As a special for the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, writer Kongdeuane Nettavong wrote about poetry in Laos. It provides a good personal account and perspective on how many of us entered into the world of poetry.
She takes particular note of the mo lam singing tradition as an example of Lao poetry in its higher expression.
Kongdeuane Nettavong was born in 1947 to an upper class family in Muang Chiang Kwang, northern Laos, when France colonized the country. After finishing secondary school in 1970, she went to Laval University in Quebec, Canada for her Bachelor’s Degree in Geography. In 1973, she went to Paris for her Master’s Degree in Archives at Saint Cloud, graduating in 1974, for her Master’s degree in Archives.
She returned to Laos and taught geography and history at the Teacher Training College. She has pursued a literacy program for the Laotians by setting up libraries, publishing books in Lao and encouraging people to read. She has been Director of the National Library of Laos since 1989. She was also assistant teacher of French and English and consultant for academic affairs in Laos.
She worked in National Pedagogy as head Librarian and deputy director. Later, she became Director of National Pedagogy Department. In 1976, when Laos was liberated from France, she was appointed Deputy Director of the National Library Museum and Archeology Department.
Kongdeane moved to the National Library of Laos as the Director in 1989, a position she holds until the present. In this post, she has created many projects besides her official work.
Normally, Lao officials retire at age 55. But not Kongdeuane; even after she retired, the government asked her to continue working as director of the National Library of Laos.
Apart from her routine work in the office, Kongdeuane she has created many projects to improve the literacy of the people Laos.
One is the ‘Literacy Cultivation Project’, built on three strategies: encouraging people to read books, encouraging the publication of Lao textbooks, and setting up school libraries, people’s libraries, libraries for the masses and Knowledge Development Centers in the village, district, and provincial levels. The project is supported by funding from government and foreign organizations.
Kongeuane also introduced the idea of book bags and book boxes to collect book donations for schools in remote areas that do not have libraries. She delivers the donated books herself through the Caravan Puppet Theater, which she heads. She uses the puppet theater to encourage children to read. The Japanese Government supports the project.
She usually supervises the construction of the libraries herself, designs and produces the puppets with her team, and performs and voices puppet shows.
Another project is the Preservation of Lao Palm-leaf Manuscripts Program. Her team goes around the country surveying palm-leaf manuscripts in the temples. The aim is to preserve palm-leaf manuscripts, which contain the wisdom and cultural heritage of Laos, by training villagers on the protection, preservation and restoration of the cultural relics.
Kongdeuane also initiated the Archives of Traditional Laotian Music Project, which recorded in still pictures, film, and VCD format the music of the many minority ethnic groups in Laos and encourages the training of the new generation in traditional music. A music lover who plays the khan, she is president of the Khan Club, which manages the center for teaching the new generation how to play the instrument. “I will translate the Khan book and Khan voice into French and give the copyright to the Culture Foundation for the benefit of the people. They will translate it into five languages and distribute it around the world to raise financial support for this project”, she confides.
In addition, Kongdeuane organizes training workshops for teachers, librarian and new writers and writes and edits children’s books. She is writing a children’s book which mixes information about medicinal herbs with folk tales to make learning more enjoyable.
Aside from her job as Director of the National Library, all of Kongdeuane’s projects are voluntary; she works without pay, for love of country and for the benefit of the Lao people, especially the youth. She says “I have a dream for Lao children to have bright and clear faces, happiness in their mind, when they are reading books. This is why I am eager to dedicate my time to them. Reading is most the important thing for human beings”.