25 January 2008

Overseas opportunities

There are donors that have been really generous with providing education opportunities for people in my office. Here are just some of the opportunities in the past year:

  • A couple of staff have gone to Bangkok and attended training with the Asia Pacific Centre for Disability
  • Others went to Bangkok for various UN agency workshops
  • Some have visited Japan for some training
  • I myself went to Phnom Penh

Further in the past, others have gone to India, Vietnam and China.

These training sessions are generally available to program staff only. Unfortunately the support staff which are essential to the running of the organization such as the accountant or the public relations officer don't get as much of a chance to develop their skills and travel at all.

There is still the challenge of transferring the knowledge back to those in the office and applying it their work. I suppose application is always the challenge of training! There is also a problem with the daily allowances these events pay. The allowance is usually quite reasonable. Around Lao there can be issues with the first person who opens the application form to apply for the event. It is also hard to democratically select someone in the office to go to these professional development events. Some friends have mentioned that they're not sure why some people in the office are selected to represent their organisation overseas. We were handed some tips about working in Laos by the UN Development Program that said sending someone overseas might mean that while they're away well decisions can then be made in the office!

Lao braille

My friend is working on a project to suppport blind children in being educated. He has the first and only braille printer in Lao and one of his first tasks was to learn how to fix the machine. His mission is to teach blind children how to use the computer. His first task is to translate a computer textbook into Lao braille. The trouble is that he doesn't know braille so he is trying to get a Lao person to translate as he reads out the Lao text. If someone could come up with a computer program that translates Lao to Lao braille that would be very helpful! Each Lao letter should translate specifically to one braille letter.

Currently blind children take notes in braille by punching it into paper. I met a blind guy uni student from Japan- an amazing guy he was. His English was perfect and he was a naturally good public speaker. He has a note taking device that can connect to the computer. He can type notes which can be read as one line of braille. He says up to a couple of books can be saved on it. I hope that this will one day be available for Lao!

Killing fields and prison

Choeung Ek Killing fields
I managed to resist crying while at the killing fields which meant I was able to hold it off for the rest of the day. The killing fields was one of hundreds around the country during the Pol Pot regime. The killing fields where people where killed and buried. 30, 000 people were killed in these killing fields alone- men, women, children, killing families at a time. You can see bones poking from the ground where rain has weathered the ground. After the country was liberated from the Khmer Rouge the families and friends of those killed came and trashed the buildings at the killing fields so none of the original prison buildings were left. There is a memorial stupa with 17 levels of skulls excavated from the area. There are skulls that clearly indicate the person was killed by a blunt object. Our tour guide rattled off a whole bunch of methods they used to kill people and pretty much all of them were violent. Strangely enough there is a shooting range just 5 kilometres away where you can try shooting an AK47- not quite my thing.

Tuel Sleng Prison
We didn't make it there the first day because Mia Farrow was holding some kind of protest to bring attention to the events in Darfur. This prison was one of where many where Pol Pot's regime were held people before they died. Tuel Sleng Prison used to be a high school and is located near central Phnom Penh. It's strange because it does look like a regular school from the outside and seems in good condition. Inside though, you can see how the classrooms were divided into concrete or wooden cells 2x1 metre. The Khmer Rouge did systematically document all the people that entered the prison with a photo, and apparently a biography too. There are thousands of portraits on display of those that entered the prison. The photos shocked me because they looked like such healthy people, and probably were, upon entry to the prison. Some even managed a smile. It also creeped me out that a large proportion had their hands tied behind their back- the prisons where I come from aren't allowed to do this. There were also photos of people laying dead in pools of blood and mothers with their children. There were torture instruments for display used to make people give confessions. Very scary stuff- I hope we can learn something from what happened. Only 7 prisoners survived of the 17, 000 imprisoned there.

