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!

 

The writing on the wall – a boy with connections in Cambodia

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This last week in Cambodia everybody has been celebrating New Year. For many students, this means school is out and for those who live in town there may be all kinds of attractions including fairs, events, parades as well as traditional ceremonies. Cambodians celebrate everything of course with food, and this is a time for feasting.

But not for everyone. The boy above, Mouencheat has spent the last few days back in his rural village 40 km away from Siem Reap. Mouencheat lives in a place called Kampong Kdei which is in the heart of the flat, rice growing region due-east of Siem Reap, and it is in his family house there that I took this photo above, in November 2013.

I always wondered what the writing was, on the wall behind Mouencheat, and this last week as we messaged each other with New Year greetings, (Mouencheat on his smart phone,) I asked what had been written on the wall behind him. He told me that these are tallies of the amount of rice harvested, and the wall provided a handy place to jot-down this information. It serves the same purpose as the Post-It notes on my fridge.

Mouencheat lives at the SOC, in Bakong, and is sponsored by a Singaporean. The boy is very intelligent, and often when we message each other I send him number puzzles which he gleefully completes – quicker than I can generate the next.  He can spot the Fibonacci series from 20 paces! But this week he has been at home helping as mother on the farm, and looking after his younger sister.

A few days ago, during the holiday Mouencheat was visited by an older Cambodian named Kimleng.

Kimleng actually grew up in Kampong Kdei and may well be the first local to have earned a law degree, in this case from the USA. Kimleng spent some time in New Zealand in recent months and I had met him via a friend of mine. We were both amazed that each of us knew where Kampong Kdei even was! The world shrunk by another notch. When Kimleng said that he had grown up near the historic bridge, I knew exactly where he meant.

I am so glad that he met with Mouencheat, and I am sure he will act as an inspiration for the boy. I am certain that Mouencheat will go through university, and given his obvious intelligence, I await with great anticipation to see where he will end up. The writing on the wall is all good.

By the way, it is almost exactly a year since I first encountered Mouencheat. He did his research and contacted me, asking for assistance so he could go to school. Here’s the story from a year ago.

The voyage through school: how many make it past Grade 12?

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The Cambodian Ministry of Youth Education and Sport (MOEYS) has recently published a lot of education related data which, at last, gives us reasonably current information about the state of education in Cambodia today. One of the most telling figures comes from a table which charts the  percentage of eligible students who make it past primary school, lower secondary school as well as upper secondary school. The results for Cambodia as a whole show that less than half of young Cambodians are making it past grade 9. Just over a quarter complete the voyage through the school system, and graduate from grade 12.

The figures show there is a long way to go, but more so in rural and poor areas of Cambodia. Look at the contrast between the Phnom Penh figures, and those of Siem Reap. This is precisely the challenge and reason for Savong’s School to be established in rural Siem Reap. And our effort is a drop in the ocean.

Incidentally the boy in the photograph, Seanghai, is quite handily beating the statistics. He comes from Phnom Penh, though now he lives and studies in Siem Reap and is supported by the Savong Foundation. By next year he will be in university, so long as he keeps studying hard!

For more up to date figures from the Cambodian education sector – teacher student ratios and a teacher shortage in Siem Reap. Plus: How Qualified are the Teachers of Cambodia?

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’s School takes another step.

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Agony or Ecstasy? Students at Savong’s School clamour to see how they fared in the latest exams.

Hey I’m back. It’s been a month between blogs in part due to a need to recharge my batteries and also to give you gracious followers a break!

This last week I had a terrific Skype call withe Savong regarding the school. This year marks our tenth year of working together and I’ve often reflected on how the vision of Savong – to provide free education that gives a vocational boost to poor rural students – has remained intact while the expression of this vision has had to move with the times. Ten years ago providing language skills that would get a student work in a guest house was truly aspirational. Today that vocation is pretty basic and students are wanting to reach higher. Some want to be doctors, lawyers and business owners. Their dreams are bigger.

What Savong talked about is a reconfiguration of his school which two weeks ago received fresh licensing from the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport (MOEYS) and is seen by Government as part of the network of local official schools rather than as an NGO “rival” to the State system. That distinction is important because up until now Savong School has been operating in a complementary fashion to the local high school in Bakong. When it operated in the morning, Savong’s school opened in the afternoons: the aim being to give local students a booster shot of additional education.

This year Bakong High School extended its hours, which we’re certainly not complaining about, but it has squeezed Savong School opening hours later and later. Right now it opens not at 2:00pm but at 4:00pm and finishes in the black of night which in Cambodia arrives at 7:00pm. This is late for the students, and less safe for those who walk to their homes.

Rather than be sandwiched like this, Savong sees a better solution which is to extend the hours of the school and to teach a wider syllabus including Khmer lessons (mathematics, history) as well as the languages and computer skills already taught.  Students would be allowed to choose this school rather than Bakong High School and of course Savong would stick to the core vision of providing free education. State Schools are supposed to be free, but the practice of charging a monthly fee to help boost teacher salaries is widespread and hurts poorer families.

Examinations held at Savong School will – as they are already – be recognised by the State system.

The change of syllabus offering needs planning. Teachers, support textbooks need to be prepared, and any change needs to be carefully communicated to the community. Savong is picturing any changes to take place in October when the new school year begins.

I’m very excited by Savong’s plans and look forward to the additional service and support his school can offer local students.

Here’s the latest on the new school plans. Can you assist?

Savong and the senior students. Removing risks and setting guidelines.

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2014 is shaping up as the year that Savong gets really systemised. I’ve worked with him since 2004 and since then we have progressed from a small ad-hoc classroom to gradually become an NGO that includes a student center, a school with 650 enrollments, two children’s homes and a provider of scholarships. By the end of last year Savong was run ragged, trying to keep everything running smoothly.

Two days ago I had a long Skype chat with Savong and he explained how he was, step by step, putting management systems and reporting structures in place throughout his organisation. As with any organisation that gets bigger, one loses some of the informality and one starts having to lay down rule and guidelines.

Yesterday Savong assembled the senior SOC students who are supported through funding from the Savong Foundation in the USA (Phil and the team do an amazing job) as well that those students I raise funds for: the Scholarship students of whom there are 16.  So that’s the photo above, this rather large family of sponsored senior students.

Savong has worked with them to establish some operating rules and as we discussed, these include some expectations (this is no place for laziness) but also a clear commitment to keep supporting the students even when there are challenges. I certainly feel that the money we provide in support is only half the story: the real thing we’re providing is the absence of fear.

I saw that when Savong and I first worked together.  When he realised that we were committed to assist him through thick and thin, then his dreams got bigger and more useful: his plans became longer term.  So it is with the students in the photo. They are a committed group of young people, but the difference between these students and many others is that we’ve moved them a few steps away from the risks and unforeseen disasters that plague life in Cambodia, given that there is no safety net.

For many young people the four-year trek towards a degree is almost certain to include bouts of sickness, or family tragedies, or perhaps an accident that wipes out one’s precious savings. One of the teachers once told me of a friend of his who was electrocuted, due to faulty wiring in the young man’s corrugated-iron shack: he touched the wall one morning and was killed tragically.

How can one dream big when you are worried by the risks of life?

I felt a pang of regret when Savong told me of the rules and guidelines he’s setting for the students. I guess I miss the laissez-faire days and, for sure, I would make a lousy manager of this burgeoning NGO. But one thing about guidelines: these also establish more certainty for the students as they embark on their journey through the sometimes rough seas of higher education.  A ship is safer when it has handrails and life-jackets.