Local hero uses clan customs to help poor farmers in Vietnam
By Marianne Brown Jul 3, 2011, 4:08 GMT
Hanoi - Amid the smell of freshly threshed rice, a man pulls an empty cart along a dirt track. Nearby, a peasant woman sits down with a book titled: Obama, the story of a president.
The village of Khoai Chau, 30 kilometres from Hanoi, is one of the many success stories of local celebrity Nguyen Quang Thach, a social activist on a one-man mission to help people in rural Vietnam escape poverty by having a fully-stocked library.
Thach is often featured in local media repeating his mantra: 'I want our farmers to shake hands with the Japanese and the Americans as equals.'
The library at Khoai Chau, kept by teacher Le Thi Van, now has thousands of titles. Among the most popular is the one about the US president.
Although Vietnam has one of the highest literacy rates in the region - 94 per cent according to the 2009 census - education is hampered by poor resources.
Many school libraries are poorly stocked, if they are stocked at all, Van said. 'My class only has one textbook and one teacher's book,' she said. 'It's not enough.'
The local library offers children a better education, and encourages them to have higher ambitions for themselves, Van said.
Thach's method of promotion is unique. He harnesses customs and traditions in a country where ancestral worship and respect for one's family are paramount. He approaches the heads of families, or 'clans,' and offers to give them books if they provide the shelves.
The library serves as a medal of prestige for the clan, which can have from 50 to 200 households in one village, he said.
The idea was that if one family has a prestigious library, other clans will see it and want one too, he said. The more books one family has, the more their neighbours will want to outdo them.
After a few years of financing the project out of his own pocket, Thach won a 20,000-dollar grant in 2009 under a local charity supported by the Irish One Foundation. He has helped build 84 libraries across the country, each at a cost of around 120 dollars.
He provides from 150-200 books on topics ranging from health, literature, agriculture, civil law and dictionaries.
'People are empowered because they learn more about agriculture, they can learn about medicine and how to stay healthy, and when they have knowledge they feel more confident talking to local authorities.'
Further north in Thanh Cu village, Thach's model is also having an impact. Last year, a colonel living in Hanoi asked Thach if he could help set up a clan library. In just one year, the number of books on the shelves has doubled to 550.
One member of the clan, schoolteacher Dao Kim Hue, 69, said even those who do not have enough education to understand the texts come to the library. 'There are some women who have very little education. They come here and look at the names of plants and recipes.'
Do Huu Dan, a 70-yer-old retired farmer and war veteran, said the resource was also a useful tool for getting more involved with local politics.
'I learned some regulations in the law so when district officials come to the commune, I ask the chairman to invite everyone including the farmers to talk about issues.'
Shortly after the Do clan built their library, the Tran family across the village started planning their own.
'Before we got the library, we didn't know about the Spratly Islands,' farmer Tran Dinh Han said, referring to the dispute between China, Vietnam and other nations over the territory in the South China Sea.
'We didn't know that many countries claim them and that China had invaded the Paracel Islands in 1974,' he said. 'I was really surprised, I thought it was a district of Vietnam.'
With his funding about to run out, Thach wants to promote his project on a grander scale.
'I want to do a cycle trip in the US or Europe to raise money for the clan libraries,' he said. 'I want people to see that they can help me make life better for Vietnamese farmers.'