Classroom in Search of Light

Classroom in Search of Light

As the chickens return to their coop, the flashlight’s glow and the villagers’ calls to each other to come to the Ia Lop Border Guard Station in Chư Prông district, Gia Lai province, for literacy classes begin.

After a quick dinner, the soldiers at the station prepare materials for the class. Amidst the pitch-black landscape, the light in the classroom and the echoing sounds of spelling fill the border area.

Drought in the Border Area

Anyone familiar with Gia Lai will notice that Ia Mor commune is quite different from other places. Not only is it remote, but life here is also full of hardships, with people struggling daily for food and clothing. This commune is also a drought-stricken area right below the Ia Mor irrigation project worth over 3 trillion VND. The reason is that the province has not yet been able to convert forest land into irrigation areas. If this becomes a reality, surely this border area adjacent to Cambodia will have blooming flowers and lush green rice fields.

In this remote border area where the sun is scorching and nights are desolate, it feels warmer with border soldiers accompanying the locals day and night. The September rain makes the road to Ia Lop Border Guard Station (Command of Gia Lai Border Guard) muddy and difficult to traverse.

It seemed that more than 20 kilometers along the Ia Mor irrigation canal was not much, but we had to struggle for an hour. Amidst the enveloping darkness, when the light from Ia Lop Border Guard Station appeared, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Fearing that students would stay home due to gloomy weather, soldiers quickly finished their meals and divided tasks to pick up each student.

According to Major Nguyen Van Thanh – Political Commissar of Ia Lop Border Guard Station, there are 71 illiterate Jrai ethnic people living in Suoi Khon residential area (Ia Mor commune). “We mobilized and found many people eager to learn. Currently, our class has 15 students with no age limit. Therefore, our unit’s party committee and command have developed a plan, reported to the Command’s leadership and got approval to open this literacy class. The class will meet three times a week with two main subjects: Math and Vietnamese,” Major Thanh said.

The locals see Major Nguyen Van Thanh as a son of their village. The teachers of this special class are Major Vu Van Hoang who teaches Math, while Captain Nguyen Van Luan teaches Vietnamese. Major Hoang, a determined man at first glance but warm-hearted when standing on the podium, introduces everyone to kind-hearted people who support notebooks, pens, tables and chairs for studying.

Meanwhile, Captain Nguyen Van Luan just got married in Chu Ty town (Duc Co district). His house is more than 70 kilometers away from his unit so he can only visit his wife and young child once every few months. Sometimes he has just arrived home when his unit calls him back immediately.

Despite this, the young soldier remains optimistic: “The road now is much better than a few years ago. Back then, we sometimes had to push our motorbikes on detours through deserted mountains and forests. Luckily my wife understands so we encourage each other to fulfill our duties.”

Captain Luan sighed deeply; life here is harsh with sandy soil; crops depend on weather; hence if people don’t know how to read they will suffer greatly. In the early days of encouraging locals to attend school was very challenging as they were shy and hesitant. However, “constant dripping wears away stone”, along with love for ethnic minorities here.

The Captain and village elders visited each house persuading everyone that “You must learn how to read because our country is developing now. When seeking medical treatment or doing business you need to know how to read so you won’t be cheated. Older people should learn as an example for their children and grandchildren. Young people must go to school for a better future.” Class time is also when young Captain explains laws to everyone; they should not elope; they should study for wealth creation.

“You can scold students elsewhere but not here! If you speak harshly they will quit school immediately; then you have to go all the way to their house to pick them up. You must be tactful, subtle, calm and sincere so that they respect you,” Captain Luan shared.

Taking the Child to School

While the whole country starts school in the morning, this special class begins at dusk. The simple and touching opening ceremony sees notebooks and pens handed to rough, labor-worn hands. The teary eyes of the elderly and the innocent smiles of the young twenty-somethings move the teachers.

The Khon stream flows vigorously, sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce, like the green-uniformed teachers bringing literacy to the village. They are calm, approachable, and gentle with the locals so that literacy gradually seeps into the poor people in this remote border area. Before each class, the teachers prepare some candies for the little ones who are carried on their mothers’ backs to class.

Ms. Kpuih Lep (27 years old) had to drop out of school after 4th grade due to poverty, giving up her education for her younger siblings. Over the years, seeing students going to school, Ms. Lep could only watch them with teary eyes. Gradually, Ms. Lep became illiterate again.

“I love smelling notebooks and books. I love going to school. The other day I said I wanted to write with a fountain pen, and my teacher bought me one as soon as he got his salary. I’m learning to read so I can read faster; in a few days when I get married, my husband will respect me more. When I have children, I can teach them,” Ms. Lep revealed.

After dinner, Mr. Kpah Choan (61 years old) takes his son Kpah Vot (19 years old) to class. Mr. Choan had to drop out of school halfway through his education and is determined not to let his son be illiterate. For Mr. Choan, learning to read is so that he won’t be cheated in the future and knows how to grow crops; next year he will let his son take a motorcycle driving test.

Mr. Choan said that he has eight children and Vot is the youngest one. Vot didn’t want to go to school unless his father accompanied him; otherwise, he would cry all the time. This strange request made it impossible for the father to fulfill, so he let his son quit school and go farming instead. Now that the border guards have opened a class, he encourages his son to attend. Strangely enough, Vot only agrees to go if his father takes him; otherwise, he stays at home. With diligent study every night, Vot has learned how to spell which makes his old father always radiant.

“There was a time when I was cheated while shopping because I signed papers without knowing what was written in them so I was very upset; now I’m determined to learn how to read. Sometimes friends sing karaoke but I don’t know how to read so it’s also sad. Knowing how to read and do math, in the future I will try to read newspapers and books, learn how to do business and earn money to support my wife and children,” Vot shared.

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Classroom in Search of Light

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