Project Phongsali: Village elders resist demolition of UXO found near a religious site.

March 16, 2010

Some elderly villagers were concerned over our finding UXO near an old graveyard. They asked that we not do demolitions near the site for fear of disturbing spirits. Since most UXO cannot be safely moved to another location, we faced a dilemma.

Day 43

The head school teacher here is a bit frustrated by the process of getting agreement on clearing a land parcel adjacent to the school in order to enlarge the school grounds.  There is no school board or village council per se that meets and votes on issues and proposals.  Rather, the village functions by consensus of the population, and the reading of consensus is weighted greatly in favor of the “old ones.”

Since no formal meeting of the minds is held, it falls to the schoolteacher and naiban to talk with groups, discuss the idea, and then interpret their opinions as favorable or unfavorable.  Thus far, many of the “old ones” express concern over clearing the land — a position that the head teacher attributes to the conservatism of that cohort.  She tells me in frustration that the elderly are afraid of any change, and always predict bad consequences will follow any change from the old ways.

The specific worry that the elderly have expressed is that near the proposed expansion area is a smaller parcel once used as a burial ground.  (Not all Lao ethnic groups follow the dominant practice here of cremating the dead, and even among the Buddhist majority who do cremate, there are categories of deaths that require burial: for instance, the death of a child or accident victim.)

The elderly contend that spirits dwelling on the old burial ground might be offended by the project and could bring illness, accident, or other misfortune to the village.  Therefore, best to play it safe and leave the spirits undisturbed.

The schoolteacher  — who is the daughter, niece, friend and neighbor of many conservative elderly — has argued that the additional land will improve the school, and that by expanding while our team is in town, the parcel will be cleared of any UXO— thereby protecting students from future accidents.  She tells me she said to her elderly relatives, “You are old.  You’ve had your whole life.  You have to think of the children who have their lives ahead of them.”

I am staying out of the debate.  I have no position on the issue; if the village decides to clear the land, we’ll clear it of ordnance.  If the village decides not to clear, the team has plenty of other work to do that will keep us busy. It’s up to the villagers to decide, not my Lao staff or me.

Last night I thought of the village elders and their conservatism as the guys struggled to keep our cranky generator running.  We absolutely need that generator to function adequately for a couple of hours each evening.  If not, our metal detectors, bullhorns, and radios won’t have juice the next day, and our work will grind to a halt.

Metal detectors, bull horns and radios — those are the only electronic devices I care about.  Not lights, cell phones, radios, computers or any other gewgaws that somebody suggests we power off the generator.  So…I’ve put out the word.  Nobody takes the chance of overloading the generator by plugging in fluff like lights and cell phones.  And, my ears are closed to confident arguments that one more item won’t hurt a thing.

I’ve also chased Yai away from the machine when he’s set out to fine tune some element.  (Yai doesn’t like the look of the homemade power cable that Khampoun fashioned after the manufactured cable walked off and disappeared).  I bark at him, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!  As long as I can hear it running, you keep your hands off of it!”

So…how different am I from village elders who tell the teacher with a vision of change, “We’ve made it this far in our lives without a bigger playground.  Keep your hands off that parcel.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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