Monthly Archives: March 2014

Hanoi: a giant with feet of clay

Hanoi is no ordinary city. The Vietnamese capital is growing, changing, getting richer… As is so often the case, these changes are occurring to the detriment of a small number of people who, trapped in the outskirts or forgotten in the city centre, are struggling to find decent housing. 

_DSF1732We are in the “36 Old Streets”, a well-known area of Hanoi commonly frequently by tourists. Old houses with damp-ravaged walls bare their unprotected façades to passers-by. In one of them lives Mrs Minh, a likeable and dynamic octogenarian. Mrs Minh is the grandmother of a student sponsored by Children of the Mekong, Nguyen, who is at school today. Mrs Minh arrived in the house she lives in today in 1954. She calls it a house, but it is more like an apartment block. Forty people live there, from six families, and Mrs Minh occupies a small part of the first floor with her two daughters, her son-in-law and her grandchildren.

The only window, which looks out onto the street, provides inadequate light for a room  measuring no more than 20 square metres, chock-full with piles of improbable objects. The rent is 2 million dongs (around 70 euros) a month, and there is only one bathroom, on the second floor, which is shared by all the building’s occupants. Mrs Minh apologises for her memory, smiles, takes off her glasses and puts them back on again, as if checking they were still there. “Prior to 1954,” she says “the house belonged to a French officer. He lived with a Vietnamese woman, but we didn’t know if they were married. At the end of the war, perhaps even a little before, they fled the house and left for France. We don’t really know what became of them.” She recalls the time of the liberation: a period when hope could be written with a capital H, when anything was possible. After that, as ever, things got complicated. “Better tomorrows have become sad todays”.

Mrs Minh’s house

_DSF1295The old lady nods her head, suppresses a little shiver, remains silent for moment, and then laughs: “It’s the Palace of Draughts here”, she says. If you close your eyes, you can begin to imagine what the house was like before. Strangely enough, we imagine it on a sunny day. The room that is so dark today is bathed in light and the walls exude an air of insouciance. You then imagine the Frenchman and the Vietnamese woman in their final days here: the sighs, the fears, the hushed discussions by the light of an oil lamp, and finally the shamefaced escape one morning in July 1954. The house remains empty for a while, and then Mrs Minh and her husband arrive: a young married couple placing their timid white hands on the precious-wood handrail of the staircase. And there, quite another story begins.

Mrs Minh and her daughter know that they could be thrown out of this apartment from one day to the next, at the government’s whim. This is the way things are: what the one hand giveth, the other taketh away. They consider themselves lucky just to have the apartment and to pay such a low rent for it. It may be run down, they may have to pay for all the repairs themselves, but all the same, it’s a rich people’s house!

Fifty euros for five square metres

Phuong has the same worries about the apartment where she lives with her father, her mother and her elder brother: how much longer will they be able to stay there? 14-year-old Phuong, a motivated secondary-school student with a passion for French, intends to compensate for the limitations of her schoolteachers by learning the language herself on the internet, with the help of the program “Le français facile”.

Phuong’s father is a taxi driver. One cannot stress enough just how thankless and difficult that job can be in Asian cities. Her mother sweeps floors at a city centre restaurant. The apartment they live in was given to them by Phuong’s grandfather, who, like Mrs Minh, moved in after 1954. And like Mrs Minh, they have a small, dark room with all sorts of things piled up in it. Rats sometimes join the conversation, as does the neighbour’s ear-splitting music, which a simple partition wall, with no door, does little to shut out.

A little further on still is 50-year-old Nha, who lives with her young son in a room with a steel roof which cannot be more than 5 square metres in area, for which she pays 1.5 million dongs (over 50 euros) in rent! Five years ago, Nha lived along the Red River, in a sort of shanty town that has since been demolished. Opposite her was Phu Xa Island.

 An island refuge in the middle of the river

si place seulementNot so long ago a simple sand bank, dominating the famous Long Bien Bridge and surrounding the Red River, Phu Xa Island is now an informal island. For those who are struggling in sub-standard housing in Hanoi, this island is something of a refuge. More precisely, it is the island where some of them intended to rest a little before swimming off again towards the bank, where the first neighbourhoods of the city of Hanoi, at least on the western bank, begin in earnest. Only things didn’t go as they had hoped.

