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A wish for a better education – an interview with Mr Khamsing Nanthavongdouangsy

When I met Mr Khamsing Nanthavongdouangsy, the School Manager of Ban Phan Heng Primary and Secondary School and also Lao General Manager of the Angels for Children Foundation, for the very first time, I was delighted with his positive mindset and drive. He is a charismatic and open-minded man and you can tell from his face that he has experienced a lot in his life. I decided to conduct an interview with him and was very happy when he accepted my request rightaway.

When I  prepared the interview I forgot one basic “Laos rule” that had been taught to us previously by the former volunteers: Even if you have a good plan, it does not mean that it can be implemented as you planned it. Very likely something else will happen instead.

My plan was to ask five well-formulated questions one after the other. But as soon as I asked my first question I realized that the interview would not go as I had planned – welcome to Laos!

Instead of the classic question-and-answer dialogue we ended up having a lively and personal conversation. As a result, what you are about to read is not an interview, but a glimpse into the life of Mr Khamsing before and during the project “The Laos Experience”, and his three wishes for the future.

Mr Khamsing’s life as a teacher

Mr Khamsing has a special bond to the village Sikeud and Ban Phang Heng Primary School since it is his home town and he used to be a pupil in this primary school himself. When he finished school, he went to the Teacher Training College in Vientiane, where he studied the Lao language and also acquired knowledge and competencies in pedagogics, a little bit of methodology, school politics, and the school curriculum.

Not many Lao of his generation speak English. Mr Khamsing learned the language as a child, from monks and American soldiers who were based in and around Vientiane in the 1960s and 1970s for the so-called “Secret War” (1953-1975). Members of the communist resistance movement Pathet Lao fought against the Royal Lao Government that was supported by the US Army.1

After his studies Mr Khamsing worked as a Lao and English teacher for 21 years in total. He taught children from kindergarten to high school and gained a lot of experience as a teacher, but also regarding administrative tasks.

In 1972 he started teaching in the Naxaythong district. After the revolution in 1975, when the communist organization Pathet Lao had seized power, there were only few teachers left in Laos, as many teachers who had been employed by the now obsolete Royal Lao Government fled to Thailand or the United States. Mr Khamsing decided to stay in his home town with his family and continued working as a teacher. But as life holds many suprises, he was eventually given the possibility to work for Danish investors in the mining sector, and then also to study abroad.

Beyond being a teacher

Around 1980 the Lao government opened the country bit by bit for investors and tourists. A lot of investors started to come to Laos in order to do business in different branches. At that time Mr Khamsing stopped working as a teacher and got employed by the government as an administrator and manager at a mining company specialized in sapphire in the north of Laos. There he worked with experts from Denmark for around seven years. His job was to make sure the investments proceeded correctly and in accordance with the law.

Mr Khamsing has a special relationship to Germany, too, as he went to East Germany in 1987, where he studied in Karl-Marx-Stadt (today known as Chemnitz) for six months how to work with investors. In 1989 the government sent him to Moscow, where he studied culture for two months. He learnt about different cultures, politics, and educational systems. In both countries he had an interpreter who helped him to get along since he did not speak any of these two languages.

Back in Sikeud

After he had finished the project for the mining company, he stopped working for the government and returned to Sikeud. There he was asked to work for the parent-teacher-association in Ban Phang Heng Secondary School. The idea was that the students’ social and educational development could benefit from a closer collaboration between the teachers and the parents.

At the same time, Ms Ingrid Engel, a former head mistress of a vocational school in Germany, was visiting her sister-in-law, Ms Gerlinde Engel, who used to be the manager of the Trio Export factory in Sikeud. Both had reached retirement age, but were not prepared to retire – the prospect of slowing down and achieving little in a small Bavarian town for the rest of their lives had no appeal. Instead, looking around, they saw that their future work was right in front of them: To help improve the lives of the local families. Ms Gerlinde Engel, also known as “Madame”, had already remarked the poor education of the Lao Trio Export factory workers regarding reading, writing, even counting. So the two ladies set themselves the aim to provide a better school education, equal opportunities, and also an improved overall health for Lao children in this very same area – the idea of the Angels for Children Foundation was born!

In order to give Lao children access to a better educational system, Ms Gerlinde Engel, Ms Ingrid Engel, her husband Paul Engel, and their sons Christian and Lars Engel co-founded the Angels for Children Foundation (AfC) in 2003. (The family name “Engel” happens to mean “angel” in English.) With the help of Ms Ingrid Engel’s expertise in teaching, education, and the running of a school, and with Ms Gerlinde Engel’s managerial expertise and her experience with Lao administration and customs, Ban Sikeud Primary School was the first school in Sikeud to be restructured, equipped, and renovated in 2003. It functioned as a “role model school” for the two Phang Heng Schools – and later was declared “model school” for the area of Vientiane Capital province.

Because of his experience in working with foreigners and his English skills, Mr Khamsing held good qualifications to operate as the Lao counterpart for AfC. Therefore Ms Ingrid Engel invited him to little conferences in Sikeud for the purpose of working on the AfC project with her, i.e. to support her with the development of the school. In this context Mr Khamsing was introduced to Ms Gerlinde Engel. They both shared the wish to support and help the local workers and their children in Sikeud by giving them access to a fundamental education.

