Vietnam commune wants to be poor: ignorance is bliss?

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Classrooms and boarding rooms for children in Ta Ba Commune, Lai Chau Province, which are better built than their own thatched houses. Photo courtesy of Lao Dong

Ta Ba Commune is the poorest in the country's poorest province of Lai Chau, where the makeshift spirit is seen in every corner of the life.

Local authorities say that change is tough because many people are used to being poor and don't see it as a big deal.

People in the newly established commune are members of hill tribes that have lived in the jungle for hundreds of years and were only asked to move and settle in the new commune by the government months ago.

They have not taken to their new life and do not seem to understand it.

They were once known as the proud La Hu ("tiger and squirrel") tribe, known for ruling the forests with strength and cleverness.

But all that has been reduced to men waiting for food handouts and exhausted women overburdened by mouths they cannot feed without much hope for a better future.

"We have two seasons a year the full season and the hungry season. But the hungry one has been going on for nine or ten months a year," said Vang Pha Ly, chairman of the commune legislative unit, whose office is a makeshift shack.

Families that are only hungry four months of the year are considered "rich," he said.

His office is a small house standing alone on bare ground with no water or electricity. It has a power generator that is inoperative most of the time.

It has electric lights, a fan and a television but they are just for decoration as the power is not stable and the devices have broken down due to short circuits.

Ly said the commune is not a small one, but has little space for cultivation.

He said 1,696 people were living on 11,375 hectares with only one water supply. The supply is a ditch only large enough to water seven hectares of plants at most, so most farmers have to depend on rains.

The chairman said Ta Ba needs irrigation to turn wild land into fields and gardens.

"Locals are still using cultivation methods from a thousand years ago," said Ly. "So it's not strange when 93 percent of the families are officially poor."

He said the commune is facing "unsolvable puzzles": how to provide people with production land, how to provide the socioeconomic stability required for healthy lives, and how to get all kids in the area into school.

Xy Xi Pha, vice principal of Ta Ba Secondary School, said teachers in the area dream of the day a local graduate will leave the town for a university education and return to make the place better.

But Pha said the dream would remain just that -- a dream -- until having enough food to eat is not considered a luxury.

The teacher said one big problem is that locals seem to accept with their current life.

"They don't know that they are hungry," he said.

Locals were asked to leave the jungle to gather into a more urban community when the commune was set up recently.

They receive rice subsidies from the government every month, but not enough, so they still spend much time in the jungle relying on wide banana, bamboo sprouts or crabs on the streams. Or they just wait for the next subsidy.

Pha said experts have come to teach locals about cultivation and farming, and the locals have received cattle as gifts.

But the locals then questioned why they have to raise a pig for half a year when they can have a fish or a crab after just half a day at the stream, and why they have to plant vegetables when bamboo sprouts are every where.

Poor smile

Pha Gio Nu, a 35-year-old local woman, is married with five children.

Like any other woman in the neighborhood, Nu delivered at home, which used to be in the middle of the jungle and is currently a thatched house of around 5 square meters, exposed to wind.

The only furniture is a flashlight, three bags for harvesting, two knives and a smoking pipe.

She also cut the umbilical cord herself, using a piece of bamboo from the house's wall.

La Hu people are not familiar with modern medical intervention and do not know what services are available out there.

That is ironically why the parents of Ly Gio Xo, now an eighth grader, agreed to send her to school: she has a cleft palate and they believed she would be too ugly for anyone to marry. They also did not know the cleft palate could be fixed. 

Her parents also thought that sending her to school would save some food by leaving the child in the care of the teachers who are volunteers from the lowland.

Xo was at some point noticed by people from the charity initiative "Rice with Meat," started by Vietnam Television former deputy director Tran Dang Tuan in 2011 to provide ethnic minority children with nutritious meals, blankets, warm clothes and school stationery.

They contacted experts from the non-profit Operation Smile to bring Xo to Hanoi for a surgery.

But then it was delayed as doctors at the Vietnam-Cuba Hospital found Xo was suffering from an inflammation inside her neck, which was made worse by the heat of wild leaves that her parents used to put on her neck in an attempt to cure the condition.

Doctors gave her some antibiotics and the inflammation was gone after three days.

Xo then received an operation and she is now able to smile a full smile.

She said she's going to be a teacher to tell her students about the world outside their community, and to inspire them to reach out.

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