60-year-old Chu Duoc has lived here for twenty-five years and is the unofficial head of the village. He stands at the door of his house – one of the only ones built on solid ground (the others rest on drums floating on the river, so as to guard against flooding) – and observes Long Bien Bridge, known under French rule as the Pont Paul Doumer, shrouded in mist. He knows the history of the inhabitants of Phu Xa island inside out, because it is his story too. Like everyone else, he used to live in the countryside: “a few kilometres from Hanoi”, he says with a vague gesture towards the north, or the east, let’s say the north-east. One muggy, misty day, probably much like this one, he decided to try his luck, leaving behind the fields and rice plantations where he could no longer survive, and heading for the city.

A little slice of countryside

_DSF1799But with the communist administration of the time being what it was, it was impossible for him to live in Hanoi. It was forbidden, as, theoretically at least, he was not allowed to leave his village. But you can see it in his eyes: Chu Duoc is not one to stand by and accept his fate. True to form, he applied one of those old eastern precepts: “If the front door is closed, go in through the back window.” So forty or so families now live with him in Phu Xa, all of them from the countryside, all having one day hoped to move to Hanoi, all having had it made painfully clear to them that that was not possible, and all having decided, for want of a better solution in the meantime, and without any possibility of turning back, to live on the island.

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How do these people live? Very simply. They grow vegetables on the island and sell them on the bridge. What do the authorities say? Almost nothing. Sometimes the police descend, usually on the grounds that clandestine card games are taking place on the island. On this point, Chu Duoc, who takes a drag on his cigarette, with a steaming-hot tea in front of him, remains enigmatic, seeming reluctant to open up too much. The island, then, operates as a kind of autarky. It is a little like a parallel universe. It’s not really Hanoi, and it’s not really the countryside. Administratively speaking, Phu Xa island doesn’t even exist. And there is little hope of the authorities one day deciding to rectify this situation.

Words and photos: Jean-Matthieu Gautier. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.

The Aeta people – the last hunter-gatherers in the Philippines

Hidden away in the mountains in the northern Philippines, the Aetas are a gentle people with a poorly known culture. Treated as second-class citizens, they try to somehow perpetuate their ancestral traditions. _DSF3914

In the little bamboo house of Sheryl, the television is constantly on. From the TV you can hear the sounds of a soppy soap opera that Sheryl admits she enjoys watching from time to time without really being passionate about it. It is about a young girl who marries too young and is unhappy. She conveniently develops amnesia and is adopted by a wealthy family. It is another “I love you, me neither” story against the standard background of large cars and fantastic villas with views of Manila Bay. In a way, it is also a kind of typical Filipino dream. Sheryl laughs at her addiction to this mind-numbing programme. “But everyone watches it, every evening all Filipinos are glued to their TVs,” she says in her defence.

In sum, there seems to be something to this explanation. Watching a silly soap opera means feeling that you are part of the world. It is also about feeling fully Filipino. It has everything: Rachel and her family are “IPs”, indigenous people of the Aeta ethnic group. The term “IP” suffices to encapsulate how the Aetas are perceived by the rest of the Filipino population. But the explanation does not go far enough. It is also a particular Filipino weakness to label people with colloquial names like this. “IP” is a fairly recent name, avoiding the less politically correct “negritos” which is still sometimes used and was inspired by the physical appearance of the Aetas.

A people of the coast and the mountains

A gentle people, warm and peaceful, the Aetas are considered to be the original inhabitants of the Philippines. They are said to have arrived to the islands some 4000 years ago from Taiwan, although sources and theories differ on this point. What we do know is that the Aetas were originally a coastal people and they gradually withdrew to remote mountains, driven there by not always gentle Filipinos and Spaniards. It is in the mountains we find them today, especially in the area of Balanga, about three hours northwest of Manila. AETAS_jeanmatthieugautier (8 sur 259)

There the early morning is like the world’s very first morning. The surroundings – mountains and nothing but mountains – are simply breathtaking. The morning unfolds in little insignificant things and the children, Anthony (24), Sheryl (21), Adrian (18), Sharolyn (15) and Sharmia (12), still half asleep, huddle around their parents Agapito and Sonia and the kitchen table, under a small thatched roof supported by a wooden beam on which you inevitably bump your head.

