Following the glowing recommendation of a blogger I follow, I volunteered at a literacy organization while in Luang Prabang. Big Brother Mouse–so named for the cartoon mascot, who acts as a friendly “big brother” encouraging kids to read–says its mission is “making literacy fun,” and it looks like they’re succeeding.
It was founded by a non-Laotian, American publisher Sasha Alyson, but he now serves as an advisor, and all paid staff are Laotian. The website emphasizes the importance of Lao educational efforts being headed by Laotians, rather than foreigners coming in and doing things their way. I strongly agree with this philosophy, so I was all the happier to give my time to an organization that values this kind of empowerment.
Big Brother Mouse is a publishing and distribution outfit. There’s a lot on the website about how hard they’re working to write and publish books in the Lao language so that kids will want to learn how to read–and so they’ll take pride in the Lao language and culture, rather than learning to read only in English.
Once the books are published, the distribution part kicks in. You can sponsor a book party, which is what they call it when volunteers strap books to their backs and hike into remote parts of the country to distribute one book per child in the villages they visit. Kids who have never seen a book before, or who have only held a tattered textbook from the ’50s, now have their own book, written in their own language, about a fun topic that interests them. A lot of kids get really attached to their books, and eagerly await another book party in their village.
That’s the main purpose of the organization, and you can, of course, contribute funds to help publish and distribute the books. But there’s also volunteering, two hours twice a day, to help locals practice their conversational English. You don’t sign up or anything, you just show up and talk with whoever wants conversation. Suggestions for how to be a good conversation partner are posted on the tables inside the small store where these makeshift meetings take place: talk slower, enunciate clearly, ask simple questions but not yes/no ones, and talk slower.
When I arrived the first time, a staff member was doing calculations at the cash register and didn’t give me any advice on what to do. I saw one volunteer talking with one Buddhist novice, and a couple other white people sitting around, presumably waiting to help out if other Laotians showed up. After about 20 minutes, several people did arrive, so we all split up and ranged ourselves around the long table and started talking. The other two times I went, there were people waiting and eager to talk as soon as I got there.
I talked to just one woman, who runs a business in town and is always on the lookout for ways to improve her slang so she can be more familiar with her customers. Everyone else I spoke with was male, mostly university students and young Buddhist novices.
One guy wanted help with his workbook–should he use “his” or “her” in these instances? Another brought out a book in English and wanted to practice his pronunciation–he read a paragraph on astronomy and I corrected pronunciation in the few places he needed it, and then he read another paragraph. Several students sat there wide-eyed, pencils in hand, ready to write down any words I mentioned that they were unfamiliar with, so they could add them to their vocabulary. There was one communal Lao-English dictionary, which was passed around as needed when we came to a translating impasse. Everyone spoke heavily accented English, but their skills varied widely; some were beginners fumbling over “My name is,” and some held a conversation easily.
I had no idea what I was doing; I didn’t have a pedagogy and I’m not a trained teacher. But I tried to take to heart the “talk slower” imperative, and I smiled a lot to encourage the shy ones, and I think I was a little bit helpful. We were all happy to see one another, and I was happy to be part of an organization run so well that the local people see it as a reliable, useful resource. If you’re in Luang Prabang, I recommend making volunteering at Big Brother Mouse part of your itinerary.