This blog is dedicated to the memory of our darling daughter Louise, who would have been 26 on 7 December. Her spirit guides us in the work we do for UWS
Six months ago I became involved with a charity United World Schools, whose strap line is ‘teaching the unreached’. We build schools and provide basic reading, writing and counting skills to the world’s poorest children in Cambodia (30 schools). Myanmar (5 schools) and Nepal (5 schools planned). We aim to have 50,000 children in school by the end of 2018.
It’s difficult to be an Ambassador for an organisation, finding donors and partner schools, without first-hand experience. My awfully big adventure, eight days in NE Cambodia is to arm me with the passion derived from knowing and understanding the conditions in which we work, and by staying with and teaching some of the kids we try to give a start in life.
First night is in a delightful hotel in Phnom Penh, the Kabiki, to meet the team: John and Maxine Haack, who have also sponsored a school; Roger and Anne Marshall, who live in Hong Kong and will both help UWS on the ground and sponsor a school; Gail Schock, a coach, healer and spiritualist who is going to help with fundraising and Verity Outram, the Development Director.
Our first stop is Siem Pang, gateway to the North East. We pile into a minibus and settle down for the 8-hour journey, stopping only for lunch and loo. At first the road is good, and we whizz by large paddies, crisscross rivers with suspended fishing nets, snapshots of domesticity – kids being bathed, dogs, cows and buffalo, satellite dishes atop the houses on stilts, rice drying on mats. The traffic is slow moving, comprising mainly motos and agricultural two-stroke transporters, heavily laden with crops, wood, motorbikes – anything you can think of basically – and overtaking is hairy.
Eventually the traffic eases and the tarmac gives way to murram, potholed and bumpy, just as the paddy also transforms to scrub and cassava, with the odd rubber and teak plantations, interspersed with mango and cashew trees. As night falls we arrive in Siem Pang: it is the last night of the Water Festival and the town is in full celebratory mode. After meeting up with Chris Howarth, founder of UWS, and the UWS teacher/educator team for some much needed beers and the first of many meals consisting mainly of rice, with chicken and vegetable sides, we decide to join in the fun.
We are invited by a local official to dance at the local pagoda – en route we pass stalls selling deep freed crickets and other disgusting-looking crunchy insects and even some frogs; I am whisked off for a few minutes by an enthusiastic drunk who presses a can of beer into my hand as we twirl in the streets, before re-joining my colleagues for the big party. Hundreds of people are gathered in the pagoda square and are elegantly sashaying salsa style in a circle. Soon we are too; this time I am pounced upon by a diminutive blue shirted man who won’t let anyone else near me and even films my rather pathetic attempts to looks graceful.
We rest in the seats of honour, in one long line, and a huge teapot of beer is doled out (beer is not allowed in the pagoda, so we have to set an example). It’s wonderful watching the kids, playing with their gifts (the festival is a celebration of the harvest and a time of giving) – girls with their dolls, boys with their guns of course; the girls gorgeous, shy and coquettish simultaneously, eying up the young men, who are hanging out trying to look cool. It’s our first close-up glimpse of these beautiful and charming people.
Eventually we are allowed to repair to our our simple guest house ($10 per night). Eschewing the blanket and pillows provided, I wrap myself in my sleeping bag liner and inflate my travel pillow and curl up o the board that poses as a mattress.
We are up bright and early for the next stage of our journey, by river, to visit the schools. After a delicious breakfast of fried noodle and eggs, we board our three long-tailed motorized canoes: I anxiously watch the enormous bag of Duplo and a second bag of educational supplies being loaded – it would be a shame to lose them after getting them so far!
We set off up the main river at a brisk pace, sitting on our cut-off plastic chairs, feeling like guests on the African Queen, before turning off up a smaller tributary. Suddenly we are in a different world: no more houses, thick rain forest, bee-eaters and sapphire-blue kingfishers swooping down on the water while we chug upstream. The water is low and we dodge sandbanks and islands, occasionally the boatmen have to get out and haul the boats over some rocks and once or twice we almost capsize as we hit an unexpected bump, lean the wrong way and get soaked through!
