Small victories and harsh realities

Hmmm… so my plan to do a blog every month wasn’t particularly successful. I know we all say this about time passing, but I cannot believe how quickly 3 months have gone since my last blog in September….. and it is about to be Christmas.  I’ve been ‘planning’ to do this blog for about a month now, and the more time passed, the more I kept changing what I wanted to write about so I’m going for a staged monthly approach – an update on the important bits before it turns into a novel where no-one reaches the end!

First things first, my little Sisom. I found her an amazing home with a very lovely French gentleman, Jerome and his son.  She has a new furry big brother, Fuzzball, (she is meeting him for the first time below) to play with and what is great is that they live around the corner so yes, I do visit regularly like an overprotective mother (luckily Jerome understands) and I am happy to say she is doing very well and is completely at home there.

Sisi getting bigSisi meeting Fuzzball


Ok, now onto the incredible work Save the Children has been focusing on over these last few months as we reach year end and my contributions to this very special organisation. If you can remember from my last blog, we were just about to hold “A Day in the Life of a Lao Girl” as part of the global International Day of the Girl.   It was an opportunity for other NGOs to come together and discuss the current and future girl focused initiatives and how they can all work together to reach a broader geographical spread.  We also invited a variety of local women groups, for example LWU (Lao Women’s Union), local sports team (which are a bare minimum for children never mind girls) and local craft makers – young women who make and print scarves, bags and wall hangings out of recycled paper.  The event was received very well and showcased the work NGOs are doing but more importantly, showcased what local communities are doing to support the young female community to be able to further advance their villages and schools.

Day of the Girl2Day of the Girl

Day of the Girl4day of the Girl5

Field trip to the provinces and Luang Prabang

My role here is to guide the HR functions for the country office and this has involved supporting a re-organisation and the existing HR team – there has been an absence of a consistent HR lead for some time now and it has been both challenging and rewarding to provide some much-needed support. As it is a relatively small office, we have the opportunity to be involved in the ‘real’ work SCI does here in Laos and I had such an opportunity at the end of October to spend a week in the provinces visiting local schools.  The purpose of the trip was to visit schools SCI supports to review the implementation of some of its Literacy and Reading projects.  I felt incredibly grateful to be able to join the group but was not fully prepared to experience what real life looks like for many of the remote villages in Laos.

With one of my colleagues, I flew to Luang Prabang from Vientiane which is about an hour flight to the northern part of Laos. Here we met with the local Programme Manager and Officer and were driven to a number of provinces and schools for the next 4 days.  Not that these names will mean that much to you, but if you want to look on a map, amongst others we went to Viengkham, Nambak and Phontong.  These villages are so remote that they have become self-governed communities, where national law does not get involved, instead they have a local elder or chief where they take their issues to be resolved. At each village, we met with the chief and school principal to talk about the projects.

Now bearing in mind the only exposure I have had to schools, like most people, has been in developed countries; what I was about to see and experience was very tough. We visited about 3-4 schools per day and we were reviewing the availability of books in the classrooms, we visited children’s homes to see how the “reading corners” were working – this is where parents are encouraged to set up an area in their home for their children to spend time reading/looking at books and even if the parents were unable to read themselves, encourage older siblings to help to make it a part of their everyday routine – and looking at general teaching techniques the teachers were employing.

Now, what initially hits you when you arrive is the spectacular backdrop of every shade of green imaginable, sunshine, mountains, goats roaming around…… and then your eyes focus in on the realities of the poverty that is there: the run down school buildings, the very small children, the limited or complete lack of facilities available. Most school buildings are made from concrete block in to 4 or 5 classrooms on one floor.  They are open due to the heat and usually there are not enough teachers for each classroom, so they have to rotate and often classes are left unattended for periods of time during the day.  There are so many factors that run through your mind – what is taught; the ability of the teachers; the language it is taught in (the Lao government states that all schools should be taught in the national language but most provincial areas have their own local languages and children simply do not understand Lao); the availability of learning materials… and this is what we were specifically coming to review – the efficacy of our projects.  But for someone like me, where this is a first-time visit, your surroundings really hit you.  The lack of basic facilities in general was the hardest thing for me to see.  Now some of the initial schools we visited, albeit basic, had water filters, a washing station which is basically a metal hand rail that drips out water so the children can line up to learn how to use soap and brush their teeth (something that does not regularly happen at home), ‘hole in the ground’ toilets. But some of the schools did not have any of the basics – I thought it would be easier to show through the photos I took below.

