Beyond Borders: Small scale village development brings big changes in Laos
Join World Concern Laos country rep. Joshua Pascua and head of global operations Peter Macharia for a lighthearted conversation and stories from rural villages in Laos.
Check out photos, videos, and behind-the-scenes stories from our guests on the podcast. You won’t want to miss these exclusive extras!
The End of the Road looks different around the world, but there are similarities when it comes to the excitement that happens when communities move from extreme poverty to hope and change. Not far outside the small, bustling city of Pakse, Laos, the tropical mountainous landscape is dotted with tiny, rural villages—some only accessible during the dry season by motorcycle, as muddy terrain cuts them off when it rains. Listen to the stories (and even a special song!) from those who live and work in Laos.
Beyond Borders: Small scale village development brings big changes in Laos
Cathy Herholdt: Welcome to the End of the Road podcast. My name is Cathy, and I'm your host and tour guide as we journey together to some of the most remote, challenging places on the planet. I'm so excited to have you along for the ride. So buckle up, we're going to the end of the road. Our guests today are Joshua Pascua, he is the acting country representative for World Concern in Laos, and Peter Macharia. Peter's the Senior Director of Operations for World Concern, so he oversees World Concern's work all over the world. And I'm talking with both of them today. They are in Laos. They are at the World Concern Office, which is in Pakse, Laos. Is that right?
Joshua Pascua: Yes.
Cathy Herholdt: Okay. Well, thank you both for joining us today.
Joshua Pascua: Thank you, Cathy, for having us.
Cathy Herholdt: I want to just start with, Joshua, with you. You are working with World Concern, they're in Laos, but you're from the Philippines originally, is that right?
Joshua Pascua: Yes, Ms. Cathy. I am from the Philippines, yeah.
Cathy Herholdt: Okay. How did you end up in Laos? What brought you there?
Joshua Pascua: Well actually, at first, I don't imagine coming to Laos. I don't even have plans to go out of the Philippines, working abroad. Yeah, I can say it's a calling. My longtime friend, Ms. Leia, sent me this online opening and I sent an application. Yeah, I was interviewed and I was brought here in Laos. How I'd say it's a calling? Because at first, I just working for previous INGOs in the Philippines, working on various functions, finance, procurement, logistics. One time, my friends is asking me, "So, what are you really focusing on in your work? I mean, you're finance, but you're working on different functions." And I said, "I don't know, God is just putting me in this work." Then, that open position in Laos, which is, "You'll need to manage finance, procurement, operations, IT and HR." I realized, "Oh yeah, God has just prepared me for this position." Now, I've been working with World Concern for three years, handling this position, and God is giving me now an opportunity as well to do an acting role for the country program. That's my story working in World Concern, Laos.
Cathy Herholdt: Yeah, that's great. Did you want to move to another country? I mean, how do you feel about being there in Laos, and how does your family feel about it?
Joshua Pascua: Well, at first, we are worried, anxious, because I don't know about Laos. I know only about Philippines. I mean, I read some of what's in Laos. What I know in Laos is that Christianity is not open and it's restricted, so that's add up to the worry. But my wife and I prayed a lot, really seek God's guidance. And it's on the discernment, God is really want to bring me here. And it's like papers, processes, it's smooth sailing and we say, "Yeah, really God wants you to be there." And so I'm here just doing the best I can and I'm open where God leads me. But I believe right now God is working many things in Laos, opening many opportunities. And so I'm glad to be here working.
Cathy Herholdt: That's great. So is your wife there with you or is she in the Philippines?
Joshua Pascua: That's an amazing story again as well. At first, when I arrive here in 2018, I'm alone since... Well the plan is to come here, but since my son have a condition and we can't find a school for him here, I went alone and my wife and son stayed in the Philippines before COVID. And after COVID I went back and just this June without any plans, when we have a training in Bangkok, my wife and son Pat went to Bangkok meet me there and timely Laos removed all the restrictions, travel restrictions, and we just say, "Why not? We just go to Laos." And here we are since June and they are still here now.
Cathy Herholdt: Oh, wonderful. I'm so happy that you get to be together. That's great. What a great story. I love that. Yes. Awesome. So Peter, this is your first time in Laos. You've been to many of the countries if not all now that World Concern works in, but it's your first time in Laos and so you're there just on a field visit to probably support Joshua and get to see some of the work that's happening there. And so what are some of your first impressions of Laos as a place? Tell me a little bit about it.
