True Confession: What Prince Charles must feel like

True Confession: What Prince Charles must feel like

There were a few moments in Cambodia recently when I felt like royalty. On my first morning out to see the children at SOC, Bakong, we drove out and Savong had arranged a reception at the gate where all the children were lined up. I’m welling up as I write this because those children applauded me as I entered the grounds – a sustained applause that made me feel both humbled and also exceptionally proud. I shook hands with the children, and high fived them – first down one side of the driveway, and then down the other side. I wanted to give something back.

I’ve been in the position of receiving honours before – in my work for example, or at high school – but this experience was on a whole different level: it was emotionally very charged.

Ten days later the school prize giving was held, and afterwards gifts were given to attendees and I helped share these out. Theavy borrowed my camera and took this photo, and to my horror I realise that slowly – through age, girth and those ears – I’m turning into Prince Charles. There’s something very: “And what do YOU do?” in my posture. But the truth is, I was treated like royalty and yes, I’m endlessly interested in the students and the hopes and dreams they possess. That greeting at the gate: honestly, that is one of the most special moments I’ve ever been treated to in my life.

Prize Giving – 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Prize Giving - 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Savong in white – 2005. This was his first prize giving ceremony a director of Savong’s School. Today he has 20 times the school roll compared to 8 years ago.

The photo was taken on a film camera and developed poorly so it has the ancient Kodachrome look about it, but this scene is at Savong’s father’s house 2005 when Savong held his first prize-giving for students at his original classroom. That year the school in Bakong was currently under construction (it would open 3 months later) so this is truly an “old school” photo. The prize for the top student was a bicycle – a gesture that gave that put that student on the road to personal advancement. I wonder what happened to that student. Where is he today? I do know this: back then there were 25 in the class. Today Savong’s School has more than 500 students enrolled.

The boy who was nearly sold.

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A small kid with bigger dreams. Kadang was nearly sold and put into full-time work at age 10. Today he’s looked after by Savong and at 16 has found his niche. He wants to train to be a mechanic.

I know him as the boy in red, because of a photo I took in April 2009 of Kadang, pictured above. He has a compelling face, a mischievous smile and a clear sense of direction.

I first encountered his story when he was age 10. A slight boy, who comes from an utterly poor family, Kadang first approached Savong in his role of headmaster at his Bakong-based school. “I need help,” Kadang said.

The boy told Savong the awful news of how his mother was facing such poverty that she was going to take the only option that she could see open to her: to sell Kadang to a family in town. I’m not talking human trafficking here in the cynical sense – I’m talking about a woman, desperate, and willing to engage in a social contract that her son would be looked after by the other family.

But contracts come at a price, and Kadang would have been put to work, full time work, perhaps in a cafe, clearing tables or in a laundry. I hope somewhere decent. For girls the prospects are less certain.

To his credit Kadang wanted to stay with his mother if possible, or at least stay in Bakong to be near her, and he didn’t think it was fair to be put to work at age 10. “I’m just a child,” he told Savong. “I should be at school.”

And so Savong considered the situation and really that was one of the triggers in 2007/2008 to build a children’s home which he did thanks to funding from the Quill family in the USA. Today, with extensions and new toilet facilities it houses more than 50 children in situations not dissimilar from Kadang’s. Kadang was among the first students here, and when I met him in 2011 he was heading home the next few days because he was missing his mother. She lives around 1km away.

One particularly vivid memory was of one evening in April 2009 when we took Kadang to Siem Reap one evening for a medical check the next morning. He’d been feverish and so Savong asked me to make room on the seat of the Honda because we’d take Kadang on the motorcycle as well.  It was evening and Siem Reap was lit up for New Years festivities, and Kadang’s eyes were large with wonder as we journeyed through the streets.

Now the story has a slight twist. The SOC children get plenty of schooling – morning classes followed by schooling at the local primary or secondary schools – and volunteer Alex passed on a verbal comment made by the staff at the local primary school: about how well the SOC children are doing. They tend to be near top of their various classes. But having fought for schooling over fulltime work, Kadang never proved all that fond of schoolwork. He preferred working with his hands.

