ChildFund New Zealand’s Communications Manager Kiri Carter travelled to Vietnam for her second visit in two years. Here she describes the two highlights starting with visiting her own sponsored child Thom in the northern district of Cao Bang…
As our vehicle rolled to a stop outside the village’s community house I saw a small pretty girl sitting quietly on a bench at the top of concrete steps. Surely this couldn’t be Thom? We weren’t due to meet for another hour or so. As I remembered the photo from her profile I realised it couldn’t be anyone else but Thom.
I jumped out of the car and walked towards her. I wanted to run but I didn’t want to scare her! Thom stood up looking down shyly. I paused on the lower steps so we were almost at eye level and reached out my hand. She shook my hand and gave a little bow, and the smallest of smiles.
ChildFund Vietnam’s Communications Coordinator Trang Nguyen Thi Kieu who accompanied the New Zealand team on our journey introduced us properly. Trang discovered that Thom not wanting to be late had walked 2 kilometres to meet me. It took her 45 minutes to walk the distance across the fields. Luckily it was a route she knew well as the school she attended was close by to the community house.
We went in and sat down inside with Trang sitting next to Thom to act as an interpreter. Trang had brought cake to share and she gave the first piece to Thom who immediately offered it to me. Trang explained that it’s polite for children to offer food to their elders first. So I took the piece of cake and she took a new piece from Trang.
I knew something about Thom’s life from her profile and the letters that she and her mum had sent me. It’s one thing to read about someone’s life and another to hear it in her own words. Even though I can’t understand Vietnamese I could see clearly how she felt about losing her father at age six. Her voice got quieter and her eyes looked off in the distance.
Not wanting to dwell on such a sad time we soon changed the subject to school and her favourite subjects like mathematics. Thom wants to be a doctor so I told her doing well at school especially mathematics was a good start. She also likes drawing when she has time.
Before long Thom was asking me questions. What is New Zealand like? She was interested to hear that our country is long and thin much like Vietnam. Then I found myself describing volcanoes with lots of hand gestures much to her wide-eyed amazement!
We spent a good long while chatting away. Finally I pulled out a bag I had brought all the way from New Zealand. In it was a pink woollen scarf, crayons and coloured pencils which were the perfect present for a girl who likes to draw. I gave her two pink heart-shaped hair clips that had a little sparkle. Her eyes lit up when she saw them and she gave a big smile!
Life must be very hard for Thom’s mum raising two children on her own but to her credit Thom is a beautiful, polite, conscientious and warm-hearted young girl.
The moment of saying goodbye was sweet – a hug and a smile from Thom. I waved out the window as the car pulled away and then sank back down into my seat. In that moment one of the team patted my shoulder and asked if I was okay. Yes, I said but then it hit me – a pang of sadness – and I blinked back the tears. Would I ever see Thom again? What will her life be like? Are we doing enough for her?
In my heart of hearts I know that we are doing the best we can and that’s pretty good. I had already seen for myself the progress that ChildFund has supported in Cao Bang in the past two years.
Since my last visit to Cao Bang in March 2010, when the project was just starting, I now visited families who were benefiting from water and sanitation initiatives and livelihoods support. One family had benefited from both with a new toilet and chickens that were providing additional income and good nutrition – simple solutions with a long term sustainable impact. They were extraordinarily grateful which was very humbling.
There is of course still very much to do especially to reach more remotely-situated families. The biggest issues are malnutrition and hygiene. More than 20 per cent of children under the age of five are malnourished. The two main causes are low incomes and low awareness of what to feed children. Nutritious food, clean water, sanitation and training in nutrition and hygiene are among the most pressing needs.
It was great to see what is possible by visiting the district of Bac Kan where ChildFund has been for ten years. It was my very great pleasure to visit the new healthcare centre in Don Phong which I had seen the foundations being laid for in 2010. The building was clean and well-resourced with a child-friendly area. Dr Cao Thinh Vang, who I had met two years previously, was still in residence and his enthusiasm for his community and the children was still very much in evidence. He was very grateful for the new healthcare clinic and support from ChildFund.
The doctor had witnessed an increase in children’s willingness to attend the clinic (due to the playground equipment and toys!) and a general openness of families to talk about health issues. In particular he said people were choosing to attend the clinic rather than the district hospital because they knew it had the resources and women felt they could rely on the clinic for advice and treatment. The number of women coming for treatment had doubled.
The ChildFund Vietnam team and the communities they work with are doing a very impressive job by creating real positive change for children and families. I am quietly confident that my sponsored child Thom will break free from the cycle of poverty that her family and her community have endured for generations.