The onset of the “cold season” in winter brings a mean temperature of 25 degrees Celsius, and Laotians start wearing jackets, woolly hats, leggings, and gloves. To combat the cold, a new routine begins at Ban Sikeud Primary School: The daily morning exercise. This is conducted jointly by all pupils of the school. Even the smallest preschool children stand in line when the bell sounds. Neatly sorted by class – on the right the preschoolers, on the left the 5th graders – they wait until the instructions sound through the speakers. These are not given by a teacher, but by a 5th grade student.
The first question that came to our minds was why do only the 5th graders present the movements? As we were not sure about this, we contacted 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 here in Laos. He stated that these 5th graders are pupils who are talented in talking in front of many people and that it was important to foster the pupils’ talents.
After all the children have taken their places across the schoolyard, the first instruction sounds through the microphone. Six pupils of the 5th grade present the exercises. Most of the instructions are as follows: The “caller” speaking into the microphone says “one” in Lao, the pupil body responds with “one” in English and then performs a certain movement that must have been rehearsed before. To learn the movements, there are also DinA4 sheets lying on the ground with images of the movements. English as well as Laotian is used for the instructions (we are not sure why, but some of the commands are also part of the set English course book, e.g. “Turn to the left” etc., so this could be one reason), so the instruction is in English and while doing the exercise the pupils repeat the instruction in Lao – but this evidently also happens the other way around.
Morning sports takes about four minutes and actually warms up the pupils in the “cold”. But since the pupils are all still quite young, a lot of running and romping happens afterwards, which also has a very warming effect. From our (biased) Western stance, as nothing of the sort is done in a German schoolyard, we started wondering after a while how or whether the warming-up routine was maybe also related to nation- and identity-building in post-war Laos?
According to Mr Khamsing, morning sports during winter time only serves the purpose of getting active and warming the body on a relatively cold winter’s morning. This is done collectively on the school yard (and not during PE lessons, as would be the case in Germany). In fact, also the secondary school students perform morning sports, but not on a regular basis, only when it is “really cold” in the mornings – as we observed last week when even we came with an extra layer of clothes to school (a light jacket or cardigan on top of the T-Shirt or blouse).
Besides getting warm in the morning, the grouping of all pupils in the school also serves another intention, i.e. showing who is top of the class. This can be seen in the red ribbons in the girls’ hair or in the red kerchiefs worn by some pupils. The ribbons in the girls’ hair and the kerchiefs round the pupils’ necks are awarded by the school’s director, and the annual awarding ceremony is an important event during the school year. As Mr Khamsing explained, only the “good and diligent”pupils get to wear the red ribbons.
Later on, as older pupils, these pupils also wear the blue shirts. The pupils in the secondary school who wear the blue shirts are members of the Lao Youth Union, the youth organization of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (short LPRD). The Lao Youth Union can be compared to other Socialist Youth organizations such as the “Junge Pioniere” in the former German Democratic Republic – they wore the same kind of ribbons and blue shirts.1
Mr Khamsing told us that getting awarded with a red ribbon in primary school and membership in the Lao Youth Union during secondary education are important pre-stages for becoming a member of the LPRD. Hence, being a member of the party would not depend on the parents’ membership but only on one’s own achievements – the party has to approve one’s accession and elects few. Nowadays more than 190.000 people are members of the LPRD (2011), out of 6,7 million people living in Laos – this is approximately 2,8 %. Membership in the party is important for a future career in politics and for taking over leading positions in governmental organizations, such as schools or other institutions.
“Same same but different”, as the Lao people say… some habits and rules at our Lao school might seem foreign
to us Westerners but we are learning in Laos (probably more than anywhere else) that every country has its own traditions and habits, and that this demands respect and a conscious attempt on our part to try and understand instead of just “seeing” through our Western lens. Everywhere in the world, political participation seems to begin in schools. These are the organisations on the micro-level where the political decisions by the stakeholders – governmental education organisations, directors, elders, sometimes parents – are carried out. These translate as rules and regulations, passing on information (or not), organising school events, etc.
While young people in Germany may become members of the youth organizations of Germany’s two main democratic parties – the “Junge Union” (“Young Union”, Christian) or the “Jusos” (“Young Socialists”) – during their secondary education, pupils in Laos may become part of the Lao Youth Union. They start to take over responsibilities for common issues, participate in certain stages of a political process, and they show this to the world and the pupil body – these are clear similarities between both countries. Differences can probably be seen in the kind or degree of participation – e.g. what can be co-determined by the pupils, or what kind of tools and methods are available for making decisions (e.g. surveys, school groupings, discussions etc.).
This would be an interesting research topic in a combination of the fields of comparative politics and education, i.e. how the representative democratic system of the Federal Republic of Germany may differ from the Socialistic One-Party System in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic as evident in school practices – such as Morning Sports.
Text by H. Glass, M. Linder, N. Wickmann & J. Zeck, note by I. Martin
Photos & videos by H. Glass & M. Linder
1 These past shared (socialist) “brother-country” decades are the reason why we now have long-standing diplomatic relations (60 years) between Germany and Laos, and why ca. 2.000 Lao seniors – in prominent (mostly governmental) positions today – speak fluent German: They studied in the German Democratic Republic in the seventies and eighties, as the only Lao university was shut down between 1976 and 1996. This fact is not well-known in Germany, but has led amongst other things to the institution of a Lao-German Friendship Society.