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  Volume 4 - Issue 08 AUGUST 2006
 
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SPREADING THE NET OF HIS LOVE IN LAOS

SAINET PROJECT IN LAOS


Motivation

The motivation for the Laos project came from the pioneering work done in Kenya by Bro. Kalyan Ray and his dedicated team. The Kenyan Sai Organization had purchased thousands of specially treated mosquito nets and handed them over to the poor families to protect them from Malaria. WHO studies have shown that this is one of the most effective ways to prevent Malaria.

The programme was so successful that Bro. Ray presented it at the medical conference in Parthi in July 2005. Moved by the plight of Malaria affected poor people, and inspired by the teachings of Bhagavan, a team in Singapore led by Bro. Prof. Yeoh Kian Hian started looking at the region for areas affected by Malaria. Laos, a land-locked poor country, was an obvious choice in Southeast Asia, especially as the leading cause of mortality was Malaria.

 

Where Does Laos Stand?
Country GDP US $ Billions Population millions Per capita GDP US $
USA
11,668
294
39,753
Singapore
107
4
24,837
Malaysia
118
25
4,671
China
1,649
1,297
1,272
India
692
1,080
641
Laos
2
6
415

Source: The World Fact Book 2005 published by CIA , USA

Investigation and Early Preparation

Bro. Prof. Yeoh planned a visit to Laos in October 2005 to meet with the Sai Organization there to investigate the need for Malaria prevention in Laos and other needs of the people there. During his visit to Vientiane, he met with Bro. Avi Sarkar from the Lao Sai Organization and Lao Government officials as well as the Singapore Ambassador to Laos. The Lao Sai Organization was very enthusiastic and offered its full support. The Singapore team learnt that:


  • The terrain of Laotian villages is extremely difficult and dangerous and for much of the year the roads are impassable. The monsoon season would start in April, thus making March the last month any such activity could be undertaken.
  • The villages are dispersed over wide mountainous territory, with a low density of population making it difficult to distribute to each village; it would be better to invite the villagers to travel to pre-determined collection points. However, it turned out subsequently that distribution was in fact carried out to every village
  • Since the villagers have to travel long distances to collection points and the villagers also face food shortages, it would be effective if food (rice) was distributed along with the nets.
 
   
Prof. Yeoh with a sample Sainet

Bro. Prof. Yeoh returned to Singapore and started a detailed planning process to procure and deliver the nets and food aid to the inaccessible villages of Laos. This had to be completed before March 2006. That way, the programme could still be executed during the 80th Year of the advent of the Divine Avatar. It was decided that the project would be undertaken by Sathya Sai Social Service, Singapore, which has extensive experience in undertaking social service projects.

The Trip to Kenya

In January 2006, Bro. Prof. Yeoh visited Kenya to participate in the project and receive first-hand appreciation of the Sainet project in execution and to learn from the Kenyan experience. He came back with a lot of information on the detailed operational planning of the Sainet operation.

 
The living conditions of Kenyan poor - A House (left) and a classroom in Kenya
 
With jubilation showing the ticket which will award them a Sainet
Sainet being distributed with proper advise

After this trip, the Singapore team had a lot of ideas how to plan the project in Laos. Detailed planning started in January, and it was felt that another recce (reconnaissance) trip was needed to determine the exact routes, distribution points, and have coordinated joint planning with the Laotian team. The dates for the recce trip were fixed for early February and the final delivery for early March 2006.

The Recce Trip

Bro. Dr. Yeoh, along with Bros. CS Teng & Loka, made a recce trip on 9 th of February 2006, and met with the Lao Sai organization, the Lao Government officials, and visited the forward areas of distribution. They met the Governor of Xieng Khuang Province and received his support for the project. He also met the UXO Lao officials (the organization responsible for clearing unexploded ordnance), who made heavy-duty trucks available to carry the relief material to the villages. They also met a Buddhist monk, who declared ‘Baba is God’. All of these people enthusiastically supported the project, and he came back with detailed blueprints of the operation. It was decided that the target area for this mission would be in Phoukhout district of Xieng Khuang Province. Dr. Yeoh subsequently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Lao Sai Organization and the Government of Lao for the project.

 
The Provincial Governor in Laos pledging support
The letter of agreement signed with the Laos government

Having surveyed the forward areas, Bro. Dr. Yeoh had some idea of the terrain, lifestyles of the people, and broadly what to expect when the main party of Sevadals reached the forward distribution area. Then the rest of the team was briefed in Singapore.

