Thieves

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A couple of nights ago thieves broke into Savong’s School. They climbed the locked school gates and tried to force a few locked doors and shuttered windows, without success before managing to prise apart the bars on a window and squeezing into the computer classroom from where they stole two laptop computers.  The matter has been referred to local police but we don’t hold out too much hope for the recovery of the computers.

Unfortunately theft is extremely common in Cambodia where there are many people looking for a quick way to make money or to cover debts.

But that’s why Savong’s School has bars on the classroom windows. From one viewpoint these bars look prison-like, and I have several photos where students are sitting by the windows, holding the bars and looking out – no doubt with longing to those outside playing volleyball.

But nobody forces our students to turn up to this school. They are free to come and go.  Unfortunately, there are some thieves who feel the same way.

Time, perhaps, to hire a local to guard the school.

 

Primary School resources needed for rural Siem Reap

Primary School resources needed for rural Siem Reap

Savong’s School plans to open new primary school classes.

Ministry of Education figures show a national shortage of primary school teachers, and this is felt particularly in rural areas where the teacher/student ratio is often close to 1 teacher for 47+ students. Savong’s School intends to offer 6 classes (Grade 1 – 6) each with 30 students per teacher. Schooling will be provided free of charge: something that will be appreciated in the  Bakong community where many families live below the official Cambodian poverty line.

Here’s how you can help.

New direction for Savong School – some crowdsourcing required!

SAVONG DIRECTOR

Savong has great plans to extend the services of Savong’s School to include primary classes in the mornings.

Over the past few weeks my friend Savong has been making plans for the school out in Bakong, Cambodia.  Having got the school registered with MOEYS, (the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport,) the next stage of his plans have revolved around three challenges.

  • First, the school as a physical resource is not used in the mornings, so better use could be made of the classrooms.
  • Second, the language school operates around the existing timetable of the local State high school, and this college has extended its classroom hours into the afternoon, pushing our opening hours into the evening. Because the sun goes down at 6 p.m. conditions are not the safest for the students by the time they leave Savong School in the evening. Can we rejig our hours?
  • Third  Savong School has an arrangement with the scholarship winners to do some of the teaching; an arrangement which works particularly well. However their study commitments come first and the existing hours of Savong  School  (2 p.m. – 7 p.m.) collide with some of the lecture hours.

There is a fourth and much bigger issue that Savong has also been thinking about, and that is the needs of the local community.

In recent weeks on these blog pages I have published data from MOEYS demonstrating that there is not only a shortage of primary school teachers across Cambodia, but a particular shortage of primary teachers in the province of Siem Reap. What that tells us, and Savong hears this directly from the Bakong community, is that the addition of primary school classes by Savong School would help fill an urgent gap.

So Savong has developed a plan to redefine the school so that when the new term begins in October 2014, after the Pchum Ben holidays, the school will henceforth be open in the mornings to offer primary classes for grades 1 through to 6, and then in the afternoons to offer the existing language school services, (including computer classes,) aimed at high-schoolers, from 2 o’clock until 5 o’clock.

Details of the new primary education

  • All classes will of course be free, and that is a fundamental promise of Savong School. This will suit families who can ill afford the cost of sending their children to the state schools which tend to charge money each month despite official government policy.
  • The primary school classes will be limited to around 30 students each, so that the teacher-student ratio is kept to a desirable size for the sake of the teachers as well is the students.
  • The primary school will be recognised by the Ministry, and classes will be conducted in Khmer.
  • Six primary school teachers will be hired for the task, and each will be paid up to $150 per month, which is not exactly extravagant by local terms, but these teachers will benefit from the Western style of protection that Savong has always offered his staff; namely sick leave, bereavement leave, and three months salary if for any reason employment relationship should end. These things are designed to ensure all staff are respected, and feel protected from risk. (Only a minority of working Cambodians have the protection of sick leave.)

The new arrangement at Savong School is an exciting one, and absolutely consistent with the dream Savong had at the very outset in 2004 to provide free education for needy students in a rural setting. The plan will be subject to approval from the Ministry of Education, but given the local statistics, is unlikely to meet any resistance. MOEYS, to their credit, is working very hard to close the gaps in the education system – and the current shortage of primary school teachers is a particular priority.

Now comes our part as supporters of the project. For a start, to properly equip six teachers with necessary resources (books and materials) for primary school work, we need a starting fund of US $1200. Then we need to ensure that the salaries for the six teachers are met each month, and the budget for this is $900 US.

That comes to a neat and tidy $1000 per month, or $12,000 per annum to educate 180 primary school students over and above the existing students that we will continue to educate in the afternoons.

CAMBODIA MAY 2011 - SECOND CARD 527

The aim is to teach 180 primary students from Bakong – for free. The cost to us supporters (for the teachers and resources) is $5.00 per student per month.

I’m going to need big help in fundraising for this, for two reasons. First, for my own health reasons, not to mention my impending retirement and the reduced income earning potential in the next couple of years, I simply can’t continue to underwrite the full costs of the school. This is one of the first times in 10 years I’ve nakedly asked for help!

