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July 2003

A World of Wonder: VVA Chapter 320 and the Lao Children's Library Boat Project


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 son, Paul.

``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 Hmong.

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 attention.

``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 community."

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 magic.''

``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 challenging.

``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.' ''


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