While the last two decades have seen considerable growth in infrastructure and economy, many remote areas struggle to feed, educate and develop their local population.
Our team visited a village that has no classrooms in a district that is home to over 160 children. John was taking us to look at the site his NGO has earmarked for a new school. As our dusty four-wheel drive bounced and slipped its way up the approach road, children appeared along-side our open windows. Running with bare feet on the rocks and dust they called out muzungo! muzungo! White man white man!
John explained it is likely we are the first white people to ever come to this place.
As soon as we stopped the locals slowly gathered to silently watch us. Reactions were uncertain and cautious. This woman had stood motionless staring at us while we were discussing the surroundings. After taking this portrait I showed her the image. She suddenly dropped her bundle of grasses to the ground with a gasp of amazement, and with a wide-eyed smile she grabbed at the camera.
One of the men playfully beckoned me to take his photo then laughed and hoisted this borrowed plank from a stack at the side of the road onto his shoulder. He posed, suddenly very serious, and said in thick English ‘I have money’.
For him, the plank represented a value that depicted him as a wealthy man. I don’t know the cost of one plank of wood. But I am sure it would be more money than he has.
He carefully placed the plank back on its pile, and laughing he joined the rest of the villagers curiously watching us.
The young people in the group were eager to see their image on the back of my camera, the older people seemed contemptuous, almost disgusted by the view. I wondered how long it had been since they had seen their reflection.
While in the capital city of Kigali, we met with the Minister of Education and the Deputy Director General of school construction. They presented statistics indicating impressive momentum but also highlighting the scale of the issues ahead.
Over the last five years they have built 10,412 schools. Using a program unique in Africa, the government supplies materials while the local communities provide labour and management to construct the schools. Official technicians oversee standards and the result is a community with a vested interest in their education facility.
Going forward the government will be focused on renovation of dilapidated schools, provision of water and sanitation, and removing asbestos from old buildings. There are 199,902 schools in Rwanda with asbestos used in their construction.
The Governments efforts are admirable, but our visits to local communities and our visibility of target versus issues highlighted to us the need for additional support from local NGO’s, particularly to address the capacity issues.
One village we visited had a school that could only cater for half of the students in the surrounding villages, meaning up to 400 young children had to walk 7kms over steep mountains to the next school.
The remarkable thing is that many of them make that walk.
The spark of desire that burns in children is at its brightest when they have limited opportunities. When clear pathways are provided for them to realise their dreams, that spark can be roused into a fire. One fire is enough to light the way for others. When those flames rise up to be seen by everyone it can change a nation.
Our Journey was enlightening, humbling and inspiring. Duncan returns home with a strong case to present to the board of Classroom of Hope. This is not the last time that a white man will visit that village.
As my twin engine plane descended on Mae Sot, the wet-black runway beneath me shimmered like a mirage. Rainwater, reflecting a blinding white light, was evaporating to grey under the mid morning sun.
Emerging from the rear door of the aircraft I narrowed my eyes to the distant hills, where heavy clouds still lingered, but their payload of relief had been spent the night before, and now the only promise they carried was humidity
A lifetime of preconceptions regarding Northern Thailand and the border of Burma swam through my mind; with visions of hill tribes, painted faces, muddy rivers and countryside of mystery and allure. My thoughts were fuelled by stories of intrepid explorers, secret agents and adventurous travellers.
But the realities of this region in recent years, posed a stark contrast to my romantic daydream. Mae Sot, considered the primary land gateway between Thailand and Myanmar, has become a land of limbo for over 200,000 Burmese refugees and economic migrants. Included in these numbers are close to 30,000 children. Only a lucky few of that number are being provided education, through schools that are funded by a network of NGO’s.
For those with no access to NGO support the future is grim. Poverty and exploitation is driving a trade in human trafficking, slave labour and the sex industry. Migrants working in local businesses struggle to earn enough to feed their families while the local police collude with business owners and Mafia to capitalise on the situation.
My role in Mae Sot for the next three days would be to build a photographic portfolio. One that would support campaigns and communications carried out by Thai Children’s Trust. With the local TCT project co-ordinator as my guide, I would visit project sites including a safe house, local schools and an orphanage.
There is a striking contrast between the faces of the children in this situation and the reality of their environment. I was offered a wide and bright-eyed smile by every new face. Laughter and playfulness filled nearly every room. It highlighted to me that even when children are without, they can find a distracted happiness somewhere deep within themselves.
But witnessing the children in their quiet moments I saw fragility and a questioning soul. Their smiles, wide eyes and painted faces were but a very thin veneer.
The lucky few who attend schools and live in shelters are not blind to their own difficult circumstances. While certainly more fortunate than many of their peers, the help they get is from overworked locals funded by unseen faces. They are often separated from their parents, living on meagre nutrition; afforded no luxury of anything new or playful. Their dreams of becoming, while just as vivid as any other child’s, are shrouded in doubt and concern.
I left the area with an incredible feeling of mixed emotions and such a strong respect for the work of TCT and the other organisations in the region. I have a huge admiration for the individuals working locally, their commitment and compassion. I left with quiet feelings of sadness and hope for these children.
Living in a western society with access to information about global issues I am constantly reminded of the tragedies that plague humanity, our conflicts and disasters. Every day I see the suffering of innocents, the struggle of those living in poverty or places where resources are scarce. For years these images have made their way into my home.
But in just three days, Mae Sot, the children and the images I captured, made their way into my heart. I only hope that they might also find their way into the hearts of others.
With a four-year-old daughter at home, I’m acutely aware of the stark divide between her lifestyle and that of the children I had just met. It occurred to me when I asked “Do you realise some children don’t have what you have” that actually, she didn’t.