Typical Laotians of the mountains...they are inaccessible, poor and illiterate

Final detailed plans were arranged and 5,000 treated, long-lasting nets were purchased. While being more expensive than the normal treated nets, these are ideal for the Laos project, since the villages are so inaccessible. Also, plans were completed to purchase 20 tonnes of rice for distribution in the villages and for transporting them. The team structures were developed. A medical doctor, Dr. Ho Soon Lye, volunteered to accompany the team and conduct a medical camp in the forward areas. He would also serve as the medical officer for the team. Dr. Ho briefed all the volunteers and provided them anti-malarial drugs and a host of vitamins to prepare them for the trip.

 
Inspecting a village distribution site
A typical village kitchen in Laos

The Advance Party

On 6th of March, Bro. Dr. Yeoh, along with Bro. CS Teng, went to Laos as the advance party to make preparations for the main group. The advance party held final consultations with all concerned and did a physical inventory of the 5,000 nets, 20 tonnes of rice, and 12 heavy-duty trucks that would be used for the delivery. The advance party also held detailed discussions with the truck drivers and other members to study the routes, and made adjustments to the directions and the villages to be covered. The earlier plan to bring the villagers to collection points was dropped and it was decided that the volunteers would go deep into the remote villages to deliver relief at their doorsteps. Once this was done, they made preparations to brief the main party.

 
Sainets neated packed for transport and distribution
The village elders in Laos help in planning
 
Typical village folk of Laos
A Buddhist monk who says "Sai Baba Is God"

The Distribution

The main party, consisting of 22 volunteers from Singapore, left Singapore on 9th March 2006 under the leadership of Bro. Thiagarajan. They reached the forward area (Phon Savanh) on the night of 10th March after a 14-hour bus journey and met with the advance party. They were joined by 60 volunteers and others from Laos and Thailand, besides a number of Lao Government officials and Buddhist monks. The distribution was planned for March 11th and 12th. The volunteers were divided into 12 teams and these teams went in different directions with their route maps and briefs.

 
Trucks getting ready to leave
A typical team - volunteers, monk, govenrment officials

Each team carried a pre-determined number of ‘Sainets’ and a tonne of rice per village. They planned to leave very early in the morning, reach the village, complete the distribution within 2-3 hours, and return to base camp in Phon Savanh by night fall. The volunteers sat on top of the rice bags at the back of the trucks—a unique experience for the Singaporeans. When the Singapore team reached the Laotian border, some of the volunteers were not allowed entry by immigration officials. Then all the volunteers prayed together, chanted the Gayatri mantra and again approached the officials. This time, they received approval to enter! The team saw this as Bhagavan’s leela.

 
Loading the Sainets into the trucks
Every village was distribued rice along with Sainets
 
Logistics was a challenge in the hilly country
The laotians helping the Sai volunteers

Teams 1A (Bros. Karthik & Sujoy, along with Lao and Thai volunteers) and 1B (Bros. Siva and Mathi, along with Lao and Thai volunteers) had the toughest tasks of reaching the most remote villages, traveling on specialized military-spec trucks called GAT66s. They had to travel over 7 hours each way through the most rugged terrain, holding on to rods on the back of the truck, and to their lives! The dirt tracks they traveled through had enough space for one truck, and one mistake by the driver would crash them 3,000 ft down the cliff. They traveled up the mountains, through streams and rivers without bridges. Their satellite communication systems failed to work in the mountainous territory, and they couldn’t communicate with anyone else—even between team 1A and 1B. They felt Swami’s presence all the way and owe their survival to His blessings. The cooked food they carried became spoilt and they had to survive on dry rations. One of the team members, who had served in the Singapore army, felt that this was far tougher than any army expedition he had ever undertaken. All through the journey they experienced continuous bouncing and pounding.

 
It was all muddy roads...
Sometimes trucks had to make way for themselves
 
They had luxury of such roads only for short streches
The terrain was a great training for the mind and the body

At the village, the team delivered the nets and the food to the villagers. The villagers brought with them their ‘family book’, which contained their details. Based on this, they were given 1 or 2 family-sized Sainets. The rice was delivered to the ‘rice-banks’, which are collectively used by the villagers in emergencies. The whole distribution took under 3 hours. All the villagers assembled to meet the team and were very hospitable. By the time the two teams headed back to base, it was already dark. On the return journey, team 1B’s truck ran out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, and since their communications equipment was not working, they were stranded. Meanwhile, team 1A, which finished early, got delayed on the way when a broken-down truck blocked their way. When they finally were able to proceed, they found the stranded team 1B and rescued them. Had their return not been delayed, they wouldn’t have been able to rescue them. Again, the team members viewed this as Bhagavan’s leela. All through the operations, everyone felt Bhagavan coming to their aid at every stage. Throughout the perilous journey, all the team members were singing bhajans and saying ‘Sairam’.

