“Teaching young children is pure happiness to me, like having a music rhythm in my heart when broadcasting my radio programme,” said Ms. Phan Ontaindala. Phan, who is 24 years-old, is of Makong ethnicity and hails from Markphueng Village (ບ້ານໝາກເຟືອງ), Nakai district in Khammuan province. And this happiness she describes helps to shed light on one her life’s dreams: to preserve Makong community and culture by becoming a full-time high school teacher in Nakai.
Phan traveled to study in Savannakhet province after graduating as a student from Nakai High School in 2014. And in 2018, Phan graduated from university with a Social Science Teaching Degree.
Following graduation, the path to her dream job was not easy. She started off as volunteer at Nongbuakham Learning Center in 2019, over 20 kilometres away from her local community. As a volunteer in Nongbuakham, and joining in many innovative training programmes, Phan discovered a new passion in her life that could help her on her journey: radio presenting.
Phan was hooked and set about honing her radio presenting skills to see if she could use the radio platform to educate young people in her local community.
In September 2020, following more training from helpful teachers at Nongbuakham, Phan became a volunteer presenter at the Nakai community radio station.
Her aptitude for inspiring young people through education became clear and soon she began to use her skills on the airwaves, and in person, by volunteering as a teacher at Nakai Highschool, where she focused on teaching young teenagers in social science.
During the day, Phan worked as a volunteer teacher at the highschool, and in the evening as a volunteer at Nakai community radio. Today, she runs a radio programme in Makong language called, “New Day Learning” programme, or “Laiy Karn Sueksa Wan Mai” (ລາຍການສຶກສາວັນໃໝ່) from 5-6pm every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.
In her show, Phan provides updates on news and education opportunities in Nakai to let the Makong community know how they can avail of such education opportunities and further their own development.
The Makong ethnic group makes up for approximately 65% of the Nakai district population, where 60% of the elders and young children cannot understand the Lao national language. Makong dialect only lives through speaking, there is no recorded alphabet for writing. With such a barrier, the Makong community is vulnerable to social inequality and missing out on receiving important social benefits when compared with other groups. As a result, the development of Makong community is being hindered and is at risk of being left behind.
Phan finds that being a radio programmer allows her to communicate with her community in the Makong native tongue. She has learned how to prepare scripts and run radio programmes at Nakai community radio through trainings supported by UNDP through the Enhancing People’s Participation through Community Radio project in collaboration with the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, and Namtheun 2 Power Company limited (NTPC). UNDP and MICT have been partnering to support community radios since 2007 and have helped build 12 stations across Lao PDR which become an essential tool for ethnic groups to protect their culture by accessing important information through the medium of the radio.
She is determined to use her skill and voice to the benefit of the Makong community. In the future, Phan plans to create a new radio programme that will help the Makong community in understanding words and phrases in the Lao national language. This will enable local communities to communicate in healthcare and education settings, and ensure they can access basic social security needs in Nakai district and elsewhere.
Phan’s situation is no different to hundreds of other volunteers across the country who give life to community radios. With only 12 stations, much more support is needed nationally to expand community radios across more ethnic groups and languages. UNDP is working closely with MICT to reach out to new partners to join together in support of establishing radio stations in even more vulnerable communities.
Phan will continue working as a volunteer teacher during daytime and a volunteer radio presenter at Nakai community radio to one day realize her dreams of being hired as a full-time Highschool teacher. Phan’s story inspires us to never stop learning and chasing our dreams. It also shows how projects at the local community level help better the lives of many ethnic groups by strengthening first their access to information and the need to expand further community radios and other such programs to help achieve this aim. Given the hugely important role they play, community volunteers such as Phan need our support so they can continue to use their voice to give a voice to others.
Just as the story told, her road isn’t easy, and it is still ongoing. Phan gleamed as she added, “to my fellow volunteers, both male and female, I know this isn’t an easy job. Keep up your good work as it means more than you know for our communities. You are their trusted source of information, the brave voice they wait to hear.”
By: Varany Khanthavong, Programme Analyst, Governance Unit, UNDP Lao PDR.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.