“Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play.”
A barely developed reading tradition and a weak education system mean that children in Laos often do not acquire sufficient reading and learning skills, drop out of primary school after only a few years and thus remain in a vicious cycle of poverty without personal development opportunities.
Even and especially in times of globalisation and digitalisation, reading books is an indispensable experience that can decisively shape the reading and learning tradition as well as the reality of life of children growing up. However, children in Laos have hardly any access to books. Outside the capital Vientiane and a few tourist centres, there are practically no bookshops or libraries. Increasing their reading skills helps children not only in their personal development but also in their learning, and more education increases their chances for a better future.
The Reading Elephant Laos children’s mobile library was founded in early 2016 as a civil society initiative (grassroots project) by a group of young Lao people around Khamkeo Vongsavanh in Ban Houayxay, Bokeo Province, in northwestern Laos. It is approved as a “Private Reading Room” under the Law on Library of the Lao PDR and registered at the Department of Information, Culture and Tourism of Bokeo Province. It is dedicated to promoting the reading and learning skills of children and young people and works consistently according to non-profit principles. All children and young people in the region can use its services free of charge.
From 2016 until today, the Reading Elephant Laos team has undertaken numerous tours to the 60 village schools in the district – partly interrupted by lockdowns due to the pandemic – and conducted all-day reading events (“book festivals”) there.
Based on the practical findings of the past years, a profile was sharpened in 2022 after a comprehensive evaluation. Since then, the focus of the project work has been even more on the continuous supply of books to schools to increase reading skills. From 2023 onwards, the scheduled driving operation with two vehicles – a three-wheeled electric vehicle and a station wagon suitable for off-road use – will primarily serve 26 state primary schools in the district of Houayxay at monthly intervals. In addition, book festivals will continue to be held in Houayxay and also other districts.
In October 2017, Reading Elephant Laos opened a Reading House in the provincial capital Ban Houayxay, which serves as a base for the mobile children’s library. Here, children can take advantage of various learning and leisure activities.
Reading Elephant Laos is mainly financed through donations or project funding. Part of the logistics costs are covered by selling books as well as local handicraft products to tourists. The easiest way to support the work of the project is to → make your donation here.
Reading Elephant Laos uses different instruments and ways to achieve its goals.
At the Reading House, which Reading Elephant Laos has been operating in the provincial capital Ban Houayxay since October 2017, children and young people from surrounding schools in the urban area can discover and borrow books free of charge. The team members advise them on the selection according to their age group and interests or read together with them. In addition, various events take place such as puppet shows, dance, and teaching of artistic techniques in which the children’s creativity is encouraged in a playful way, as well as tutoring courses in reading. Basic knowledge in using the internet and digital media is taught at four computer learning stations. During the main tourist season from December to April, foreign tourists are invited to spontaneous English conversation exercises with interested pupils. In addition, they can find out about the project here and support it directly by shopping in the project bookshop or making donations.
Thanks to funding from the Georg Kraus Foundation and the Foundation Nord-Süd-Brücken from Germany, Reading Elephant Laos has two bookmobiles: an all-terrain station wagon and a three-wheeled electric vehicle. The used Ford Everest – a four-wheel drive SUV suitable for the mostly rough roads in Laos – drives to 18 village schools in the area at least once a month; a further eight schools in the provincial capital are also served by the electric vehicle on a monthly basis.
In a radius of 40 kilometres around Ban Houayxay, the two bookmobiles currently supply 26 government primary schools with new reading material once a month. Some tours to the more distant schools include overnight stays in the villages. Up to three schools are visited per day. During the two- to three-hour stays, children can read, play or listen to stories. Each month, the team prepares a special programme item, such as reading competitions, puppet shows or looking at natural objects under a microscope. The focus of these tours is the development of book lending to further accustom children to reading individually, at home, with parents and siblings, and with time and quiet.
The work of the project team and the enthusiasm of the children has made many teachers aware of the need for better reading promotion. From the beginning, Reading Elephant Laos has pursued the goal of supporting schools in setting up their own school libraries. However, it is important that the initiative comes from the schools.
In January 2023, project leader Khamkeo Vongsavanh and Books for Laos e. V. association member guest Cornelia Mau handed over the first books to the school director in the village of Pak Hao-tai for permanent lending and storage in a school library room – marked as a display point for Reading Elephant Laos’ mobile children’s library. The first school library in a secondary school was set up with loaned books from the project in Nampouk village. Teachers also receive a handout with recommendations on how to use the books in class and lend them to children. During the tours, the books are regularly supplemented or exchanged so that children can always discover new stories.
As a supplementary offer for reading promotion, the project team has been conducting tutoring courses for students with reading difficulties in grades 1-5 since the autumn of 2022. Reading and writing in the Lao language is taught in small groups of up to ten children. The courses take place in the afternoons and on Saturdays; intensive courses are offered during the three-month school-free period in the summer months.
The project team runs a small bookshop in the front part of the Reading House with new and antiquarian books, including titles about Laos in several languages for tourists. Tourists can also buy maps, postcards and regional handicraft products as souvenirs. The proceeds go towards financing the running costs and the further expansion of project activities. Reading Elephant Laos is also doing pioneering work, as there has never been a bookshop in Ban Houayxay before. This means that access to books is open to all age groups, making it a matter of course in this part of the world as well.
In order to co-finance the project, Reading Elephant Laos also offers a few bicycles for daily rent to tourists.