A rough path to school

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 Two toddlers wait outside a makeshift school house in Muong Nhe District, Dien Bien Province for their older brother to finish his lesson. Students here often double as pupils and babysitters.

Inside a four-square-meter hut, four pre-adolescent girls huddle together to munch a dinner of salt and rice. A single candle flickers as wind whips through the bamboo slats that make up the room's walls.

One girl walks to a cistern and douses her food to make it go down easier.

The girls are students in Na Khoa Commune in the frontier district of Muong Nhe, Dien Bien Province. They have to board in makeshift facilities near the school as their homes are five hours' walk away.

There are no official statistics on how many schools have been cobbled together by parents and volunteers from the Vietnamese Army's Border Patrol units in this impoverished district.

Government officials and teachers estimate that the schools number in the hundreds.

***

The students in Na Hy, the next commune over, fare no better. Nam Chua, one of 17 villages in the commune, is home to around 40 families. Of the roughly 250 residents, all are ethnic H'mong. Approximately 50 village children attend the Nam Chua Primary School, which is staffed by three Kinh (ethnically Vietnamese) teachers.

There is no toilet here; libraries and infirmaries are alien concepts.

Each academic day begins with the beating of a wooden drum. Twenty minutes or so after teacher Lo Van Long has pounded out his wake-up call, his nine and ten year-old students arrive for class, barefoot. They wear ragged clothes and tote notebooks and pens in plastic bags. Instead of backpacks full of books, infant siblings hang from their shoulders, eager for attention.

On a good day, Long lectures a class of 13. Today only seven show up at the thatched-roof school house.

Class begins with a spelling lesson, as usual. Long writes a short Vietnamese-language poem out on the blackboard and beckons his students to copy it.

Ten-year-old Chang A Lanh sits in the last row, between two half-naked brothers. Every day, Lanh doubles as student and babysitter while all adults in the family toil in corn fields and rice paddies.

Lanh begins tracing out Long's words-the meaning of which he does not know. Just as he finishes the first verse, his brothers start sobbing.

"Don't cry! I love you," he says in Hmong.

"Take us home!" they whine before bursting into loud wails.

Lanh relents and quits the class for the day.

The two girls seated in front of Lanh's empty bench are no better off. They cannot write at all and, instead, gaze through the broken bamboo walls into the dirt yard where their younger sisters are crawling about or dozing off.

The girls are in their third year of their formative education. Like other students here, they completed their first year of education only to find themselves receiving the same lessons the following year. The teachers change but the lectures and classrooms remain the same. Soon, they will be certified as having completed primary education.

***

Most of the teachers in these mountains hail from the lowlands. They don't speak their students' language and their students never learn Vietnamese.

Pham Kim Anh, the only female teacher in Nam Chua, came here in 2006 after repeated efforts to secure a teaching post at a city school proved fruitless.

After she arrived, the villagers set about building her a five-square meter compartment adjacent to the kindergarten classroom out of thatch and twigs.

Her amenities include a bamboo bed and a plastic bucket which she uses to store stream water for everyday use. Charcoal-stained pots and drying clothing hang on the walls next to a picture frame featuring a radiant Kim Anh, smiling, in a long white dress.

The young woman steps outside and gazes up at the ominous sky. Black clouds have obscured the sun.

Wind blows the tree branches back and forth. It rains everyday in Dien Bien this time of the year.

Just as she steps back into her house, the rain begins to pour, rattling her straw roof. Rainwater bleeds through her torn canvas door and enters from every direction. Kim Anh pulls her legs up on the bed to avoid getting wet. She gazes at the picture, taken in her home town of Dien Bien Phu. It has been almost a year since she last saw her family. The 200-kilometer journey home is impossible for a motorist in the rainy season when the narrow dirt roads turn to muddy sluices addled with terrestrial leeches. The risk of floods and landslides remains a constant concern along the steep roadways.

Kim Anh is paid VND3,600,000 ($180) a month for teaching in the remote village. She saves most of her income. Once a week, the parents of one of her students offer to bring her groceries from a market about ten kilometers away. They return with some dried fish or dried shrimp. Once in a blue moon, she says, she gets a little pork.

"I'm just so cut off. No love, no information, no electricity," she says in a low voice. "To make a phone call I have to walk four kilometers."

Darkness falls. The rain stops. A full moon rises over the Eastern horizon and Kim Anh heads for bed. The single 24-year-old is no longer excited about the moonrise. It only reminds her that her prospects for romance and marriage are dwindling. In Nam Chua, one 20- year-old H'mong man is expecting his fourth child; another, aged 29, has fathered nine.

***

Across the muddy path, a meeting is underway in the village leader's home.

Parents, village officials, and Border Patrol Officers have gathered around a flashlight to discuss rebuilding the town's dilapidated schoolhouse. Fearing that the government's money would never find its way to this part of the country, the Green Lotus Charity organization in Hanoi donated funds to the Dien Bien Border Patrol Command. Officers there promised to build a new school.

"No one pays us for doing this," said Lau A Tu, of the Na Hy border patrol post. "It's just our voluntary concern for the kids." Tu was born and raised in the neighboring Son La Province and values schooling a great deal. He is one of the few ethnic H'mong residents to have graduated from high school.

The theme of the discussion, whether to build the school from soil or wood, doesn't interest the locals, who never went to school, and who do not see any use for education. The village's few graduates work with them in the fields, every day, from dawn till dusk. In the end, their only option is farming rice, corn and manioc to make ends meet.

Thirty minutes into the meeting, a quarrel breaks out. Two men threaten to stop sending their kids to school if they do not receive the VND140,000 monthly stipend that other parents in the village are getting. The village head had determined that they were too well-off for the allowance because they each owned a buffalo.

"The authorities don't care. The parents don't care. The responsibility is now on the shoulders of those who have a heart," says Tu.

In his office, a large brick building at the center of Na Hy Commune, Chairman Thung Van Hom rattles off figures to Thanh Nien Weekly while trimming his nails. "[...] About 98 percent of ninth graders pass the final exams every year. The commune always meets the target set by the higher authorities."

When asked about the language barrier between teachers and students, the chairman says, "I think after their first year here every teacher speaks the H'mong language like a native."

Hom did not seem to know that after more than four years of teaching here, the only language Pham Kim Anh and her colleagues Lo Van Long and Mai Van Thuan speak is Vietnamese.

Like many areas surrounding villages in the region, the 10- kilometer path leading from Hom's office to Nam Chua has been burned clean to the ground.

In Muong Nhe, desperate farmers lacking land or favorable production conditions slash-and-burn their way into the forest to create new plots of arable land every couple of years.

Officer Nguyen Viet Son of the Dien Bien Province Border Patrol Command worries that this cycle will ultimately consume the province. "If you return this time next year, I dare say you won't find any forest," he said.

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