writing poetry in english, cambodia

My Village: A poem by students of Singing Kites, Cambodia

I’m so excited. I’ve been working with a group of six girls for three days in a row to write a ‘portrait poem’ of their village.

They found it challenging and scary at first but really got into it and there was lots of discussion and laughter and as there’s no right or wrong answer, I think they appreciated the chance to ‘make mistakes’.

This is their first poem in English – and they were so excited with the result. I’m really proud of them. I hope you like it…
writing poetry in english, cambodia

The wonderful students that took up the poetry challenge!


My Great and Beautiful Village

My village sounds like…

Motorbikes beeping fast and loud,

People talking happily,

Bird cries all day,

Singers singing Khmer songs,

Children crying because they’re hungry,

Traditional music for weddings and festivals,

At night, the dogs bark and scare us.

 

My village feels…

Like a golden rice harvest,

Beautiful like a sunflower,

Friendly like the ants like sugar

Comfortable and warm like our wooden houses,

My village smells…

Of fresh water when it rains,

Like the white malis flowers in the gardens,

Tasty like fried fish, garlic and cauliflower,

Strong like durian and sweet like jackfruit.

When I think of my village,

I feel very happy and proud

I want to develop the roads, schools and hospitals,

And I want to live there

Forever.

 

By Lida, Sreynoch, Chanleap, Sothea, Seavmey and Danth,

Year 10-12

singing kites school library

Return to Singing Kites: Books and Creative Writing

singing kites school cambodia

Getting ready for school!

Returning to the school was like returning home. The welcome was so warm and inviting, from both the staff and the children, that it made me feel quite humble. The people here are openly appreciative of your presence, and that makes you really want to be useful, in whatever way you can.

However, I have no intention of being the starry eyed foreigner that thinks coming here for a few weeks will change lives. The fact of the matter is, it won’t – but it may spark something that can then grow. The director, Tith, has a lovely turn of phrase. He describes one educated person who wants to share their learning as a candle – and this candle can light another candle and another, which in turn can light further candles, until there are thousands of candles burning and the flame of learning has spread. I see myself simply as a candle.

Tith’s description mirrors my thinking with books, For me, books were always a release, somewhere to hide, learn, feel, and experience things that were otherwise unavailable to me. Books lifted me out of my unhappy childhood and into other worlds where I would prefer to be. Books proved to be my candle, and showed me that a better world existed than the one I knew. And by writing books, I feel that if even one child can use my book to help them dream, to be transported to somewhere better, then I have achieved my aim.

As books are close to my heart, it has been interesting to see the response towards books and reading while I am here. As I explained in an earlier post, the children learn by rote here, continuously repeating sentences and words from the board. There is a lovely, bright library, filled with an odd but colourful mix of donated books that cover a wide spectrum of topics, and I have seen a few children quietly using the facilities, lost in a book. However, the non-fiction books are the most popular, with children pouring over encyclopedias, while storybooks stay on the shelves, unnoticed.

Yesterday, a fifteen year old boy approached me in the library, asking what types of books I like to read and why. He was amazed when I picked authors like JK Rowling, Jonathan Stroud and Roald Dahl off the shelves and he really tried to understand my reasons for liking them. Fun, fantasy, and escape seemed to elude him, and when I asked what his favourite books were – he comes to the library every day before his classes – he said ‘grammar books. And books on nature that give me new words.’

singing kites school library

The school library

I have been positioning myself around the school playground to read my own books (currently Melvin Burgess, Cry of the Wolf, and Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien), armed with extra picture books for when the inquisitive youngsters start crowding round. The response has been good, with children listening and laughing at the illustrations, and starting to repeat the words and understand the questions I repeatedly ask to draw them into the story. I have seen some of the children return to the storybooks on their own accord, and this makes me happy.

However, it is apparent that the desire to succeed, to learn – and be educated to a standard that can raise you out of your current situation and open up opportunities – has to be the number one priority. These children are fighting as a collective, to beat poverty, social pressures and low social expectations. Many are up at 4-5am, helping with the housework or peeling vegetables for their parents to sell at market, before attending Khmer school all day and then coming to Singing Kites (‘English school’, many of the children call it) at night until 7.30pm. Then they return home to more work and extra study. At weekends these children work. It is no surprise that reading books for fun, fantasy, escape, has little bearing on their lives.

But I believe there is still a place for creativity and the enjoyment of reading for reading’s sake – especially with such demanding lives. It’s just a case of finding a way to make these things relevant to the way they live. This week, I start some creative writing classes with some of the older children. As language is their main interest, I’m trying out similes, and I’m going to try some self-portrait poems about their village and families, moving on to aspirations and dreams. This work will be through concentrated group work over a period of three or four days a week, and although I’m not 100% it’s going to work, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. After all, by being here I feel like I’m the one that’s learning.

You can find out more about this wonderful organisation by liking their Singing Kites Facebook page and I know they’d love you to show your support by sharing and reblogging this post if you can.

teaching Cambodia rural living

My arrival in Tanop – Singing Kites #WritingCambodia

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.

Tanop, volunteer cottage, Cambodia

Home sweet home – one of the volunteer cottages

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.

 

cambodia rural school

The school bus 🙂

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.

teaching in Cambodia

One of the teachers, Channa, helping to brighten up the school (the drawings were done by the pupils)

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.

Cambodian schools, rural, singing kites

Just a few inquisitive faces

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.

teaching Cambodia rural living

A small group, learning more food words (that’s the boy that gave me the hug!)

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!

You can find out more about this wonderful organisation by liking their Singing Kites Facebook page and I know they’d love you to show your support by sharing and reblogging this post if you can.

Happy New Year – Let The Next Adventure Begin!

winter walks in west cork

Escaping the weather – I’ll be back end of Jan!

As you read this, I am flying out to Cambodia to work for Singing Kites, a charity that focuses on health and education, giving people ‘a hand up, not a hand out.’ Their emphasis is on building the villagers’ skills and confidence:

assisting them to develop and complete projects that help in alleviating poverty and suffering and open opportunities which bring life changes, vocational training, improved quality of health, sustainability and importantly, self worth and pride in themselves and their achievements.

I have never been to Cambodia, but I am aware of the poverty and problems the country faces and I feel lucky to have been given this opportunity to help. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of what we have and to create problems for ourselves, so also I’m looking forward to taking stock and balancing my perspective.

Although it started off frustratingly slow, 2014 turned out to be an incredible year – I signed the book deal I’ve aways dreamed about  and I got the opportunity to be a resident writer for Singing Kites. All those hours of writing and rewriting finally paid off, but it’s not something I could have done alone.

So I’d like to end 2014 by saying a huge thank you to my lovely, supportive and tireless agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, and to my ever-supportive and very understanding husband.

Thank you also to the local community that makes West Cork such a great place to be, and to all my wonderful friends (both online and offline) that have listened to my bleating on, tolerated my meltdowns and sent me words of encouragement when needed – you know who you are, and you know I’m here whenever you need.

And now, it’s time for me to give something back. I want to make 2015 a year of adventure and words (just like my blog tag line) and although there are lots of charities closer to home that I would like to help with, I haven’t yet found a way to make that a reality. Maybe in the future my books or writing can somehow help – who knows? (All ideas welcome.)

But for now, what better place to start the new year than Singing Kites? My role is to help in classes across the school, assist the teachers with their language skills and lesson plans, and to give the children (and adults) an opportunity to express themselves through creative writing.

I’ll be blogging about my experiences while I’m away, so hopefully you’ll stay in touch – and maybe even help spread the word.

Happy New Year everyone – here’s to 2015! What would be your dream come true in the year to come?