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The forgotten valley of the flowers of death

Update: November, 28/2012 - 11:08

 

Light relief: Some games in Nam Xay are created by the teachers to encourage their children to attend class more frequently.
Hard workers: A class in the Nam Xay Valley. — VNS Photos Ho Thu
Self sufficient: Most of the kids bring firewood to their classes as a way to keep themselves from the cold.
 
by Dinh Van and An Vu

Devastated by the opium trade, the remote Nam Xay Commune in the mountainous northern province of Lao Cai has come to be called "Forgotten Valley". Years ago, the Sa Phin gold mine provided local residents with a place to work, but today most people here live in desperate poverty.

It takes two hours to travel from the commune to Elementary School 2, located by the side of the road. Illiteracy rates are high, in large part because many families can't afford for their children to go to school instead of working. Giang A Ca is a case in point: only a fourth grader, he dropped out of school to earn money for his family. In this busy time of the year, when other neighbours are harvesting their crops, A Ca's parents rest at home. The ten-year-old boy tends the buffalo - a familiar task for him.

Giang A Ho, 45, A Ca's father, has no idea where to find the boy. His unemotional face reveals that he has just smoked opium, as usual.

The shabby house where A Ca and his parents live shows no sign of life except a blurry flame in the kitchen.

Rumour has it that A Ho has been a drug addict for a long time. He has no idea that his habit has pushed his wife and children into poverty and constant illness.

Giang A Cai, a third-grader, lives far from the school, but he manages to get there on time every day. His teacher and classmates have no idea that A Cai lives in perhaps the poorest conditions in the district. His father, Giang A Su, has thrown his life into hell by abusing opium. The more A Cai's father smokes, the more heart-broken his wife and children are.

Among the 19 teachers who have recently worked at three schools in Nam Xay, Le Trung Kien is the youngest. At the age of 27, Kien has already spent more than four years in this foggy, remote valley, with the hope of bringing a better education to children here.

"Walking to school for the first time, I was really shocked. The paths there were so narrow that only horses and buffalo could get in," says Kien.

The teacher was so moved by the desperate situation of commune residents, he decided to write about their lives so that people outside the area would take notice.

His efforts did not fail him. People have learned more about Sa Phin through Kien's articles. Assistance has been delivered to the Nam Xay Valley from companies including the Power Corperation and Fellow Travellers magazine.

"There are about 200 students in the three schools of Sa Phin, Giang Dua Chai and Phu La Ngai. But on a typical day, many students are absent - both because of the muddy paths, and because many families are nomadic farmers who depend on their children to help them make a living. There are no easy fixes for this situation. The opium terraces have been a major livelihood for minority families here," says Kien.

Ban Huu Huong, head security of Nam Xay Commune, Van Ban District, says, "In the days when Sa Phin was deep in purple opium fields, there were about ten drug addicts around the area. Although the opium fields were destroyed, the number of addicts has boomed since 2004, when illicit gold poaching became popular in the Sa Phin gold mine. Though we did promote agricultural production through preferential policy, opium is still prominent in the poorest places of the commune."

Still, most of the teachers here have not given up the fight against the drug. "The head master goes to every family to try to persuade the parents to let their kids come to class again. These children are the flowers of Nam Xay. They are the ones who will change this place. Therefore, we do not allow ourselves to give up. As long as we are here, we expect the class to be full every day," says Kien. — VNS

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