I grew up in in the rural mountains of Bang huea village in Vientiane province with my younger sister, my mother and father.
In our village we had a primary school, but after year 5 the nearest secondary school was at the foot hills of the mountain. At the time, there were no roads or even a trail to get there. A group 3-4 of us had to walk through the forest and climb down the rocks for about 3 hours to get there. So we only made the trek once a week on Sundays. Our parents built us a little wooden and rattan hut which we stayed in throughout the school week. We would return home back up the mountain on Friday afternoon. This was a very tough time since we were all about 11-12 years old at the time and there were no adults to look after us or check up on us. . Keep in mind, this was when there were no telephones in our area, so communication with our families were cut off every week.
We would return home on weekends to help our parents with house chores. Since our parents didn’t have money to give us and we didn’t have stocks of food, part of our preparation would be to go to the forest to gather food along with cooking wood for the coming school week. Each person contributed with what they could find and helped each other carry all the stuff down. Initially we didn’t know how to cook so we just learned from others on what was possible to mix and eat.
We did this for about 4 years until the Government was able to run electricity to our village. In order to do this they had to clear a path and eventually cut out a small dirt road. Just because there was a road didn’t mean it helped reduce the travel time. The trek by road was actually even longer than before since the road was windy and had to go around the mountain. It now took 6 hours but was safer. During the rainy season, the roads were impassable due the mud and dangers of mud slides.
Many schoolmates couldn’t endure and eventually quit. Like many families, my parents didn’t at the time understand the importance of learning. They pressured me to quit and stay at home to help out the family with house work and farming. Fortunately, my father accepted that I wanted to continue school but, my mother really never understood. Neither of them went to school and only my father could read a little bit. They let me know that they couldn’t help me much with the costs. Sometimes they helped some by giving me some rice and vegetables but most of the time I would have to manage my own way.
I am from the ethnic minority, Hmong, which is the second largest ethnic group in Lao PDR. In the National Education Curriculum of Lao PDR, all materials and learning are only in Lao language. We were only introduced to Lao language after we stated school around 5-6 years old. This was the first time many of us every seen the language written or spoken. Lucky, we had a Hmong teacher that helped us slowly understand and learn. We learned the language in primary school, but it was explained to us in Hmong. Not until secondary school did we have to speak it in school to others. While you are learning, you don’t know that it is a barrier, you just accept it as part of your learning. When I started upper secondary school with other Lao native speakers, you then start feeling different and behind.
It is not my native tongue and even till this day, it is still noticeable in the way talk and communicate others. My accent and pronunciation is different even from other Hmong people because of the area I grew up in.
High school and University
During high school, I didn’t have any notion on what would do once I graduated. I just knew I wanted to keep learning. A teacher of mine ask if I was interested in continuing my studies in Vientiane Capital and suggested that I fill out an application. My father gave me some money to buy the necessary documents, I filled them out and submitted the forms. Then I was instructed to go take my entrance exams at KM 52 village. The problem was, I didn’t know where this was and neither did my father. By now, my parents had saved up enough to buy a motorcycle and my father and I went off to find the village, stopping and asking directions along the way. We got lost, very lost. What was a 2-3 hour trip turned into a 7 hour trip. We left in the morning and got there almost in the evening. Just in time to take the exams. Later, I found out I was accepted.
No other classmates were accepted, even though they paid commission fees to application entrance services. I was the only one in my school that was accepted. I once again had to convince my father to let me continue my education and he agreed with the understanding that I needed to help reduce costs where I could. I would soon have to travel far away from my home, to the most urban city in Lao PDR, to attend the largest National University in the country and in a place where I had never heard about. This was frightening, but my driving force was my desire to continue my education and my decision was to keep going.
My first few weeks were hard to adjust but it wasn’t something I hadn’t done before. I remember going to school, not knowing what building or classroom to go to. I didn’t even know where to find that info at first. I didn’t know different classes were in different parts of the campus. I just asked around. It was a learning as you go experience. As times passed, I made friends in class and soon I would have group of classmates that would help each other with learning and adapting to the different life styles outside of our own villages. We relied on each other for support.
I chose computer science as my major. I still don’t know why, but I had a feeling that I would enjoy the learning and could grasp the concepts. Could you believe this was my major even though I didn’t own computer or even touched one until I attended University?
“I remember having to write software command codes by hand and submitting them to the teacher on a piece of paper because I didn’t have a computer to test them out while attending the University”
The only times when I did get to use a computer was in the lab and that was when we had one computer to learn on with 3-4 other students at a time. I was designing websites and databases and writing all the codes by hand.
I reflect back on it, and it was just like learning the Lao language when I was younger. I didn’t know what Lao sounded like or how to speak it, but not only did I managed to learn it but excelled at it, at least on paper.
My first Job
I now have my first official job working with the Knowledge for Development project in Lao PDR with Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), which is one of the University of Bern’s strategic research centers as an IT Assistant. My main responsibilities are maintaining the IT system and the Land Concession Inventory database. The latter provides information on land concessions and how the land in Laos is being use to policy makers, helping them make more inclusive and better informed policies in our efforts to help Lao PDR graduate from the Least Development Country status and reduce poverty in the country.
It was once again a new start. Having to learn new technologies and ways of working in a completely different environment. I wasn’t worried that it would be too much because I’ve been down this path before. I know that I can learn completely new tasks and ideas, since I’ve been doing this my whole life.
I’m fortunate that what I do relates to the what I studied, and what I studied is what I enjoy.
What was it all for?
My parents are still farmers in their old little house at the top of the mountain. I get to visit them once every two weeks. I have a career that earns a good salary, it gives me good opportunities to continue learning and that I enjoy. I can send remittances back to help my parent and also help my little sister attend school. This makes me proud and hopeful for our family’s future.
Much has changed in the area since I was young. There is both a middle and high school in the area and my sister can easily go to school. No walking 3-6 hours to school or being away from our parents a week at a time for her. She even has her own motor bike!
If I could give some advice to others facing poverty and difficulties in life such as mine, I would say, “be patient, persevere and keep learning”. Challenges will always be there and they might seem too big to overcome, but we just need to keep pushing forward and you can also achieve success in life. I’m an example. I’ve faced many hardship and extreme poverty, but I had to keep going because I knew there would be something good for me and my family.