Ten Days with Sustainable Cambodia

Just a note: on the original post, I wrote that SC students paid tuition on a sliding scale, based on ability to pay.  I was wrong – that was the case at another school in the area, but I’ve been informed that all the classes at SC are FREE.

One of the strongest memories that I have from my couple weeks backpacking in Cambodia in 2009 is that of a street kid in Phnom Penh.  I was in a  hotel/cafe, enjoying a bowl of delicious coconut curry that, while constantly referred to as a “traditional” Khmer food, is never to be found in local markets or restaurants frequented mostly by locals.  The nightly screening of the movie “The Killing Fields,” a not-quite-documentary about one reporter’s efforts to document the devastation that the Khmer Rouge did to the country in the 1970s, was going on in one corner of the restaurant.

Then something entirely ordinary for Phnom Penh happened: an elementary-school aged child carrying a small basket of books – travel guides, maps, war diaries, novels in vogue on the backpacker scene – entered the restaurant and made the rounds, delivering an uninspired pitch that he knew would tug on some heartstrings but result in little else.  When he came to me, I shooed him off with a string of apologies.  “Sorry, I don’t want anything.”  “I’ve already got one.”  “Nope, not going there.”  I wasn’t telling lies, exactly, but my words were skirting an uncomfortable truth: I was going to spend money on my wants, and not his needs.

‘The situation with these children is gut-wrenchingly ambiguous.   It seems like it would be so easy to do so much good – the $3 that I’m spending on my curry would be enough to feed a child on local rice and vegetables for three or four days,  I could use the $0.50 for my beer or soft drink and instead buy them 40 liters (accurate calculation, I promise) of clean drinking water, I could take a $5 dollar room instead of a $10 one and buy school supplies for a whole classroom with the savings, or I could just give up my whole month’s travel budget and probably save a whole village from malaria.

On the other hand, giving money (or anything else, for that matter) at any point to any child encourages them to beg.  Worse, it encourages their parents to force them to do so.  Kids wind up missing school or study time and thereby lowering future prospects.  The worst part is, they may not even see the money – perhaps the father will spend it on alcohol, or it may even go to some sort of nefarious child begging operation.  It feels very much like the kids are damned in the long run if you give, and damned in the short if you don’t.  Particularly as a tourist there only for the short term, there seems to be nothing one can do.

Thankfully, there are organization like Sustainable Cambodia that are working long-term to address these issues through structural solutions like education and training in various kinds self-sufficiency.  My friend Kate has been volunteering with SC for the last six months and was kind enough to let me come pay a visit and lend a hand.  Here’s what it was like…

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Ok, let’s get some basics out of the way.  Here’s a mural of what the SC campus in Pursat – a largeish city along Cambodia’s primary road, 200km west of Phnom Penh and 200km east of the Thai border – looks like.  Some school rooms for kids, a library, an admin building, some ponds and gardens and, off to the side, a dorm for volunteers.  The kids wander around pretty freely, playing games, chatting with teachers and staff, and devising clever ways to poke green mangos out of trees.

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All of the foreigners (American, Italian, Malaysian, Canadian, English, French, and more) that work with SC are there as volunteers and pay for their own room and board. This ensures that all the money donated to SC goes straight to the Khmer staff and to various SC programs.   They allowed me to put my portable abode up on the roof.

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Breakfast at SC is done on a “fend for yourself” basis.  Nasi (left) cooks awesome lunches during the day while the volunteers are busy with classes and all the other various things that SC does.  The volunteers usually cook dinner together – either comfort food from home or whatever amazing dish Katia, the resident Italian, put together.  The dinners we had while I was there included: minestrone, mac n cheese (homemade, with béchamel sauce!), s’mores, banana bread, and a quasi-Korean feast courtesy of yours truly.

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Two very special volunteers were present: Susan, the co-founder of SC, had come out for her yearly ground-level checkup.  She brought along her friend Julie, who’s been teaching in the USA for decades, to give workshops to the Khmer teachers about how to make classes more interactive, entertaining, and useful for the kids.

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Not that you know Kate yet, but she’s conspicuously absent from the above photos.  That’s because she doesn’t stay in Pursat; she and another volunteer live on site in Kravanh, about 30km away, where SC has a sort of secondary outpost: The Kravanh Bright Futures Center.