So what of little Kadang today? Well, he’s still in the care of the SOC though he’s 16 now, and free to leave school. What he’s doing now is an apprenticeship with a garage in town, working on cars with fellow SOC student Buntheourn.

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Now at age 16 Kadang has found what he really want to do – he’s immersed in learning all about auto-mechanics, and he loves it.

Same mischievous face, same winning smile but definitely now a young man who is enjoying his work. When I pulled up to the garage he was up to his elbows in sump oil, and helping strip an engine back for repair. He was in his element. On another evening I was driving past the garage when I spotted Kadang pulling up on a motorbike; the young man fully engaged in his work. He’s the one piloting the bike; no longer the little guy hanging on to the driver as he did in 2009.

Make no mistake, he has a way to go. Apprenticeships are not easy and there is plenty to learn. But with a burgeoning number of cars on the Cambodian roads, and with an awful environment for motors (the heat, the dust, the accidents) that can only mean one thing for Kadang’s trade, and within a few years he’ll be on an income of $300-$400 per month, which is very good by local standards. And he’ll be happy.

I’ve always admired Kadang because he had the courage to fend for his own future back in 2008. He saw a problem and brokered a solution for himself. I’m not fond of referring to anyone as the “poster child” for this or for that – but Kadang is as close as I’ll come to saying that Savong’s organisation has a poster child. He illustrates the hope and the options that open up to children who, on the face of it, lack both.

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 pressure of being Savong

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By western standards Savong can appear quite strict with his students – but he’s faced with a choice: if a student doesn’t want to knuckle-down and study hard, he knows plenty more who will.

 

I had a fifteen minute phone conversation yesterday with Savong, and these days we keep the toll calls pretty short in order to save money. (Skype has also saved me hundreds of dollars each year.)  We had a brief catch up and Savong was just coming down after a rare weekend of relaxing. Cambodia had just had its water festival.

Our conversation turned to a couple of sponsored individuals and an issue I’d describe as “being the father of adult students who are still at home.”  Heaven knows, my own parents probably had quite enough of me during my students days: the moods, the claims of adulthood (but not the responsibilities) and my ever-shifting sense of direction.

Anyway, for Savong you can multiply my own parents’ experience by a quantum because he hasn’t got one young adult to navigate around: he has at least 20.  There are students who are struggling at school and wondering if a career in trades might be better. There are students who want a taste of the alluring Siem Reap club and party life. (Savong’s rule: No!) There are students who are having career-changing thoughts: perhaps if I studied this course instead of that course?  And there are students who want to deal directly with their sponsors (asking for more money – but under the table.) Savong’s rule is again: no.

What Savong needs is a supportive network, and he reminded me that us sponsors can assist.

We don’t always make it easy. When one student bucked the system earlier this year, Savong basically expelled him from the program. ‘No more sponsorship – you’ve broken the rules – you can go your own way from here on in.’ After all, there are plenty more students hoping for support.  Sponsorship comes with rules and expectations.

But in that instance how complicated did I make it? “Savong, give the boy a second chance.”  “Savong, you have to show more forgiveness.” Suddenly I was telling him how to be a leader: how to be a parent.

I was mulling this over last night, and vowed that however I can, I should be less the critic and more of the support that Savong needs.  Twenty older students virtually in his care.  What a handful!

Savong – reflecting

Savong - reflecting

Whenever he feels stressed by his work, Savong tells me, he likes to go out to the school or the SOC and either teach for a while, or to sit and think. Here he’s up on the roof of the main school building, and the sun has just gone down. His phone is keeping him busy. Incidentally I’d never sit there. The tree, it is said, is home to a ghost – a poor woman, a farmer, who used to live here. She is harmless but does not like to be disturbed. But there’s a more practical reason too. An hour earlier I’d stood exactly where Savong is sitting and I was savaged by a number of bull-ants (or fire-ants) that really bite!