VIENTIANE, Laos PDR – Souphatta Chantavong used to say whatever came to her mind when she was angry, not thinking how her words might hurt her friends.
“Now I can make myself understood if I speak in a way that develops relationships,” said Chantavong, age 21. “I think more about what I’m going to say and I know what I shouldn’t say to others and what I should.”
Chantavong, a social work and development major, is just one of the people who have grown in their understanding of relationships through training from Mittapab, an MCC-supported peacebuilding organization in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Mittipab is an MCC Global Family education sponsorship program.
Started in 2006, Mittapab is the only group in Lao PDR directly teaching the idea of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Mittapab means friendship in Lao, a concept that is easier for Lao people to relate to than peace, which they commonly define as absence of war.
Building on the universal interest in friendship, MCC workers in Lao PDR teach peacebuilding and conflict transformation skills to university students, who in turn train high school students on the weekends.
In 2010, Mittapab also started training teachers from two schools, so they could reinforce the conflict transformation skills in the classroom and help lead Mittapab activities at their schools.
“We have the opportunity to equip youth with the passion and skills to both prevent and transform conflicts in their everyday lives,” said Crystal Zook, MCC worker in Lao PDR from Willow Street, Pa. “As youth are the future of nations, Mittapab seeks to help facilitate this teaching of interpersonal conflict skills in Lao schools.”
The youth who came to Xaysetha Secondary School on a Saturday morning in February were learning about body language and other ways of communicating. Mittapab trainers use games, songs and skits to entertain and make students think.
Topics covered during the six monthly classes include friendship, when relationships have problems, empathy, listening, speaking assertively, conflict transformation problem solving and being a peacebuilder. The classes emphasize respect for people of different religions and incorporate conflict transformation skills that reflect the values and practices of Lao culture.
Lao proverbs, such as “Fast words will say wrong things,” give students chances to reflect on what common sayings teach about friendship and conflict transformation.
Students choose to come to the classes for many reasons – often curiosity or a friend’s invitation – but they stay because they enjoy it and because they are learning practical information about their own relationships, several students said.
“Everything we do is important for them,” said Chantavong, who has been a Mittapab volunteer for four years. “We are not just teaching them the lesson. We teach them to think about things, to give them examples and real life situations, to help them understand why it’s important to transform our conflicts.”
English teacher Syda Sengthipmany said she has become aware of her own negativity and critical spirit through the Mittapab training. As she began to see the value of understanding other people, she began to reach out to a coworker she disliked and ignored.
By talking to her more and thinking more positively about her, she came to understand that her coworker was the kind of person who simply needed someone to initiate a relationship.
Sengthipmany brings Mittapab teachings into the classroom. If students talk meanly to each other, she explains that they need to examine themselves first and to think about how they would feel to be treated that way.
Another Mittapab volunteer, Sengchan Keochandy, said what he has learned in Mittapab has helped his whole family. The engineering major said that when his brothers and sisters have conflicts over transportation or cleaning, he calls them together to discuss the problem.
He suspects the speaking and listening skills he gained through Mittapab will come in handy in his career as a civil engineer as well, as he engages in project planning with community leaders.
Between 2011 and 2014, Mittapab expects to have about 100 college students and 18 teachers participate in trainings to work with 855 students from four schools.
Zook said, “Staff and volunteers want to continue learning more deeply about peacebuilding and conflict transformation and developing their training resources and abilities … to spread positive peace in Laos.”
To sponsor students in this peacebuilding program, log onto https://donate.mcc.org/project/global-family-laos-peacebuilders
Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S.