 
The typical hilly landscape of Laos
A Laos village on the mountains

Next to team 1, teams 2 (Bros. Viva & Raju) and 3 (Bros. Muthu & Steven) had the toughest routes. Bro. Viva noted that the roads were so dangerous that even one mistake would have caused the vehicle to slip into the deep valleys below. The road conditions were so rough that if they didn’t hold on to the rails they could have been bumped off the truck, perhaps into the valley. And holding on to the truck for so many hours all day long was a big challenge for the volunteers. At some points on the way, the gradients were so steep that the volunteers had to alight for the truck to have enough horsepower to pull itself up the slope. After delivery of the nets and rice, the trucks returned empty, and the volunteers were sitting on the bare floor of the truck. The team suffered shortages of food and water, and fuel ran precariously low. Nevertheless, the team’s spirits remained high; the Laotian drivers were excellent, and their faith in Bhagavan kept them going through this dangerous mission. It was gratifying to see the gratitude and happiness on the faces of the villagers at receiving the relief material which they so sorely needed.

 
Distribution in progress...Sai Volunteer with the yellow badge
A recipent family with the Sainets
 
A monk distributing...
A Laotian very pleased with the gift

Team 3 (Bros. Muthu and Steven) had a unique and difficult experience. Firstly, they also had a very hard and long route. When they finished their distribution of nets and rice, they discovered that the lights on their truck had failed. As it was already getting dark, it was impossible to navigate through the dangerous route back home. So the team was forced to stay back in the village—something they had not prepared for. The villagers were very hospitable, and by nightfall the mosquitoes had arrived in strength. The team members used the Sainets to protect themselves and spent that night sleeping on mats in huts without any amenities. They had run out of bottled water and had to drink the village water. Thus, this team was not only exposed to the perils of the journey but also to health risks. It was only through Bhagavan’s grace that they all remained safe.

 
The Beneficiaries of SaiNet
Victims of Malaria, now showered with Love

Team 4 (Bros. Ramesh & Vijay) and Team 5 (Bros. Priveen) had similar experiences to report. They found the villagers to be friendly, dignified, and clean. The officials were very cooperative.

Team 6 (Bro. Sathya) and Team 7 (Bro. Kuna) reported communication problems since they didn’t speak Laotian. However, the Lao and Thai volunteers were able to speak with the villagers, and bridge the communication challenge. It was an excellent multinational relief operation and each team complemented the other.

Team 8 (Bros. CS Teng, Thiaga and Sis. Shantini) visited villages like Mian, Khoung and Sack, which were closer to Phon Savanh. The team returned to base earlier and waited for the others to return. This team met with villages which are more developed and have electricity and TV.

Team 9 (Bros. Chong Ah Man & Bro. Dilip) were delayed due to their truck breaking down. They were amazed to watch the driver open up the engine and repair the truck on the spot, and get it back on track. Because of the delay, villagers from the neighboring village who had come and waited went home. So, after unloading the vehicles, the team sent their truck to the other village to bring them their supplies so both the villages could equally benefit.

The Medical Camp

Bro. Dr. Ho Soon Lye set up a medical camp at the forward base. He saw about 200 patients in two days, mostly in the ages of 40-80 years. He found the people reasonably healthy. There was no signs of diarrhea or heart diseases. There were, however, many people with skin diseases caused by overexposure to the elements. Most had ulcers and pains on account of fatigue. There were also appeared to be cases of iodine deficiency. He gave out anti-fungal cream, antibiotics and dressings.

 
A medical camp set up by Sai Volunteers for the rural community of Laotians

The Water Project Investigation

The team had 2 engineers, Bros. Loka and Vashi, who had gone to Laos to investigate the water problem there. They examined the water sources in several villages. There is no public water supply system to these remote villages. The team returned with water samples and suggestions on how to provide water to some of the villages in an inexpensive manner, should the organization decide to launch a future water project in Laos.

Recounting a Volunteer’s Experience - As told by Bro. Palghat Sivaramakrishnan

"Thanks to Swami, I was fortunate to take part in this noble project. I would like to give a short prelude to the trip.

When the announcement was made in our Sai Centre sometime in early February about this project and a request for volunteers to take part, I was among those who signed up early. As the D-day approached, I received a call from the coordinator that the team needed to be reduced due to certain constraints. I was disappointed as I was looking forward to the trip.

