18.10.2010 - 29.10.2010 30 °C
Since we've now been at school for 5 weeks, we thought it was about time that we told you a bit more about it, and about the children we're teaching.
All the children come from 2 villages around the school, called Kor Krahn and Trithick (they're probably not spelled right but you get the idea!). The villages are very poor generally, and the children come from a mix of income levels of home within the villages. Both of us have been on house visits this week, to two very different homes. John went first, to the home of a orphan teenager who the school are trying to enroll in their new electricians course, but isn't coming. His home was basically a bamboo box on stilts - it had holes in the walls and floor and very few posessions at all, other than a bamboo mat to sleep on, a table covered in rubbish (at present he's working as a rubbish collector) and very little else. The land isn't his, and the landlord lets him live their rent free, but in theory he could be turned out at any time. This is about as poor as families get in this area, but from all accounts there are quite a few who are at this sort of level. In a lot of cases, the problem is magnified by large families, and apparently alcoholism and gambling, which are supposedly rife among some of the poorer families. I guess when you're at home all day with nothing else to do, it's easy to fall into that kind of way of life. However, neither of us has personally seen any evidence of this, so we're only going on what we've been told by other people at Grace House.
Susie visited a very different home with one of the children the day after. All the families have their homes surveyed periodically, to see what they need, and to see how they feel about Grace House. They are asked questions about the children they have, their jobs, whether they are able to feed their families, debts they have, what they have available as a support network, and so on. All of these they answer surprisingly frankly, but I suppose when you have very little, you tell the truth in the hope you get help.
Anyway, Susie went on one of these surveys, and it turned out it was to one of the best off families in the school. Piseth, the Khmer member of staff who took her, said that there are only 2 or 3 families in the school, out of 100+ who have a house as good as she saw. This house was on a fairly large plot of land, maybe 100m ish square. The house itself was raised up maybe 70cm, had a stone foundations to about 1.5m, and then was built out of wood with a metal roof. When you went in, there was a sitting area, with a television, electric lighting, and a few plastic chairs and one folding deckchair. There were also 2 bedrooms, with raised beds, with thin futon like mattresses on, a kitchen, which included a fridge, and a small bathroom. There were photos of the family up on the walls, and books around, and although the house would have felt a very bare, small one by English standards, it would by no means be a complete shock compared to poorer areas of England (obviously the style was very different, but I mean the size and possessions). The family had borrowed $5000 from a friend in order to build the house, which they'd only built a few months previously, and were paying back $200 a month which by Cambodian standards is a lot. Mortgages don't exist here - most people rent, or inherit, or have to save until they can buy outright. The dad worked as a mechanic, so the family had a car and a motorbike, but it was when we had a walk round the garden that it became apparent how he makes his money. They have 24 chickens, which they breed for cock fighting. This is technically illegal in Cambodia, but according to him as long as you keep the gathering small, and pay the police a little bribe, you can get away with it! But if the gathering gets too big then the police will sometimes come, and try to take $300, or just somebodies moto if there isn't enough money there! It was very interesting to see what 'rich' in the terms of these villagers was.
Food wise, apparently none of the kids are starving in an actual sense - they all get (just about) enough rice (with the help of some hand outs from Grace House), but a lot of them, especially from the poorer families, get very little in the way of nutrients or protein, so their bodies definitely aren't getting all they need. Another issue is that they also think that a large percentage of children in Cambodia are abused - beating is still seem as an appropriate punishment for misbehaviour, neglect seems to be almost standard, and Grace House has in the past taken children to hospital, and been told that they have suffered some form of sexual abuse. Grace House finds this almost impossible to deal with; if they raise concerns then it's likely the parents will stop the child coming to school, and if the child was taken off the family there isn't anywhere safer for them to go anyway - as we're here there's someone from an orphanage somewhere in Siem Reap being accused of abusing the children in his care. Further, a lot of parents have to work so hard just to keep their heads above water, that the children are used a lot to help out, by doing the shopping, caring for younger siblings, helping with farming and so on. When they already attend Grace House 2 hours a day and state school for 4+ hours a day, that makes for a lot of work for kids.
So there are a lot of issues that affect the kids at home, and the way this affects them at school is really mixed. On one hand, they are tired and hungry a great amount of the time, which must make it hard to concentrate, especially when we're asking them to do it in a language they don't understand very well. However, on the other hand, the kids all know that they are lucky to have Grace House as a safe place to go, and that the stuff they're learning there is really useful to them. They are all so so keen and enthusiastic and lovely all of the time - they could give English kids a brilliant lesson in valuing what you have and making the most of things.
It's amazing the things that are so exciting to them that we in the west would just take as a matter of course. Things like me giving them a piggy back during break time, or letting them use my camera to take a photo, or seeing a photo of themselves, or being allowed to write the answer to a question on the board, or just answering a question correctly, or being told their work is good and getting a smiley face drawn on it, or playing a little game in class, or a hundred other little things just excite them so much, and really seem to make them so happy. It's really rewarding how much difference you can make by doing so little. Then there's slightly bigger things, like them spending a lesson using the computers. Only 3 kids out of my class of 30 had ever used a computer before last week, and even though they only have one old laptop between 4 of them, they love their computer lessons and work so hard at them. I've never seen a group of children more excited than when I taught my class how to change the colour and size of text in Microsoft Word. It really does melt your heart.
Having fun in computer class
Playing a shapes board game
We had an even bigger event for some of John's class last thursday night. A very posh hotel, called Hotel De La Paix, in Siem Reap regularly runs art exhibitions of Cambodian art. They're aimed at rich tourists, but thursday was the first night of a new event and since it was art done by children who are disabled (either from birth or as the result of accidents - mainly due to landmines), they invited some of the children from local NGO schools. Lots were drawn, and 20 of the students from John's class went (since they're the oldest). They got a rusty open topped truck, which drew up to this spectacularly posh hotel (a hilarious juxtaposition) and after a very patronising talk from the man in charge of the event, they were allowed in. They were all amazed at the building, the room (everything really), and they especially enjoyed the free food, free drinks, and the performance that a group of children from a local Orphanage gave of bokator, a traditional dance/martial art, a little like capoeira. All of them were a little overwhelmed, but it was such a lovely, lovely night, and obviously meant a huge amount to all of them. They were absolutely buzzing with it the next day, and I'm sure they all will be for a while to come. We both just hope that the hotel feels the night was a success, and invites them again.
Outside the hotel
John and his students
So that's some information about the kids at school, and means we've posted two blog posts in one day. Wow! We only have one more week left here now - we're both going to be so so sad to leave here. We've altered our plans slightly now though - we're off to Laos next for 4 weeks, then to Vietnam for 2, before heading back to Cambodia for Christmas. This has many advantages, but the main ones are that we can see more of Laos off the beaten track, which we both really want to do, and can do it fully so we don't need to go back or miss things out, travel round a bit more of Cambodia when we come back, go to the Grace House Christmas party, leave some things here so we don't have to lug all our stuff around with us the whole time, and be with some people we know, and in an area we know we like for Christmas. Maybe we'll actually stick to this plan, although those of you who know us best know that that's never a guaranteed thing!!