Sonia smokes a cigarette and dishes out fairly meagre portions of rice with little bits of fish. After this, everyone scatters and goes about their business. We notice that cooking is done on the floor, on a small fireplace made of three stones arranged in a triangle, and the gas stove next to it at waist height is ignored.

Mestizo Aetas and “100%” Aetas

While the younger ones walk off to look for cashew nuts or mangoes, Adrian goes to move the post of the goat, which overnight has grazed a green circle in the vegetation. Sonia, the mother, washes the kitchen dirt floor with plenty of water. Sheryl prepares to go into town. When Adrian returns, he sits at the handlebars of the family three-wheeler auto-rickshaw and immediately starts the engine with a swift downkick. Sheryl re-reads her shopping list and mounts the rickshaw.

Throughout the village it is more or less the same picture. The predominant impression is that this Aeta world, from ancient times, is a place where you subsist with very little and yet live famously. Fourteen families live here and very few of them are now what is called “100%”. That means one hundred per cent Aeta. Most are mestizos, the fruit of relationships between Tagalog Filipinos and Aetas. Sheryl’s family is a prime example because while Sonia can claim to be a “100%”, Agapito, the father, is a Filipino from the Visayas, in the south of the archipelago. Accoy, Sonia’s brother, is also one of the last “100%” in the community and he is similarly married to a Tagalog.

Accoy has never worn shoes in his life and he walks only barefoot. For hunting, for harvesting – the Aetas sometimes plant seedlings as daily hired workers in a rich local landowner’s ricefields – or for various picking jobs, Accoy has feet with an arch that would astound the most experienced chiropodist. You should see him skipping lightly over branches and rocks after telling anyone who will listen that he has spotted a colony of bees several hours of walking into the forest. “Honey hunting” is the great passion of the Aetas. Everyone joins in, men, women and children. It is a catalyst – it is one of those activities which, practiced this way, are a form of affirmation of origin, a declaration of identity.

Honey hunting 

Accoy controls his own little world in the forest, which young and old know like the back of their hand. We make our way forward by leaping from brushwood to bush, with little regard to the liana vines ensnaring our bodies. Suddenly he disappears into the smothering jungle. Everyone stops immediately. We are
surprised by the poetry of sound coming from all the trees. A minute later Accoy re-appears, his face lit AETAS_jeanmatthieugautier (51 sur 259)with a toothless smile. After another minute he stops and crouches down. We just follow his gaze to guess where the colony of bees is, perched atop a clump of bamboo. Completely silent, Accoy does not even bother to point to the objective of the hunt. Anthony, his helper, knows instinctively where to look. A moment later, Accoy, Anthony and a cluster of children following them from afar all work together to construct the “bannot“, a bundle of branches which they light before placing it just below the colony.

In a ripple of laughter, everyone makes themselves scarce and waits for a good quarter of an hour. The bees are disturbed by the smoke and dislodged from their colony. We return to simply collect the wax combs, dripping with honey that we lick off them to recover from all the excitement and because it is fabulously good. The Aetas will collect just under one litre of honey from this, which they sell at the market for 200 pesos (less than 4 euros). But in the evening they will feast on the bee larvae in the wax. And you cannot deny that the larvae complement a poor bland rice dish very well. AETAS_jeanmatthieugautier (123 sur 259)

So this is a typical afternoon for the small settlement of Matangao. For the rest of the afternoon the children go to the river, enjoy water games with the completely carefree and bubbling joy of their age. The natural question is: how long will it stay like this? The more they appear to be increasingly Aeta, just like being Breton in Brittany or Corsican in Corsica, the less guaranteed the sustainability of the Aeta “nation” seems to be. Sheryl is different from her siblings and cousins. Having recently graduated, she has just been offered a job as a teacher in primary school. She turned it down because the position was too far from her family. It is primarily to them that Sheryl wants to pass on everything she has learned during her years of study. Aeta culture? Sheryl is an Aeta first, Filipino second. And if she marries? It will be to an Aeta! Preferably a 100%.

