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Teaching where no Thai has gone before -- and getting there by e

Sunday, January 20, 2002

U-JAE, Thailand -- Schooling is finally reaching the isolated tribes of northern Thailand's hill country, thanks to idealistic new teachers, satellite TV dishes -- and sure-footed elephants.

Working on a shoestring budget, Thailand's Non-Formal Education Department is using elephants to pack in teachers along with books and other educational materials, including television sets.

Many of the teachers are young graduates fired by a zeal to help the underprivileged, such as the minority Karens in the hills of Chiang Mai province, many of whom had never seen a textbook.

The teachers are "warriors who fight illiteracy with a guerrilla warfare strategy in areas where the normal way of education cannot be provided," said Wichai Lowilert, director of Chiang Mai's Non-Formal Education Center in Bangkok, the capital.

He said the idea of using elephants just "popped up" during a planning session at his office. A pilot project was launched at the end of November in Omkoi district of Chiang Mai province, 360 miles north of Bangkok.

"We've used horses and mules, but they can only serve some areas. They could not reach people in very remote areas," Wichai said.

Accessible only by foot

Thailand has had a surplus of elephants, particularly in the north, since the logging work they were raised for has just about died out as the country's forests have been depleted.

Surapong Chaiwong, the non-formal education center's deputy director, who accompanied the first team, said there are 46 villages in the north that are accessible only by foot.

"Making teachers walk there by themselves is no use. As elephants are already used in transporting rice, plowing fields and so on, we see the animals as the best carriers of knowledge to those areas," he said.

Wichai said that three teams, each comprising two elephants, their mahouts -- or trainers -- and two teachers, will travel three different routes, carrying with them video equipment, texts and a satellite dish.

Each team will stop at a village for two days to teach children and adults in traditional school subjects. They also will provide "some extra knowledge" to adults such as agricultural techniques and health care, Wichai said.

The teams will cycle through the villages, returning to each after two to three weeks.

The Non-formal Education Department estimates about 3 million of Thailand's 62 million people are illiterate, which gives the country a high literacy rate of about 95 percent. But illiteracy is much higher in remote areas.

Surapong said about 10,000 villagers in Omkoi district are illiterate, which makes it difficult for government workers to teach about such things as nutrition and health care.

"The program will ignite the villagers' interest in learning to read and write," he said. "They're illiterate because the place basically has nothing to stimulate them. The TV, videotapes and community activities will make them learn willingly."

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