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These mysterious little blue boxes were there at the SC campus, at the KBFC building, and at the KBFC dormitories (students who live out in countryside where there aren’t any schools have the option of coming to live in Kravanh).  Whatever ever could they be???

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It’s called a “Bio-sand Filter” and it works like this: a layer of of Mentos-sized rocks, a layer of pinky-nail-sized pebbles, and then a layer of sand, all thoroughly rinsed in purified water and then set in that order into a concrete casing.  Voila, free low-tech water filter!  No need for the kids to pay for bottled water or, more likely, get by on water that’s been polluted by pesticides, fertilizers, trash, or human or animal waste.

SC travels to villages in the region installing these filters and training villagers in their upkeep.  I was really hoping to get to participate and see for myself, but as is so often the case in Cambodia (and lots of other developing countries, I presume), the NGO’s efforts were hindered by the locals’ lack of a sense of urgency and by their unfamiliarity with the concept of timed appointments.  As of Monday, we were supposed to install one of these in a village on a Wednesday, but when we checked in with them in the morning, it turned out that they hadn’t procured the necessary materials and that some of the men who were supposed to be trained had gone out to work in the rice fields instead.

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Another little project.  Care to guess what it’s for?

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Hint: inside the bottle are purified water and a splash of bleach to keep any mold from growing.

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It’s a skylight for a tin roof!  This one is in a bathroom, but SC is working on installing them in various one-room (windowless) schoolhouses out in the countryside.  The schools are dark inside since they’re walled and roofed, but they’re only used during the daytime when there’s plenty of natural light outside.  Even if the public electric lines happen to run all the way out to the village (which they may not), why pay the financial and environmental costs of electricity when you can just upcycle old bottles?

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Next up: Kate and Naret, one of the Khmer teachers at KBFC, doing something kind of farmy-looking.

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Hint: this stuff is rice stalk that’s left over from the harvest.  Usually it would be either burned or fed to animals, but this time it’s being put to another use.  Half of it was throughly soaked with water and laid into rows.  The other half is left on top as a loose mulch layer that keeps the wet stuff from drying out.

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A perfect environment for mushrooms!  Just peel back the mulch, go through and harvest, and put the mulch back on.  You don’t even have to plant anything – the mushroom spores are either already on the stalks or just floating around, so they’ll develop naturally given the proper temperature and humidity.

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The rows had only been put together a few days before, but were already producing over one kg of mushrooms.  I’m sure that number will increase tenfold as time goes on.  The mushrooms make a healthy, tasty addition to just about any meal, or sell for about 10,000 Riel (USD 2.50)/kg in the market.  For reference, I paid 3,000R for 1kg of uncooked rice in a market and am pretty sure that the lady increased the price from 2,000 after prodding from the lady next to her.  I’ve also heard it said that in some places the price of rice is as low as 600R/kg.  Maybe that’s all that the farmers can get for it, and the remainder goes to the distributors?  I’m not sure.  Either way, these mushrooms pretty much take care of themselves, cost nothing to get going, and can bring significant income.

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Oddly enough, even though most Cambodians are still involved in agriculture, it seems that many have lost the skills necessary to be self-sufficient.  In particular, economies of scale push people to forego kitchen gardens and instead direct their efforts either to rice or to cash crops like Cassava.  The result is often an unbalanced, overstarched diet, followed by malnutrition, poor mental and physical development, increased vulnerability to disease, and perhaps even premature death.  In addition to teaching the children gardening skills, SC also sends volunteers out to villagers who have time and land but lack know-how.  The volunteers give instructions and help troubleshoot, the families keep half of the food that they grow and donate the other half to the schoolchildren.

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Speaking of which, here’s the KBFC.  Smaller than my parents’ house in the USA, but big enough for four classrooms, an office, a staff lounge, and a utility room.

