From a distance it sounds like the chanting of monks. Only as one approaches the building, set in the lush fields of a school playground, does it become apparent who is making the sound: dozens of girls quietly reading books.
Sat on rows of wooden chairs laid out in the library, they mouth the words as they trace a finger slowly along the text, breaking off only to admire the colourful pictures. Though each child is reading a different story, their words mingle to form a gentle hum, lending an almost sacred air to the bright little room.
In Laos, a school library is indeed sacred. Books are rare in the isolated villages where four-fifths of the landlocked nation’s 7m people eke out the slenderest of livings. The communist government has been slow in implementing its theoretical commitment to free education. Literacy rates have risen, though many people who have learnt to read soon forget because they lack reading materials. According to Room to Read, the charity that helped build and stock this library and hundreds of others like it, still only 60 per cent of women and 77 per cent of men can read and write.
Many schools, often ramshackle thatched structures with leaking roofs, cannot offer a full range of tuition. Sometimes teachers instruct two or three years of classes simultaneously – if they have not ditched their class to earn supplementary income elsewhere. Student dropout rates are high, especially for girls, who typically quit at around 13. Many parents would prefer a helping hand at home or in the paddy fields.