A kind note from a previous student

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I love u so much Savong school, you taught me english free of charge since my family were poor, now I have a good job because of you. Thank you very much.

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A school that talks with the parents.

Savong has always loved teaching.  He is a natural.

Savong has always loved teaching. He is a natural. This picture was taken in 2004.

Yesterday I had a nice long talk with Savong about progress  with the primary school and he told me something that was music to my ears. schools in Cambodia can be fairly laissez-faire when it comes to classroom attendance. What with the prevalence of illness, family dramas and seasonal needs – whereby kids are expected to help harvest the rice – classroom attendances can rise and fall quite dramatically during the course of the school year.

Well, Savong’s School has adopted a policy of  keeping a close eye on attendance, and contacting parents of those children who have not turned up. This kind of pro-activeness is virtually unheard of in Cambodia, and over time is bound to win more respect from the community.

During the conversation Savong was complaining about the amount of paperwork he has to handle. Yesterday he had representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs come and conduct a successful audit of his organisation SOC. “But brother,” he said, “I want to spend more days visiting the school and teaching.”

I have seen Savong teaching, and he is a formidable force in the classroom, with young students absolutely riveted and attentive. He employs humour, provides illustrations and stories, and  he makes eye contact with each of the students as if he is teaching only one person at a time. I dug around my computer files and found the shot, taken in 2004, posted above.

There’s a much younger Savong, engaging the students (at least one of these kids now has a University degree,) and showing his passion for the task. Those were good times, who really enjoys paperwork?

The key to education is making contact – firstly with the students, but also with the  parents.

Savong’s School – Primary school classes are open

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Savong’s school now serves primary school-aged children, Grades 1 through 5]

Over the past 12 months in this blog I have called up statistics from the Ministry of education youth and sport (MOEYS) which highlights the pressing shortage of primary school resources for the burgeoning young population of the nation. Teacher to student ratios are unwieldy –  1 teacher for every 47 young children, nationally. The need is similar in our community of Bakong. Another issue is that the state system has a tendency to charge families for what ought to be a free service. In some respects this is understandable, given the low levels of government spending toward education: low by global standards. Other critics however refer to school fees fundamentally as a bribe.

Savong’s school has always operated on the basis of providing free education. For the past nine years the school has focused on teaching languages and computer skills to older students grade 6 through to great 12. This year the decision was made to open up the school to serve primary students as well.

It was a practical decision; the senior classes run in the later afternoon and buildings were sitting quiet for a good part of the day. So why not open to classes up to teach the local community of young children who don’t get taught at the regions primary school. Five teachers have been recruited – all females as it turns out – and enrolments of local students took place in September. The local community is always wary of new services, and they want to know that their children are going to receive a quality education. So our starting figures are modest, and we’re going to build from here.

A total of 39 students, 19 girls and 20 boys, have been enrolled at the school and with teacher to student ratio of one to every eight, we can expect some pretty good results!

  • Why not share the joy of participating in this project by helping sponsor the teachers? If you’d like to find out more, please email me duncan@kudos-dynamics

A spirit shrine for the children’s home

A new Spirit House at the SOC. Photo Phil Caldwell.

A new Spirit House at the SOC. Photo Phil Caldwell.

Following the recent tragedy at the children’s home, a new Spirit House was purchased and installed on the grounds. To Westerners these seem a unique aspect of SE Asian cultures (you’ll see Spirit Houses in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar also,) however just a few weeks ago I was thinking about these shrines, and their similarity to the shrines that pepper the Italian landscape – bringing a tangible reminder to passers-by of the spiritual aspect of life. I took several photos of these while on a recent holiday – my favorite being the modern shrine I saw in Corniglia on the Mediterranean coast. (Below.)

Spirit Houses are symbolic, and provide a “home” for restless spirits who may inhabit the location. Prayers and votive offerings help placate these spirits.

You may, or may not, have any deep spiritual beliefs yourself, but there is a lot to be said for any spiritual or social mechanism that helps us deal with our grieving. Each time we walk past these shrines we stop, maybe for just a second, and pay regard to those who have walked this land before us. Respect is a deeply held value in Cambodia.

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Shrine in Italy – Corniglia. I was struck by the similarities of these forms of religious expression: giving a tangible daily reminder of our spiritual dimension.

How to respond to beggars in Cambodia – or not.

