February 7, 2022 | 10:05 am GMT+7 Truong Chi Hung
Bang was my schoolmate back in middle school. After finishing ninth grade he dropped out though his results were the second best in the entire school.
At the time Uncle Sau, his father, said his family had plenty of farmlands, and so there was no need to study, and staying at home and farming was enough for him to live a healthy life.
At the age of 16 Bang just did as he was told by the adults. A few years later he became his family’s breadwinner. He was by himself taking care of two hectares of lands and growing three crops a year, and so there was never a shortage of food.
Then he got married, had children and built a family like all others in my hometown.
People in the Mekong Delta have a saying: “Barrels can be used to measure rice but no one uses barrels to measure letters,” meaning food and clothing are always top priority, but getting an education, while nice, is not an imperative.
“Only hunger kills, ignorance does not kill,” people in my hometown say.
That mentality has been passed down from generation to generation, and so people here often refuse to let their children have proper education. Many families let their children go to school only until they know how to read and write, and then have them drop out.
The place has vast lands for farming, with plenty of rice above land and fish under water, and so famines are rare. This is also why people do not pay much attention to education, especially in the countryside.
The other day I went on a business trip to Ganh Hao in Bac Lieu Province’s Dong Hai District. While driving, I saw a middle-aged man making signals on the side of the road. At first I thought he wanted a ride, as it is common for people in this area to ask for a lift. But it turned out that he wanted me to help him read the instructions on the packaging of shrimp feed he had bought.
He told me that while the shop owner did give him the instructions, he could not remember them clearly, and could not read the instructions either since he was illiterate. He was therefore afraid he might use the feed incorrectly and cause damage to his shrimps.
I know that people like him are not rare in this region. Many farmers in the Mekong Delta cannot read even a single word, and when people cannot even read the instructions on the packaging of fertilizers or animal feed, it is a luxury to talk about crop and livestock restructuring and smart agriculture to develop the region.
In recent years the delta has faced many challenges. Environmental pollution, excessive use of crop protection chemicals and the use of destructive fishing practices have almost completely depleted fishery resources.
The ‘bumper crop, crashing price’ phenomenon of massive price drops caused by an oversupply due to good harvests also causes farmers to suffer.
And when the fields, gardens and rivers of the Mekong Delta are no longer capable of nurturing its people, massive migration is inevitable.
A report by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry revealed that 1.3 million people from the delta have migrated to the southeastern region in the past decade.
Neang Sa B. is a Khmer girl. While in 12th grade in Chau Doc Town in An Giang Province she had to quit school and go and become a factory worker in Binh Duong Province bordering HCMC.
A few months later she got married and recently, at the age of 19, she gave birth to a child. Thus, while her friends of the same age were studying for a bright future in university lecture halls, Sa B. was busy looking after her child in a tiny rented room near the industrial park hundreds of kilometers away from her hometown.
Her small family lives entirely off the income of her husband, who also works in a factory there.
In the delta students of working age who drop out of school to become factory workers in Binh Duong or Saigon like Sa B. are too numerous to count.
More alarmingly, even elementary and middle school students are dropping out.
Vo Dieu Thanh, a teacher at the Cho Vam Town Elementary School in Phu Tan District, An Giang, told me that every year after the Lunar New Year her school would lose dozens of students.
They are mostly children of parents who had gone to do odd jobs in Binh Duong, returned home for the Lunar New Year, and forced their children to accompany them to Binh Duong when they returned.
Quach Ngoc Thuan, a middle school teacher in Ke Sach District, Soc Trang Province, also told me that the issue of students dropping out to accompany their parents to Binh Duong is a persistent one.
Every year his school uses every means possible to encourage students to stay, but to no avail.
On arriving in Binh Duong or Saigon, most of these children do not get to resume their studies since their parents do not carry out transfer formalities in accordance with regulations.
Other provinces such as Kien Giang, Dong Thap, Bac Lieu, Ca Mau, Vinh Long, and Ben Tre also suffer from the same problem.
In other words, the exodus of students to Binh Duong or Saigon after dropping out of school has in recent years spread to the whole of the Mekong Delta.
For these uneducated children, the door to the future is almost shut. Then what about the future of the delta region?
When the Covid-19 pandemic began, agricultural products could not sell in many areas in the delta, making people’s lives difficult.
Many companies and factories in the southeastern region were also closed, pushing a large number of workers into unemployment and even hunger. Only then did many people realize that proper education is the only surefire strategy for long-term stability in life.
Quitting school to go and work in Binh Duong or Saigon should only be done out of necessity.
People in the delta have become tired of the waves of migration followed by homecoming. Their dream is for local provinces to build more industrial parks so that they could work while still living close to their families and neighbors, and their children need not have to suffer from lack of education.
This is also a fundamental solution to the problem of impromptu migration, which has been having consequences for the region.
I believe that in areas with large industrial parks such as Binh Duong, Saigon and Dong Nai too it is necessary to freshly evaluate education and welfare policies for migrants.
In the last few months, with Covid basically under control, many companies have started to reopen. They have been using every means to attract and recruit workers. However, in the list of benefits they offer to attract workers I see no mention of assistance to workers with their children’s education.
If this situation persists of parents going to work in factories and their children having to quit school and move in with them into cramped rented rooms near industrial parks where they spend all day glued to mobile phones or game consoles, we would have deprived these children of both their childhood and future.
And the future of the Mekong Delta depends on those generations that are gradually being deprived of their childhood and right to education.
*Truong Chi Hung is a writer who has published several books on southern Vietnam. The opinions expressed are his own.