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The students at KBFC had some very impressive English skills and were definitely better at conversation than many of my Korean college students.  I think this reflects several things.  First of all, Kate is CELTA-certified, meaning that she knows how to put a class together.  Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case with foreign teachers abroad.  Second, the kids here see education as a privilege, not a chore.  It seems to me that Korean students view school in an essentially negative light: if you don’t do well at it, your parents will be disappointed in you, you’ll wind up at a crappy college, and you’ll have to work at a low-status job for the rest of your life.  The Khmer kids, on the other hand, see education as an alternative to a more difficult life as a farmer or laborer.  These ideas are probably not quite as opposed as I’m presenting them to be, and my interpretation might be a little idealistic, but there’s no doubt that these kids asked me more and better questions than many Korean students of mine whose parents were paying hundreds or thousands of dollars in monthly school fees.

I think a third aspect is probably that the students know that Kate and the other volunteers aren’t getting paid.  Frankly, I didn’t blame my Korean students for writing me off a lot of the time.  It was the school administrators that had forced them to sign up for English class, and it was my bosses (and the powers above them, all the way up), and not the students’ needs, that dictated what topics I would have to cover.  My job was to spend a semester preparing my students for a 30 question multiple choice final exam that we all knew would mean very little to anyone, ever.  If I didn’t do it, I’d get fired and replaced by someone who would.  The system may have been designed with the intent of teaching large numbers students effectively, but in the end the result was a general lack of passion from all parties involved.  Blasé, I know, but true: money had ruined it.

At KFBC, though, the students know that the volunteers are there because they want to help. There’s nothing else for the foreigners in Kravanh – no movie theaters, no foreign bars or restaurants, no supermarkets.  The kids sense that they, not money or lifestyle, are the end.  The authenticity makes a difference.

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Kate, doing what an EFL teacher should: teaching just enough, setting up an activity, and then getting out of the way while the kids practice and learn by themselves.

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Kate mostly has the freedom to teach as she sees fit at KBFC, so it was no problem to incorporate a little frisbee action into the second class.  We went around several times, asking and answering simple questions about age, hometown, favorite color, family size, and so forth.

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Another freestyle activity that would (rightly, I suppose) require months of planning and paperwork in the west and would probably be downright impossible in Korea: an impromptu walkabout class where the kids can ask Kate about the names of various objects, structures, plants, animals, and actions that they see going on around them.  It’s physical, it’s immediate, it’s unscripted, it’s fun, it’s communicative (in the sense that the kids actually get to use their English to describe real things rather than just answer abstract questions with it), and it’s good pronunciation practice.

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The fact that everyone is moving rather than just sitting also means that students circulate, making it easier for the teacher to interact equally with everyone.

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The circulating also does a bit to bridge the teacher-student gap, making everyone more friendly and comfortable.

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Dah!  We missed a perfect chance to teach them “narrow!”

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More mysteries: what are these hands in the front doing?  How about the girl in the back?  What about the one in the middle who looks like she’s getting ready to roundhouse kick someone?

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Wow, sweet new kids’ game!  Even better, a feat of athleticism that girls can take part in!  The two girls on the outside hold up a line; the challenger runs up to it, jumps, does a 180, lifts one foot above the line, pulls it down with her ankle, and then clears the whole line with her body.  I wouldn’t be surprised if you can’t quite picture that sequence; I had to watch for about 100 jumps straight before I understood what was going on.

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Teacher Bounsourne knows how it’s done.

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You can take the Kate out of America (she’s been here in Asia on and off about as long as I have, and to far more places), but you can’t take the America out of Kate.  Here she is, skipping the nuanced 180 degree turn and instead trying to bulldoze the line.

Then again, who am I to talk?  I didn’t even try.

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Gearing up the next morning for a 45 minute moto excursion over pretty gnarly roads.  SC also supports preschools wayyyyy out in the middle of nowhere.  I didn’t get a lot of details about how, but I think they provide funding to build small schoolhouses and pay a small monthly stipend to a local woman to gather the students and teach them…I’m not sure what.  Maybe Khmer?  SC also provides a bit of food, since some of the children out here are suffering from various levels of malnourishment.

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With several preschools in varying locations and not enough English teachers to go around, these “teaching” excursions are only partially about English; they’re also a pretext used so that the Khmer staff can check up on the kids.  Are they growing?  How many are sick?  Are the allocated funds being used properly?  Is the teacher actually showing up?

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A little outdoor fun time just to break the ice and get everyone warmed up.

