Saluting the Mothers of the Mekong
It's March 8th, International Women's Day. The date has been marked globally since 1913 as a day for women to demand better work conditions, salary, and respect for their rights. This year, depending who you ask, the theme is to Step it Up for Gender Equality and improve women's work, or to #BeBoldforChange - the latter theme created by a collection of businesses, led by EY (formerly Ernst and Young), Pepsico, British Petroleum, and others.
Whatever the message, the core remains the same. It's obvious to most but yet not to all. Women are equal. Women's rights are human rights.
For the last twelve months I've met dozens of women who live along the Mekong river. You've read many of their stories. Today, I'd like to profile some of the older women I've met. Many of them, our elders, on whose shoulders we all stand. These are women often born poor into very large families, who, in one generation have changed the course of their children's futures. These are women who may not have had access to much school, or health care - but they've made sure their children do. These are women who have experienced real hardship, have seen enormous change in their lifetimes, and who have gained enormous wisdom.
Without further ado, I'd like to salute some mothers of the Mekong, from the moutn in Vietnam to the source in China.
This is Ngan. She's lived her whole life near the mouth of the Mekong river on an island in the southern province of Soc Trang, Vietnam. She has ten hectares of sugarcane - a huge farm.
In this part of Vietnam, the Mekong is kilometres wide as it flows into the South China sea. But in some years the sea flows too far up into the Mekong, causing the soil to turn salty. Climate change and damming upriver is making this worse. The salinisation makes it hard for farmers to grow traditional crops like sugarcane and rice, and many are switching to shrimp farming instead. Ngan says she's going to stay with her sugarcane farming because she says, once you switch to shrimp, you can't switch back to regular crops. She's seen too many people lose their farms this way.
She also runs this coffeeshop - she says the road in front of the shop used to be a dirt track, but now it's a busy road where shrimp trucks pass all day long.
Her sugarcane farming has gone really well and she's built a nice house behind the coffee shop. Her son Khua (below) is one of two of her kids - he's in high school, and says he loves to study English.
Ngan is a common name in Vietnam. This is also Ngan - she's about 55. Here she holds her 11-month old grand-daughter Tieu. "I'm keen for Tieu to grow up and get a very good education," Ngan tells me.
Ngan grows fruit on the same large Mekong river island in Soc Trang - guava, chile and dragonfruit. She switched crops from sugarcane about two years ago. In particular, she's growing "queen" seedless guava. These fetch more money than regular guava - about US$ 0.35 per kilogram. She picks one and offers it to me. It's delicious.
About 70 kilometres further up the Mekong, on a canal near near Can Tho, I meet Nhung. She and some of her family are resting in their home.
Like just about everyone I've met during this project, Nhung is friendly and welcoming. She invites us in and offers a cold drink. She explains that she grew up here and she's now 62. She's had five kids including one daughter who has recently had a baby herself, and is at home with Nhung.
Nhung explains that life now is much easier than it was when she was young. Times were tougher than most of us could imagine.
"We lived through the war," she explains. "We could plant only rice then. Many times, we didn't have enough to eat."
Today in this part of the Mekong delta, the area is so lush it seems you could throw a handful of seeds on the ground and they would instantly grow. Nhung has a garden here on one of the many delta canals where she grows fruit including lemons, star apple , milk fruit and mangoes.
"This garden work is so important to us. That's how we earn a living," she explains.
Her daughter, Cam Huong, agrees that her life is much easier than her mother's was. "She always woke up so early, and worked so hard," Cam Huong says of Nhung.
Cam Huong is now taking a maternity break and she'll go back to work when her son, Gia Tuong, turns two.
"We are happy now, being home, together and tending the garden," says Nhung. "We are healthy, and we are happy."
We travel now to Cambodia, up the Mekong to Phdao island in Kratie province, about a five-hour drive north of Phnom Penh.
On Koh Phdao I stay in the house of the village head, Mr. Minh. It's a stilted house about 30 metres from the Mekong. The homestay program is run by a rural development organization which aims to help people increase their incomes. One person taking part in the project is Huon. She cooks for all the guests at Mr. Minh's homestay- three meals a day.
Huon is about 46. She has two daughters - one is in high school, and one is in university in Phnom Penh, where she studies accounting. Huon herself had to leave school after grade 5. Her husband finished grade 4.
"Education is the most important. It's too late for me to study. But I'm motivated by my kids' future, their careers. I do everything for my kids. I want my kids to get out of poverty.
I don't want them to be growing rice. I want them to be teachers, or doctors or nurses in the city."
Huon is incredibly enterprising. In addition to cooking for guests, Huon also raises chickens, pigs and a water buffalo. She sells water in the town.
