The 'elephant schools' of Thailand

Print edition : January 17, 2003

As part of the non-formal education programme, children in Jok Phok village watch Thai language programmes on television. - PICTURES: PATRICK AVENTURIER/GAMMA

Trained elephants are at the forefront of a unique campaign to reach education to three million people in Thailand's remote corners.

ONE king wanted to teach the Romans a lesson and another wanted to teach his people to read and write and provide them with some lessons for better living. Although vastly separated by time, both used elephants; in fact, the second one continues to do so.

Milk is distributed free to the children as part of the non-formal education programme.-

In the Second Punic War, Hannibal used elephants to cross the Alps and defeat the Romans; in modern times King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand is using the gentle giants to crush illiteracy in the remote, inaccessible corners of his kingdom.

Elephants have walked a long way, performing a variety of roles, ever since man managed to tame them. In Thailand, with tree felling all but stopped as a result of the government's drive against deforestation, the large herds of elephants that were used to move the logs were rendered jobless.

In an effort to reach education to the three million illiterate people in far-flung areas of Om Koi district and integrate them into the mainstream, Thailand's Non-Formal Education Department came up with the novel idea of using pachyderms under the project, "bringing school to the children".

Elephants cross the mountains of Om Koi district in northern Thailand.-

Started in late 2001 on an experimental basis, the project has reached 46 villages, taking to the ethnic Karen, Hmong and Akas groups books and learning aids, including writing boards and vocational skill-learning materials, video and audio cassette players, television sets, satellite dishes and receivers, electricity generators and modifiers with equipment. The budget for the project is 11,30,000 baht (one baht is equal to Rs.1.10), half of which is spent on hiring the elephants.

Three teams each comprising two elephants, their mahouts, two teachers and two health workers travel three different routes, stopping at a village for three or four days primarily to teach the tribal people to read and write the Thai language, apart from providing them with useful life-supporting skills and knowledge about the environment, farm practices, hygiene and medicine. Every two or three weeks, the team returns to each village for a follow-up and evaluation.

The most common mode of teaching and interaction includes the use of loud speakers to announce each day's programme; makeshift classrooms; public fora to share experiences; exhibitions to facilitate educational guidance and to impart basic knowledge on cleanliness, health and nutrition, demonstration of vocational skills and cultural and entertainment shows through videos.

Elephants leave Jok Phok village.-

According to Non-Formal Education Director Dr. Athorn Chantawimon, the tuskers are used as a cheap alternative to cars. At the cost of buying and maintaining a car, 3,000 more people can be taught basic reading and writing skills using the pachyderms. They serve the remote northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, which are inaccessible by vehicles, and other places where even helicopters cannot reach. According to him, the project is a big success as the backward and illiterate tribal people are now not only able to read and write but are being drawn into the national mainstream.

Says Athorn: "The King gave us a mandate to eliminate illiteracy. We had only two choices - bring children from the remote areas to school or take the school to the children. We chose the latter."

HOW did the idea of using elephants come about? According to Wichai Lowilert, Director, Chiang Mai's Non-Formal Education Centre in Bangkok (one of the project partners), it just "popped up'' during a planning session at his office. The northern regions have remained outside the Education Department's reach largely because of their inaccessibility. While nearly 95 per cent of the country's 62 million people are literate, educating the three million people living in the remote areas has always been a problem.

According to Athorn, in the past, elephants were used to wage wars. More recently, they were being used to clear forests or take tourists on walks through the forests. Today, these pachyderms are helping to educate the minority ethnic groups.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej.-APICHART WEERAWONG/AP

According to Surapong Chaiwong, the Deputy Director of the Non-Formal Education Centre, who accompanied the first team last year, the idea of using elephants for the project stemmed from the fact that elephants were used to transport rice to these areas. "It is an innovative idea. And it clicked," he says.

Like elephants, teachers are crucial to this project. All of them are young and are fired with the zeal to help the underprivileged, particularly the tribal people and minority communities such as the Karens in the hills of Chiang Mai where the children had not seen a textbook until the elephant school reached them. According to Wichai, the teachers are warriors fighting illiteracy using guerilla strategies in areas where normal education cannot be provided.

Thailand has a good record in adult education. As early as the 1930s, it conducted a mass adult literacy campaign and also enacted a law imposing an annual fine on illiterate people in the age group of 20-45. These had to be terminated because of the pressures of the Second World War. The literacy campaign was resurrected in the 1970s by setting up a Non-Formal Education Department, primarily to help the underprivileged. Non-formal organisations were set up at the district, provincial and regional levels. Yet, the tribal areas remained unreached.

According to Surapong, who went with the team to Om Koi village (not far from the Golden Triangle on the Thailand, Laos and Myanmar borders), each elephant carries several hundred kilograms of supplies in specially designed aluminium cases. The elephants are able to negotiate any kind of terrain including the slippery hillsides and swamps.

The team is greeted with joy in every village. Surapong says that when the first images appear on the screen of an open-air theatre, the audience cries out in excitement. Adults, who quickly get initiated into the project, watch open-mouthed the world famous Phuket beaches teeming with tourists from around the world that are within their own country. Children are also initiated into the non-formal education project with the screening of a Harry Potter movie.

The next day, the whole village learns from a gardener the art of "sep yot" (plant propagation by cutting), and a nurse tells them about the evils of malaria and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and various ways of preventing them. Children are taught basic mathematics and the Thai language in tiny makeshift rooms. A barber tries his hand on locks that have never been touched by oil, shampoo or a pair of scissors.

When it is time to leave one village, Surapong asks six-year-old Pati, the most intelligent child in the village and the only one to be taught English, how he enjoyed the classes. Pat comes the reply: "I like television. But I prefer to plant rice and herd the buffaloes."

If today, both children and adults in remote corners of Thailand wait for a team of educators to learn from, and be entertained by, it is thanks more to the elephants than to the government or the policy-makers. Of course, Athorn's elephants will have to make many more trips before these tribal people become literate and take to modern ways of life.

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