I’m writing this in retrospect, which is really hard because I feel like the past week has shown me so much, and I hardly know where to start.
Ready for the countryside, but not really sure what to expect, I was delighted to have the company of another volunteer. Ashleigh had been at Singing Kites two years earlier and was fulfilling her promise of returning – which meant she could show me the ropes a little and give me an idea of how much things had changed. She was also great fun to hang out with, which always makes things easier. The director, Tith, was immediately friendly and informative, full of energy and ideas, and I knew right away that this was a man with vision.
Eventually pulling into the school in Tanop, Tnuot commune in Takeo district, the first thing I noticed was the beautiful grounds and the warm welcome. Picture young mango trees, brightly painted school buildings, brown ponds and lush gardens. Then add to that plenty of smiling faces. Teachers that had met Ashleigh before remembered her immediately, giving hugs and asking questions about her life since she’d left. They shared their own news of marriages and babies, and then kindly left us to get acquainted with our temporary home.
The accommodation is superb – small cottages kitted out with a fridge, kettle, fans, mosquito nets, and all the cleaning and cooking utensils you need, as well as a pile of oil, spices and mosquito coils left behind by previous volunteers. You buy your food and supplies in the city to bring with you, and although I was lucky enough to meet an American girl, Tori, who spoke Khmer and was kind enough to accompany me to the local markets, I was grateful for the extra bits I’d forgotten or not even considered.
The first shock was the shower – not because it wasn’t good enough, but because I had never thought of myself as someone who was reliant on small luxuries. Turns out I was wrong. The shower is collected rainwater that you pour over yourself with a scoop – simple and efficient, but it took me a couple of days to brave. Why? What did I think would happen? Dengue fever is an issue in Cambodia, so that was a concern during the day; the dengue mosquito bites during the day, prefers enclosed spaces and has a range of about ten meters. But I had no excuse at nighttime other than my own overly delicate sensibilities. I’m happy to report, this is no longer an issue (thanks to Ashleigh who had the idea of braving it at the same time in showers next door to each other).
The set up here is excellent. A library, several classrooms, a ‘Bali hut’ for music and group work, a bandstand for the same, and a playground where children seem to like to go and draw. The children are incredibly sociable and love to chat and play in big groups – and they also love to include you if you’re around. You feel very welcome and respected, and it’s genuinely heart-warming to experience when we are exposed to so much turmoil in the world on a daily basis.
Tith, the director of the school, is incredible. Not only is he focused on making sure the children get a quality education with plenty of exposure to native English speakers, he is very hands on. One minute he is with pupils, the minute he’s on the radio raising awareness of the cause, and then he’s driving the children home in the school truck. Tith’s aim is to improve the lives of his pupils, and the local community, through education and equality, and I can see that he is definitely achieving what he has set out to do.
What I particularly love is that all the teachers are Cambodian. They spend their weeks working in the school from 7.30am until 7.30pm, then travel up to Phnom Penh to study at university for the weekend. They are dedicated, determined and doing a great job despite the challenges they face.
The parents are also included in their children’s education, with meetings on a monthly basis that include interactive activities that tackle subjects such as behaviour management. I got to give a speech to one group of parents and from the turnout it was apparent that the school is a central and respected part of the local community. This is thanks to Tith’s vision – he understands the importance of upholding and improving upon strong community values – and the hard work of the teachers.
My biggest surprise was when the primary and secondary children arrived – and it’s something that continues to amaze me daily. Literally hundreds of bikes start pouring through the gates for 1pm, and they don’t stop coming and going until 7.30pm, when classes finish. The children attend Khmer school during the day, then come here to learn English – and they all have such an incredible desire to learn, their energy is infectious. The second they see you, you get a deafening chorus of ‘hello’ which then continues with every class as you pass through the school. It is so beautiful to experience and is a highlight of my day at Singing Kites.
I started teaching right away, assisting with a primary class studying colours. Then a class on numbers, and a joint teaching session on greetings – everyone in Cambodia that I have met so far responds to the question ‘how are you’ with ‘I’m fine’, so Ashleigh and I tried to give some alternatives. It’s been a few years now since I taught in primary school, but it seems it’s just like riding a bike and it felt immediately good to be there. A fourth class just wanted to ask me questions, which was fine too – especially with the heat and excitement getting to me.
Since then, I’ve taken focused groups to introduce and consolidate new language skills, whole classes to improve pronunciation, given presentations to children and parents, and positioned myself in open spaces so that the inquisitive ones that want to talk but may not like to speak up in a classroom environment can come and join in with, or instigate, a chat.
The level of English here is varied, but I’m amazed at the skill of the more able students. However, you cannot guess the ability of the child based on their age. The younger ones are really inquisitive and confident, while the older pupils can be much more able but shy – so it’s really important to get to know the children quickly. That’s what this week has been about – adapting to the environment, winning the confidence of the teachers, and making friendships with the children.
The emphasis in Cambodia is on rote learning because that is how people have been traditionally taught, so the lessons consist of reading from the board or book and the children repeating the words back. I know that Tith and everyone at Singing Kites is trying to change this approach and so I’ve tried to incorporate as much interactive learning as possible with limited supplies – you should have seen the laughs I got producing a carrot and packet of noodles from my bag! I’ve since seen the children re-enacting the games and teachers adopting flashcash cards, so it is apparent that everyone is open to different methods, it’s just a question of provision and some positive role models.
This week, I feel I have offered a very small contribution to the wonderful work here, but the children have a real thirst for knowledge and so hopefully it will leave a positive residue that will add to the incredible work that everyone is already achieving.
I have only been here a short time but it is already apparent to me that the most important thing for any volunteer to be aware of is – we are simply here as support and should take care to respect the local community. There are changes that need to be made but all change takes time, and we need to be sensitive in our approach, adopting a positive manner that is respectful towards the people that live and work this life every day. The staff and children work so hard, and they all deserve recognition for their achievements.
In the time that I’ve been here so far, I’ve seen barren land transformed into a vegetable garden by the caretakers, I’ve seen kids soak up new knowledge and open themselves up to new experiences, and I’ve seen teachers hungry for knowledge adapt a lesson in even just a small way to improve the learning experience for their pupils. The highlight so far has to be when I earned a hug from a child who was so excited that he had remembered the word ‘pineapple’ on our second group session.
I’m writing this from the city, surrounded by tourists complaining that the hotel beer is $2 instead of $1.50 like it should be, or quibbling over 50 cents for a piece of clothing in the market. I can also hear tired NGO workers discussing their latest challenge as they take a swim, thankful for the opportunity to reset and reflect.
Cambodia is a country that is as beautiful as it is recovering, and it is clear that there is lots of excellent work going on, but there’s still a way to go. I can’t wait to get back to my rainwater shower and the sound of a hundred bikes bumping their way along the lane to see if I can add even just a small contribution. Follow the #WritingCambodia hashtag on twitter to see how I get on!
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