happy students

A poem about worries by students of Singing Kites, Cambodia

Another great piece of work by students at Singing Kites – and once again, their first ever poem in English.

I’m so very proud of them – well done girls! (The boys in the photo are their friends; they liked to visit and chat and they were all such great company)

happy students

The girls that wrote the poem, Our Worries

 

Our Worries

I worry…

about my exams and if I will fail,

if I’m absent from school then my study isn’t good enough,

about my eyes because I always use the computer on the weekend,

that my brain gets tired when I study so much,

when I go home at night, my bicycle will get broken,

about riding my motorbike on the road in case there is an accident

I will hear ghosts in the dark,

that when I go home there is no rice and I’ll be hungry,

for my brother in Korea because he is working with machines – it is very dangerous,

about not having money because I cannot study or buy things like leashal*,

that I make mistakes every day,

about not having enough water and the world getting hotter,

my face and skin is not white enough.

 

by Raksmey, Theary, Kaknika, Kanha, Lengheang

*Leashal are tiny clams, covered in salt and chilli and cooked in the sun. The shells do not open; you have to use your teeth. Very delicious. See below!

food cambodia

These are the delicious clams

Being Included at Singing Kites #WritingCambodia

Coffee shop, Tanop

Our local coffee shop – I drink the iced coffee with condensed milk. Sounds bad, tastes good!

I really wanted to try and be part of the community while I was here, and to understand a bit about how the people live. Although I have enjoyed visiting the city, you do feel very much like a tourist because that’s everyone else’s perception of you. Staying in a commune in the countryside shows a whole other aspect, and has begun to show me the real Cambodia – and so that’s why I decided to abandon the city completely and stay at the school over the weekend while the teachers are away studying and the school is closed.

During the last week, I’ve been treated to breakfast in the little coffee shop – roasted pork & rice and sweet iced coffee – followed by a dawn motorbike ride through the local countryside. To catch breakfast you have to be at the coffee shop before seven – I asked about trying some noodles at around 8am and the reply was a chuckle and ‘no, you have to go in the morning’. OK, so 8am is no longer morning here – got it!

One of the dentists and her three dental nurses (local village girls and some of the first graduates from the school) also included me in their meals when they came to stay – smoked fish mixed with papaya, Cambodia spicy rice porridge, duck eggs (OK, I admit, I wasn’t expecting the foetus but this is common in South East Asia) and fried fish. They accompanied me on a beautiful morning bicycle ride through the fields to the village – rightly amused by my wobbly riding on the retro bikes – for a breakfast of banana fritters and giant prawn crackers filled with real prawns. And they also brought some strands of young green rice for me to look at, seeing as I’ve only ever seen it already dry and bagged. You can actually eat the young rice and it tastes like coconut milk.

making friends rural cambodia

My friend preparing the coconut from her garden – coconut water is the most refreshing drink in the heat.

This weekend, I was working on my book edits and freelance work, but I also had a few groups of girls visit me to take me for bike rides, join me for iced coffee, show me the stories they write, and share food; the villages in the commune are currently celebrating this year’s rice harvest by sharing Khmer noodles. I was also lucky enough to visit a girl’s home and meet her parents and sisters. They were such beautiful, welcoming people and I had a wonderful few hours in their company.

Then there was the roasted duck shared with the grounds men and teachers, the Khmer lesson over beers… The hospitality has been endless and generous, and I can’t thank everyone enough for their kindness. To feel safe, loved, and included, is such a gift – especially when you’re surrounded by people you’ve just met. People you can call friends in a very short space of time.

The darker side of the country’s past is also starting to reveal itself to me. I don’t pry because it’s far too sensitive, and far too recent, but one of the girls showed me their old traditional wooden house that had survived the Khmer Rouge times, how it was reduced in size due to damage from bombing. She also shared some stories that she had heard from her parents about their lives during that time. They were, as you would expect, horrific. Having met her parents, I have no idea how they have remained such kind and generous people. There is no sign of anger or bitterness; they emanate gentleness and warmth, which I find both remarkable and honourable.

There are also certain things that you can’t help becoming aware of. For instance, driving back to the school, Tith and myself listened to some beautiful and haunting Khmer music in the car. After a few songs had played, Tith explained that all of the singers we’d just listened to were now dead, brutally murdered during the Pol Pot regime for having beautiful voices. I’ve been reading the novel dogs at the perimeter by Madeleine Thien, and this has given me not only an insight into the terrible atrocities that Cambodia endured, but also the lasting impact of the Khmer Rouge regime. It shows me how far the country and its people have come in a short space of time.