The following Monday I received an e-mail stating that some of the senior Corporate Officers (from USA) were visiting Singapore during the same week of the proposed trip to Laos. I thought perhaps that Swami wanted me to be in Singapore and that was reason why I was not part of the team. On the following Saturday, I received a call from the coordinator that there was a need for several more volunteers and asked whether I would be interested. Without a second thought I jumped with the answer ‘Yes!’

Then, the realization dawned about the Corporate Officers’ visit to Singapore. I just let Swami take care of it. The early Monday morning mail had a surprise in store: the impending visit of the officers was cancelled!

This is how it all began:

We reached the main district Phon Savan in Laos around 7:00 pm. Immediately there was a briefing about the villages that needed to be covered, specific instructions about the route, the time restrictions which we had to adhere and an umpteen number of do’s and don’ts.

 

During the briefing it was mentioned that they were 10 villages to be reached on the first day and they were numbered 1 to 9, with the first village split into 1A and 1B. It was also explained that the first route (no.1) would be the most difficult one and the last route (no.9) the least difficult. At this time, no one had the faintest idea about the difficulty involved.

After that, teams were formed for each route. Brother Mathi and I chose route 1B. Once this was completed, we were provided a route map which had the approximate time plan. There was a side note saying ‘Vehicle GAS 66-4 X 4’ on our map. We wondered what that meant and were later informed that only a special vehicle, the ‘GAS 66-4 X 4’, could traverse the rough terrain of routes 1A and 1B. Fortunately for us, Swami’s grace buffered us against the shocking reality of what lay in store.

The following morning, we were all set by 7:00. A few Thai and Laotian Brothers and Sisters joined each team. One Buddhist Monk and one district official also joined us. The only commonality amongst us was “Sai”. The vehicle we were going to use was a Russian made gas-run military truck with a huge wheel base which was about 4-5 feet in diameter. Some of the vehicles were open trucks and some were closed with tarpaulin.

Our spiritual journey started at around 8.30 am. We drove on a tar road for about 30 minutes until the vehicle took a turn onto a dusty path. This went on for about an hour and a half. We assumed the driver was taking a short cut. Finally the dusty road ended at the foot of a mountain. There was no sign of any path or road. The vehicle labored up the hill very slowly and then we went all the way down only to reach the foot of another mountain! For the next 6 hours we continued on like this, climbing up and down mountain after mountain without any sign of a village or a road.

Since we were sitting in the rear part of the truck, we were continually thrown up and down as if on a roller coaster. At times we had to quickly duck and crouch down to avoid being struck by thick branches and thorny bushes. On both sides of us were deep ravines. We traveled precariously close to the edge of the mountainside and each time the truck dangerously swerved to the rim we shouted, “Sairam, Sairam”. Similarly, whenever the vehicle struggled up or go down a mountain, the thunderous roar of ‘Sairam’ would encourage it onward!

We finally reached the village at 2.45 pm. We were behind schedule by 3 hours. It took us a few hours to distribute the nets. We left the village around 5:00 pm returning through the same mountainous route, with every part of our bodies being battered and bruised. On our return journey in the pitch darkness we encountered even more problems and it was Sai’s grace which undoubtedly pulled us through.

To summarize, it was the most humbling experience I ever had. It was His will that the neediest persons on earth should receive His grace however remote they were situated. It was He who made it happen. We were just fortunate to be part of the project.

 
 
A group of Sai Volunteers with the Laotians

When we reached the village, young and old, boys and girls and children were all eagerly waiting for us. After our distribution, the entire village saw us off with innocent and loving looks on their faces. For the first time, I saw divinity in each one of them.

The journey was a potent reminder to me that the ‘Spiritual Path’ requires steadfast devotion and Atmanivedana (total surrender) to Swami.

Some Lessons

The team learnt through direct experience how Bhagavan protected them all through their difficult missions. It also helped them improve teamwork. Even though the project was planned for nearly six months, lack of information threw up a lot of surprises. Overall, the team is now in a better position to execute future projects under the umbrella of Sathya Sai Social Service, Singapore. The most important lesson was that when we undertake Swami’s projects, no matter how daunting, Sathya Sai is always there to see us through them safely and successfully.

We are grateful to Mr. Sriram of Singapore Sai Organisation for lovingly sharing with us this story and all the telling pictures.

– Heart2Heart Team


 
     
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Vol 4 Issue 08 - AUGUST 2006
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