During the holidays, I was fortunate enough to spend a month in Laos, where my Dad worked at Lao Friends Hospital for Children in Luang Prabang. Whilst there, I volunteered with an organisation called Big Brother Mouse, which runs a free school and also provides the opportunity for young people to practise English conversation skills.
Laos is one of the least developed countries in Asia, with almost 25 per cent of the population living at or below the poverty line. Most people live in rural areas where access to health services and education are limited. A high proportion of children are malnourished and it is common for kids to die from preventable diseases such as Japanese encephalitis, beriberi and malaria. Many young people either do not go to school or have to leave after just a few years to work in agriculture.
One of the factors affecting economic development in Laos is the presence of large quantities of unexploded bombs scattered across the country. Between 1964 and 1973 US forces dropped an estimated 240 million cluster bomblets on Laos, around 80 million of which failed to detonate. They also sprayed large areas of the country with toxic chemicals, including Agent Orange, which continue to cause disabilities in children and pollute food and water sources.
Despite these challenges, young people in Laos are very welcoming and are determined to work hard to improve their lives. Learning English is a useful skill as it provides opportunities to work in tourism and to study in other countries.
I really enjoyed getting to know Lao people whilst volunteering at Big Brother Mouse. They were grateful for the opportunity to speak to a native English language speaker and were interested to learn about life in Australia. We talked about our families, our day-to-day lives and our hopes for the future. I learned about the different cultural groups in Laos and how difficult it can be to escape poverty.
During one of the visits, I spoke to a novice monk who explained that he had joined the monastery to bring good fortune to his family. His daily routine involves waking up at 4.00am to prepare for chanting, collecting alms and cleaning the temple. After breakfast, he spends over an hour walking to school, where he stays from 8.30am to 4.40pm. The monks are not allowed to eat anything after 11am, they cannot play sports and they have very little free time during the day.
I was impressed by how hard young people are prepared to work to improve their life chances. I also gained an appreciation of how fortunate we are to have high living standards, free health care and excellent education.
If you travel to Luang Prabang, consider spending a rewarding couple of hours helping local people to learn English at Big Brother Mouse. A bus leaves for the school every day at 8.50am and English conversation sessions run every day from 9.00am to 11:00am and 5.00p, to 7.00pm.
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