I ask her about her owns dreams. But they're all for her kids.
"When I'm old, I'd like some free time," she says. I don't want to have to work everyday forever."
Now, an entirely different location. To Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
After having talked with so many people who live on the Mekong, I wanted to talk to women who were studying it. You might have read my blog about Palamy, the young geography student and lecturer. Here she is, below, with Dr. Somkhith Boulidam, a mentor to Palamy and the head of the University's Geography department.
Dr. Boulidam is an expert on climate change and natural resource management. She's studied the Mekong fisheries and is interested in how different cultures use the river.
"I grew up in an educated family near Luang Prabang," Dr Boulidam explains. It was also a large family of twelve children. Born in 1968, she was the 2nd oldest.
"When I finished high school, it was expected I would study to be a teacher in Vientiane and then return to my province to teach."
Instead, she got a scholarship at one of Thailand's best universities.
"That scholarship changed my life," she says. "My husband was very supportive of me and stayed in Lao to look after the kids. "It was hard on all of us to be apart. But I knew I had to continue."
The scholarship eventually led to a Phd program in Vienna, Austria. "I was the only Lao person in the University. Sometimes, it was very lonely." She also worked very hard to learn to speak, read and write in English - essential currency for an academic.
Today, Dr. Boulidam is an accomplished scholar with many publications to her name.
Dr. Boulidam has helped some of her siblings through school. Her own children - now age 24 and 26 - are both doing really well with their studies and careers. Though she says her daughter, who has a Bacherlor's degree "needs to study more!"
She plans to continue research on rivers, climate and gender. And she wants to work to continue strengthening the university, by partnering with universities abroad and ensuring Lao students have access to the best education.
"I will focus on my job as much as I can. I want to build a stronger department. I want my students to feel challenged. And I want to promote them as much as possible."
Now, we travel further upriver, this time on the Thai side in Loei province. This is Namtip. Her name, roughly, translates as "lucky water" or "spiritual water" . "Nam" is water in Thai; "tip" means "from theBuddha". Namtip is 71, and she grew up here on the banks of the Mekong.
"As kids we used to swim and bathe in the river. It was a lot of fun," she remembers. "In the dry season, you could go out to the islands where there were beaches. We would stay, picnic, and sleep there for several days!"
She says that today, damming upriver makes the water levels unpredictable, and the island beaches aren't there like they used to be.
Namtip and her husband ran a rubber tree farm for many years. They've turned it over to their two daughters, both in their early 30s.
Namtip now spends her days picking curry leaves by the Mekong. As we talk, she bends easily, pulls the leaves, washes them and fills one wicker basket after another.
She seeds the curry leaves herself on the river bank so that she has a perpetual garden. Every day, she can pick four baskets or so, and sells them at the market for about $3.00 each. She's been doing this for the last six years.
"I like to keep working so I can have some money to give to the temple," she tells me.
We talk for about thirty minutes, at which point she's collected enough curry leaves and she's ready to go.
I put my hand out to help her up the steep bank. This makes her laugh and laugh. "You'll probably drop me back into the river!" she jokes. "I'm very strong you know. I've worked hard my whole life."
She then walks easily up the bank, climbs over the fence, jumps on her bike and waves goodbye.
There are so many more women to profile, but I'll end with Yinzo. She's a Tibetan nomad living near the Mekong about two hours from Zadoi on the way to the river's source. She was raised near here in a family of six kids.
"I grew up in these beautiful mountains. My happy memories are looking after the yaks. Ever since I was a child I wanted to remain a nomad. It's such a good, pure life."
Yinzo loves the self-sufficiency of nomadic life. The beloved yaks offer meat, wool, milk, and their dung is used as fuel for warmth and cooking.
"Nomadic life is really hard. But it's worth it because the yaks give everything."
Yinzo, now 68, has nine children of her own.
"I didn't have a chance to go to school. But education has been very important for my own children," she tells me. She and her husband have ensured schooling for each of them. One of the sons I met was deciding what to study in university.
Yinzo has had very hard times too of course. She talked briefly, and sadly, about the 1976 Chinese Cultural Revolution. She remembers it as a time when all of the men were taken away to work.
I didn't ask her more about this as I have not been asking Mekong women about politics. What I consider freedom of speech is generally not promoted in the same way in any of the Mekong countries.
For Yinzo, like many Tibetan Buddhists, religion is a foundation for her life.
"I've been twice on pilgrimage to the base of Mt Everest," she says.
"Without religion, you cannot live. Because of religion I know what is good, what is bad. I know what is the right thing to do."