How to describe kon tum… sadly I’m not a good enough writer to do it justice. I would have to be a true poet to be able to explain the way the beauty and the poverty of the people and the landscape unite and sort of work together in this land - without one the other would not be so powerful, and I felt a sort of internal struggle to want to irradiate one while still keeping the other. but remove the poverty and I think a lot of the raw beauty would disappear too…
The harshness of the dry season was unavoidable. The reality of dieing due to lack of water was real – not just a 10minute black and white clip to empowering music on BBCs Comic Relief. One day our friend Teresa ran out of water so we couldn’t cook or drink anything – even the well water we had been drinking had dried up. I rode on the back of her nephews bike and went to buy the largest canister of water I could carry. It was one scary ride home bumping about on the dust tracks holding the water practically sat on the handle bars! But that £4 will only help one family, for one more day. We all prayed for the rain that night.
I also had the chance to join Teresa and her family for church. The majority of the people in kon tum seem to be catholic. So I went to the 100year old wooden church for my first catholic service, in Vietnamese. I was the only white girl in there. Again another powerful experience for me, there must have been 400 children and 100 adults in that church. A sea of black hair around me. I have never prayed so hard in my life.
But I should explain who Teresa is really. Teresa is the perfect name for this woman. She is a saint, an angel. An orphan herself, she grew up in the Vinh Son orphanages. There are 6 orphanages around kon tum with over 700 children. There are so many here because of the struggle the ‘montangne’ people face. These are the hills tribes (some of the 54 minority cultures who live in Vietnam) who live in the jungles surrounding kon tum. the government does not treat them as citizens and they do not have the same rights as the Vietnamese people, they are very poor and have large families, it is not uncommon for the women to die in childbirth as it is very expensive to go to hospital. I asked Teresa about this and she explained normally the husband will help the woman give birth to her children in their house but the husbands do not know what to do and they will drink – if anything goes wrong the couple is ill-equipped to deal with it… if a family is very poor it is the youngest child who cannot help in the fields who is sent to the orphanage. Teresa was born in one of these communities and she took us to see her village one day. (more about this later) Teresa works for the orphanages and tries to teach the children English too. She networks as best she can and asks her friends (tourists like me who came to visit one day) for money when things get desperate in the orphanage, she takes the children to hospital when they are in need, and helps people sort out their government paperwork, she never rests, is very modest, runs an open home to all, is a loving and soppy mother to 4 children, and a humorous wife. God help these communities if anything happens to her, she is far too indispensable.
So Teresas village: we rode on bikes for about 45mins out of kon tum to a place where some of the children cried when they saw us because they hadn’t seen white people before, where cows and chickens roam free, and women seem to constantly be standing in doorways with babies on their hips. We met an ‘uncle’ of Teresas and his family. This loud laughing man in perhaps his late 40s/50s had half his arm blown off by a left over landmine from the American War. He wasn’t ashamed or awkward about it and when he shook my hand he held my hand using both his left hand and his right stump. And he beamed and beamed at me and hit me hard on the back several times. His take on it was he was lucky.
also i’m seriously getting Vietnamese now - I wear a face mask like the locals to keep the pollution/dust/germs away. I get slightly less stares this way too as i’m in disguise with a helmet and sunglasses on!
I also had the chance to decorate the classroom at Vinh Son 5! so exciting for me of course painted animals and butterflies and flowers on the walls and tried to teach some of the kids the colours.
We then shared a WONDERFUL lunch with the sisters. it was all ‘minority food’ from the jungle.one of the sisters had been to the jungle to pick the leaves and fruits for us. we had this rice mush with what tasted like vine leaves in it - seriously good. and these huge lychee type things which were reallyreallyyummy.
Keeping true to local culture we then all had a nap - we slept on the sisters beds and the children all slept too.
I also visted the river with the children from Vinh son 5. We all went down to the river - a huge muddy delta where women are carrying whicker baskets of crops back and forth across and water and men are herding their water buffalo pulling carts of corn. we played running games in the dust and dirt and bought the children icecreams.
then I had the most magical experience yet. I went swimming in the river with the children.i was on my own with 43 orphans splashing and clinging onto me and laughing. their beautiful brown little bodies reflecting all the low golden sunshine and water catching the light.... beautiful. beautiful....
Teresa took some photos.. if she ever has a minute she promises to send them to me...!...
I'll leave you with a video of me, Dang and 2 kids riding on a motorbike for late night coffee, at the end of my wonderful wonderful week in Kon tum.