Project Phongsali: During school visits we teach children to be safe around old ordnance.
The head teacher at the village school has helped us in many ways. She was one of the first villagers to take us to see ordnance. She was a bit sheepish about her role in excavating one particular site. A few years back she and her husband found an entire canister of cluster bombs that had not opened in the air as designed; consequently, the 670 bomblets inside did not disperse, spin, and arm. The whole mass simply landed with a thud in dense forest cover. The seven-foot-long canister split open like a huge hot dog bun, and the bomblets spilled out.
The teacher knew not to handle ordnance, but she rationalized that, strictly speaking, she wasn’t tampering with UXO if she only handled the empty canister. She and her husband hauled the two canister halves home and sold them as scrap, but wisely left every bomblet behind. Now, years later, with her conscience bothering her about the bad example she set for her students, she volunteered to take us to the site.
Unfortunately, after a strenuous hike up the mountain and a lot of searching among undergrowth, the site she identified came up dry. The hillside was picked clean of ordnance; all 670 bomblets gone. The most likely suspects would be scrap dealers or hunters and fishermen. Scrap dealers for the steel casings, hunters and fishermen for the 70 grams of explosive inside each bomblet.
The teacher invited us to visit the school today to speak with the entire student body about UXO safety. Yai is very practiced with that task; in Nakai he made frequent visits to 14 different schools. He knows how to grab and hold a student’s attention, and how to drive home important concepts. We brought to Phongsali the same posters, photographs, and other visual displays that we’ve used effectively in the past, and true to form, the kids were riveted throughout Yai’s presentation.
An important difference from schools in America: it’s like pulling teeth to get a Lao student to raise a hand and ask a question. That phenomenon is based in part on the natural shyness of Lao children, but also on habits ingrained at school where children are taught that it is rude to interrupt the teacher by raising questions or adding a comment.
The head teacher would like us to clear a parcel of land adjacent to the school, thus enlarging the playground. The school grounds are cramped now, and with the planned addition of a secondary school on the site, more space is needed — especially for the older students to play soccer, volleyball or rattan ball. The teacher is seeking approval from village elders to use the vacant land in this way. I’ve told her that if she wins approval from the powers-to-be, we should have time to survey and clear the area before we pull up stakes at the end of the month.