by Tô Thị Bảy
Project Officer for Community Development and
Peacebuilding Programs, 2002-2011
My name is Tô Thị Bảy. I left MCC almost ten years ago, but my heart is still full of sweet memories from my time with MCC. I fondly remember my MCC colleagues, our partners in the countryside, the people we served, the happy children who received new classrooms, and even the roads we traveled on and the drivers who drove us to different project sites.
One of the most impressive things about MCC’s model was how, even with very small grants, we could create significant practical benefits for poor people. Before I came to MCC, I worked for another INGO that received millions of dollars of fundings from USAID every year. When I first came to MCC, I wondered how we could even do development projects with the funding available—$20,000-30,000 USD per year in four different project locations seemed like next to nothing! The first project I was in charge of included several activities, including two very interesting ones I often remember: raising cats to protect agricultural products from rats, and the construction of classrooms for kindergartens.
For the cat-raising project, we provided each family a very small loan of 50,000 VND—maybe equivalent to $3 USD at the time—so they could buy a cat. Even though this project used a very small amount of money, it proved a huge success. After only two years of the project there were significantly fewer rats in the family’s homes and fields. The farmers were very happy with this outcome.
The construction of kindergarten classrooms was also very significant. It is now hard to believe that in the early 2000s there were crushingly poor areas less than 100 kilometers from Hà Nội, including Sơn Thủy, Đoan Hạ and Đào Xá communes of Thanh Thủy district, Phú Thọ Province. In Sơn Thủy, there was no kindergarten building, and young children had to study in the local church or in family homes. MCC provided a small grant to the commune as a catalyst, and soon, via donations from partners, parents, and other stakeholders, enough money was raised to build a kindergarten building. At the opening ceremony for the kindergarten facility, some of the teachers burst into tears, saying that this was the first time in more than ten years that they had a school opening ceremony at their own school. In addition to this school, MCC contributed funds for the building and renovating of classrooms in many other places, bringing happiness to many children, parents, and teachers.
As the MCC’s project officer charged with starting MCC Việt Nam’s Peacebuilding Program, I had many interesting experiences. Some experiences were challenging, some were interesting, and sometimes they were both challenging and interesting! Việt Nam had experienced war for years, only beginning to enjoy peace from 1975 onward. The name “peacebuilding” often confused our partners. “We’ve gained peace, why do we need to build peace?” they would ask.
One particular memory from a conflict management training comes to mind. We often held seminars on conflict management skills for grassroot mediation groups, and this was one of many training classes I delivered for our local partners. On this particular day, the training was in Bình Xuyên District, Vĩnh Phúc Province. Our group from MCC traveled out to the project together; I was to conduct the training, and Country Representative Ruth Jantzi and another project officer, Ms. Lê Vân Anh, were there on other MCC business.
We arrived early, so Ruth and Vân Anh decided to attend the training with me. When they came into the room, they were surprised to see a hall crowded with people—there were around 90 participants! Since we typically held only one class in each commune, many people wanted to attend. Attendees were members of grassroot mediation groups including village heads, village Communist Party Secretaries, and heads of mass organizations such as the Fatherland Front, Women’s Unions, Youth’s Unions, Farmers’ Associations, Elderly Associations, etc. Most of them were older than me, and, of course, much more experienced in solving conflicts than I was! Some of them were surely wondering what I had to teach them.
After I introduced myself and the basics of the session, I started the training by asking the participants to answer the following question: what is conflict?
I asked it out loud. There was silence.
I wrote the question on the blackboard. There was silence.
I asked again: “Can you tell me what conflict is?” There was more silence.
I asked again, and a gray-haired old man, who must have been more or less 80 years old, stood up and said, in a clearly unhappy voice, “we expect you to come to provide us with new knowledge and new materials, why are you asking us what conflict is? If we didn’t know what conflict was, how would we have solved so many conflicts over the years? Please let us know what you are going to teach us and what materials you’re going to provide!”
I looked out at the crowd and saw questioning and worried eyes. I heard some soft voices supporting the man’s accusative comment. It was clear that even Ruth was wondering how I would respond to his question.
I kept my patience. I responded to him, saying “at the very beginning of the session, I said that I didn’t come here to teach you anything. Rather, I came here to share what I’ve learned as well as learn from you all. We’ll share practical problem solving experiences so that we can help each other improve our conflict management process. I’d like to know what you all know already, so that I can avoid repeating or speaking about things you already know, saving time and making sure the class is interesting.” There were signs of relief around the room, and I continued the training as I had planned.
Later that day, the man who had asked that question came up to me and apologized. He gave me a poem he had written both as an apology and explanation. In the poem, he said that though he and the other students were experienced solvers of conflict, they always had more to learn and that there were never enough people working to solve conflicts in healthy ways.
I was happy to help them as much as I could by both sharing and learning, as is the MCC way.