In the Tha Thom District of Laos, Mrs. Van, who goes by one name, teaches students how to make baskets as part of an MCC-supported effort to pass on traditional skills.
MCC Photo/Kaarina Knisely

In the Tha Thom District of Laos, Mrs. Van, who goes by one name, teaches students how to make baskets as part of an MCC-supported effort to pass on traditional skills.

AKRON, Pa. – The fourth-graders, arranged in three groups around well-worn desks, concentrate as they ply knives to split green bamboo into strips. Later, they will weave the lengths into rice-storage baskets. Because the school walls rise only halfway to the roof, the students enjoy breezes and a stunning view of the lush surrounding Laotian valley, jungle-shrouded mountains on the horizon, as they work.

Mrs. Van, 32, a mother of three, exudes energy as she and two other “local wisdom” teachers mingle with the students. They assist the 30 first-time basket weavers in this Khonsana Primary School classroom, a school in the subsistence-farming Tha Thom District of Xieng Khouang Province in northeastern Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos).

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), through the Global Family program, provides ongoing encouragement and networking opportunities to Mrs. Van, who goes by only one name, and the other 24 or so local wisdom teachers of five primary schools in Tha Thom district.

The lay teachers are part of a new curriculum that the Laotian Ministry of Education began implementing a couple of years ago in some districts, to be gradually expanded throughout the nation. By helping primary schools develop 20 percent of their own curriculum based on village wisdom, the ministry hopes to solidify local knowledge and traditions.

Rice-storage baskets – central to family life and meals, made of a locally available, inexpensive material and not too difficult to weave – seemed an appropriate introductory activity for the fourth-graders.

MCC worker Kaarina Knisely of Chester, Vt., likens the basket-making to quilting in Canada and the U.S., a handicraft that many people engage in but could be lost if one generation is not intentional in passing it on to the next. “My grandmother and mother quilt, but I have not learned the art from them,” Knisely said. “Lao people want to ensure that the next generation is still learning traditional arts, thus they’re including it in their children’s formal learning.”

Like quilts, baskets have practical uses. In Lao homes, sticky rice, the dietary mainstay, is steamed several times a day in one type of basket, then stored in another basket. Family members sit around the basket and scoop rice with their hands, starting from the outer edge.

“Rice baskets come in a wide variety of sizes – 3 to 12 inches in diameter, some much larger! – but all are circular with a fitted lid,” said Knisely, who helps support the curriculum project. Rice baskets that Knisely saw in Khonsana, about 8 inches in diameter, were decorated with simple designs woven into them by alternating dark and light sides of the flexible green bamboo strips.

“Bamboo fibers are amazingly strong and once they are thinned into strips, they are as flexible as ribbon and as strong as wire,” Knisely said.

One of the curriculum’s major goals is to help students value the wisdom of their village, according to Wendy Martin, MCC Laos program administrator. “In a rapidly changing country with increasing global access and influence, the thinking is that it’s important that children know and understand their history and culture,” said Martin, who is from Brussels, Ont.

That history, in Xieng Khouang Province, includes a tragic chapter as one of the most heavily bombed provinces in Laos, which in turn ranks as the most-bombed country, per capita, in world history. Beginning in 1964, as part of the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives in a nine-year bombing campaign; that figure represents 1 ton per Laotian.

As the local wisdom curriculum expands, survivors of that era may be interviewed about their experiences by their village’s primary students. “Some of the activities that schools plan to implement include recording local history, writing about and taking part in ethnic groups’ festivals and celebrations, preparing traditional foods and learning about and growing traditional herbal medicines,” said Martin.

Those were among the ideas that teachers and farmers from four Tha Thom villages brainstormed during a four-day workshop in November 2010. Titled “Traditional Wisdom Training,” the seminar was led by educators from the provincial education office and funded by MCC’s Global Family program. The seminar offered the 32 participants the opportunity to think critically about their local wisdom and devise methods to include it in their children’s education, said Martin, who attended the event. Since that workshop, a fifth school in Tha Thom district has joined the project.

Mrs. Van, who attended the workshop and who had learned basket-weaving from her grandmother about eight years ago, was uncertain of her ability to teach as she began working with the fourth-graders.

"Every student was interested!” Mrs. Van exclaimed to Knisely afterward. “Some children had trouble finishing the rice basket at school, so they came to my home afterward, asking for my help. It makes me so happy to know that students are excited to learn.”

Emily Will is a freelance writer from Fredrick, Maryland.