CAMBODIA – PROJECTS NEW AND OLD FRIENDS
As I write this article I am right at the end of my latest trip, to visit our projects in Cambodia. I was last here in 2011 working with Michael, founder of ConCERT who are our local partners here. On the ‘tips for volunteers’ sheet Michael and I compiled in 2011 he asked that volunteers bring a jar of Marmite with them as he and his family love it and it’s hard to get hold of here, so on my arrival at Siem Reap airport I was not at all surprised to see someone holding up a large sign saying
The temples at Angkor Wat just outside Siem Reap are now the most popular tourist attraction in the world, and tourism has had a massive impact on the size and prosperity of Siem Reap. I have noticed a huge difference in the five years between my visits. The town is larger, there is much more traffic on the roads, the ubiquitous pushbikes on which Cambodians used to carry everything you can possibly think of have now been replaced by motor bikes and the number of restaurants, bars and other places where tourists might spend money has grown enormously. All this is great for Siem Reap, but you don’t have to travel far out of town to find that life for normal Cambodian people continues as it has for generations – you can still see wooden carts being pulled by cows, haystacks by peoples’ houses where straw from the rice fields is piled up, traditional wooden-framed houses, often on stilts, with walls made of panels woven from grass or palm leaves and strips of bamboo, and pigs, hens, ducks and cows all sharing the space under the house with wood piled up for the fire, the motor bike, and hammocks to relax in away from the hot sun. Most people are subsistence farmers or fishermen, and literacy levels in the rural population are very low, as a direct result of the political disruption the country suffered in the 1970s under the Khmer Rouge.
The projects ConCERT supports are all focused on improving life for the poorest in society and/or on environmental improvement. Up to now we have supported just two of these projects, both community centres providing support for families, in the hope that by improving their educational and economic opportunities they can help them to stay together and function as successful family units. They both provide lessons to supplement the school curriculum, including English lessons – as there are not enough teachers or schools in Cambodia the normal pattern is for children to attend school for just half a day, meaning the teachers have to teach two shifts, in the morning and afternoon, to two different groups of students. I had visited one of these centres, Grace House, before and was delighted to pay a return visit. They are now supporting well over 300 children and have expanded the work they do to include an early years’ class and a class and home for a small group of disabled and special needs children. When I was there previously the women of the community were learning to weave so they could make baskets to sell; they now have a small shop by the roadside selling their products which provides important money to support their families. The classrooms at Grace House are all beautiful open-sided rooms so it is easy to see what is going on without interrupting lessons. I was pleased to note how good most teachers English is and how many different interactive methods of teaching they were employing, as I know this is not standard practice in government schools here. All the teachers I spoke to said they had only ever taught in NGOs and said everything they had learned about English and about teaching came from working alongside volunteers, which really emphasises what a massive effect volunteering here can have.
The second community centre, Treak, is one I had not visited before so I was pleased to be able to spend some time there too. Around 20% of the people living in this rural village are on the official government poverty list which means they earn less than 50 cents a day. Here too they are working with the 300 or so children who attend the school to supplement the education they get in state school and enhance their future employment prospects by teaching them English. They have a school library and children with no access to books at home enjoy coming here to read, both in Khmer and English. I was very impressed by the quality of some of the teaching here, although they still have lots of ideas for ways they could use volunteers’ support to help them improve on and expand what they do.The school buildings at Treak are brand new and they are building the school themselves, ingeniously making their bricks and improving their environment at the same time by mixing discarded plastic bags with a little sand and cement which soon sets in the hot sun.They hope to add more school buildings soon so they can also provide vocational classes to the local community.
As well as visiting these community centres where we already send volunteers, my brief for this trip was to see if there are any more of ConCERT’s projects which would make suitable placements for people and places volunteers. In particular I was looking for possible placements for people interested in volunteering in the broad fields of health care and of business and marketing. So I have spent much of my time here meeting many different people and visiting the places where they work. We have not had time yet to finalise which of these projects we will offer as volunteer placements, but I have met a lot of inspirational people doing fantastic work all focused on improving the lives of the poorest people in Cambodia. I have met a doctor who runs a mobile health service for people living on the edge of Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in south-east Asia. He is aware that people from these isolated communities have no chance of getting to doctors or hospitals in town if they are sick, so he has two boats with a team of nine medical staff on each who spend three days every week out on the lake, enabling people who would otherwise have no access to health care to see a doctor or dentist. I have met some people working in three rural villages to run workshops in basic health care, for example providing water filters to enable them to access clean water and showing them how to make vertical gardens so they can grow more nutritious vegetables to enhance their diet. They are running workshops in a variety of health care issues ranging from the importance of basic hand-washing and teeth-cleaning, to the dangers of going barefoot, to basic nutrition, and have already made a substantial difference to the lives of people in this community. I have met people who run a school and home for children rescued from a life of begging on the streets (which is a real problem here in Siem Reap). Many of their mothers were also beggars or sex workers so there was little prospect of these children ever having any chance in life. The school and home has given them the support they need to turn their lives round – I spoke to one of the girls from the school yesterday who tells me she is now in class 10, that she will certainly stay at school until she finishes class 12, and if she passes her exams she really hopes to be able to go on to university. What a turn-around for a girl who started her life as a street kid. Their mothers are also being given employment as weavers – they are making very stylish home furnishings out of waste plastic bags. Tourists are encouraged to drop in to visit them at their workshop and to be taught by them how to do the weaving – this is a positive effort to increase their self-confidence to a level where they are able to interact happily with foreigners so they can get work in a shop.
The people who run the school are also starting an alternative therapies clinic as a fund-raiser for the school, but they hope to use these premises to train local women in these alternative therapies as this will also enable them to earn money – there are plenty of places in town offering massages but the better ones earn more money, and a wider range of alternative therapies would certainly enable them to earn a higher income. I have visited a project focusing on providing vocational training to young people who hope to widen their training to include more specific business skills, and I had lunch in a training café used to train former street kids to be chefs, waiters and front of house managers. Finally, I have visited a factory where the focus is on environmental improvement, using waste cooking oil which would otherwise have been reused unhealthily by the street food-sellers or discarded down the drains, to make biodiesel fuel with a by-product of glycerine which they are using to make soap. This is being distributed to local villages as part of campaign to improve general health and they have got this going as a good business enterprise, selling day trips to environmentally friendly destinations in and around town with the by-line that the cost of one day’s trip provides soap for one family for a year.
All the people I have met have been resourceful people, mostly locals, who are using the opportunities that tourism provides to make a real difference in people’s lives. If any of these projects appeal to you as places where you would like to volunteer, keep your eye on our website – there will be more projects in Cambodia going up there soon.