Bob Anderson believes the idea for
the children's library boat might have come from a picture of
an elephant he saw in a Bangkok newspaper. Or maybe the
elephant was in India. He's not sure. But it was an elephant
carrying books, an Asian twist on the notion of a bookmobile,
that could have been the inspirational genesis of the library
boat--a small craft with a cargo of books, plying the waters
of the Mekong River as it winds from village to village
through Laos, a small boat bringing words to isolated people.
Regardless of the elephant's geography and its role in the
building of the boat, there is no question about where the Lao
Children's Library Boat Project took its first concrete steps:
St. Paul, Minn., at a meeting of VVA Chapter 320.
By mid-year of 2001, Anderson had been working in Laos for
several years when Chapter 320 asked him to give a
presentation on his work. A charter member of the chapter, his
attendance at local functions had been severely limited. Seven
months a year in Laos left little time for VVA chapter
meetings. When he finished his presentation, he asked if
anyone had any questions. To his considerable surprise, the
audience had more than questions in mind. It had bigger plans.
``When I finished, there was a lot of interest and enthusiasm
and a collective question: Is there something else we could
sponsor that you're not doing but that you'd like to be
doing?'' Anderson said. ``I was a little bit taken aback. I
hadn't expected that kind of response. A little bit off the
top of my head, I said, `Well, we could build a library boat.'
I wasn't even sure if it was feasible to do it.''
In February 2003, the boat made its first trip on the Mekong.
Aboard were Anderson, Minnesota State Council President (and
former 320 President) Jerry Kyser, and Kyser's 23-year-old
``I was surprised at the response following the
presentation,'' Anderson said. ``It seemed to me that vets
have been of two minds about Indochina. For some people it
depends on their politics, and it shouldn't, because what
we're doing is beyond politics. We're just helping people.
Sometimes it's hard for vets to make the transition from
`Those are the bad communists' to `It's a country now, and the
war was 35 years ago, and we have to move on.' I hadn't been
to enough chapter meetings in recent years to know where
people's thinking was on that kind of issue.''
Anderson, a former Army infantryman, said that when he
returned from Vietnam in 1968 and was discharged the following
year, he had no particular interest in returning to Southeast
Asia. Then in the 1980s, he became involved in resettling
refugees from Southeast Asia in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area,
which saw large numbers of Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and
Hmong people moving in, with the bulk of the newcomers being
Anderson agreed to work with the Hmong for two months in 1985.
Those two months wound into five years.
In 1989, when a business trip to Thailand finished earlier
than anticipated, he traveled to Laos, curious about the
country and its people after having heard so much about them
from the Hmong living in the Twin Cities. By the end of 1992,
he had returned to Laos several times. In 1996, he went to
work on a project for USAID in Cambodia.
During his time in Cambodia, Lao government officials asked
Anderson to work on projects in Laos. Finding himself drawn to
the country and its people, Anderson agreed, and went to work
on a national library project. He serves now as a consultant
to the Lao government, concentrating primarily with the
Ministry of Information and Culture.
``The national library project was book oriented but would
fall more under the heading of education,'' he said. ``We
worked most often with schools in which we would create a
small library. We'd get a room or build a room, get tables and
chairs and books, and provide materials every few months."
He traveled to remote villages in which Laos' standing as one
of the ten poorest countries in the world was dramatically
illustrated. He went to small communities in which not a
single piece of paper existed, let alone books or libraries.
Schools might have a blackboard, but no books or paper. Even
if books had been available, parents could not afford to buy
them. He said a Lao parent pays about 85 cents a year to send
a child to school. Many of them cannot afford it.
The library boat seemed an answer to one of country's myriad
problems. Well aware of the country's lack of infrastructure
and the consequent difficulty of travel and communication in
remote areas, Anderson had been long interested in finding
ways to reach more people. The Mekong River, with its heavy
traffic and accessibility to villages, had not missed his
``When I first mentioned the library boat after the
presentation, I wasn't sure if the response was just a local
thing that would go away before the next meeting or if there
would be a sincere push to do it,'' Anderson said. ``Then they
started talking about raising money, and then they actually
did it. By the middle of 2002, I was looking for a boat to buy
and making concrete plans.''
Jerry Kyser said the chapter's reaction was immediate.
``We thought it sounded pretty cool,'' he said. ``We held a
fund-raiser at a shopping mall. We got about $800, and we
thought, `We can do this.' Then we raised $6,000 just to build
the boat. But we thought the goal should be $12,000. Well, we
raised it. I really got into it. I thought it was a great
thing to do. I thought this is what we need to do to show
people in the Twin Cities and elsewhere that Vietnam veterans
aren't just a bunch of whining crybabies. We're out there
helping people half a world away, and we're serving the
The wood boat, built by its captain and his brother-in-law in
Laos, is 45 feet long, 5 feet wide and draws about 5 inches,
the shallow draft being vital when the Mekong drops
significantly during the dry season. The draft allows the boat
to go up the Mekong's tributaries.
Books are difficult to come by. Few are published in the Lao
language and an Anderson assistant is on constant lookout for
books in Vientiane, the only source of books in the country.
The very idea of providing books to Lao communities often
raises eyebrows in the expatriate community in Vientiane.
``Even when I was working on the national library project,
when I mentioned it to ex-pats, the response was, `Why? They
don't read. They don't have a culture of reading,' '' Anderson
said. ``Well, in fact, the one constant I have found, whether
in Vientiane or in the most remote village, is that there a
tremendous interest in books. One of the biggest challenges I
have now is keeping a constant flow of books going to places.
They want new books all the time. Whether the literacy rate is
60 or 50 or 40 percent, I don't know, but with the adult
population that does read there is tremendous hunger for
things to read.''
Kyser, having witnessed first hand the reception the library
boat received on its maiden voyage, called the response ``like
``We went out to these places along the river, and we brought
204 books that day,'' he said. ``We saw about 90 kids. They
came in the door and touched these books like they were magic.
They want to know. They want to learn. They're just thrilled.
You can see it.''
Anderson, 59, said he intends to continue working in Laos as
long as he can. He has acclimated to the country and its
organizational and physical barriers that present themselves
daily. Given the great needs of the country, he said, it is
hard not to succeed to some degree. He finds the idea of doing
something no one else has done to be as rewarding as it is
``You feel good about the work and the only reason you
sometimes don't is because you're so aware that no matter how
much you do, you're not doing very much,'' he said. ``But you
have to make your peace with that, too. You have to be
realistic. What has been proven to me over and over again is
not that the Lao people don't read, meaning they can but
aren't interested. It's that they haven't had anything to read
and they want something to read. The unexpected challenge is
to find enough things for people to read. And once you get
books to them, there is a constant refrain: `We want more. We
want more. We want more.' ''