My own stories while volunteering

Volunteers share their experiences with the Photo Voice program, which uses photography to help rural ethnic minorities in Vietnam tell authentic stories of their daily lives and practice basic children’s rights

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The program teaches digital storytelling methods to ethnic and rural people in Vietnam, helping them to represent themselves and create tools for advocacy and communications to achieve positive social change.

My school was located in Ta Phin, just 10 kilometers away from Sapa. Many visitors take pity on the children here who endure the cold with worn-out clothes and walk barefoot. Life here is indeed difficult; however, there is not only material deprivation, but also a shortage of outlets for expression. I realized quickly when teaching, playing and collecting wood with the kids that I did not really know their stories, only stereotypes. Journeys are not only where you go or what you do, but also what you learn from the people you meet.

The first day of class was quite chilly and rainy. Our visual storytelling class, called “I Love My School,” was sparsely attended, with only 13 out 20 pupils showing up. Giang A Chia, in Grade 7, was the biggest boy in the class. However, he was shy and reserved and usually bowed his head when spoken to, possibly because he was the only Mong boy in a class full of Dao pupils. He surprised the class, however, when he brought in his homework the next day. It was an A4 sheet finely decorated and colored with lots of stories. He told about his long and dirty road to school, bomb craters near his houses and deep, endless caves that were once used as shelters for soldiers. His words and pictures allowed us a deeper insight into his other gifts: he was good at birdhunting, building pigpens and doing other crafts to assist his family.

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“Now each person I meet is special with their own stories. It’s just whether we are honest and open enough to understand their lives.

I grew more ‘greedy’ to take up many things simultaneously, at first for myself, and now for the lands and people I have traveled and met,” said a student after his volunteer trip.

I left behind my modern urban life to join these children collecting wood and herbs or playing outdoor games. Away from Hanoi, I found in these children rare little gems of soul, their innocent laughter echoing through the valley of green. I felt myself a kid again stumbling down terraced fields, clumsily walking on slippery lanes after rains and playing football with great pleasure on paddy fields. At our last dinner with the children, some kids sheepishly slipped little gifts into our pockets: lollipops, braided bracelets, straws or even little pieces of paper with some scribbled sentences.

It was a different experience than the typical trip where one makes some brief contact with the locals and then return to daily urban life, soon to forget the experience. The photos we brought back from Ta Phin are not exceptionally fine or suggestive of complex underlying meanings. They simply tell the stories that children in Ta Phin would like to tell about themselves, their houses, their friends and forests, perhaps better than spoken or written words. Ta Phin kids still have fathers who teach their sons hunting, mothers who teach their daughters embroidery and dyeing, grandmothers who tell old fairy tales their grandchildren. The kids there can still introduce us to their native herbs, and invite us to their simple households for cozy meals.

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Through his stories, A Chia opened up to the rest of the class and soon was joining them in games.

Most importantly, these kids had a chance to speak for themselves. “Have we ever asked these little citizens to make a more positive environment in which children will love their schools, hometowns and country more?” asked Lanh, coordinator of the project. “We volunteers serve as factors of change as we join these children and increase their involvement in education and development.”