Peter Macharia: Yeah, thank you Cathy. I've been wanting to come to Laos for a number of years before COVID, I tried twice, but it seems time was not the best timing. That got canceled. And then just before COVID, we had all the plans and I think I had even bought a ticket and then COVID came and so that again got canceled again. And so for me coming here I would say it's been wanting to come but just not been happening. And this has happened at the right time. I've really enjoyed my time here, meeting with the staff, meeting with government officials, meeting with the local communities, meeting with the different prayers, international development, people who are doing business. And it was been such a wonderful time just knowing people and getting to hear their stories. I mean you come here and you get quite inspired, the country is so beautiful.
I mean you feel like this is a place, is a discovered Laos is appraiser too. I really encourage anyone who want to visit, come and see and people are welcoming. It's a great country. I've been impressed by their food and I've been impressed by their landscape, the mountains, the rivers. And I came on the right time. When they have this big festival, what was it called, Joshua?
Cathy Herholdt: Boat racing festival.
Peter Macharia: Yeah, boat racing festival and it's like five days of event and it's people the whole... During the day and night, people are out celebrating and just having fun and I enjoyed that a lot. So it's been a great time for me here.
Cathy Herholdt: Oh, that's wonderful. Wow. It sounds great. I too was supposed to go to Laos in, I think it was 2019 Joshua, I don't know if you remember this, but I was all set to come and visit and get to see the work there and I was so excited. I had some meetings that were in Malaysia, so I was coming from Malaysia. I ran into visa troubles changing planes in Vietnam and they wouldn't let me go through because I didn't have a visa to go through Vietnam because I was changing airlines. If I hadn't been changing airlines, I would've been there. Anyway, it was super unfortunate and I had to go back home after my time in Malaysia. So it's still a hope for me that I could get there and see that beautiful country. Just the little bit of a description that you gave Peter makes me want to be there. So I imagine it's very green and lush and beautiful. And so Pakse is fairly close to the border of Thailand, is that right, Joshua?
Peter Macharia: Yes. Ms. Cathy, yeah,
Cathy Herholdt: Okay. I love it when you call me Ms. Cathy, it makes me feel young. About how far? Do you know how many kilometers it is from there to Thailand to the border?
Joshua Pascua: From the border of Thailand to Pakse, it's around 40 kilometers, 30 to 40 kilometers around that. Yeah, it's just very near.
Cathy Herholdt: Not far at all. So are there risks involved with being that close to the border in Thailand? Things like trafficking, things like migration and things like that that you have to consider that people there may not be aware of or tell me a little bit about that.
Joshua Pascua: Yes, you're correct. That's one of the concerns that the government is looking into and that's why also that's one part of our project here to provide orientation, awareness racing to the villages because we are also working with the villages near the border about safe migration, about human trafficking, and all those risks and problems they might encounter. And we heard stories from villages. And what is great right now on the five villages we work with on previous project is that they confirm that right now working with their village leaders, they ensure that when they're village communities or members are going outside of the country, they have proper documents. So that's also a great achievement of our project.
Cathy Herholdt: Wow, that's great. That's a big deal. I remember years ago hearing the stories of children, young girls, maybe 14, 15 years old, living in poverty. They're in the villages in Laos, just hoping for an opportunity to be able to earn some income to help support their families and would hear of an opportunity to work in a restaurant or a coffee shop or on a farm or something in Thailand. And even be encouraged by their parents to go because it sounded like a good opportunity. But some of those girls were not heard from again, or they came back traumatized by what they had experienced. And a lot of times those promises, those offers of good pay never materialized.
And so I think it's really great work that you and the team are doing to help educate people and let them know about the risks living that close to an international border. And like you said, having that proper documentation is one really great safeguard because they're not going to be able to go if they don't have that and their time there can be tracked and people know where they are. So how far are the villages where we're working from the office there? So when you guys have been this week driving out to the field, how far do you have to go?
Joshua Pascua: This is just an estimation. The nearest is around 10 kilometers. That's the village of Kauai I think. And the farthest is around 30 kilometers. That's almost near the border really.
Cathy Herholdt: Okay.
Joshua Pascua: It's not far. However, the travel going there is a bit difficult because of road conditions.
Cathy Herholdt: Oh, okay. Tell me a little bit about that. What are the roads like?
Joshua Pascua: Well, the roads are, how do I say, when it's rainy season, it's full of mud and when it's dry season... So if you would imagine a road after the mud dry dries up, so it's not even. And during summer when it's really very dry, the road becomes powder. So couple of or five inches thick of powdery road. So those are the road conditions going to the villages and that's what are the challenges we're encountering.
Cathy Herholdt: Okay. So imagine sometimes it's difficult, maybe even impossible to get to the villages at certain times a year if there's heavy rain or like you said, even during the dry season, it's slippery roads just for a different reason.
Joshua Pascua: You're correct. So mostly we also scheduled our activities. During rainy season, we don't go much to the community because the roads are flooded full of mud. And when you go to the villages you only use motorbikes or four by four vehicles.