Article by Jean-Matthieu Gautier. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.

Bagan – a dreamscape in brick and gold

Deep in the heart of Burma, the Bagan complex displays its 3,000 temples, pagodas and stupas in an enchanted setting, a blend of grandiose and rustic, sacred and profane. A stroll through the site…

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 Passengers alighting at dawn from the previous evening’s train from Mandalay often have to shake themselves out of a stupor. Between the aching memory of saggy seats and scars inflicted on faces by the vegetation behind the closed windows through the eight hours long journey,  the longed-for adventure has finally become a reality. At this point it is highly tempting to leave the modest station in Bagan hurriedly behind and crash in one of the guest houses in the nearest village Nyaung Oo. However, in this context, the promise of dawn is more than just the title of a novel by Romain Gary: for those who forego the pleasures of sleep for a morning walk among the temples, Bagan offers riches in abundance.

Temples by the thousand 

You need to get on a bike and away from Nyaung Oo to penetrate the magic of this immense plain, enwrapped at dawn and twilight in an enchanting ceiling of mist, pierced by the ghostly spires of a thousand stupas. The 42 square miles of Bagan are a thousand-year-old marriage of mineral and plantlife: 2,834 temples, pagodas and stupas of brick and stucco, first developed by Pierre Pichard of the École française d’Extrême-Orient – tucked away in a gentle landscape of trees and cultivated fields on the left bank of the Irrawaddy.

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Built at the same time as Angkor, this assumptuous archaeological site is a direct legacy of the Kingdom of Bagan and its 42nd monarch, the Burmese King Anawratha. Having sacked the capital of the Mon royal family, Thaton, in 1057, it was to this other Mon city that the king carried his artworks and sacred text, along with the many relics of the Buddha brought back from his military campaigns. To house these treasures, he launched one of the biggest construction programmes of religious buildings in history. From the 11th to the 13th century, temples, pagodas and stupas of all kinds rose out of the ground, while the neighbouring forests were depleted, disappearing into the kilns in which the millions of bricks required to build this gigantic open-air sanctuary were produced.

The construction programme came to an abrupt end in 1287, when Bagan was taken by force by the Emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of the bloodthirsty Genghis Khan. The town was spared but sank into an oblivion lasting several centuries. A slow disintegration set in, punctuated by the floods of the Irrawaddy and earthquakes. In 1975, the most violent of these tremors inspired UNESCO to restore the monuments. Today UNESCO supports the local cultural authorities but still refuses to inscribe the monument on the World Heritage List, a request for which was first submitted in 1996, citing the government’s negligence of the site. However, the country passed the million-tourist mark in 2012 and the new Burmese political climate might relieve the situation.   DSCF6026

Sublime monotony 

Under an already scorching sun, the walk soon takes on the feel of an initiatory journey. Bagan offers a truly sumptuous display of the Buddhist art of sublime monotony. The stupas and temples stretching from one end of the site to the other seem genuinely to belong to one single family. Simple commemorative monuments with no entrances, the former house relics of the Buddha. The depths of the latter conceal statues of Buddha, glittering with the fine leaves of gold appended by the faithful, while pilgrims close their eyes and visitors look on wide-eyed amazement.

Near the historic village of Old Bagan rises the temple of Ananda. With its 60 m circumference and its five terraces rising to 56 m, it is one of the largest and oldest on the site. Built in the early 12th century by king Kyanzittha, it was fully restored after the 1975 earthquake. On the inside, four sanctuary niches, each featuring a nine-metre high statue, correspond to the four temple entrances. Gold-plated teak statues DSCF5976 portray the Buddha standing – the position in which he attained nirvana. Further on, an army of countless smaller Buddhas tucked in the walls of the two corridors accompany a series of terracotta bas-reliefs and a  sumptuous multi-coloured openwork door. Elsewhere, the depths of the temple of Patothamya, probably built in the 10th century, of Dhammayangyi, haunted by bats or of Gubyaukgyi, rich in Hindu influences, conceal further treasures. Fumbling your way along, a figure suddenly emerges from the darkness. It is only the guard, however, coming to illuminate the blackened walls with the fading light of his torch. From the greenish aura cast by the torch emerge delicate paintings representing scenes from the life of the Buddha – the jatakas – but also swarms of slender dancers or festive and dance scenes which seem to have arisen out of a dream.