In 2006 they decided to work together to achieve this goal, even though it would not always be easy (and still is not): Ms Gerlinde Engel got arrested by the Lao police more than once, and the two of them could not always count on the willingness and support of either the teachers or the government.

But thanks to Mr Khamsing’s “home advantage” and previous involvement with the communist party he knew a lot of powerful administrators and politicians who helped him every now and again to surmount bureaucratic and other difficulties to fulfil his and the two Ms Engels’ dream about a better future for the children in Sikeud.

Together they planned to invest in a higher teacher salary and therefore in a better secondary education at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School in 2007. Thanks to the money of the AfC foundation, the teachers were no longer dependent on a second job as harvest hands during the rice harvest, but could work as teachers solely. It also meant that one could ask them to show up to work every day now. Due to this change, the quality of education started improving. AfC also began rebuilding the school buildings in 2010. The reconstruction was completed in 2011, but very regrettably Ms Ingrid Engel passed away only two years later. Mr Khamsing wishes she could see how successful the project is now, almost fifteen years after she co-founded the foundation.

The beginning of “Teaching English in Laos”

In 2015 Mr Khamsing visited Germany again – this time he went to West Germany, as the Lao manager of the “Angels for Children” foundation. Mr Christian and Mr Lars Engel, now the CEOs of AfC and BHS, had invited him as well as the director of the secondary school, Mr Kampheng Bounthalavong, and the English teachers Mr Souvanh Navong and Mr Bounleud Sengsavangvong, to take a look around the German firm behind the foundation and the people involved. Mr Johannes Zeck was also on the scene: He had just begun to work for BHS as the new AfC assistant.2

A visit to Karlsruhe was also on the agenda, to get to know Dr Isabel Martin, professor of English at the University of Education Karlsruhe. The idea was that after having rebuilt three state schools to make them modern and attractive on the outside, the real transformation inside was still to be achieved. Another AfC board and Engel family member knew her creative work and had recommended the contact. Prof. Martin invited the delegation to accompany her on her day’s work – which included a “Singlish” workshop in the Castle Garden park with school children, work in the Language Laboratory and her Lending Library, and a seminar with students – and Mr Khamsing was amazed by the different techniques and methods he experienced in just one afternoon regarding both teaching and learning practices. Towards the end of the afternoon, Mr Engel asked her if she could imagine creating a new project with him –  “Teaching English in Laos” – and this is where our project began, in her university office on a very hot summer day in Karlsruhe, on 2 July 2015.

Prof. Martin noted down her very first cross-cultural Laos-related observation that day: “Mr Khamsing was wearing a long-sleeved shirt plus a woollen pullover on top – “a very hot day in Karlsruhe”!?

For Mr Khamsing, the main difference between Lao and German schools lies in the amount of pupils per class: In Laos there are around 50-60 pupils, whereas in Germany there are only 25-30 in one classroom. Another difference is the diversity of methods and techniques that are being used in German schools. The methodology in Laos is outdated and not suitable for children. There is little encouragement to learn to think for oneself, to say something indvidually, and there is no opportunity for the children to move around. They sit patiently still all day, day after day, week after week, year after year, with their brains trailing off.3 Therefore, Mr Khamsing wants to help the government to change this, and he would like to help qualify more primary and secondary schools in the Naxaythong district like the the three schools in Ban Sikeud and Ban Phang Heng. He is highly appreciative of the good on-the-job education his teachers are getting from the German teams thanks to the support of the AfC foundation and the University of Education Karlsruhe, and he will always continue to fight to achieve his goal of a better education for the children in Sikeud and beyond.

Mr Khamsing’s wishes for the future

His three wishes for the future are to invite ever more volunteers from Karlsruhe to support and help, to employ more motivated and motivating Lao teachers, and finally to build a high school (upper secondary school) for the pupils who finish (lower) secondary schools in the area.

Along these lines I wish Mr Khamsing all the best for his future and the future of his school. May your wishes come true!

 

Text by M.-T. Kirsten

Photos by L. Malchow

Notes

1 To block traffic along the logistically important Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos was heavily bombed by the United States. For nine years the country was the target of aerial bombs, and within that time period an amount of 2 million tons of bombs were dropped. There is an American Embassy in Vientiane today, which hosted the visit of the first American president to visit Laos, President Barack Obama, in 2016. The American Centre opposite now offers language classes to aspiring young urban entrepreneurs and hosts a library with books on American history, politics, and culture.

2 In 2011 Johannes (“John”) Zeck visited Laos for the first time as a traveller; during his studies in political science he came back to Laos in 2014 as a volunteer of the AfC foundation. Currently he is the “Teaching English in Laos” project coordinator of the foundation and responsible for organizing the programme, logistics, PR, field work, and official appointments in Laos.

3 Editor’s note: It can take pupils weeks to understand our questions, because they first need time to understand that we are really asking them real questions. “What is your name?” prompts the rote reply “what-is-your-name”. The parroting indicates that there cannot have been much conversation in foreign language classrooms up to this point. It takes up to two weeks to elicit the first correct reply from a new classroom of 50-60 children. This is a key moment for us teachers! And after about two years of insisting on real communication, we started to perceive changes in classroom interaction in the classrooms generally – not only in the English lessons…

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