Samach’s story.

DSC_0043.JPG

samach

His ID Photo is the classic Cambodian ID.  A serious young man in a small passport-sized photo that looks badly developed and almost hand-retouched. He wears a formal jacket and tie (this is an official ID) despite the heat on the day the photo was taken. The young man’s name is Chuon Samach. Chuon is his family’s name.

Samach is 22, and he is a Year 3 student at Angkor University as well as a part time teacher at Savong’s School in Bakong, 12kms east of Siem Reap.  By day he studies until noon and then he gets a tuktuik ride back to Bakong in order to teach until sunset which is almost always at 6:00pm, here near the equator. The days are long for Samach, the commute to and from University adds an hour to his commitments and at night he must prepare lessons and complete his assignments. He’s not complaining – but from an outsider’s point of view his life is hard.

Yet in some respects he is lucky also.

Samach is the seventh of nine children and while four siblings have got married and moved away, Samach and four others are supported by their parents, farmers who are typical of Bakong farmers: very poor because land plots are small, and the area is prone to devastating floods – or droughts. The father is 63 and the mother is 55 (both old enough to have lived through the worst of the Pol Pot years and the famine that followed. “Every day they try so hard to sustain the family,” says Samach. “I feel sorry for them.”

Samach studied well as a child, doing well at Prasat Bakong Primary School and then studying to Grade 12 at Hun Sen Prasat Bakong High School – the large area state school in the district. He was also in touch with Savong’s School from where he was awarded a university scholarship because of his excellent grades and in respect of his family’s low income.  “It has been great support,” he says. “With the aid of Savong School I am capable of continuing to study at university. I can’t believe I’ve had this opportunity.”

He studies for a Bachelor’s degree in Tourism, and is planning to gain a Masters degree as well – a rare achievement in rural Cambodia.

He’s determined. “Travelling is difficult and sometimes there are family problems, but I still don’t pack my study in.”

The scholarship has made a big difference – the difference between being able to study at University or not – and in the medium term it will help Samach pursue a well-paid career and enable him to fulfil his own dream of supporting his family. “My family will rely on me, down the road,” he says.

The University scholarship covers annual enrolment fees, a very basic salary, and daily transport into town as well as a laptop: an essential item for University.

As with the other scholarship winners, Samach gives back – by teaching younger children at the school – and inspiring other students to set high goals. “I would like to show my deep appreciation for your support,” he told Salas, who took the notes for this story. “To Savong Organisation Cambodia and supporters I wish you longevity, nobility, health and strength.”

 

Portrait of Savong – October 2004

Svay Savong - October 2004

Svay Savong – October 2004

This photo was taken 10 years ago when Savong was in his early 20s. He is seated in the small temple on the island of West Baray and if I recall correctly, Savong asked me to take this photo, so it was – on those terms – a formal portrait.

The day was a Friday, and on two previous evenings I had taught at the small classroom at his father’s house, and so on this morning I had suggested that Savong and Pin come with me and be tourists for a day: we took a tuk tuk out past the airport and first visited the silk farm, and the we came back via West Baray, catching a small longboat out the island,

It was relaxing, and in my memory we three were the only people on the island, but of course that’s not true because there was a band of blind musicians playing traditional music which set the tone, by turns moving and festive, and Pin, Savong and myself explored the island, and the two young guys also took up fishing off a small jetty. Pin was expert at catching the small pufferfish that would swell up like golfballs which he would line up on the wooden dock, their little gills heaving, and Pin would flick them back into the water where the fish would  jettison away. Swoosh!

While Pin remained fishing, Savong showed me to the small wooden temple, and – taking our shoes off – we entered.

As you can see; incense was burning, and it’s fragrance wafted in the light breeze. We took photos, and as he sat, Savong explained the significance of the cross-legged pose, and showed me how I should hold my hands. There’s a photo of me sitting in the same position as Savong, but it is an awkward facsimile of this photo – me in my black t-shirt, my legs in agony as I try to emulate the lotus position.

But this photo captures the Savong I first met. He is still attending classes at high school, his market-bought jeans are too long and need tailoring – but never mind that. He is devout, determined, and he fixes my camera with a confident stare into the lens.

Soon after this we sat near the musicians and as we watched them play, and listened to their sweet, plaintive music Savong told me about his dream to open a school in the countryside.

“How you think brother?” From everything I had seen in Cambodia to that point, it was a perfect idea.

Pin was still on the jetty with his small bamboo fishing rod. Savong however, had just caught a bigger and more willing fish.

For more about Savong:

Savong’s School – Primary school classes are open

DSC_0819

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

MY FUNDRAISING CRISIS

Money isn't everything, but it sure helps. Savong's School - like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Money isn’t everything, but it sure helps. The school – like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Last week I reignited this blog after five months silence. A few of you will know that this year I had a health surprise, namely a diagnosis of Parkinsons disease.  So far the disease has not produced radical symptoms –  extreme shakes,  or, an affliction that strikes many sufferers, ( at least eventually,)  immobility. It is not uncommon for those with Parkinsons to freeze  when they get to a door,  and require some visual prompt to get them started again. I’d say I’m  bound to be on an interesting adventure to say the least.  But for now my symptoms include:

  • Loss of the use of my right hand when it comes to typing. My right arm is about as useful as a plank of wood.
  • The need for much more sleep!
  • A slowdown in my work rate –  my brain is sharp,  but it takes longer to get my thoughts down on paper.