We stop briefly for lunch on a sand-spit, a few welcome beers and a swim – it is extremely hot, although the wind on the water is deceptive.
On we go…Gail is whacked in the face by a branch and at one point our boat breaks down when the ignition cord snaps. We are abandoned while another boat goes to one of the few villages to get a replacement cord. Verity and Gail decide to sleep while the boatman bails: there is no sound apart from the rushing of water and the occasional fish jumping; the light is low and the water is oily and smooth as glass. I read Robert Harris’s Dictator – as good a way to pass the time as any other.
The first school we visit is John and Maxine’s Kaeng Ngai. It’s quite a walk from the river bank, though the village, where we pat little puppies and meander amongst the houses and the huge water jars which collect the rainwater, avoiding the ducks, pigs and chickens. As we pass, the old people and mothers with young babies smile shyly at us.
There is a reception committee waiting for us at the school: all the kids have made rabbit and monkey masks and they break into song as we arrive. Chris, Leak – our Phnom Penh-based guide, who speaks excellent English and who coordinates all the school and donor visits – and Pros, who is in charge of school building and knows the communities well, lead the singing: good onomatopoeic songs like Kumala, Kumala; Waka Waka; a local version of Frere Jacques, which goes ‘Wake up! Wake up! Go to school! Teacher is waiting! Bang bang bang!’ – all to accompanying movements and stamping. The children all sing with gusto, even if some of the songs are in English, like Twinkle Twinkle little Star! If nothing else it shows how bright they are and quick on the uptake.
Each school has three classrooms: one housing the library and art and craft; one for individual logic and the third for group logic. We visit each in turn: in art and craft the children are colouring and cutting out people, houses and animals and sticking them onto a giant length of paper to make a village collage. In group logic they are playing Uno, doing jigsaws and memory card games; and in individual logic they are doing simple sums on the white board.
The children are all beautiful, dressed in a raggle-taggle assortment of uniforms, faded pajamas, interspersed with a shocking pink velour top here, a red party dress there or some other bizarre item of clothing that has made the journey to this remote area. In break time, the girls and boys are hula hooping like crazy – and this makes me feel that Louise is here too, which is both comforting and saddening.
The UWS staff visit each school once a week to support the government teachers and community teachers: the latter are critical as they speak the local language and provide the translation bridge between the kids and the teachers. They are also the vital link to the wider community of parents and grandparents and have to win their respect to ensure the children go to school.
As well as sticking to the basic national curriculum, which is based on rote learning and now includes teaching English at grade 3, so we have bilingual signs and diagrams on display, we strongly believe that learning should be fun. From what I saw this is certainly the case: lesson changes are marked by moving from one classroom to another in a singing snake; the early morning games are innovative but require coordination and skill; and we teach basic rhythm and percussion as well. The happy, smiling faces are a testament to this.
After spending almost 2 hours in Kaeng Ngai, we make our way back to the boats for the next stop – Kiri Vong Sa, ‘our’ village, where we are to spend the night.
The first person to greet us in Kiri Vong Sa, is an ancient bare-breasted lady with an enormous toothless smile. This is where Ross and I have sponsored the building of the school. As I walk towards it, following my Duplo bag, I see an army of elderly people clearing the scrub and children anxiously waiting for our arrival. I stand under the banner for a photo and feel an immense sense of pride and fulfilment.
This school has been open for barely two months, but the kids are able to sing us all their welcome songs: in addition to Kumala Kumala, we are treated to The Lion Sleeps Tonight and the Thank-you Song, which is touching. Later we hear them acting out Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes; and Row Row Row the Boat, all seated on benches masquerading as boats. At the improvised chorus ‘If you see a crocodile don’t forget to scream’ there is a huge shriek as the kids scramble to change ‘boats’. If only my school days were so filled with fun!
After the singing, it is time for the children to leave as it is already late and we have to hook up our hammocks – the choice is either in the classrooms or underneath. Verity, Gail, Roger, Anne and I choose the classrooms, where the visiting German volunteers Cecilia and Julia have chosen – they must know something we don’t! Turns out to be a wise decision as John and Max are kept awake by pigs snuffling under them all night, and it turns cold too – even I am cold and I am indoors. Though its not much fun getting up at 2.30 am, and picking my way through pig poo to the loo by the light of the moon (and a head torch).
