A teacher who ended illiteracy in a commune

November 21, 2017 - 09:00

Two days of travel in a truck on a very bumpy road that rattled every bone in the body.

Nguyễn Văn Bôn and his former students at the entrance of the school he helped build in 1959. — Photo nhandan.com.vn
Viet Nam News

LAI CHÂU — Two days of travel in a truck on a very bumpy road that rattled every bone in the body.

This was followed by six days of walking on rough terrain to get to the remote commune where residents were very poor, unexposed to the world outside, and spoke no Vietnamese.

Living and teaching here would not be easy, but the young man, just 22, was not fazed. He had known it would be very difficult and was determined to do the best he can.

A personal meeting with Uncle Hồ before he set off had motivated him further.

Welcoming the batch of volunteer teachers, the late President Hồ Chí Minh, lauded their spirit, but also said: “Anyone, if you are in poor health, have rheumatism or heart problems, should not go.”

But the warnings about difficulties, particularly poverty, diseases and poor infrastructure, did not deter the young, idealistic teachers.

“I was not afraid of the difficulties. They made me understand more about life in the mountainous remote areas and sympathize with the locals, and motivated me to do something to help them,” Nguyễn Văn Bôn told the Nhân dân (People) newspaper.

In his eighties now, Bôn said the older he gets, the clearer his memories are of Mù Cả, the remote commune in northern mountainous Lai Châu Province that he first set foot on almost 60 years ago.

Bôn was 20 when he graduated from the Central Teacher Training School and found work in the northern province of Thái Bình in 1957.

Two years later, when the State called for volunteers to teach in remote, disadvantaged areas in northwestern provinces, Bôn applied to work in Lai Châu.

He was among more than 500 teachers from lowland northern provinces who went to the mountainous northeastern provinces to fight illiteracy.

“18 young teachers and I were assigned to Mường Tè District (where Mù Cả is locted),” he said, adding that each of them was given a blanket, a jacket and a few quinine tablets against malaria.

It took two days to travel from Sơn La province to Lai Châu Town ( now known as Mường Lay Town) by truck. The road was so bad that they felt there were being thrown up all the time. From Lai Châu Town, they walked three days to reach Mường Tè District. From downtown Mường Tè, they walked another three days to arrive at Mù Cả Commune.

The commune was home then to about 500 people of the Hà Nhì ethic group. None of them could speak any Vietnamese.

A person from Thái ethnic group who could speak both Hà Nhì and Vietnamese was hired to work as an interpreter for Bôn.

Bôn himself learnt Hà Nhì language for a year.

From scratch

When Bôn discussed with local authorities and people about teaching local children to read and write in Vietnamese, they agreed that the school children would bring rice and clothes to stay at the school.

For days, Bôn collected timber and bamboo to build a small shack with desks and chairs for about 40 children aged seven to 12.

Local people called it Bôn’s school – the first public work in the commune at that time.

On September, 10, 1959, Bôn opened the first class in which he taught children how to address their teacher, how to introduce themselves and a poem about doing physical exercises to get rid of fatigue.

“Keep sitting –back fatigue

Keep writing – hand fatigue

Do exercises like this…

No fatigue.”

Following these lessons, with a box of chalks and a board, Bôn taught alphabets. The children repeated what the teacher said. The sounds from the class rang out over the mountainous village.

Bôn recalled that his students did not have any pencil. They were given chalks and practiced writing on their wrists to show the teacher. Later banana leaves were used as “notebooks” or “boards” and wooden sticks as “pens”.

After school, Bôn showed the students how to play football with a grapefruit. They also collected mushrooms, bamboo shoots and went fishing.   

After a semester, almost all school-aged children in Mù Cả Commune were still at attending classes, while just four or five children attended other similar schools in Mường Tè District.

Besides classes for children, Bôn also opened classes for local adults. There was an early morning class for people who would go to their terrace fields later and another class in the evening for elderly women and housewives.

Bôn said that he wrote letters and words on the back of buffaloes so that learners could review lessons while they were working in their fields.

In 1963, Mù Cả was the first commune in the northern mountainous region to eradicate illiteracy. A year later, Bôn left Mù Cả, returned to his native Hải Phòng City and kept teaching until retirement.

He continues to live there with his son.

Nguyễn Văn Môn greets his former students almost sixty years later after he first met them. — Photo laodong.com.vn

50 years later

In 2009, local authorities in the provinces of Điện Biên, Lai Châu and Sơn La looked for the pioneer volunteer teachers and invited them back to their schools.

Bôn found that the place had changed beyond recognition in the 50 years that he’d been away, but his formers students, grandparents now, still had fresh memories of the first teachers and first classes held in the commune.

It was an emotional reunion where the former students expressed their gratitude and respect in tears, recalling things that they’d learnt from their first ever teacher who’s teaching went far beyond normal subjects. (Bôn returned to Mù Cả in 2013 to meet his former students.)

Pờ Phí Nhù, 69 remembered that teacher Bôn had taught local residents to grow cassava, cultivate rice, and also helped dig a canal to take water from the hills to the school.

Nhù, who used to be the deputy head of Mường Tè District’s Education Department, said few residents at that time believed this could be done.

Since then, locals have called the canal “Teacher Spring” and the hill nearby the school “Mr Bôn Mountain” in honour of their teacher.

She also recalled that local residents – all belonging to the Hà Nhì ethnic group – were amazed when, for the first time, they heard a human voice from a thing that Bôn called a radio.

Bôn remembered that the radio was bought with money they earned after selling their rice and cassava.

Writing on air’

Another former student, Go Sừ, also 69, said that Bôn had made pillars for them to do morning exercises.

She said that when they did not have pencils, they “wrote on air” and then, banana leaves or the dirt floor.

In the five years he spent in Mù Cả Commune, Bôn brought many big changes to the area.

Several of his former students have become Government officials and one even became a National Assembly Deputy.

He won many medals from the Government for his work, and was the first teacher on whom Uncle Hồ conferred the “Labour Hero” title in 1962.  — VNS