Martin Spice reports on a dream to overcome a chronic shortage of books
The director of the National Library of Laos has a dream. By the year 2000, she wants each of the country's 7,347 primary schools to have a bookshelf of 250 books.
Compared with the provision in most western schools, this may seem modest but, when Mrs Kongdeuane Nettavongs started the bookshelf programme in 1989, there were no picture books or books for children available in the country.
Since then, she has worked with the ministry of education and foreign-aid donors to organise not only the distribution of books but also to develop a lively programme to promote reading in the rural areas.
She faces an uphill struggle. The National Library itself contains fewer than 8,000 books and there are fewer than 20 libraries across the whole of the country. The national literacy rate is estimated at 84 per cent but, if the urban areas are excluded, it is about 45 per cent.
Laos's population of just over 4 million, many of whom still rely on slash-and-burn farming methods, is scattered over a mountainous country the size of Britain. Conditions in many of the village schools are decidedly basic, with rough wooden furniture, concrete floors, a blackboard and not much else. Until recently, there have been few or no books to encourage youngsters to start reading.
So far, 3,200 bookshelves have been distributed to schools, and the National Library has commissioned 100 new titles. By the year 2000, Mrs Kongdeuane aims to have more than doubled that number.
Many of these titles are based on folk tales. Other stories have been contributed by villagers and teachers. But a significant number have been developed from the National Library's own collection of palm-leaf books.
These traditional loose-leaf books are made up of about 70 leaves, each of which converts, when transcribed, to about four pages of a modern printed book.
A large number are religious texts and others deal with medicine and history. But some contain proverbs and traditional stories and it is these that have been summarised and re-written for children.
The provision of books is, however, only half the story. Mrs Kongdeuane and her staff have determined that reading needs active promotion, especially in the rural areas.
On the day I met Phouvieng Sithivong, she had just returned from the south of the country where she had been playing the part of a fox's mother in a theatre production based on a Czech story called Mr Han and the Fox.
The aim of these presentations is simple: to bring some happiness to the children, many of whom are from very poor backgrounds, and to encourage them to love books. "The children are starving to listen, to watch and to read, " she said.
Another project uses traditional musical instruments. Along with the bookshelves, selected schools are now receiving a khaen, a bamboo wind instrument that produces a sound like a cross between a mouth organ and bagpipes. Its place in Lao culture is extremely important because it provides the traditional accompaniment to the singing of stories, poems and proverbs known as lamleuang.
The initiative has stirred up a lot of interest in the capital, Vientiane, and further afield, but the distribution of instruments is currently restricted to schools that request them. The children are taught to play traditional songs and also learn the stories and poems that are sung to accompany the music.
Mrs Kongdeuane claims that, since the project began, children in many schools have become more interested in reading: "Before this, third-year pupils could not read Lao fluently; now many of them do."