After a supper of mounds of rice, pork and cabbage, washed down by Ankhor beer and some Lagavulin I had brought for the camp fire moment, we turn in. There is a huge thunderstorm and it feels cosy, despite the barking geckos and grunts of the pigs that punctuate the quiet of the night. I am surprised at how quickly and easily I sleep even though I have never slept in a hammock before.
We are all up early to wash by our pump, with pigs as our audience, and have a big noodle fry up for breakfast, before the children arrive at 7 am and our ‘teaching’ begins.
The early morning exercises are livened up by the big skipping ropes I have bought – and trying to teach the girls how to play skipping games. They find it quite hard and Anne and Roger have to take them by the hand; the boys on the other hand are quick on the uptake!
The Marshalls have brought some rugby balls from Hong Kong and the kids enjoy putting them in between their legs and jumping in and out of hula hoops; other teams are doing a quasi obstacle course with the hoops. But there is no competition and we did not see any of the western ‘it’s mine’ mentality – sharing and playing together comes completely naturally.
The greatest joy is when we upend the hug bag of Duplo; as all the multi-colored shapes and people tumble out, I watch the children’s faces…it doesn’t take much prompting to get them going. It’s extraordinary to think that they have never seen anything like this before as they start building houses, vehicles and making little boats full of animals. Soon the mums and old ladies are joining in. It fills me with a warm glow of happiness.
I have also bought a bag stuffed full of poster paints, crayons, bead-making equipment, glue, scissors, paper chain kits, origami paper and book, Uno packs and number puzzle games. Watching the children catch on to the latter – don’t forget two months ago they didn’t know how to count, and these cards are in English – is astonishing.
Anne is a gemologist and renowned jewellery maker, and had bought a bag full of wonderful beads and pearls, and soon the girls – and boys! – are hard at it, but having to compete with the mums and grannies who have their beady little eyes on the biggest and best centre pieces!
We laugh it off, as it is gratifying to see the whole community getting involved in our activities. On the verandah outside we have an audience of more elders, mothers and babies, squatting on their haunches just looking on in wonder. One old lady makes a speech: she lost her whole family to the Khmer Rouge; with great dignity she says this school and all the children are now her family and it she thanks us.
The old people in particular enjoy having stories read – here Pros is reading Ali Baba; the kids love the books in our libraries too, which are open 24 hrs a day.
On the way out, we wander through the village itself: it is very empty as the harvest is not quite over and most men and able-bodied adults – and, yes, some children too – are still in the fields. It is a poor place, the remotest village school in Cambodia, and the houses are shabby and old. Pigs and chickens scrabble in the dirt, the snotty-nosed children, now out of their ‘best’, play games, adorned with their sparkly new necklaces. The old women sit and smoke their pipes quietly in doorways; the young married beauties mind their babies.
It is sad to leave Kiri Vong Sa; my old lady is there to bid us goodbye, this time with a white seal soft toy – a strange gift from a Hong Kong school.
The journey down river is much faster, and we swoosh over the rapids, the boatmen only needing to get out twice to steer us through. Half way down we have a rendezvous with Charley Boorman, our Ambassador who has been out for a few days making a film about UWS to be used for fundraising.
One more stop to visit Chan Tuk school, twinned with Haileybury Almaty, where the kids have ben waiting patiently for us. Amongst the mostly uniformed children we come across a little boy, completely naked.
We finally arrive back in Siem Pang as the sun is setting and the river is quiet. For me this has been a life changing experience: one of inspiration and the knowledge that I, we, you can make a difference.
If you would like to know more about the work of UWS, or make a donation, please click on the link here
If you would like to see an album of our journey click here
To see a complete set of Kiri Vong Sa school photos click here
To see an album of Siem Pang photos click here
To see photos of John and Maxine’s school at Kieng Ngai click here
To see pictures of Haileybury Almaty’s school Chan Tuk click here