Back to school. 2019.

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We clattered over the footbridge that was scarcely wide enough to take the tuk tuk. I was two minutes away from seeing the school we built in 2005.

The last time I was in Cambodia was October 2015 and it said a lot about the place that it inspired blogs from me well into 2016.  At night I continue to dream about the countryside especially, with the warm fragrance of tropical plants, red dusty roads and delicious wok-cooked food, sizzling on beds of burning charcoal.

My main ambition for this journey in December/January was to go out and visit the school I helped Savong build in 2005  and to do some teaching and to consider how the school may have benefited the children of Bakong.  The photo above is my tuk tuk driver Sothy Leru navigating a pedestrian bridge near the Bakong village on the way to the school. Alas, we couldn’t take the usual road to the school, the one that goes past Bakong temple – the ruins of which are older than Angkor Wat. These days the area comes under the control of the APSARA authority, the managers of the greater Angkor Wat region: the people who quite fairly charge tourists for a1 Day, 2 Day or 5 Day pass.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share the story and review what the current state of play is with the school.  Right now I can say I really enjoyed teaching there and, yet again, I felt as if Cambodia is my second home.

So welcome back to my blog.  Join me as I revisit the school, help release a prisoner from jail, visit another prisoner and play detective as I catch up with old friends.

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I weep for Savong’s older brother – Savet.

I weep for Savong's older brother - Savet.

In 2009 when I took this photo I was captivated more by the picturesque quality of what I saw than by the true human story. The man in the picture – his blue shirt contrasting gloriously with the fluffy delicious white rice he is cooking for the children at SOC – is no longer alive, and his story nags me as a reminder of Cambodia’s recent history.

His name is Savet, and he was Savong’s older brother; a figure to whom Savong remains deeply attached.

In the years immediately after Pol Pot, Cambodia went through a terrible period of impoverishment, and families scratched out what living they could.

This is how bad it was: Savet left home at age seven to fend for himself. He survived on a diet that included tree bark, insects and whatever he could afford to buy from begging. Imagine making that decision as a 7-year-old.

In many respects it is understandable that Savet became emotionally rather detached from his family. As a teenager he came and went from the household, but he spent many years of his adult life living in Poipet. In is last years he came home to Siem Reap where he helped Savong at the SOC. He was the stoic father figure that many of the children looked up to.

This was not to last. In time Savet contracted cancer and after a brief and painful battle his life ended in the same home in which he had begun his life.

Savong speaks admiringly of his brother who as a youngster took Savong under his wing and taught him the skills of begging. Together when the UN troops arrived in Cambodia, the two boys would sell banana cake and it was from Savet that Savong learned his first word in English which was something like: “Misterdollar.”

When Savet was on his deathbed, hooked up to a drip, he chastised Savong for not being by his bedside often enough. “In Cambodia,” Savong explained to me, “when you are on your deathbed then you have the right to insist that others gather around.”

Savong felt the sting of the rebuke, but what could he do? He was so busy running the school and the children’s home out in Bakong and he was unable to be in two places at once.

Savet’s death marked a change in Savong. I noticed almost immediately that my friend was much more serious in life, and that the grand adventure he was on – a young man who has started a school! – had now become a mission.

Perhaps Savong does everything in the name of his brother these days. I wouldn’t blame him. Savet was a victim of everything that went wrong in Cambodia in the 1970s and 80s, and ultimately he gave the last days of his life, as we see in the photo, preparing food and serving the needs of a younger hopefully luckier generation.

A recent story of a girl with an awful decision.

Ghosts in the Cambodian schoolyard

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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!

Savong and the Mystical Python

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Savong and his father, 2009. A family story that needs telling.

Over the years I have found that Savong very rarely talks about himself. What I know of him has come through in little snatches of conversation, and in things I have observed. I am a researcher by profession, and normally I ask a lot of questions. But when I’m with Savong, I tend to see little walls put up around himself, and out of politeness seldom venture into the territory of his own life.

One aspect of Savong’s life that I find fascinating is his relationship with his father.

Savong’s father was around 25 years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and as a young man he was recruited as a cook for the local soldiers. after the war Savong’s father and a good friend gathered bones from the local killing fields based halfway between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, and he donated family land in order to build Wat Thmei,  otherwise known as the Killing Fields Pagoda, where Savong was educated. Savong’s father was a Buddhist monk, but these days he serves as a adviser on things spiritual as well as practical, and he also serves as a fortune teller for locals.  In these regards he is highly esteemed.

Fortune-telling?  For Westerners this seems like a dubious title.  Honestly,  how can one tell the future? In fact a lot of the advisory work he carries out is based not so much on reading the future as on reading the body language of his clients. He once told me that an important part of this work was to observe how is clients sit, how they stand, and how they walk. “You can tell a lot about a person from just watching these things,” he explained to me.

However here is a true story that makes me think that us Westerners may be missing a dimension in our lives that Cambodian Buddhists take for granted.

The year is 2006, and at that stage Savong’s School had just been built, and consisted of three classrooms in the middle of a rural field. Sharing the field was a small thatch hut in which Savong lived. One day, (it was early morning, before dawn,) Savong was woken from a sleep by a phone call from his father.

“Savong,” his dad told him, “get out of bed very slowly.”

“What is it?” asked Savong.

“Under your bed,” explained his father, “there is something very dangerous.”

So Savong very carefully rose from his bed and then, using the little torchlight of his phone, peered underneath the simple wooden bed. There, curled up and asleep, was a python.”

“It was this long,”  Savong told me, stretching his arms out wide. ” It was at least 2 m long.”

I have wondered since then how Savong’s father knew that there was danger under Savong’s bed. What little voice had prompted him to make that call early in the morning before dawn?

See also: Ghosts in the Cambodian Schoolyard

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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