Seeing lives changed in Vietnam

Joan Leof | March 25, 2013

Muong Te village kindergarten for 3 to 5 year olds. Photo: Vietnam, Joan Leof

Muong Te village kindergarten for 3 to 5 year olds. Photo: Vietnam, Joan Leof

Recently I traveled to northern Vietnam with a group of fellow CROP Hunger Walk volunteers to see firsthand how CROP Walk dollars are used.  We visited several ethnic minority villages in the far northwestern district of Muong Te, which lies in the “frontier” region of Vietnam bordering China.  The CWS staff in Vietnam had to get permission from the government to take us to visit these villages.  Not many outsiders pass through this corner of the world.

Muong Te lies in the Lai Chau Province, which is well known for the unique characteristic of having about 90% of its population being made up of ethnic minorities. Muong Te is a very poor district with about 50 villages; most of the people live well below the national poverty line.

One afternoon we visited a Thai village and observed a lesson and demonstration on composting.  Villagers learned how to use green vegetation and hog manure to create a compost pile that would be ready to use in 18 days.  Local.  Organic.  Sustainable.

Learning how to make a compost pile using green vegetation and hog manure. Photo: Vietnam, Joan Leof

Learning how to make a compost pile using green vegetation and hog manure. Photo: Vietnam, Joan Leof

We visited several education projects:  A one-room kindergarten built in the center of the village so the three to five-year-olds won’t have far to go to attend school.  Dormitories built and furnished by CWS for 39 fourth and fifth graders who live too far for a daily commute.  Libraries built and funded by CWS that are student-run.  School-ground gardens with lush vegetables that are planted, cared for and consumed by students.  Hand-washing stations which help keep students healthy and teach good hygiene.  (The gardens and hand-washing stations teach skills and habits that are taken back to family and village.)

While poor, the people we visited appeared healthy and alert.   This was not the case in a La Hu village, where children showed signs of malnutrition and babies seemed lethargic.  We would witness the very first meeting of CWS with this village to teach basic hygiene and begin implementing safe sanitation practices.

The community currently has no latrines.  CWS staff began the meeting by having the villagers create a map on the ground of their village, marking their homes, the stream and road and where each family goes to the bathroom.  The next lesson demonstrated how flies spread disease by landing on open fecal matter, then flying to the nearby stream which is used for drinking and food preparation.  The next step was determining the cost to the village of illness resulting from using contaminated water; it was not calculated in monetary currency, but rather as “ten large pigs” per year.  The session wrapped up with families signing up to dig a hole by a specified date and use the hole for three months.  The goal is for the village to become open-defecation-free by the end of that three-month period.  At that point CWS helps families build a permanent latrine using brick or local materials such as bamboo.  The parting gift to families was a bar of soap, soap being essential to good hygiene and health.

At a wrap-up meeting back in the Hanoi office, we asked why CWS doesn’t also provide food to the village where there are signs of malnutrition.  We learned that malnutrition results from a multitude of reasons, not simply lack of sufficient food.  Diarrhea and disease prevent adequate absorption of nutrients.  Only by identifying and addressing the root causes of the malnutrition will the village realize long-term solutions.  This was an “aha” moment for me… the dots are connected between CROP Hunger Walks and CWS development projects.

Joan Leof, coordinator of the Rochester, Minn., CROP Hunger Walk