Kham, a future mechanical engineer?

March 16, 2010

Vientiane - Laos Peoples’ Democratic Republic

During World War II, on small islands in the South Pacific, indigenous villagers were jolted from a stone-age existence and propelled into the twentieth century by the arrival of modern machines: the most advanced technology produced by the mid-century, industrialized world.  Villagers could only explain the functioning of ships, planes, jeeps, radios and other products of inventive, rational, western minds through magical thinking.  These extraordinary devices, they speculated, could only have arrived through wizardry or the intervention of a supreme being.

When the war ended and the technology disappeared as precipitously as it had arrived, villagers pondered whether or not someday, the gods willing, the remarkable material wealth and wondrous technology that had briefly entered their lives might return.  There developed a messianic movement that anthropologists labeled a “cargo cult.”   On some islands people began holding periodic rites beseeching a higher order to return the technology and material goods.

In Nakai District, I had the opportunity to witness children in remote villages observing, for the first time in their lives, technology that must have been as bewildering and magical to them as was war machinery to the Pacific islanders.

One day, a steam shovel arrived in Sop On.  Prior to that day the village kids knew motorbike, car and pickup truck.  The day the shovel arrived, their world broadened and they added mechanical monsters to their cosmology.  Machines so fierce and terrible that it staggered the minds of the boldest children and provoked nightmares among the timid.  The earth shook as the screeching behemoth tore into the earth, wounding the land, grasping in a single scoop more soil than their fathers could move by hand in an hour.  Lifting rocks that, until that very instant, the children knew could not be budged by either man or machine.

While the shovel was in Sop On, it appeared that every child in the village was perched on the sandy ridge above the worksite, not wanting to miss a magical moment.  Parents had no need to call children back to a safer vantage point.  Even the boldest of the lot instinctively knew to respect the monster and give it a wide berth.

Every day that the machine worked the children were present, chatting among themselves, pooling their collective wisdom, working out in their minds exactly how the machine functioned, marveling at the feats it could perform.  They studied the operator as well, to see how a man so small could control a machine that should, by rights, overwhelm him.  They watched his hands and feet and inferred what various movements might imply.

Then, one day the monster and its master were gone; the children descended the ridge and returned to whatever mundane pursuits had occupied them prior to the shovel’s arrival.  But not every child put the machine out of mind.  Kham, perhaps eight or nine years old, set about recreating the shovel.  He scoured the village collecting blocks of wood, string, wire, washers and nails.  It was beg, borrow or steal, but in the end Kham came up with all the tools and materials that he needed.  Then, his real work began.

The end result was a full, working model of the shovel, complete with levers attached to lines that actually moved a functioning scoop that he fashioned from part of a discarded plastic bottle.  His machine had a turret that rotated just like the real shovel.  Kham could have put wooden wheels on his machine but that would have lacked authenticity.  The real shovel had rubber wheels so rubber wheels Kham would have.  He cut them from old discarded flip-flops that he found in the village trash.

I’ve known a lot of nine year olds in my life.  Few, if any, could have tackled such a job and done as well as Kham.  I marveled first at the machine and then, at the boy.  And I thought… given just a few lucky breaks in life, here is a future engineer or master mechanic.  But will luck prevail?

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