During my  five months silence  I enjoyed a long overdue holiday with my partner, Susanna, and I spent quiet time ruminating about the impact of my condition.  It has scrapped the old rules, but the problem is there are no new hard guidelines.  Everybody with Parkinsons  experiences a different combination of symptoms,  and the onslaught of these occurs at different speeds. Who knows? So against this shifty backdrop I have been trying to contemplate what the impact will be on my life.  I’m starting to set goals  and objectives: of bucket list of things I want to achieve before – and just in case – I deteriorate beyond usefulness.

Some of these goals are very tangible.  I wish to complete a long cycle ride within the next 24 months,  and there are some writing projects that I have started already: things I have long wanted to write.

But there is one central crisis I have not been able to resolve,  and that is the funding  of Savong’s school in Cambodia. Savong’s project  has many branches –  two homes for children,  a student centre for older students in Siem Reap, as well is the school  in Bakong which serves primary school children as well is secondary.  It also provides scholarships to University  for the top grade 12 students each year.  These scholarships are worth about $1000 per student per annum  over the four years required to get a degree.

All up,  the school  requires at least $3000 per month to run, and a majority of this money has come out of my own earnings.  Over the past 10 years it has been more efficient for me to knuckle down to work, to earn my income as a researcher,  and to send the money over to Cambodia. Far easier than fund raising.

This last year I was going to make the transition  toward fundraising however.  I am almost 60, retirement is around the corner,  and I need to find an alternative  source of income to underwrite the ongoing expenses  of Savong’s school. I saw this as a kind of baton change in a relay race.  What the Parkinsons diagnosis did was cause me to stumble badly and drop the baton.

So now by my reckoning  I have got eight months  to get my fundraising act together.  Somehow,  somewhere,  through some people,  I need to find sponsors  to the tune of US$3000 per month. The school in Cambodia,  which serves many hundreds of children,  faces many challenges of its own:  my health shouldn’t be one of them.

See also: About the school.

And how to donate the school.

Ghosts in the Cambodian schoolyard

Image

Darkness falls quickly in Cambodia. A group of young men were laughing and shouting, they weren’t human; they were ghosts.

When dusk falls in Bakong, it falls mighty quickly. One minute the sky is a fiery orange and the next, everything is pretty well pitch black. On a clear night – which is not that often in the hazy tropics – you can look up and see stars bright enough that it seems you can almost reach them. On one of these evenings I had just emerged from the classroom at Savong School when I looked up and I saw a man-made satellite drifting silently, eerily, across the sky. I pointed this out to a couple of students, and soon there was a large group of us scanning the horizon for more satellites.

But in this same schoolyard there are other unseen things – eerie things – which locals acknowledge but Westerners find difficult to believe. I’m talking about ghosts, and when I first went out to Savong School several of the locals told me about the ghosts in the schoolyard. First, there is the elderly lady, a widow, who lives in the tree beside the generator shed. She is harmless and likes to be left alone. People talk respectfully of the old lady.

But back in the day when Savong lived in a thatch hut on the school grounds, I was told of another group of ghosts – young figures – who would wander into the schoolyard at night, laughing, drinking and disturbing the peace. Now where I live in Auckland New Zealand, there are plenty of these young people – we used to have a nightclub located opposite our house – so I wondered, were these really ghosts that the locals had heard, or simply young people; looking for a good time?

“No, these were definitely ghosts!” I was told. And in fact that was one reason why, at that time, the installation of the gates were seen as an important step for the school. It wasn’t just to keep out  thieves,  (see our recent story,) but to keep out the disturbing spirits.

What I like about the Cambodian ghosts, is that they seem approachable and basically decent. The same is true in Thailand, and Thai stories I have read feature the same benign spirits. How different from western literature in which ghosts are inevitably unhappy souls determined to disturb the lives of the living. Here in Cambodia the ghosts are simply part of the neighbourhood, and don’t seem to be a worry to anybody. Live and …ahem…let live.

Near the old lady’s tree Savong used to have a small Buddhist shrine at which he would burn incense and occasionally offer prayer. In Cambodia you will see these shrines at hotels, office buildings and people’s homes. Spiritual life is a very important part of the Cambodian social fabric. One evening Savong asked if I wanted to pray with him at the shrine, and I agreed.

There, in the dark we kneeled before the shrine and beside the old woman’s tree. Above us was the infinity of stars, and for a few minutes I was utterly swallowed up in the vast cosmic silence. I was conscious for those minutes of the vast gulf that lay between our two cultures, and at the same time I was conscious of our vast similarities as two mere humans: two specks in a mysterious universe. I prayed for Savong, I prayed for the school, and yes I prayed for the old woman in the tree.

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!

180 young Cambodian students would love your assistance

Click here for a YouTube video I put together: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifRHOz-dIbo&feature=youtu.be

Savong’s School in rural Siem Reap is extending its services to include primary school teaching for Grade 1 – 6. Here’s some background in a brief 4 minute video. Have you got some energy and skill to assist the project?

You can contact me:  Duncan Stuart – duncan@kudos-dynamics.com

DSC_0821