Seeing the king

During the education workshop I saw a dance troupe perform. The members of the troupe were people with disabilities, mostly deaf people. They had performed during the closing ceremony at the last Olympics and have performed to an impressive number of world leaders. They did do some good singing and dancing. The king of Cambodia attended. The way they select the king is unusual. The last king had resigned. This king was selected by a council and the next king of Cambodia. This is the first royalty I have ever seen! He once did work with UNESCO.

Inclusive education

I had the opportunity to attend a seminar 'Education for All Flagship on the Right to Education for Persons with Disabilities: Towards Inclusion Regional Workshop in Asia' sponsored by UNESCO. There a few flagships designed so that resources and people form a network, this one being about people with disabilities. It was interesting to see what is going on in the region. It seemed that there were more special education programs available in Cambodia than in Laos. Someone raised concerns that aid money was not getting to Cambodia because the government won't work without bribes and went to Africa instead. Actually, it is the same with the Sweden and Lao. They are a pulling aid out of many countries including Lao and want to focus on Africa. It was mentioned that during the Pol Pot regime 70-80 % teachers died. Starting at year zero with zero teachers, students and schools, there are now 100,000 teachers, 3.5 million students and 900 schools.

People are still battling attitudes in this region. Some Thai guy found a kid that was 11 years old with a disability in a chicken cage. Another found a kid with cerebral palsy at home alone. Neither had ever gone to school, but in the short time this guy saw that these children could do things by themselves given the opportunity.

Some key points
  • Inclusive education is about ensuring the right to education and providing the resources needed by the individual to be educated
  • Everyone has limitations and some learn faster, some slower. Inclusive education is about acknowledging diversity and including them all.
  • People with disabilities may need education from a young age to prepare them for school. For example, deaf children should be taught sign language from a young age so that they have language skills like hearing children when they start school.
  • Home based and/ or informal education is important and should be supported
  • Sometimes you need to push on with implementing inclusive education because you will never have all the resources you need.
  • The world is with a diverse range of abilities. If children with disabilities are in mainstream education children will learn to appreciate diversity and include people with disabilities in their work and activities as they get older.
  • Sometimes it is not suitable for people with disabilities to be in mainstream education because it may be difficult for the school to get adequate resources to meet their educational needs
  • Children learn from each other, not just from the teachers so it is important to consider them as a resource in education.
  • Children have the right to free, compulsory education that is available, adaptable and accessible.

Museum, royal palace and Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh

The national museum is in a beautiful wooden structure and worth visiting. Cambodia has had much Indian influence, for example the Wats of the Angkor and Hindu. So there were many an image of Shiva and Ganesh and other Hindu gods in the muesum. I have noticed that in each of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia's national museums they have shown maps displaying their largest empire at any point in time which is sometime in the distant past. The Khmer empire covered most of Laos up to Burma and most of north- eastern Thailand when it was its most powerful.

The Royal Palace is another place worth visiting. There is a pagoda with a whole floor of silver tiles. There is also a French building right in the middle of the palace grounds which looks a bit odd. Wat Phnom is pretty good because there are a lot of monkeys around which are amusing to observe. You can buy them lotus seed heads and bananas for them to eat- at least it's pretty healthy.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a good place to visit. The people are friendly. It's another place which makes me swear I'll be a kinder person when I get home! Initially it seemed like a bigger version of Vientiane, and I could image Vientiane looking like Phnom Penh in five to ten years. The motorcycle, car to bike ratio seems about the same. Some women wear skirts that are exactly the same as the Lao sinh. The traditional dance is quite similar between the countries also. They celebrate the same new years. They have just one big mall in Phnom Penh and one separate department store. They have usual Thai chain restaurants such as Dairy Queen, Swensens, Pizza Company and MK Suki. The poverty here seems more apparent than in Vientiane- there were many more people begging. I was there to attend a workshop about implementing inclusive education for people with disabilities in the Asia Pacific region.