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For the million Western tourists who visit Cambodia each year, one of the small confrontations with the local culture occurs every time you make eye contact with a beggar. there is an inner conflict between our desire to help, and also our rational appraisal of whether a dollar gifted to a child is really going to make a difference, or whether it is going to reinforce an undesirable system.

In 2004, Savong recently reminded me, we were walking down Pub Street in Siem Reap where I attracted the attention of a series of small children each asking me for a dollar. I politely declined, one boy – who was quite crippled – somehow managed to follow me, despite his dreadful disabilities. He had a winning smile, and in the end my sentimentality and guilt, I suppose, outweighed any rational thoughts I might have had. I handed over a dollar.

Immediately a flock of children appeared. It was as if I had thrown bread to a family of competing sparrows. “A dollar,” they call, “mister, please, a dollar!”

Hard as it may seem, it is best to ignore the pleas of begging children in Cambodia. They are the unfortunate victims of a system which keeps them out of school, untrained, and more or less shackled to the life of poverty. If you want to make a real difference, then find a charitable organisation you can support. It was the next day after the pubs Street sparrow incident that I committed to Savong to support a school. Education is the best way I can think of to assist children toward a better future.

Not everyone in Cambodia who has their hand out should be ignored. In many tourists spots for example, you will see blind musicians playing traditional Khmer music. Yes, they have a bowl out in front, and they are hoping for a donation. In this case, these are adults who with the absence of any social welfare safety net, are working for a living – and boy do they have talent! By all means support them – and buy their CD as well.

in discouraging or turning away beggars, my heart is a lot harder than it used to be. In Italy recently, visiting the Vatican, I was singularly scathing towards the professional beggars – elderly women, dressed in black and adopting a kind of Mother Theresa saintliness as they worked the crowd, their hands curled as if begging for rice. I’m sorry, but they got no sympathy from me.

But occasionally I get suckered. One day in Cambodia a child came up to me, and she was selling postcards.

“Postcards mister?”

“No thankyou very much.”

“You have postcards, you can send to friends!”

“Oh,” I frowned, “I have no friends.”

She eyeballed me and came up with a solution: “That’s because you no have postcards!”

She had a point. I bought two packets and thanked her profusely. You had to respect anyone with that much sass.

Holidays in Cambodia – 2015

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Thursday

January 01

International New Year Day

Celebrates the beginning of the Gregorian New Year

Wednesday January 07 Victory over Genocide Day Marks the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979
Wednesday February 04 Meak Bochea Day Date varies depending on the lunar cycle
Monday March 09 International Woman’s Day (observed)
Monday April 13 Khmer New Year Day First day of Cambodian New Year
Tuesday April 14 Khmer New Year Holiday Second day of Cambodian New Year
Wednesday April 15 Khmer New Year Holiday Third day of Cambodian New Year
Friday May 01 International Labour Day Established to celebrate the economic and social achievements of workers
Sunday May 03 Visak Bochea Day Birth of Buddha
Monday May 04 Visak Bochea Holiday
Thursday May 07 Royal Plowing Ceremony Marks the start of the planting season.
Wednesday May 13 King’s Birthday HM King Norodom Sihamoni was born on May 14, 1953
Thursday May 14 King’s Birthday Holiday
Friday May 15 King’s Birthday Holiday
Monday June 01 Children’s Day International and Cambodian Children’s Day
Thursday June 18 Kings Mother Birthday Queen Mother Norodom Monineath was born on June 18, 1936.
Thursday September 24 Constitutional Day Celebrates the signing of the constitution in 1993
Monday September 28 Ancestors Day A Buddhist holiday dedicated to honouring deceased relatives
Tuesday September 29 Ancestors Day Holiday
Thursday October 15 Commemoration Day of King’s Father HM Norodom Sihanouk died on 15 October 2012
Friday October 23 Paris Peace Agreements Day Commemorates the Treaty of Paris on 23 October 1991
Thursday October 29 King’s Coronation Day Norodom Sihamoni’s coronation was on 29 October 2004
Monday November 09 Independence Day Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953.
Tuesday November 24 Water Festival Ceremony Boat racing festival to mark the annual change in the Mekon and Tonie Sap rivers
Wednesday November 25 Water Festival Ceremony Holiday
Thursday November 26 Water Festival Ceremony Holiday
Thursday December 10 International Human Rights Day Marks the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights