This winter has been rather harsh, with crystals of ice covering leaves formed by dew in the morning just a couple of weeks ago here in Xiengkhouang Province. But we were lucky to arrive when the iciness of the wind has already turned into a mild breeze. Nevertheless, sunrise still remained later than usual.
The grounds where Latngon Primary and Secondary School are, used to be hazardous, with risks lying beneath every footstep. The fog still hovered over us as we stepped out to visit the students who have just finished their end of term examinations a few days before. Their holidays have already started. Yet there they were- back at school and excited to finally receive their sports equipment- just in time to keep warm.
As 1 of the 5 chosen schools to be given sporting equipment as part of the Safe Ground Project I for Laos, the students have been counting the days to try out their new toys. A Volleyball court and two Petanque fields have been built in the school yard - what once used to be filled with unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Ms. Tabee Siphonexay, 17, Secondary 7 (Grade 12) on the left and Ms. Anna Khamboupha, 16, Secondary 6 (Grade 11)
I stood on the sidelines, with no prior knowledge of Petanque. A secondary 6 class teacher quickly approached me if I wanted to join. Holding onto my camera, I shyly shook my head. Then, he pointed to two students who were gleefully smiling and chuckling on the field that they might be able to teach me something.
Ms. Tabee Siphonexay, a 17-year old, Secondary 7 (Grade 12) student and her friend, Ms. Anna Khamboupha, 16, Secondary 6 (Grade 11) glanced over cheerfully, while I asked if they could spend a little time to explain a little about the sport and what else they liked to play, just to save myself from going in there.
“Petanque is one of my family’s favorite sports. Even though we’ve never properly learned it, we know the basics given how often we’ve seen people play,” Tabee shared.
These two girls have been coming to this school since they could remember. They enjoyed playing sports, but only long-distance jumping and running made it into the curriculum. Lack of sporting equipment and proper teachers had left them with only those two activities to count as part of their physical education, while others including Petanque and Volleyball, could barely turn into leisure activities.
“Our school has had the field and volleyball court built for years, but equipments were old and there were too many students to share,” Anna said, while Tabee further added, “We’d love to have someone teach us the proper way to play other sports including these. Our school is very much packed. There’s too many students compared to the number of educators here”.
Both of their parents are farmers and rice field workers. But their dreams are to become military officers, noting that they would like to make contributions to their communities when they are adults. Both still fear that one day, while their parents go about their daily tasks, that they’ll somehow come across UXOs.
Anna shared that she could still remember a while back that her parents came across a metal orb while working in one of their fields. Fortunately, they were aware of the proper reporting channel and the UXO was detonated on time.
Xiengkhouang Province is one of the most heavily bombed places in Laos. And to see that smile flashing and laughter in the air like that, how many more would we witness if all grounds are finally safe to play on freely?
Ms. Aksonethip Somvorachit, Communications Analyst, UNDP Lao PDR.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.