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.

travel Cambodia

#WritingCambodia – First Impressions of Phnom Penh

This is where the man scavenged on the ground for food.

This is where the man scavenged on the ground for food.

My first day in Phnom Penh… 

A street kid with a feather duster trying to clean my shoes in a tuk tuk, a dinner of snails & chicken’s spurs, fantails dancing in the vines, a kitten with a squealing mouse in its mouth trying to also catch a gecko, debris-lined roads, a driver with a trailer filled with pigs racing us, and a man so hungry he was eating dirty crusts of bread off the litter-filled floor, spitting them out if they were too inedible but not bothering to check beforehandAt night, the air fills with the perfume of flowers and an unidentifiable screeching and lunging from overhead in the palms. I find the people are as warm and friendly as everyone says, and sleep is peaceful in this small oasis of a guesthouse.

travel Cambodia

One of the the three ferry crossings – be warned, sit on the side & you get wet. I found out the hard way 🙂

 

Phnom Penh, Day 2…

Feet swollen with mosquito bites and a 25KM bike tour of the Mekong islands. Death-defying single file ride through the city streets: tuk tuks and trucks take no notice of the traffic direction, especially on roundabouts. To survive, just keep going. There is constant motion and the drivers are used to dodging and weaving. Stop and you screw the whole system. We enjoy ferry crossings, bumpy mud track rides – around farms, past rice fields, in temples, through cattle. We visit a family home silkworm farm (they don’t try to sell you anything) and a local temple. Included: lots of fresh coconut water and a local lunch so plentiful, there was food left behind – anyone who knows me knows that doesn’t happen when I’m around. At night, I find incredible seafood street food, and a young girl abandons her family to join me to eat and speak English. The weird screeching continues overhead and the mosquitos are out in force.

 

 

Phnom Penh, Day 3…

ethical travel cambodia

My patient and helpful instructor for coconut carving, Sok Chea

A motorbike ride with a student called Kim Sroung to a crafts workshop where I cut, file, sand and polish a piece of coconut shell into the shape of an elephant (‘dom rey’) under the guiding hand of Sok Chea. Warm greetings from stall owners as I return for more snails, and I eat as much fresh jackfruit as I can stomach. Exploring random streets on foot, stepping in potholes, dodging traffic, confusing the locals with my presence. Later, discovering a menu at the seafood street vendor opens up a world of over fifty dishes!

My final day in Phnom Penh…

An ad hoc invite which turns out to be church (not what I unexpected!), where I get to see some outreach work by a charity, and meet an American girl called Tori who speaks Khmer – she takes me to buy my food for the countryside from the local market, greeting her usual vendors and getting me a pile of food at a great price. At night, a food tour not for the faint hearted – including (optional) grasshoppers, water beetles, snake, grubs (the snake & water beetles were my favourite) – but also rooftop cocktails, tropical fruits and an amazing BBQ.

street food Cambodia

Tastes like fish jerky. Really, really good.

Tomorrow, I head to the countryside to help at Singing Kites. I already love this country but it clear that there is a lot of pain hidden behind the smiles. Imagine being so hungry, you don’t even care whether your food is clean. Already lots to think about. 

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?