Cathy Herholdt: So Peter, you've visited some of these communities this week. So describe what the villages look like as someone like me and the listeners today, haven't ever been there before. Take us on a little visual journey as the vehicle pulls up to the village and you step out, what do you see in front of you?
Peter Macharia: Yeah, I think, let me probably back up a bit. You're driving in Laos in the main highway, it's quite deceptive because you feel like, "Oh, this place is so great, so developed. The roads are wide, they're big and they're nice." But when a minute until you get out of the main road and you start driving to the villages. And you realize, "Oh, these are forgotten villages." And that's where now the end of the roads comes in because just a few meters from the main highway, the road is so bad that it's like bouncing the car, all of you as you're driving the village. And you pull into the village and it's just like in a community, they're waiting for you, excited to see you speak different language because of... I don't come from here, they try to as much as they can to express themselves of how happy they are to see you.
You're trying to do the same and you can see the joy in the air. And as we try to exchange our greetings and hug each other. And about the greetings here, a lot of respect, they expect respect to each other. And then you sit down and the sitting down is there, everyone sits on the floor, you're all the same, equal. No one is on a chair. You sit on the floor on the mud and you start talking about your stories and that excitement and just realizing we are all at the same level.
We're all created the image of God, we are the same. Just the difference is just where we live and probably how we look, but we are all the same. And then you realize poverty is everywhere. I mean and it's such a bad thing because one of the days we went to the field and we ask one of our colleagues ask about what is their vision or their aspiration and they say we want to see a youth, are young people engaged in gainful employment where they're able to earn a livelihood, they're able to earn some income because we don't want them to go out of the country and disappear.
And some of them have gone never to come back. And you can see the pain that they have and the dilemma they are in. They feel we stay with us children here and they don't have anything to do. Or should we let them go to the neighboring countries and to the other countries to find some things to do. So that is the challenge you feel and you're there feeling like crying with them as they go through that pain, as they express it. And then the women start talking about, we want to have clean water next to us, we don't want to spend the whole day going fetching green water.
Then, they talk about food. We want to have enough food to feed our families. And then you start them here, they start talking about other things like the experience or that they have had World Concern on issues of savings and income that now they're able to save their money through saving groups. They're able to borrow some money, go do business. When their student get sick, they don't have to sell their asset like a goat or a cow to take them to the hospital. They're able to borrow money from the group and take their kid to school. And that's super fulfilling. You feel like "Yes, you have added something in this community." And they're quite excited about it. So my experience in the community has been very life changing and my eyes tear a lot. So I listen to them and I embraced what they were doing, they were saying because I felt part of it.
Cathy Herholdt: I love that. Wow. What a great description. I feel like I'm there and getting to see. And also you did a great job of explaining some of the challenges that people face in that country.
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Cathy Herholdt: In a place like Laos where there is an ample amount of rain at certain times of the year, that doesn't necessarily mean that the water that is pooling in the ground near their homes is safe or clean to drink. And so they still have to walk a long ways. And even then probably the water that they're collecting from a pond or a stream or something like that isn't necessarily clean or safe. And so that's a challenge that families are facing as well as being able to earn enough money to support their families, to ensure everybody has nutritious food to eat, all of those things.
And so like you said, poverty really is very similar around the world and people face the same basic needs, but at the same time, there's some things that are unique to this part of the world. So if you think, Peter, your part of your job is to think globally, big picture about the mission of World Concern and we're only big enough to work in so many places. And so why Laos when you think about that, why is Laos a place that you feel like God has called World Concern to be?
Peter Macharia: When you think about Laos and I think about where we work, I see Laos as a very strategic place. One because poverty levels in Laos are very high. And as you enter this city of Paxos, there's this huge building. So this is where this business guy leaves and it's like Paris and then you walk away just a few miles from there and there's people that are in deep, deep poverty. So the disparity between those that are very rich and those that are very poor is quite huge. And at World Concern, we walk to the places where poverty is very high and Laos fits very well with that. We walk to a place where the church is weak or the church is not present and Laos fits very well. We've gone to many villages where they don't have churches. We've gone to many villages where the poverty is very high.
We went to this village, allow me to say this. We went one village and I ask, "Why these kids not in school?" And I was told, "Oh, their teachers is sick" and the other teacher say, "Oh, this school has only one teacher and that teacher's teaching three classes." So grade one, grade two, and grade three hired by one teacher in... And I started imagining, how does that happen? So when the teacher fall sick, the kids don't go to school. And I realized, "Wow." I look at those kids and I said, "These kids have dreams. Dreams that are real. They have a future, they have a aspiration." But these aspiration and dreams are being curtailed or being, barriers are being created, allow them for things that they're not responsible for. So for World Concern, we go to such people that God created in His own image and bring hope and give children hope that they can live up to their dreams. So a Laos is one of those places.
