By Dr. David Zakus and Debbie Spicer
Our first visit to support Health Poverty Action in Laos, supported by VWB/VSF, was an adventure we were both really looking forward to. Leaving Toronto just as winter was beginning to take hold was a kind of relief, and landing in Vientiane after about 36 hours on the road, surely didn’t disappoint. Arriving at night wasn’t ideal, but presented no problems. We were met at the airport by Thomas Weigel, VWB’s representative in SE Asia, which was great, and en route to our hotel he quickly gave us some orientation which continued the next day at lunch. This wasn’t our first time to Laos, but we had been tourists before and had not stayed for too long, though we had begun to gain a great appreciation for the country. This appreciation has certainly continued to grow during our whole 16 days of this trip, which ended on December 13, when we left as we arrived, late in the evening.
Our first ten days were spent in Vientiane, getting oriented to the sites, sounds, food and pace of life, all the while continuing to learn about the new nutrition and malaria projects we have come to support, in both the baseline assessments and evaluation and capacity building. A true highlight of our days in Vientiane was a whole afternoon at the house of one of the senior staff, as part of a monthly office get-together, which involved a homemade feast of fish, chicken, vegetables, herbs (often eaten just freshly picked and washed) and the ever present sticky rice, which usually comes in an individual serving basket.
What a wonderful way it was to further get to know all the great staff in the Vientiane office, which is run by a most capable and likeable manager, Ronaldo Estera, from the Philippines. We mention capable because he seems to really excel in human relations, and program development and management. David, being a professor of health services management for some 20 years, found the office here being run with all that he holds important in creating effective teams and achieving results, in particular building a strong organization culture.
After a great orientation, which also involved a long weekend with the country’s national day, we headed to the southern provinces where we gained exposure to the local project staff and their work. En route to Khong in Champasak province, site of the new malaria project which is supported financially by Comic Relief, we stopped at a malaria control post and met the village health and malaria volunteers in their office, which was part of the malaria volunteer’s home, and then later visited a nearby community health centre. At both we learned about the services provided and the work accomplished. We learned how the workers engage the communities and how proud they are to be part of HPA’s work overall. Continuing on, we stopped at an area of amazing waterfalls on the Mekong River, with Cambodia way in the distance, and had one of the best fish lunches we have ever had.
Arriving later that day in Khong was also exciting as the Friday evening was the beginning of a major annual boat race festival. Khong, being a small riverside town, was exploding with people and energy including a rock concert in a big field where a giant stage had been erected. We enjoyed more great fish and vegetables and the ubiquitous Beer Lao, which truly seems to be a national drink, all the while sitting on the edge of the big Mekong River.
The next day, now Saturday, saw the boat races start before 9am and continue for most of the afternoon. The highlight was watching the HPA supported village team race past us to glory finishing in the winner’s circle, and all the while paying witness, through their shirts and hats, to HPA’s ‘Together towards a malaria-free Laos in 2030” campaign. Wow, we were now getting fully integrated, wearing our t-shirts and getting noticed by many local people.
The malaria program in Champasak has many strategies, like case detection and treatment, health education and behaviour change, and it’s focused on migrant and mobile hard to reach rural populations who are the most vulnerable to the devastating disease.
Before leaving the next day we had a most delightful fish, herbs and sticky rice breakfast at the home of a local staff member, and then headed back north, through Pakse (after stopping to pick up some local coffee beans) to Khaek, the provincial capital of Khammoune province where we were to meet with local officials for HPA to finalize its MOU with various levels of government. The meeting took place the following day, and was so interesting, with at least 35 officials all participating to finalize an agreement of how to implement a very large and complex nutrition and food security project, funded mostly by the EU but also with the People To People Foundation, SODA (a local civil society umbrella organization) and HPA itself.
Though we had to leave early to get back to Vientiane for our flight out of Laos the next day, we got a good sense of how things work in Laos and how things are to proceed, especially after a detailed meeting with HPA leadership about many aspects of the project.
As we write we’re in our final hours in Vientiane, full of appreciation, learning and respect for such a great HPA staff, their government partners, the communities to be engaged over the next few years and this wonderful country overall.