I was staying in quite a nice hotel and I noticed about three western couples with an Asian baby. I'm guessing the westerners were French and the babies were Cambodian. A bit of a wild guess but these couples around their late 30s- 40s could have been picking up these children for adoption. In Cambodia did read that a couple of countries, UK and USA I think it was that put an emergency ban on adoption from Cambodia due to child trafficking concerns.

15 January 2008

Lao wedding 3

I went to a Lao wedding reception at the same place I had the other two. It was a friend's brother's wedding. The bride wore hot pink Lao dress. The couple had a huge banner at the top of the stage featuring a heart- shaped photo if them.

This wedding was more intimate than the others I've been to- I'm guessing it had about 300 people. There was a lot of dancing including some older women dancing to the rap music the band was playing.

My language teacher tells me that it is necessary to pick a lucky day for the bride and groom to be married. His wife has gone to Australia to attend a wedding. The lucky day isn't apparent far in advance so his wife will stay in Australia for three months in anticipation of the wedding. She may miss the wedding if the lucky day doesn't happen within that three month period! Apparently the one getting married is the youngest son in the family. The other son's weren't as careful about picking a lucky day so it's important that this one is married on a lucky day.

In the minority

I have a friend who is woman with a disability, Hmong and Catholic. She is the first Lao Catholic I have met. There have been a few bad stories about what has happened to some christians here due to their religious beliefs and hope they're not true!

Anway, my friend had a baby whom I visited yesterday which is very exciting. Her daughter is called 'Noi' for now, which means small, and about the most common nickname I have come across. My language teacher tells me that a child only really needs a name when they start school, so often the child can go without a formal name until then.

She plans to go back to work in couple of months. Her and her husband will share looking after the baby because they both work part- time and can choose when to work. It sounds like a good arrangement!

07 January 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Malaysia is unique. I thought it would be like any other city in Asia, but it different. The thing I noticed most was that it had much Islam influence- the food, the architecture, the clothing people wear. I liked Kuala Lumpur- not too crazily busy but seemed busier than it should be for a city of 1.6 million people.

I visited the National Mosque, built in the shape of an umbrella. It was the first mosque I’ve ever visited. One of the volunteers there went off on a bit of a tangent about Australia being uncivilized and the Chinese with 5000 years of history will civilize us. What could I say? Also, common knowledge around Asia is that Australia’s prime minister speaks Chinese and has a Chinese son- in- law. Interesting. He also seemed to assume that all Chinese people in Australia liked Kevin Rudd- just not quite!

The Islamic Arts Museum was also worth visiting. It featured a lot of calligraphy and some textiles which I liked. They also have models of famous buildings built in Islamic style including the Taj Mahal. It was a beautiful museum. The shop had some creationist books which were unfortunately very badly graphically designed not to mention the content which used strong terms such as ‘completely impossible that…’I also spotted some Lao silk scarves for around $100 AUD which I could buy for $10 here in Laos.

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

The bus from Kuala Lumpur to Penang island took a couple of hours longer than expected. We had a bus driver who randomly yelled at people, for example, when someone chucked all their watermelon seed shells on the floor. I thought the main town on Penang island was pretty dirty. Lots of nice open gutters you can fall in and rats running around! The food was okay, generally oily and it is hard to avoid fried chicken!

The best thing about Penang was going to the Snake Temple with an attached snake farm. The temple has vipers living there but these days they are behind glass and sleepy from the incense. The farm though, was excellent. I got to play with a 6m long python which the guys working there treated as pets giving them regular kisses on the head.

The tropical fruit farm and the spice farm were pretty good. The museum was quite good too- it had lots of information about Penang culture and the different ethnic groups. Kek Lok Si temple is a huge temple complex on a hill and looked very modern and new. It had some good views.

I did manage to get the main beach. This beach is the busiest. I couldn’t quite relax because there were children hooning up the beach with quad bikes. Getting into the water would be no different because there were many people on jet skis.

Upon telling the staff member at the hostel in Kuala Lumpur that I’d arrived from Penang he said ‘that’s my home town and I hate it!’. I could definitely see why.