This was our first week to go out to the field. On Thursday afternoon, Heather, the other Emory intern, and I rode with three other IRD staff out to Dongnakham village in Sai Buatong district, Laos, where IRD was conducting a community health education training for the first time. The trainings cover information about hygiene, nutrition, and sanitation. The village is about an hour away from the IRD office in Gnomolat, with about half of the journey on a dirt road.
As we pulled up to the house we would use to conduct the training, the first thing I noticed was all of the children playing under the house. Lao houses in the low and middle lands are built on stilts off of the ground so they won’t flood during rainy season. The space below the house is used to park motorbikes, hang hammocks, or serve as a place for kids to play – all three of which were happening simultaneously here.
As soon as we got out of the IRD truck the children were immediately silent and shy. After a few minutes they were smiling, laughing, and playing with the two falang (Heather and me). In the Lao language, falang means French. The French colonized Laos in 1893. For Lao people, though, falang serves as a word for all foreigners, particularly those with lighter skin.
Heather and I played with the children as some of the IRD staff set up for the training. As the projector screen and speakers were set up, people throughout the village began to gather at the house to see what was happening. Heather and the Saibuatong district health officer began hanging health education posters. Immediately, the children in the village came to inspect the posters. The children were glued to the posters. They were pointing, reading, and talking about the posters. The children’s reaction was a wonderful reaffirmation of the work that IRD is doing.
Lao music began blasting from the speakers, and as night fell, the men and children from the village began trickling in. The IRD health officer began to talk to the community about hygiene and sanitation while a video illustration was playing in the background. The children watched motionlessly as a cartoon about safe drinking water played. As the cartoon ended, the women from the community quietly sauntered in, having finished their work at home.
The community health education training sessions are designed with the schedule of the village in mind. The first part of the training is geared toward children, so that the women can be present for the adult training sections of the session.
I was surprised when I noticed how young the chief of the village was. He was probably in his early thirties. I commented on his age to one of the IRD staff members. The staff member responded that the chief was picked because he had more formal education than others in the village. Many of the older people in the village could not read or write, and some only spoke the tribal language instead of the official Lao language. Additionally, the chief’s youth was invigorating. He seemed so enthusiastic about the community health education training as he walked around greeting people and teasing the children with a big smile on his face. His demeanor was contagious.
Around 9 pm, we began to load up to return to our guesthouse. Though Heather and I were leaving, the training was still going strong. Around a hundred people had now gathered to learn from the IRD health officer. There was curiosity in the air. How exciting! This was just the first of many more health education training sessions to be conducted in this small village in the Saibuatong district.
On the ride home, I realized I was smiling. It seems that the chief’s enthusiasm has spread to me. What a great first trip out to the field! I look forward to what is coming next!
Peggy Jean Craig is a third-year graduate student at Candler School of Theology from Athens, Alabama. Craig received her B.A. in Media Studies and Journalism from Fordham University in New York. She has a particular interest in how documentary filmmaking can act as a liberative force for communities that have been fragmented by poverty and violence. After graduating next year, she hopes to work in community development. In 2008, she spent six months living and working in Laos. She is excited to be back in the country that she fell in love with three years ago. Stay up-to-date on what’s happening with Peggy Jean on Twitter: PJFpeggy.