Put put put put put put across the river on the raft to Veuntan once again, this time a few kilos heavier with materials for our week planned with Veuntan local village school. 80 children are about to experience Nature through Gaia School’s eyes and we to experience their Nature connection like we’ve never known it.
Home for now is the care of Didi who lives and runs Sunshine’s kindergarten school in this small village of around 600. Veuntan village is isolated by the divide of the river, only accessible by ferry & intimate with traditional rural life. Weaving, rice production, fishing are plenty, and this month’s tropical fruit harvest rolling by mounted up on carts, is watermelon; and very welcome too, as temperatures are climbing higher by the day. Tong, the headmaster of Veuntan Village School welcomes us with youth and humour. 2 classes of 7-9 years old crammed into 1, behind rickety old desks, 40 bottoms on benches. The classroom walls are bare, but the curiousity of the students is bouncing off them. So many smiling features. Who is more excited them or us?
Om, who speaks Lao, has them all laughing in moments, where would we be without her!? Children appear and start leaning in the empty windows, who let them out of their classrooms? Everyone knows we are here! Then we do something this class has never done before. To their utter delight we opt for the outdoor classroom experience. We go to their favorite place, beside the river under the great trees, the watchers of the Mekong. Shade enough for an entire village. With the village’s sacred ancestors’ forest to the left, Mekong river tributary to the right, Buddist temple looking on and ancient stupa to gather round, this is a first for everyone and the learning ground is VERY fertile.
Gaia School Asia nature educational process generally tries to go through the following steps: 1) Opening, Introduction & Community building · Group, trust building exercises 2) Gratitude (Happy Nature) · Expressing Gratitude toward myself, culture, my home & nature. 3) Concerns (Sad Nature) · What concern I have about myself, home, nature, culture 4) Visioning a positive Future · Good examples of Positive Global Movements i.e. permaculture, ecovillage movement or young people or children taking care of our Mother Earth. 5) The Flower of the Earth: · What can I do to heal the wounds of our Mother Earth? Create a small Action plan that is do-able. 6) Networking & NextGEN Spirit · Creating support network & group spirit 7) Collective Action · Positive group action that helps taking care of our Mother Earth together on the site 8) Celebration · Celebrate our awareness & action This 8 step process has been developed & adapted from Buddhist philosophy of 4 Noble truth, Joanna Macy’s “Works that Reconnect” , other process work & our experiences of teaching in different countries to different groups. We have adjusted the process & added on to be suitable for youth & children
As a Gaia School Asia team we always have to be flexible with this educational process as every group we teach is different, locations are different, culture is different & we often are given a time limit to work with. In Veunvan village we are working with primary school kids & in the morning we were working with 40 kids ages 9-12 & in the afernoons we works with 40 kids ages 5-8. The first day is mostly about introductions, getting to know them & building trust. As we only have four days we also dive into the Happy Nature theme. We are Singing, acting and laughing our way through the happy nature theme & we see these Gaia’s children here have much to celebrate. Yet shyness is prominent, individuality shied against. There is much we’ve to learn about their sensitivities, their relationship to their environment, their understanding of the world view. The local library is empty, the classrooms devoid of reading books, coloured pens. What shapes it? Are stories still told by their elders? At local festivals? Or are the few TVs we’ve seen through open doors, their images and stereotypes seeping into their psyche? Life is still simple that is for sure. Nature is still abundant especially around the village which is where the kids spent most of their time.
The children when asked to share their favorite spot in Nature with us guided us to their Sacred Forest. Entering in the forest was like entering the home of a very strong being. This forest is believed by the villagers to house powerful spirits that need to be respected. This is one of the reasons why this treasure of a forest of about 2 km in length has not been logged & has some amazing big trees in it.
