Calling all kwans

Last week I had the opportunity to attend an opening ceremony in Hat Khang Village for our largest PoP school.  The whole day was a conglomeration of celebration, tradition and respect.  Other than the official ceremony with the Ministry of Education and later the hours of dancing, eating and drinking, there was the baci ceremony.

The baci (pronounced bah-see) is a ceremony that takes place any time, usually in an instance of celebration such as marriage, birth, welcoming, homecoming, etc.  In Lao, the baci is also called “su kwan,” which means “calling of the soul.” Ancient teachings in Lao state that the human being is a union of 32 organs, each with their own soul (kwan).  The baci ceremony serves as a way to call all the souls back to the body and re-establish equilibrium and harmony.

In front of the pha kwan before the ceremony starts.

In front of the pha kwan before the ceremony starts.

At Hat Khang, there were 4 pha kwans set up in a classroom.  The pha kwan is an arrangement of flowers, banana leaves and cotton strings all organized in a silver dish or bowl.  Whoever the baci is for (in this case PoP) sits in front of the pha kwan and the rest of the participants kneel behind.  The ceremony began with one of the village elders, presumably a former monk, reading a Buddhist mantra.  (At Hat Khang I’m not positive of this, but traditionally the man who reads the Buddhist script has been a monk at some point in his life).  While he does so, everyone is kneeling with their feet away from the pha kwan and their hands together at heart center.  Then, he presents us with food, treats and, in this case, a coconut to drink.  After, we returned to the pha kwan and put our hands at the base.  Everyone needs to be connected so the rest of the observers touched our backs or shoulders as the leader read a bit more from the script.  I obviously had no idea of this man’s words, but I’ve been told it serves the purpose of calling the souls back to the body.

Listening to the Buddhist mantra.

Listening to the Buddhist mantra.

Then, all the participants (so in this case everyone who isn’t PoP staff) grabs a handful of white strings hanging from the pha kwan and tie them around our wrists.  Individually and sometimes two at a time, Lao elders would grab each wrist and tie around it a white cotton string.  While doing so they would speak quietly in Lao wishing me happiness, health, prosperity and good fortune.  Sometimes they would rub my wrists or hold my hands at the end, providing a sense of conclusion and totality to the practice.

Lanoy, the PoP Laos Country Director and I receive well wishes from Hat Khang villagers.

Lanoy, the PoP Laos Country Director and I receive well wishes from Hat Khang villagers.

The entire ceremony is beautiful, but particularly the thread component left me with chills.  The villagers’ age, wisdom, experience and strength combined with the practice of well-wishing to an absolute stranger left me speechless.  It is extremely humbling to have just driven through this very poor village that morning and then during the ceremony take on the role of the recipient.

Lunch with Hat Khang village

Lunch with Hat Khang village

After the ceremony, we went outside for a large lunch.  The Lao eat family style with a variety of dishes on the table that everyone shares.  Usually sticky rice, white rice that is prepared in such a way that it actually sticks together, serves as a utensil to scoop up meat, vegetables or fish.  We spent the rest of the afternoon celebrating each other as individuals, Hat Khang, PoP and their new school.  With so many kwans under one tent there is certainly enjoyment to be had by all.

After lunch I spent about an hour playing with these pals.

After lunch I spent about an hour playing with these pals.

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“That’s a wing”

Part of my job here is to take pictures of the build process.  Pencils of Promise (PoP) identifies where to build and then works with the villages to complete the school construction.  We document the whole process – original school, construction, completion – for our own records and the website.  With photography as my job, I am  “on call” in that whenever there is a visit to a school usually I will accompany the team.  It is these moments where I really love what I’m doing.  I am able to get out of the office and see what everyone in Laos and NYC is working so hard behind their computers to accomplish. 

This morning I went to Hat Khang, a village about an hour from Luang Prabang.  Half of our drive there was on a windy dirt road but this did not present as many challenges as I would have anticipated (considering it rained all night last night).  Hat Khang is our largest school to date with 6 classrooms.  It is surrounded by mountains and is situated on top of a hill that overlooks the village.

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As I don’t know Lao (but I did start lessons today!) my entire mindset while on these visits can be summed up by saying “go with the flow.”  I never know what we’re waiting for, where we’re going or who we’re talking with.  Usually I find out this information after when I ask Ya, my manager and a fluent English-speaker.  My last visit was a quick one intended for photos and checking out the new structure.  But on this visit to Hat Khang not only did more staff members go, but everyone was waiting around for about 15 minutes. 

At first I thought they were taking in the scenery (because that is obviously what I was doing).  Until I saw 2 huge pick-up trucks drive up the hill towards the school.  The village leader and members of the Ministry of Education all came to check out the completed school.  They all talked for a very long time and then somewhat abruptly packed up and left.  And we followed.

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Hat Khang School

We all wound up in the Nai Ban’s (village Chief) home.  Nine men from the government, 4 men from our office, one woman from our office and I all sat around a huge table waiting for lunch to be served.  First on the table was the meat which I originally thought was fish (this excited me because I really like the fish here).  Then the women brought sticky rice (white rice that you roll in your hand and it serves as an edible utensil), and many bowls of a red liquid with herbs on top. 

Finally after a lengthy serving process, Ya whispered to me that we were eating duck.  When I asked what was in the bowls he gave the answer I was hoping for least: duck blood and intestines.

I’ll stick with sticky rice.

But Ya gestured that I try some of the meat (that was sitting in a red sauce…you can use your imagination for that one) so I took my chopsticks and picked up the smallest piece I could. “That’s a wing,” he said.  Clearly, the 6-year vegetarian did not know the proper piece to pick. (Because when eating the entire duck everyone knows the wing is the last source of delicious meat.)  So Ya grabbed me a different cut and I picked small pieces of meat off the bone.

Occasionally members of the government and the Nai Ban would look in my direction.  They were either talking about me or checking to make sure I was content and eating.  Either way, I made sure to hide my wing under the napkin.