Volunteering in Laos with Enfants du Mekong: “Poverty is not necessarily where we expect it to be”

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Volunteering in Laos with Enfants du Mekong: “Poverty is not necessarily where we expect it to be”

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A Southeast Asian country at the crossroads of different civilizations, Laos is among the “least developed countries” in the world. With 7 million inhabitants, a third of whom are under the age of 14, youth represents a real hope, hence the importance of education in the country.

Eulalie Cady was 25 years old when she left for Laos as a Bamboo volunteer (that’s how young people who leave for at least a year are called) for Enfants du Mékong. The NGO was founded in 1958 and has for primary mission “to love and help poor and vulnerable children by offering them a future through education”. It is this philosophy “to love before helping” that led Eulalie to choose them for her volunteer experience.

Today, Enfants du Mékong accompanies 60,000 young people in South-East Asia, with a strong commitment to provide “a complete education for the person as a whole”.

Their actions are divided into four pillars, all part of a global and long-term approach. Enfants du Mékong first aims at providing a safe and favorable environment for schooling, mostly through the construction of schools and the facilitation of access to healthcare. It also works to provide access to education through a sponsorship system that goes beyond financial donations and that many non-profit now use: children are able to build genuine links with their sponsor through the exchange of letters. A face-to-face meeting sometimes takes place. For Eulalie, these meetings were “without a doubt one of the most moving moments” of her mission.

The other two fields of action are the training and education of the “person as a whole”, which includes a “body, mind and soul” approach, and the integration of these young people as responsible actors in their society, through the development of a professional culture and established links with local businesses. The main idea is to accompany children for the long haul by enabling them to fully grow so that they can become involved in the Laotian society of tomorrow and participate in the common good. One could say that the philosophy of Enfants du Mékong is in line with Nelson Mandela’s famous quote: “Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world”.

From school construction to the follow-up of sponsorships, the volunteers working with Enfants du Mekong help out on various actions to accompany young people in their development.

In Thakhek, the central region of the country, Eulalie was the program and project coordinator (notably for sponsorships) and worked in about fifteen different villages alongside several hundred children – A mission including many field missions with a direct link to the population.

Accustomed to working in disadvantaged communities in Brazil, Eulalie was nevertheless struck by the violence with which poverty – so common in Laos – was reflected in the way of life of the inhabitants of these regions: from weak and tiny houses to snail or rat hunting when food ran out… In the Khammouane province, where she travelled a lot, most people engaged in somewhat ordinary activities, most of which were directly related to food such as fishing and cooking, and took up a considerable amount of their time. However, the precarious situation in which some families find themselves does not mean they should be deprived of access to decent care, just as it should not prevent children from going to school. That is what Enfants du Mékong volunteers like Eulalie are trying to ensure.

Agriculture, as well as health and education have recently been put back at the heart of our priorities within our “developed” societies. These essential spheres, whose importance we had almost forgotten, contribute to the famous “human development index” theorized by Amartya Sen in 1990, which takes into account not only monetary income to evaluate the development of a society, but also the rate of education and life expectancy. Health and education are therefore unavoidable indicators of a country’s economic and social situation. The mission of Enfants du Mékong, which allows young people to grow and develop to be real drivers of their societies takes on its full meaning.

To be rich in family and friends, in Laos, is to be rich altogether. Interdependence is a resource

In its global approach to personal training and education, the non-profit organization also runs many activities for children. That is how Eulalie, on the day of the “Olympics”, observed striking cultural differences: being divided into teams is not at all easy for Laotian children, and she would then come up against real misunderstandings. “The collective dimension is preponderant, they do not conceive of being separated into groups to compete against each other”.

This collective feeling, of belonging to a whole, invites us to rethink our own visions of work, precariousness and poverty. “Poverty is not necessarily where we expect it to be,” explains Eulalie.

“In these villages, poverty means losing part of your family. Or not having the joy of sharing your harvest with someone poorer than you because you have seen the rains destroy the fields that you have worked on so laboriously. It’s actually losing solidarity. To be rich in family and friends, in Laos, is to be rich altogether. Interdependence is a resource.”

This vision of wealth particularly resonates during the period our humanity is going through. If there is one index that is difficult to quantify in the various approaches to poverty and that has been greatly emphasized during the confinement and the lack of relationships it has caused, it is solidarity. The virus has brought us face to face with our vulnerability as human beings and our interdependence in a globalized world. We had probably forgotten these links, or not considered them enough in our privileged societies.

We became more aware than ever that we were lucky to live in a “rich” country, but we also realized that our societies were relatively poor in solidarity. This solidarity was re-discovered within the neighborhood, at the very heart of anonymous big cities, through acts of mutual help that would seem so obvious in everyday life in Laotian villages, but from which we distanced ourselves, busy with our individual lives, drowning in the superfluous.

We could then draw inspiration from countries like Laos, from these so-called “poor” communities that Eulalie lived with. We could take a step back from the perception we have of poverty, biased by our western eye. Re-educating ourselves to a simpler vision of life and of our interdependencies certainly brings us closer to what is most important. That is not to say we should idolize income-related poverty or encourage living this way: it is a multidimensional reality to be fought against, especially in the so-called “least developed” countries.

Rather, it is a matter of reflecting on what makes us rich as individuals and as a human community in the face of the hardships that life has in store for us – whether personal or universal.

What if we consider our interdependence? What if we became a little richer in solidarity? What if we consider the collective, like these children who could not even imagine they could compete against each other? What if we passed on these values to the adults of tomorrow, in Laos but also in France? What if…

Support Enfants du Mékong !

–> Depending on the time you have, from 1 clic to 1 year… You can support their actions here
–> If you are interested in sponsoring a child and helping him or her go to school, find out more here !
–> If you would you like to help out families that were most hit by the confinement and COVID-19, just click here !

Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 France License.

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