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Roll it, catch it, say “My name is…”

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The pictures don’t show it, but this little boy was displaying some signs of the early stages of malnutrition: a slightly inflated stomach and a belly button pushing awkwardly outwards.  The other students seemed to be OK, but I was later told that out of all the preschools that SC works with, this one had the healthiest kids.

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Back into the classroom to practice today’s vocabulary: bicycle  and flower.

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Plop a Korean kid this age down in front of a textbook and he’ll know that he’s supposed to trace and fill in the blanks.  It took a bit of work (even with instruction in their native language from Kate’s Khmer coworkers) to get these kids to understand that we wanted them first to say the word with us, then to try following along with our drawings, then to try following along with the writing.  I don’t think they had yet grasped that they were writing letters, which combine to form words, which represent things, which have different names in different languages.  Funny concept, that.

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It was quite powerful to see the kids going through the learning process.  I tried writing out “bicycle” in dashed lines and then handing the pencil over to a kid, and he just looked at me blankly.  “A stick in my hand.  Great.”  Then I slowed it down – dashed a “b”, which he filled in.  So on for the rest of the word, letter by letter.  For “flower,” then, I just wrote the whole word at once and he copied it all out on his own.  Then he taught the kid next to him, who taught the next kid, who taught the next kid.  4 of them, all sharing one pencil and one small scrap of paper.

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I don’t know what to say about these children, except that they were so precious.  Every moment with them felt like it was of the utmost importance, every slight success in getting them to read or speak a major victory.

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How could you not want to spend your life taking care of them?

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Mustering five years’ worth of teaching skills.

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Worth it.

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Yeah!  We did it!

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Last but not least, a little fun time: on Sundays, a couple of teachers and a bunch of kids get together to go visit a pool that belongs to another charity school not too far away.

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First, some stretching and a few minutes of duck duck goose to get everybody friendly and sweaty.

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Some relay races and other hijinks.

Sad to say, but the camera stayed tucked away safely for the duration of pool time.  No photos here of adorable Khmer kids swimming – the boys in their undies, the girls fully dressed.  No photos of them decked out with water wings and kickboards, nor videos of them graduating to floating, doggy paddling, and even cannonballing.  No photos here of me hoisting them up onto my shoulders before smashing them down mercilessly into the water.  Or of them slinging water at me out of styrofoam straws.  Of diving for rings.  Or of Colin teacher doing his best alligator impression.

In other words, pretty much all the fun stuff that I got to do going to the public pool in my small town in California as a kid .  None of the Khmer kids I met anywhere in the country seemed at all gloomy – certainly not to the extent that I would have expected, giving the harshness of recent history and of current living conditions there – but it was still a joy just to spend a few hours of pure fun with them, a brief reprieve from all thoughts about educating them, or improving their prospects, or changing anything about their culture or family or country.

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The camera comes out again for the ride home.

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The goofballs.

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The shy guy.

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The “little” 35kg one who sat on my lap and destroyed my circulation for the whole 45 minute truck ride.

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    He also happened to be a ghoul.

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A word on the Khmer teachers and staff at SC: they are incredible.  Some of them come from humble backgrounds and want to help kids who are just like they used to be.  Some made it through college – even with majors like IT – and want to give back.  One said can’t sleep at night because he’s constantly trying to think of more ways to help the kids.  Another brought her infant daughter to class, holding her with one arm while teaching with the other.  They all thanked me for the few days that I gave to them, but it really should have been me thanking them for the countless hours they have given, and will continue to give, too all the kids who need them.

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Sustainable Cambodia also runs a host of other initiatives that I didn’t get to see or take part in.  For more information, or for instructions on how to volunteer or donate, visit their website at www.sustainablecambodia.org.

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4 Responses to Ten Days with Sustainable Cambodia

  1. wd says:

    That Khmer alphabet…yeesh. Seems quite difficult to read – what’s the system?

    Nice Korean on the board, btw.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Definitely don’t know much about the system, but I think Thai, Lao, and Khmer are all similar in that the vowel markings can be either above, below, to the left, or to the right of the consonants. Sounds crazy, but people here can read, so…yeah.

  2. mingyulee says:

    Wow! Mike!!!
    The picture a little girl ‘s jumping must be your best one ever!!!
    Yo!