The secret of Bagan 

Visits to Bagan are random and haphazard by their very nature. At every twist in the path, the redness of a brick wall glimpse behind a thicket or through the foliage of a sugar palm  tree simply demands a pause. You get off your bike, look around, and take off again. The scenery may be constantly changing but the principle remains the same.

As the evening descends over the temples, the visitors gather in a tight huddle around the Shwesandaw pagoda rising up in the centre of the site. Enticed by the spectacle described by their travel guides in carefully identical terms, they all prepare, cameras and tablets ready, to celebrate the universal rite that consists of watching the sun set from a high vantage point. While the ritual inevitably calls to mind  the drawbacks of mass tourism, it is difficult to blame anyone. It is a glorious moment, and the breathtaking height of Shwesandaw delivers fully on its promise of a feast for the eyes.

Having climbed the dizzying steps leading to the summit, the eye is suddenly drawn to an indescribable scene. On the horizon, a descending sun pours its colours into a sea of mist, wrapped around stone statues. Then the scene fades and another reality appears. Here and there, an intimate and little-known life carries on down on the plain. Dressed in a traditional longyis, a peasant makes his way across his freshly ploughed field at the feet of a venerable temple. Further afield, an ox-drawn cart jolts along a sandy path. These en grand ou assez grand poems of rural Burmese life, undisturbed by the passing of the centuries, are reminiscent of Virgil and Hubert Robert. And aware that tourism could bring the end of such idylls, you savour their magic, even if unable to stave off a vague anxiety. But as this world sinks into night, you leave with a light heart, delighted to have come so close to the secret world of Bagan.

Article by Geoffroy Caillet. Originally published in the Enfants du Mekong Magazine.

Haiyan: an initial assessment of your donations

On 8 November 2013, one of the most violent typhoons in history reached the Philippines, and in particular the Visayas region. Winds of over 300 km/h and waves of three hundred metres swept away thousands of fragile homes in a few hours. Today, over 14 million inhabitants are affected by this natural disaster, 4 million of which are children (40% of the population of the centre of the Visayas region). 4.1 million people have been displaced, 1 million homes and 630 schools have been destroyed.

hay1Children of the Mekong were involved long before the disaster in the Philippines. Thanks to our local links and our knowledge of the terrain, we are working on reconstruction as well as project supervision, relying on 55 local programme managers (voluntary), 10 social workers (paid), 17 French volunteers in the Philippines (Volunteers of Solidarité Internationale V.S.I.), 1 general coordinator in Cebu and two volunteers specially allocated to the reconstruction projects.

Each of these projects is managed by a local (Filipino) coordinator who ensures the smooth progress of the project and manages the logistical side. S/he monitors the families individually and sends regular reports to EdM. The Filipino programme manager is guarantor of the local rebuilding project. S/he works directly with the families. S/he receives the funds, ensures they are used correctly and guides the EdM volunteers in the selection of families and in the best course to follow for the projects. The overseas project coordinator carries out transversal monitoring via visits and regular follow-up. S/he accompanies and supports the local teams and canvasses and maintains links between the head office and the donors.

In order for the reconstruction to go as well as possible and in a spirit of mutual aid and solidarity, we bring together the families that are aid recipients and we present the project, the origin of the funds and the association to these families. We then ask them to train groups of 5 families, to facilitate construction and monitoring and we get them to sign a simple contract in which they are committed to respect the  “Bayanihan Spirit” – the spirit of solidarity – and to use the materials given rapidly and solely for the construction of their homes.hay2

At the present time, we have already succeeded in helping 1189 families in 8 different zones by providing them with materials to rebuild their homes. We are also launching an initial agricultural project to give back to the families of farmers rapid means of subsistence. We are also in the process of canvassing in new zones so as to be able to reach more aid recipients, even in the most isolated and inaccessible places. 44% of our programmes have been affected.  No deaths have been reported as regards our supported children and our local teams.