Although I cannot understand the commentary, it is apparent from the snatches of the news that I have seen on TV that there is still faction fighting. The political situation remains tenuous and dangerous, and it seems that families need to ally themselves with either the police or the army – through family or marriage – to create some form of security for themselves, and particularly their daughters.

I have seen many Cambodian people wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Sometimes we smile to hide the sad.’ I think explains plenty. I have only just begun to scratch the surface and my return to Ireland is imminent, but what I have seen so far only serves to enhance my feeling that this is an incredible country filled with strong and beautiful people that are making the most of what they have. They are striving to succeed, whatever odds are against them. To me, they are a shining example of what it means to be human.

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?

elephant conservation thailand

Elephant Nature Park – Animal Conservation in Thailand

elephant conservation thailand

One of the elephants with a permanently dislocated hip, rescued from forced breeding programme

Our Elephant Nature Park visit definitely deserved a post of its own, especially as a follow-on from the post about Thai wildlife. Although the elephants in the park are not ‘wild’, they’re as wild as they’re ever going to be due to their prior circumstances.

Because most of these creatures went through the awful ‘breaking’ process during training, and have always been under the violent control of people, releasing them into the wild would be impossible. They have no natural social cues and so wild elephants would either see them as weak or a threat – and so they would end up killed.

Our role in the park was to help unload fruit trucks, clean and prepare elephant food, shovel elephant poo, bathe elephants, shovel more elephant poo, plant trees, weed and manure trees, and to also help walk the many shelter dogs (rescued from floods, abuse and the illegal meat trade) on a daily basis.

There was a good balance between helping out and getting to watch the elephants (as well as cattle and water buffalo herds) from various viewing platforms, and there were also talks and walks amongst the elephants in their grounds. We also got to interact with the local village shamans and school children, taking part in ceremonies and special Khantoke dinners, so we really did get to see a slice of life in that part of the country.

Considering the situation they are faced with, the Elephant Nature Park is doing an incredible job of rehabilitating these physically and mentally abused elephants through positive reinforcement. They are faced with a bit of a conundrum, however, which some people found a little difficult to get their head around.

elephant nature park thailand

Water buffalo, crossing the river

Lek (founder of ENP) and her staff want the elephants to live as normal lives as possible, making their own friendship and family groups and being allowed to roam the grounds on their terms, but they also have to bring in money for the park to keep it open and to be able to rescue more elephants. This means they have to let people get close to the elephants by feeding them, bathing them etc – which keeps the element of human interaction high.

Although some people feel this is going against the park’s original ethos, I disagree. It is clear that the elephants that interact with visitors will never be able to be released into the wild, and the interaction they now receive is wholly positive – no riding, no bull hooks, no violence.

I don’t think they could do the amazing job they’re doing any other way – and I truly believe that if it is possible, Lek, will find a way. Her love for the animals is bottomless, and the way she interacts with them has to be seen to be believed – if there is such a thing as an elephant whisperer, then that’s her.

elephants, thailand

Viewing posts make the best scratch pads!

There are a couple of exceptions among the elephants that are worth noting – two fully grown bulls that were orphaned. These animals were not exposed to the ‘breaking’ cruelty as they were rescued and raised by Lek at a young age. They have never witnessed violence and do not see humans as their superiors or friends – in fact, one is known for throwing logs and rocks at any humans that come near. These wild instincts means there is hope that these animals may be released into their natural habitat; I’m certainly interested to see what happens.

This was the most expensive part of our trip, but I felt like every penny was worth it. The experience we had, as well as knowing that every single penny went into the ENP, was exactly what we had hoped for – and like many of the volunteers there, we would like to return one day to see what further improvements have been made.

There is so much more I’d like to write about Thailand, but unfortunately, there just isn’t time. I’m currently completing my edits for my publisher, preparing for my Cambodia trip in January, and finishing up my freelance work before I head out to work with Singing Kites. I’m really excited about helping this charity, as I love their ethos of ‘a hand up, not a hand out’. I’m also looking forward to what the country and its people will show me.

I didn’t have my computer with me in Thailand but as Cambodia is a working holiday, I’ll be bringing it along, so I’ll be blogging about my time over there as often as I can. I hope to support the charity not just by physically being there, but by raising awareness of what they do.

I fly out on New Years Eve, landing on New Year’s Day in Phnom Penh – hopefully you’ll join me by helping to spread the word about the great work that’s going on over there?