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The growth in tourism and foreign investment in Laos is opening up numerous opportunities for young people.
But, with just over a third of Laotians completing secondary education, a department already severely under-resourced, some are finding it hard to grasp the chances on offer.
Poor English and a lack of negotiating and problem solving skills are just some of the barriers to success.
In Luang Prabang, Elise Potaka visits a couple of projects helping young Laotians find their way.
As dusk falls in Luang Prabang, one shopfront still has its lights brightly burning.
Inside books in both Laos and English line the walls.
This is the office of Big Brother Mouse, a bookshop and reading program with the motto of “making literacy fun”.
“In 1997 I became a novice, that’s the one way I can improve my education, I came to study high school here, in the temple.”
Khmala Panyasouk is the 25-year old owner of Big Brother Mouse. He says before coming to Luang Prabang, he never imagined that reading a book could be more than just a chore.
“I saw some tourists reading books, when they came to travel and I wondered why they were reading books and eating. Too much work, reading and eating! At that time I don’t know that books could be fun and useful. I learnt only about text books at the temple.”
In 2004, Khamla met retired American publisher Sasha Alyson.
Together they started Big Brother Mouse, with the goal of increasing local literacy rates by making books more appealing.
The project also provides a chance for young Laotians to learn new skills.
As well as offering learning materials, Big Brother Mouse employs local young people as writers, translators, illustrators and administration staff.
Sasha Alyson says for these Laotians, it can be a rare opportunity.
“Well most people are going to be rice farmers, just like their parents, there’s no real option there, there’s not anything else for that to change. And I think most of them are perfectly happy with that. But some of them do not want that, they have some extra abilities or motivation and want to do something different. Most of them try to learn English and they can get better paying jobs with English, working in a restaurant is the epitome of the job that some of them want, and some of them with higher ambitions want to be a tour guide.”
Not far from Big Brother Mouse is another library project attracting many young Laotians; like 19 year old Santanew.
“I am Santenew, I’m living in Luang Prabang now. I like photography a lot but in my life, if I could choose, I would choose IT. Because I like it too. Now I’m working with that, with a fixing computer shop in Luang Prabang here.”
@ My Library is a kind of library-cum-youth centre, where one of the main focuses is photography.
When he’s not working on computers, Santanew is taking pictures like this one, which shows the silhouette of a man collecting water.
“I have took this photo from the Mekong river. It’s a very interesting picture because it’s dark with the people but you still can tell that he’s collecting water.”
Located next to a temple and school, @ My Library was set up by former school teacher, Carol Kresge. As well as photography, there are books, puzzles, games and computers.
At lunchtime, young novice monks from the temple sit and read or use the internet in their orange robes.
Carol says the centre tries to provide external support to the Laos education system.
“The education system is under-funded, teachers are not all university trained. And so it’s a long slow expensive process trying to change an education system. And what we’re doing is trying to give experiences to kids that are pushing for other experiences, and the kids that are most interested can come and participate. And that’s an easier way to introduce new experiences now.”
Carol Kresge says it’s also about trying to prepare young Laotians for the future ahead – a future which will involve complicated decisions and interactions with the outside world.
“Not having the skills, it’s going to be very hard for Laos to compete in the world and for Laos individuals to be able to control their own futures. For example Laos is a very mineral rich country, we have water for power, we have farm land and we’re surround by bigger countries that are more developed that have need for space and minerals and water. The Laos, in order to compete, need to be able to speak English, think, problem-solve, understand how to deal with the world culture.”
But some of the young visitors to the centre say it’s not just about looking to the future, it’s also about remembering the past.
20-year old Dui, says it’s important for him and other young Laotians to be able to record local life through their eyes.
“We need to take pictures about Luang Prabang life, or, most of us are Hmong people and we like to show our traditional, because there are many things interesting, or different to other people.”