Recovery of economic activity

In addition to our home rebuilding projects, we have chosen to support families who have lost their work tools. We are presently launching an initial pilot project in Ormoc for a number of families who made a living off coconut palm plantations. As the trees have been destroyed, it will take years before they can harvest coconuts and live off them once more. In order to enable these families to be able to feed themselves properly and also to rapidly obtain an income, in partnership with the municipality we have put in place an agricultural project: we supply the seeds and the equipment to families after having trained them so that they can start subsistence farming, i.e. mainly intended for on-farm consumption and subsistence economy.

The project is organised into six simple steps:

1. Identifying 100 families who are needy and who are motivated by the project.

2. Negotiating plots of land not used by the 6 large landowners who own nearly all of the land in this area of intervention.

3. Training families in this type of crop then getting them to sign a contract in which they agree to pay 10% of their harvest to the most needy – elderly people, sick people, single mothers… who cannot grow crops, in order to continue the momentum of solidarity.

4. Creating groups of 8 to 10 people and assigning a plot of land to them.

5. Supplying small tools and seeds.

6. Carrying out regular follow-up.

This project is launched in partnership with the municipality and our local coordinators. It will enable families to rapidly have access to healthy food and a balanced diet that they have produced themselves and which could also bring them a modest income if they wish to sell a portion of their vegetables.

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Thanks to our support, we have already managed to help 1189 families to find a decent home in 8 different zones

We are continuing our canvassing phase by pooling our contacts and the different local networks to be able to extend our help and to continue to help families that are victims of the typhoon, either by rebuilding their homes, or by supporting recovery of local domestic activity. We are also needed for the rebuilding of schools in our different areas of intervention.. We have already succeeded in launching our first economic activity recovery project for 100 families in Ormoc.

In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:”As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it”. In the Philippines, although the future remains unpredictable, hope is now possible once more for all of these families.

Text: Matthieu Delaunay. Photo: Antoine Besson. This article was previously published on Enfants du Mekong’s blog on 13/02/2014. 

Coconut farmers at risk – Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan hit the central Philippines last November 8. It caused more than 6,000 deaths, affected an additional 14 million people and damaged 600,000 hectares of farmland. Since then, farmers have struggled to recover.

coco2At the end of January, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) concisely stated, “In the Philippines, small-scale producers need help to recover livelihoods while replanted trees mature”. Thirty-three million coconut trees were damaged or destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in Eastern Visayas, the second largest coconut-producing region of the country. More than a million farmers were impacted. Although they are in the process of replanting the trees, a major concern is that it will take between six and eight years for the tress to reach maturity and for production to return to pre-typhoon levels.

With 26.6% of global production, the Philippine archipelago is the second largest coconut producer in the world. The devastation caused by the typhoon led to fallout throughout the sector, affecting not only the farm owners, workers and suppliers but also those involved in transport and logistics. To get by, most farmers will have to borrow at interest rates as high as 120%.

 

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Many of the families of Children of the Mekong’s sponsored children made their living through day labour on local plantations. Overnight, these households were left with no means of subsistence. The organisation mobilised to implement projects that would allow these families to quickly find a way to provide for themselves.

Although these projects are not currently tied directly to coconut-tree production, Livelihood ACAY–which is involved in a community near Tacloban–envisions the possibility of replanting the trees that were the main source of income for the village. Emmanuel Roy, a “Bamboo” volunteer in the Philippines, received a report of a student from Leyte whose family was severely affected by the typhoon. With help from the Department of Agriculture, which distributed the seeds, the family has recently replanted destroyed rice fields. They are also growing vegetables and picking fruit, which they sell in the market to support themselves.

Children of the Mekong hopes that these reconstruction and diversification efforts will provide sustainable activities for these families, who were so dependent on what had been the principal source of revenue for the archipelago.

Texte: Matthieu Delaunay        Photo: ©Antoine Besson