Instead of reading to her one night, I lay on her bed and opened my laptop. I used my images from Mae Sot to tell her a story. It started with the children at school. Then moved into the homes of those children. She asked questions about why they didn’t have books; she wanted to see their teachers. We talked about dinnertime, and breakfast. I showed her where they have their bath time. She asked me where they brushed their teeth. We talked about orphans and the people looking after them. We talked about the students in the schools, learning to speak English. She asked why it was so muddy. She asked so many questions.
I’m not sure she understood the concept of poverty. Her life is so different. But I don’t underestimate her. Like all children she is desperately eager to learn about everything. To me it is not important that she grasps the concept of poverty; it is more important that she understands that not all children have books, beds and toothbrushes… let alone drivers, nannies, and concrete at school.
I asked my daughter if she would like to donate some of her toys to these children. She loves the idea. We’ll go together. She can carry the bag.
I wont take her to Mae Sot. No more than I would take her to Mali, or Guinea, or Haiti, or Burundi, or Afghanistan or the DRC. I’ll take her to a local orphanage in her neighbourhood.
I challenge all parents to take their child on a journey, outside of their homes and into the homes of others. So that we may raise a generation of people who believe that compassion, education and goodwill, will help us all to get a little bit of concrete under our feet.
Everyone is looking for some kind of paradise when they go to islands in Thailand, but to be honest it is a little hard to find these days. A lot of places hold promise, but often you are let down by overcrowding, shabby accommodation, or beaches that just don’t deliver.
Koh Kood is a nice compromise between development, facilities, local culture, and untouched white sand beaches. Five hours in a van from Bangkok, 2 hours on a boat, 45 minutes in the back of a pick up truck and hello Laem Ton Son beach, Koh Kood.
If you can pull yourself away from the beach, to take a short trip across the jungle covered island there are fishing villages to provide a spectacle of local lifestyle and an eye-opening view of life on the boats.
The island isn’t perfect. Snorkelling was really not good at all. But one thing it does have going for it, is that it is not crowded. Admittedly it was low season, but I walked for an hour around the coast without seeing another soul. If thats not cathartic I don’t know what is.
You know those healthy eating shows where they dump a week worth of junk food on the table to shock a contestant into understanding how much rubbish they put in their body?
Imagine if we used that same demonstration to represent how much rubbish we throw into our oceans every week. Would we have a wheel barrow full? A truck trailer? A super tanker?
I am used to seeing bits of trash in the high tide line when I go to the beach, but a recent walk around the deserted coast of a remote island shocked me more than anything I’ve seen previously.
The grim evidence I witnessed was only what the ocean has thrown back on this one coast line, I can’t bear to think what circulates in the currents 30 feet below the surface.
‘Get busy livin, or get busy dying’ - Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption.
Well actually, I wondered if there might be some irony in this philosophy when I accepted an offer to join my friend (also named) Andy, in a bike ride from Bangkok to the Gulf of Siam.
As someone who never cycles there was a distinct possibility that taking on this ride could kill me!
But meh! all aboard or be bored.
So I hired a bike from spice roads, made a special request for a nice soft seat and I quickly became very excited about the adventure ahead! Andy had heard about the ride from a friend of his who wrote a great blog post after doing it themselves. He also directed me to another post about it, by Richard Barrow who is a very well known Blogger in Thailand.
If you are planning to do it yourself check out those blogs and take a good phone with GPS which you can follow, back up power pack, and make sure you have sunscreen!
Being a massive supporter of the Classroom of Hope organisation it seemed a good opportunity for me to do some fundraising for the kids too. Thanks to my generous supporters I raised over $380… and that my friends is gettin busy livin!
The Buffalo skulls at Wat Hua Krabeu: The collection has seen better days, it is now a rapidly degrading pile, peppered with weeds and junk.
On the route back, we passed through a small street market just south-west of Bang Krachao (Bangkoks green lung). It was a little like being in a different city as there were rickshaws everywhere.
So long as you step up, you can get things underway.
Please check this link to help me step up this weekend! https://funds4coh.everydayhero.com/au/simon
I’m not doing anything crazy, but I’m doing something. What would you do?
What do you want to be? Or are you already there?
If you could work at whatever you chose, then what would it be?
What is it that you would retire from, into a settled state of being, with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. For some, the answer will be that they are living that dream now. For others, each day moves them closer to those goals. Many feel as though they will never be that which they dream of.
There are those who dream everyday and those who have cast their dreams aside; only looking at them in secret times when their here and now isn’t watching.
While one dreams of a life working in sciences or medicine, another will wish for nature and tranquility. Some think of giving to others and some of taking everything for themselves.
Whatever you dream or wish to work at have you given up on it yet?
Luang Prabang in Laos was such a wonderful place to see. It was my first view of the Mekong river and I loved the idea that I was finally floating on a river that has filled so many pages, so many films and so many dreams. The town itself is clearly geared for tourists but somehow it manages to retain a slow and untouched feel.
Tourist spectacles are such, for a good reason. They are usually the foundation or formation of the culture that exists today so I try to make an effort to visit them when I can. However, the truth is I’m not a ‘touristy’ type of traveller, I prefer to ‘do it my own way’.
The big problem I have is that in my effort to understand and feel at one with the places I visit, I’m often surrounded by hundreds of others trying to do the same. It makes me feel a bit shallow. So in an effort to escape the masses, I try to find a slightly different perspective of the same view. I don’t always manage that. After all, so many have been before.
Still, I’d rather be one of the few, than one of the many.