Cathy Herholdt: And I imagine there's some challenges to working in that country. I know that there have been struggles over the years with just getting, we want to work in a new area, want to reach a new area, and it's months and months and months to get the government approvals to work in that area and things like that. And then like you said, just accessibility, being able to get to the communities in order to serve them. There's some places there I know where World Concern has worked in the past that are just way up in the mountains and really hard to reach and really remote and there are a lot of challenges.
But that's again, exactly the type of place that World Concern is called to serve. Not shying away from those places that are difficult, but pressing in more and sticking it out until we can start to make some progress. So Joshua, you're there, you're seeing the work begin and unfold. You see these communities go from just starting to catch a glimpse that maybe things could be different, things could get better. They start to get a little bit of hope. So what is that like when first starting in a community and just helping them to catch the vision for transformation and how does that give you hope or where does your hope come from?
Joshua Pascua: Well for me, at first, my feeling it's feel of joy. We're hearing the testimonies from the villages we're in before. They are in real poverty. They don't know where to get their income. And now we're with our interventions, they were able to have hope. That gives me joy and also hope that other members of the community would be have lives of transformation. And also gives me joy that they feel that the love and hope that God is giving them, the love of Jesus Christ. Although we cannot openly mention about the love of Jesus Christ to them, but at least we were able to share with them how God really loved them and how to change their lives.
Cathy Herholdt: And you could show them by being there, by encouraging them. And so that's really great. When you've been out in the communities and doing the work there, is there anybody that you've met in one of those villages that really stands out in your mind that when you pray for the villages, for the people of Laos, when you're praying about maybe you had a hard day at work and you think, "I don't know if I could do this." Is there somebody that stands out in your mind that you just think, why I'm doing what I'm doing.
Joshua Pascua: Yes, Ms. Cathy. I've met this one village leader, the village chief. Mr. Peter met him as well. He have changed a lot from a hopeless guy to a guy with vision. When World Concern partners with his village and work with his village, he's very cooperative. He really wants his village to develop, his community members to experience the development and the change in their lives. And that's also gives him hope to pursue vision for his community, for the youth, for the women. And yeah, he's been helping us a lot and he's been working hard also for his community. And so that gives me encouragement when I see a situation where is there's no hope. There is so much challenges, so much difficulties. There is hope in terms of opportunities. So as long as you have hope and look for those opportunities, God will work with you.
Peter Macharia: When we went to the village and he met with this chief or this head of the village. I mean he's the most humble guy that I've ever met. He's so humble. And he talked very eloquently about his village. And so he was so thankful about World Concern. And so yesterday we met together with the government of official in what they call the presentation of the memorandum of the study of the next three years. We're launching another three of cycle programs here and he was invited. So they invite people from the village. So he presented his village with some others and government officials from the province, from the district. So for the U.S. would say, from the state, from the county. And they came together. We are in this hall, very many people. And he spoke a lot about the work that has happened the last couple of years and the vision he feel like we should all already allowed about his village.
And then finally he sang a song. He stood up and said, "I want to sing a song." And I say, I asked my colleague and ask, "What song is he singing? Who composed that?" She told me, "The guy has just composed and he's singing about development and about what is happening in this village and what the hopes they are." And I thought, "Wow, what an inspirational way of getting people behind a vision." And this guy starts out a one person that World Concern I've worked with and have really brought hope in his life and now he can see a different village than where he's right now.
Cathy Herholdt: Amazing. And he just wrote a song on the spot and started singing it from his heart? That's so beautiful.
Peter Macharia: Everyone was recording him on their phones as he did that.
Cathy Herholdt: Yeah. I can hear the excitement in both of your voices and just the hope, and that's really encouraging. Thank you for taking us on a little journey into some of the communities in Laos where World Concern is serving and giving us a little bit of a snapshot of what life is like there, what the people are like there, and what God is doing at the end of the road in Laos. Thank you both.
Peter Macharia: Thank you very much Cathy.
Joshua Pascua: Thank you Ms. Cathy.
Cathy Herholdt: I want to thank our listeners for joining us today. I hope your mind has been expanded and your heart has been touched by what God is doing around the world. If you like what you're hearing on the End of the Road, please give us a five star rating and review us on Apple Podcasts or hit the bell symbol on Spotify to be notified when there's a new episode released. Stay in the know and never miss an episode by texting the word "podcast" to 3 4 4 4 4. I want to thank Crista Ministries, World Concern's parent organization for making this podcast possible, and I also want to thank Casey Helmick and the whole team at Terra Firma for their production and editing and consulting expertise for helping us bring these stories to life and bring them to you. Thanks again for joining us today. We look forward to more stories at the End of the Road next time.