During this week we have met as a group with several interesting and important figures in this village. The first being the Catholic priest who travels to the town for Sunday services and then goes back to his home in Thailand during the week. When asked about why the entire community is Catholic, he told us the full history of the founding of this island. The story started with French Catholic missionaries who came to this region and freed slaves, as well as helping other displaced people. Many of the people who they freed or otherwise helped needed a peaceful place to resettle. The French missionaries decided on this island as one of the places where people could start their lives again. However, the locals on either banks of the Mekong decried that the island was filled with evil spirits and humans had never lived there. To solve this predicament the missionaries handed the group a single gun and they headed to the island. There they did not find evil spirits but instead a large amount of wild animals. Soon they began the process of clearing land and building houses, with the village officially being established in 1886.
Later in the week we met with Sawyer’s host grandmother, who tells a story of much change during her lifetime on the island. She talked about a visible decline in the fish population, something that is of great interest to our group as we study the large hydroelectric projects in the region. Furthermore, she talked about how modern conveniences like packaged food and synthetic fertilizers are a relatively recent addition to their lives. In terms of construction, houses are only recently made of concrete, with stilted houses of bamboo and wood being the previous norm. Lastly, she talked about how some young people now go to the mainland big cities to pursue employment when previously they would have become farmers.
This Thursday we met with the village headman who imparted on us interesting facts about his governmental position and the village as a whole. Village headman serve for a term of five years, have to be over 21 and have to be literate. Being male is however not a requirement. He talked about his role in the village as someone who helps settle disputes between neighbors or between family members. When asked about how the biggest challenge the village faces he said erosion by the river that causes landslides. In terms of education he told us that 80% of kids in Lao finish high school, an impressive figure. Lastly he gave us the date of electrification of the village which was 1986, quite a long time compared to our Cambodian homestay which was only electrified a half decade ago.