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.

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.

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?