Second, this is frankly an enjoyable project to get involved with, and I have no doubt that there will be readers of this blog who either have a spare pile of cash, (well, we all live in hope!) or have the energy and social networks available to them to do some crowd sourced fundraising. To be honest I come from the cake stall era, where the fundraising barometer took roughly 17 years to reach the goal. Looking around these days, I see 17-year-olds popping a message onto Facebook, holding a quick event, and ending up with an amazing amount of cash to complement their valid dreams of saving the world. If that sounds like you, well, Savong’s dream continues to be one that changes lives for the better. How about we hook up?

If you are keen to help with some crowd-sourcing I can supply:

  • Video of the project. So you can share the story.
  • Background details – including all about how we are registered as a charity etc.
  • Any other information or photographic resource you might require.

If you fill in the form below,  nobody but me will see the details.

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Siem Reap airport – a quiet reflection

Siem Reap airport - a quiet reflection

For me, any stay in Siem Reap is far too short, and by the time I get to the airport I’m in a reflective mood just thinking about the things I have achieved or not achieved during my stay. I like this airport, and I always end up buying two or three books from Monument bookstore and find myself chatting to strangers and sharing stories. Stepping into the airport is like stepping into a privileged world. Unless you work here, or you are a business traveller, then as a Cambodian you may have zero experience of being in an airport.

I recall the first time that Savong flew from Siem Reap to the Phnom Penh. He had a business meeting and, I think, was quite excited by the prospect of experiencing air travel. When he arrived in the capital, I phoned him and asked what the experience was like. He was upbeat; excited. Behind him I could hear the clamour of taxis at Phnom Penh airport. I have the impression that he had just gone through a rite of passage; the step between being a 20th century Cambodian, and entering the 21st century world. But at that stage he was still quite naive about air travel, and when I asked him if he had a window seat, his answer was memorable. “Yes brother,” he said, ” but the window didn’t open.”

Since that day, now several years ago, sponsors have flown Savong to Singapore, to Austria, as well is to South Korea, and I am glad that he has had the opportunity to see his NGO from these foreign perspectives.

We love to complain about the travails of air travel, and moan about airports in general. But when I sit in the quiet of Siem Reap International, I think about the privilege and freedom that we enjoy.

A story about the cultural differences between Westerners and Cambodians  click here.

Let’s not forget the costs of poverty – and the pressure it puts on young people

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I have been in two minds about writing this particular post. I’m uneasy about portraying individual children as poster examples of poverty or hardship, and don’t mean to tread on the privacy and interior life of these individuals. On the other hand there is a role for photojournalism to share stories about the human condition and to provoke action from those who read the stories and see the photos. So I hope you’ll forgive the story. I’m not going to name or identify the girl in the photo except to say that she lives in Cambodia and that she is 15 years old.

Her life has been unimaginably hard. When she was an infant, she was more or less abandoned by her mother who has alcohol problems of her own. For this girl, the only family she knew was her grandmother who raised her, cared for her and gave her the love that every child deserves. They lived in the house you see pictured above. Last week the grandmother died, leaving this 15-year-old girl virtually alone in the world.

Well not quite. At the funeral a few members of the extended family showed up, and so did the mother – still with her severe alcohol problems. She offered to take up care of the girl, but it was pretty obvious to Savong, who visited the family, that the mother neither has the resources or the reliability required to raise a teenage daughter.

The girl has a sponsor, and he has offered to underwrite whatever it costs to ensure that the girl receives a good education. She is a good student. Savong has openly offered her a place to stay with other high school students, and to provide the food shelter and funding to ensure that she fulfils her potential.

But if you were this 15-year-old girl, what would you do? if you had nobody else in this world other than the mother who abandoned you, and now she was back in your life, would you now turn your back on her or would you choose to live with her and see if things work out?

These are the horrible dilemmas faced by impoverished children. Rather than growing up in a world that is for them safe, caring, and geared to providing support; this girl has grown up in a world where support has been a scarce commodity at best. For most children in the situation, there is no government agency stepping in to help here. There is no extended family with the capacity to take the girl in to be cared for.

In this girl’s case, it is only luck – the luck that an NGO happens to work within her village – that has provided the girl with the option and choice she now faces even as she suffers the grief of having lost the one close person in her life.

Savong is not pressuring this girl. She knows she is welcome to stay with him; just as he knows that she has every motivation in the world to see if she can work things out with her mother. What an emotional dilemma.

Working in Cambodia often blinds people like me to what I call the romance of poverty. We are beguiled by the elegant simplicity of rural lives, and warmed by the egalitarian welcome we receive when we are invited into the homes of those we hope to assist. But occasionally, stories like the one about this girl remind us that poverty takes young people to the edge of an abyss. There is no romance about that. You can see the reality of poverty etched on her grief stricken face.

The sad story of Savong’s older brother. Click here.

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!

 

Photo of Farmhouse Interior – Kampong Kdei, November 2013

Photo of Farmhouse Interior - Kampong Kdei, November 2013

One of the families I visited in Kampong Kdei lives in very simple conditions – a house with thatch walls and roof which is very comfortable during the hot months, but how about in the wet season? The boy is sponsored through High School and if he shines there, then Savong will make sure he gets the support he needs to undertake higher education in Siem Reap. His mother misses her son (he stays at the SOC in Bakong) but told me through an interpreter that her only concern is that her son gets a good education.