Rain returns to Siem Reap

ROOF

A ‘heavy downpour’ in Bakong.

After months of sustained drought conditions, rain has returned – at least at hopeful levels – for now. In fact Savong said the storm that brought the big downpour was strong enough to rip the roofing off at the SOC in Bakong.  Urgent repairs have been carried out this week.  Cambodian weather never goes anything by halves – unlike in my homeland of New Zealand where mad outbreaks of drizzle, or wild streaks of cloudiness break the usual sunshine.

Buildings in the countryside of Cambodia face a precarious architectural problem: being well ventilated for the heat versus being fully enclosed and typhoon proof.  In the city more and more homes and buildings are enclosed and – power outages aside – enjoy air conditioning via heat pumps.

roof2

The fix. New iron, tougher nails.

But in the countryside the architecture is lighter and more susceptible to extreme weather.

I think, long-term, climate change is going to be the dominant concern for rural Cambodia. Economically and architecturally the people are going to be at extreme risk of ruin. Risk has always been a part of rural life – but that marks the difference between advantaged versus disadvantaged nations: the degree of resilience in the face of risks.  In this respect Cambodia has a long way to go.

By the way, my name is Duncan Stuart, and I’ve been involved with Cambodia since 2004. I’m slowly getting to know the country and have been eagerly watching the ups and downs of its development. My blogs are usually about Cambodia in general, though my perspective is through the lens of supporting Savongs School in rural Siem Reap. 

 

 

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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:

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

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.

Thatch Roof Interior – keeping it cool Bakong

Thatch Roof Interior - keeping it cool Bakong

Roofing is always a challenge in rural Cambodia. There is corrugated iron which is watertight during the wet season, but proves far too hot during the dry hot months of March through to June. Living under zinc is like living in a brutally hot oven, a point lost I feel, with a few of the Habitat for Humanity projects I have seen.

Better than the tin is roofing tiles, and architecturally these have a reference back to the red earth of Cambodia itself. Cost wise, tiles are out of reach for many rural families, and actually too heavy for many huts which are built out of bamboo.

This leaves thatch roofing which is cool, inexpensive, and comfortable – at least until the heavy rains come. In Bakong, locals earn spare money thatching palm leaves together into panels which they then take into the markets of Siem Reap.

One day Savong and I were driving back to Siem Reap from the school, and we came across two young men on their bicycles, loaded up with thatch panels about to make the long trek.  Savong wound down his window and asked if they would prefer to deliver the roofing to the SOC instead. He handed them a few dollars and next day when we came to the children’s home I saw the thatch roofing placed carefully on top of the iron roofing which stood at the time – helping the buildings to stay much cooler. I love thatch – and I love the craftsmanship that goes on to weaving this material, and attaching it so elegantly to traditional bamboo structures.

I imagine if you grew up in rural Cambodia, and then later moved to the big city one of the things you would miss would be the organic almost vanilla fragrance of those lovely thatch panels.

See also the Bamboo ladder