Spending this brief time in this amazing forest gave us a lot of hope & we felt it was our role to simply highlight the importance of that forest being there to the children of village. We mentioned to them that we felt very grateful for them showing us their forest & we asked them to take care of it. This forest is a symbol of what was in many places but also of what is possible if we humans allow it. Sad nature exists here too. We set about exploring this as the week progresses. We offer up images of landscapes they know, destroyed and decimated. The vast majority have never seen the big city. These images are far away to them. What about the animals that live there? Then things start to get personal, for some, but not for all, for this is the land of the hunted. Apart for the insect symphonies forests are noiseless, hunted out. Creatures are for eating. Herein lies our challenge: rediscovering empathy for animals, understanding relationships between animals that create healthy ecology and therefore more abundance for all. A challenge that us 4 animal lovers measure up to with our Thai, Dutch, South African and English rainbow tribe style of comedy, dramatics, art and heart-warming activities.
We move away from sad nature & start thinking about positive solutions together. What can we do to help nature? The children think about what action they want to take to help mother Earth. They draw with their friends a flower that is their Flower for the Earth. Each petal has a question: What are we going to do for the Earth? Who will be taking this action for the Earth? Where are we going to do this action for the Earth? When are we going to this action for the Earth?
A lot of the children put on the flower planting trees & cleaning of rubbish. From this group Flower for the Earth we flow towards taking a group action to help nature right here right now. One theme that stuck out was the rubbish in the village. Throughout the village there was plastic laying about. Another The challenge is that in the villages they are burning the rubbish. This village has far from escaped the rubbish influx, be it yonder river or not. In the land of slash and burn, you burn your rubbish while you are at it. There is no garbage truck, no landfill site, no local official in charge of such things. And this has always been a throw away culture, except that the banana leaved covered snack is now a plastic foil wrapper, the clay pot a plastic cup, water from the well another plastic bottle. Everyone throws it down and then burns it once it becomes too unsightly. Where does a sustainable solution fit into this? Throw it in the bin: it’s an immediate solution, a small throw in the right direction, and hardly one that is going to excite these kids, but the trick up our sleeve works a charm – “Let’s use the rubbish to make an artpiece!” In a leap of faith they go along with it and really get going once the pots of glue are out! A 150 drawings , 2 recycled rubbish artworks, a clean school yard and clean riverside classroom later, these kids are singing English songs, speaking English words, putting rubbish in bins!. We closed with a celebration of eating watermelon together & singing some songs.
It all feels very good but we recognize that these concepts and actions are tender seeds that have been planted, our efforts will have woken sensitivities in some and in others not. The most important thing that has been established here is a potential long-term connection, they want to see us back here and what is more they are not far away from Gaia Ashram the homebase of Gaia School Asia. During this Rubbish Cleaning & Art day we were joined by Nao from Japan who works for Jica, a japanese development organisation who works with the Laos Government and she was stationed with the Department of Natural Resources & Mineral. She works on assisting a Laos government team in helping to create Environmental Awareness Campaigns in Schools in Laos. We learned a lot from her & created a good future connection for our network in Laos. Threading through our time here was also our life as guests at the Sunshine Kindergarten with the Didis & Phonsawang. They’ve buoyed our efforts at the school with a balance of field trips up the river swimming in it, slapping clay on, visits to the ancient sacred forest, visits to another piece of land that they are working on to regenerate the nature.
In keeping with the water theme whilst there, we weathered an almighty mother of a storm, the likes of which hadn’t been experienced in those parts for years, such that at 1 o’clock in the morning we were tasked with an emergency flood management sweep up in the nursery! Storms literal and with each other have been water under the bridge, for the most part it has been a peaceful stay in this abode set in a forest garden, we’ve shared with each other our songs, meditations, sick days and insights. Although I might not return here personally, my person has left something here, a spark, a deep bellied laugh, joy shared and one that is bound to be repeated here in Veuntan again and again in the name of reconnecting with Nature. For Gaia School Asia the time at Veuntan was time well spent and there has been established a strong link between Gaia School Asia & the Sunshine School. We want to thank the Sunshine School, the Didi’s, Phonsawang, Headmaster Thong and the teachers of the village school for creating the space for us. We would like to thank all those that have contributed through our crowdfunding campaign to the “Spirit of the Maekong Journey”. We have about 30 more days to go & if you would like to support us please go to: http://www.wethetrees.com/campaigns/spirit-of-the-maekong-journey Here we have attached the link to the youtube slideshow we made of our work at the school in Veunvan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uRdpMVdu1k “May all beings be happy”!