At Ban Phang Heng Secondary School three directors are responsible for the organization, structure, and bureaucracy. When it comes to getting official approval of something new, one has to go to the First Director.
One of our tasks at the secondary school is to offer “Activities”. Team I and II experimented with different Activity formats and tried out different artistic language-teaching techniques (songs, dance, games), and Team III established the first English Conversation Club. It took off really well, so Team IV added the Games Club, the ABC Club, and the Science Lab Activity Time.
Team V continued all four, albeit not on a daily basis anymore, and added the new Drama Club. Before our “Clubs” can officially start during “Activity Time” (3 – 4 p.m. from Monday to Thursday), however, they first have to be permitted. How exactly? With the director’s signature.
This is the procedure I followed to get the two Clubs I was resposible for, the “Science Lab Activity Time” and the “English Games Club”, approved:
Before the clubs can start they also have to be announced and promoted, of course, else nobody will know about them. So at the beginning of each project phase or at the beginning of a new club, we, the volunteers, advertise them. How? Through posters.
(Editor’s note: This proved to be a little tricky with the ABC Club. It was supposed to help pupils who cannot read or write the Latin alphabet. It turned out that translating the poster would not help much, either, as some pupils apparently also cannot read Lao. Lao is not the first or only language for all pupils, and in the remote rural areas children often still do not get regular schooling, for want of teachers or schools, or family reasons. Sometimes new schools are built in the remote areas by foreign aid, but then there are no teachers to put inside. In one ethnic group, there is also no written alphabet to start with. After figuring all this out, the Club was advertised orally, and the classroom filled up.)
One could imagine that the posters are simply hung up on the information board, but there is a quite a procedure to go through from the copying machine to the pinning of the poster.
After having designed the poster for the Club, I print it twice. One printout is for the information board in the hallway outside,which all pupils pass all the time, and one is for the teachers’ Common Room. Before I go to the directors’ office, I ask one of the English teachers to accompany me in order to interpret, as the directors do not speak English. The directors’ office is located next to the teachers’ Common Room and divided into two parts. When you come in, first there are two desks on the right side, one for the Second and one for the Third Director. In the back of the office, separated by a glass door, is the desk of the First Director, Mr Khampheng Bounthalavong.
When I pass the first two desks, I put my hands together and politely slightly bow and say “sabai’dee” in the direction of the two directors, and then knock on the glass door. After a short pause, the First Director calls me in. We greet each other in Lao and English and I receive and return a friendly smile. After bringing forth my matter, my interpreter interprets, the director listens patiently, and then he asks me to sit down. Before I take a seat, I put the two posters on his desk. These are then checked carefully by the Lao teacher, who translates for Mr Khampheng what is written on the poster. After the translation…silence… the director keeps his eyes on the poster. His friendly face now looks very concentrated.
I catch myself inadvertently holding my breath… until the First Director reaches for the first stamp – bang – then the second – bang – and I hear a scratching noise, which means his signature is on the poster now. Clubs approved? Yes!
Now the posters are copied and the copies are put in one of the many folders the director has in his office.
Then, finally, the posters with the important red stamps and the bouncy signature are handed back to me. The friendly smile reappears on the First Director’s face and I smile back a second time. I leave the office with a “khop chai lai lai” – thank you very much – I pass the other two desks again and go next door to the Didactics Room to get some sticky tape to hang up my Activity Time posters.
Bureaucracy in Laos
Lao society is dominated by hierarchies. This becomes visible in the bureaucracy, originally installed by French colonial rule. It can be complex and very difficult for us to understand. Everything needs to be approved with one or more stamps.
Many processes in daily life need to be checked and confirmed and this does not only concern official matters such as marriages or ID cards. In our case, we need to be declared and registered with the local authorities to be allowed to work at the (state) schools in Sikeud and Phang Heng.
When Lao people go to the offices for bureaucratic affairs they dress “properly”, take off their shoes before entering, and wait patiently until they are asked about their matter.
This is why it is not surprising, after all, why a poster announcing an English Club has to go through such a procedure. It is part of the country’s rules and routines. Even if the procedure might seem awkward or unnecessary to us at first – is there really such a big difference to our own (German!) bureaucracy? A director of a western school also wants to know what is happening in his institution.
Text by V. Golla
Photos by V. Golla & I. Martin