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


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.

Happy New Year Everybody

Happy New Year Everybody

This year I challenge everyone I meet to nudge up your giving-level by a notch or two! Discover the joy of supporting a young student in Cambodia and helping them achieve their potential. Contact me – I don’t bite, I don’t heap sob stories onto you. But I do need your help.

My job is simple: to connect you with a needy rural student.

Happy New Year!

Listen: a clue to Social standing in Cambodia


The photo above is taken at Bakong temple, just up the road from Savong’s School. This community is a rural one and if you imagined you were taking this photo, then 2kms directly behind you is the village of Rolous (pronounced Roo Loo) and, as it turns out, the home village of a friend of mine in New Zealand.  When I first mentioned the location of Savong’s School to Man Hau, I said: “You probably won’t know it – it’s a small village.”  When I mentioned Bakong his eyes lit up! “I grew up there,” he said.

Last time I visited Man Hau we talked a little about the history of the village and I learned something I did not expect to hear: about the variety of very distinct dialects spoken throughout Cambodia. Growing up, Man Hau recalled, the people of Siem Reap would always comment about the “country cousins” of Rolous. “They could tell immediately when you opened your mouth,” Man Hau said.

When he was young, in the years before Pol Pot, Man Hau won a scholarship to study in Phnom Penh and he said the snobbery was even more profound. At home, he remembers, everyone knew him as the boy who had made the grade and was due to study in the city. Local boy makes good. But as the only country kid in his university classes, studying economics, he was mocked for his accent and never allowed to forget that he was a poor country cousin. His clothes were disparaged. His simple footwear held up as a bad example.  (Today Man Hau Liev holds a PhD.)

Another Cambodian I know recalls a saying used by city dwellers to described country people in a tone used by city slickers the world over: “Those country types would drown in tap water.”

Thinking back on these anecdotes I recalled a conversation I had with a boy supported by Savong, currently studying at university. He had told me that his family was so poor that others in his village would look down on his family.

His village is Bakong. These subtle layers of class distinction are invisible to westerners, but to locals the story is quite different. Their ears are attuned to dialects and to the subtle put-downs that are inflicted on the poor, and in particular on the rural poor. Perhaps this explains the delight when one of our scholarship students told me how she was coming top of her class at university: ahead of the city kids.

The Social Network: Cambodia style.


The quest: to get into university. It took a village for Kuon Soknang – a network of supporters from around Bakong village.

Soknang is 23 years old and that means, in Cambodian terms, that she grew up during years of extreme poverty – and by extreme I mean children eating bark off trees and catching insects to eat. I mean a time when Cambodia was utterly neglected, in fact more or less cut-off from the rest of the world. Then double that hardship, because as you can see she has been born without hands and with deformed feet so that movement is difficult. But don’t feel sorry for Soknang. She has the determination and intelligence to rise above her handicaps. Using her toes she can write in Khmer, or English – which she has patiently learned – and these days she operates a laptop, though for the life of me I cannot work out how she operates those functions that require one to hold down the ALT CTRL keys as well as type. She can do it, and her ambition is to hold down employment as a university qualified accountant.

But how do you attend university when your family cannot afford the fees? How do you manage transport into town each day – a half hour trip – when you cannot pilot a motorbike or bicycle? How do you reach your potential?

Kuon Soknang (Kuon is her family name) is perhaps lucky that she comes from a community as cohesive as Bakong, which is where we operate a small language school which provides free language education, and computer classes, to local students to top-up their State education at the Hun Sen Bakong High School. In fact Soknang has never attended Savong’s School, yet there is an increasing degree of co-operation between these institutions.

At Bakong High, Soknang had one teacher in particular who championed her cause and sought some kind of sponsorship for Soknang who has – to date – attended just a few weeks at University after her family scraped together $30 for short-term tuition fees “until something might work out.”

Soknang learned from her few weeks at University that she is up to the challenge and so her ex-high-school teacher approached Savong because he’d heard about the Savong School Scholarships to university. Would Savong be able to assist?

Savong, the teacher and Soknang held a lengthy meeting to discuss the young woman’s situation and to work out a plan for the academic year ahead. It was agreed that she would be sponsored, with fees covered as well as transport to her University CUS in Siem Reap. Regarding her living arrangements which weren’t ideal given her physical situation, it was agreed that Soknang would be housed with other senior students who are in residence at Savong’s family home which is a guest house in town.

With arrangements confirmed there’s pressure on us to find a 4-year sponsor, but that should be the easy part – that’s where the global village can assist.

This story has unfolded during the last few days, yet for Soknang the resolution of her problem about how to get support through university is just the latest stepping stone along her life pathway. She faces challenges ahead, for sure. But one way and another her community has helped connect her with those who can help.  I look forward to reporting on her progress.

More about Savong School Scholarships and how to Sponsor these.

Here’s a direct way you can change a life in Cambodia.


The young man photographed above comes from a poor rural community where family incomes of less than $US50 dollars per month are not uncommon. With this background no matter how bright the student is at high school, university is out of reach. In a real sense, poverty is passed on from generation to generation.

Well, for this student the cycle has been broken thanks to a simply managed realistic university scholarship run by a local school in Bakong, Cambodia and supported by sponsors overseas – practical people who commit what adds up to ‘coffee money’ to ensure bright students can reach their potential. Once these students win a good graduate job (in Cambodia less than 3% of adults have a degree – compared with 26% in the USA) then they will help their family. Your gift keeps on  giving.

If you would like to sponsor a University Scholarship student to cover enrolment, living allowance, transport this costs just $US80 a month, and we have set up a SPONSOR arrangement that will bill you automatically each month for this amount – with a limit of 24 months. (For your security.)

You have the right, of course, to cancel donations if your circumstances change – but this is a great way to set up a significant support system for a rural student in Cambodia.

Click on the Logo to take yourself through to PayPal and the $US80 per month, ongoing subscription.
Click on the Logo to take yourself through to PayPal and the $US80 per month, ongoing subscription.
  • For further information feel free to write to me: Duncan Stuart at
  • All donations are receipted – they are lodged into the registered New Zealand charity Cambodian Rural Schools Trust
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  • All funds, apart from a small transfer fee, go to the project. We do not incur marketing or admin expenses.


Six winners of Savong School university scholarships announced – can you help?

Six winners of Savong School university scholarships announced - can you help?

I support a school in rural Cambodia that serves more than 500 high-school students. The focus is to help their employability and to give them the opportunities they lack due to the poverty gap. Following recent examinations at Savong’s School six university scholarships have been announced. Winners receive at least 4 years support through university (1 year intermediate followed by 3 years Bachelors degree) in the form of their annual fees being covered, a laptop computer presented – to enable study – as well as daily transport from Bakong to Angkor University (14 kms away) and a modest living allowance to cover the costs of being a student. For westerners this works out at $US1,000 per annum over four years. For these students the opportunity is a golden ticket out of poor rural conditions, and a chance to reach their potential. Contact me if in some way you’d like to support one, or some of these students. $20 a week, coffee money, can totally change a life and that of their family.

More details: click here.