Local villages we visited

Below you can see photos of some of the classrooms, pigs in the school yard, teacher with her own baby strapped to her, reading corner at home, soap stations (the 2 oil cans), washing stations (the handrail where the children are brushing their teeth) and toilets (at the schools that had them):

And finally, below show two situations that I found particularly difficult. This is a photo of a little girl who was just running back to the classroom after going to the ‘bathroom’.

Using the bathroom

I talked about some schools having drinking water, wash stations and toilets, well the last district we went to was Phontong and the local school there had nothing. Phontong is in northern Laos close to the Vietnamese border.  It took 3 hours to drive 50 miles on a dirt road in the mountains.  The school we visited was on a mountain side, the view was absolutely breath taking, sadly so was the school but in a very different way.  This school was mainly Hmong and Khmu children, 2 of the ethnic minorities and you can tell very quickly that it has limited financial support from the Government.  There were pigs and cows roaming the school yard and of course with animals you also get their “little gifts” which was causing hookworm in the bare footed children running around.  But the hardest element here was zero water, zero toilets or wash facilities.  There were 2 teachers and 3 classrooms and about 50 children aged 5 to 8.  There was nothing to drink and when the children needed to use the bathroom, they would run out of the classroom, run about 10 metres up the mountain, do what they needed to do and come back in (like the photo above) – no toilet paper, no soap, no water – so you can imagine the illnesses that are caused.  Now the programme we were reviewing during the visit was to look at literacy but of course you notice everything else around you that is lacking.  Luckily, SCI has just launched a brand-new 4 year project working with other NGOs which will be focusing on Maternal and Child Health, Nutrition and Sanitation but these things really do take time and as you can see the need is incredibly real and incredibly present.

And these are the last two photos, I would like to share. Below, on the right is the 3rd classroom, it was closed when we got there and we were told that it had been closed for a number of weeks as the teacher was having a baby. This little girl waiting outside is in this teacher’s class, and she shows up every day hoping that the classroom will be open.  Her alternative is to be out in the rice fields working with her parents so she waits outside every day hoping it will open.  When she realizes it won’t open that day, she then waits outside the other classroom waiting for the other children to come out.  I can’t tell you how much it hurt my heart to watch her go through this and it just resonated so loudly in my head the amount of times I didn’t want to go to school and that education, rightly or wrongly, truly is a privilege that is not afforded to everyone.

Ok, I think that’s enough for now, there’s still lots more to talk about and share which I will do in the new year: mine and Jyoti’s weekend trip to Vietnam to catch up with 2 other PULSE volunteers; my mum, stepdad and boyfriend’s visit which involved a crash landing in a tree in a hot air balloon; learning about the ‘secret war’ waged on Laos and its present-day effects; and our Literacy Boost pilot project results just came in…So all is left to say is I want to wish all my friends, family and colleagues Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!





  1. Wow, Stefania, that was a lot to take in. It is easy to get so absorbed in our day to day issues that we forget what it is like for others. It is a good time of year for that reminder of how thankful we should be and not to forget those less fortunate. It is heartening to see the good work first hand of Save the Children and it must be very rewarding for you to be able to contribute to those efforts. I hope you have a wonderful holiday and know that your friends and colleagues look forward to your return and hearing about your experiences.

  2. Enjoyed reading about your experiences, Stefania! These reflections came to life alongside your photos. Great reminders of not taking education for granted and the importance of the work that our NGO partners are undertaking. Keep those learnings close to your heart and enjoy every moment! Happy holidays!

  3. Lovely to hear from you and a timely reminder as we celebrate Christmas in our house just what we should be grateful for. Happy holiday to you.

  4. Your writing is a powerful gift especially at this time of year, and reminds us how much work there is to do in our world for those who are less fortunate. Best wishes for an even more impactful 2018!

  5. Really wonderful to hear about what you are doing and the excitement I can read in your words. Truly counting our blessings and makes me realize even more how much we take for granted. I am SO sorry to hear of a crash landing in a hot air balloon but glad you are safe and have a good story to tell when you return. Happy New Year!!

  6. That little girl’s story, waiting outside her classroom brought it all to life…. so much more to be done in some of these places. I am sure you are leaving an amazing legacy behind with your skills. Thank you for sharing and look forward to the next blog 🙂

  7. Wow! My son begrudgingly headed back to school today after his holiday break; I am going to share this with him tonight to give him some perspective. We miss you!

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