Teaching in Cambodia

GUEST ENTRY- ALICE JACKMAN

A year ago Cambodia was a just a country on a map that was somewhere near to Vietnam and Thailand; a place in South East Asia that held no interest or importance to me.  I couldn’t have told you the name of its capital city or identified a picture of Angkor Wat temple. I was aware of the Killing Fields, mainly because it was the subject of a film that I’d read an article about it. I knew that Angelina Jolie had adopted the first of many orphans from there. My ignorance of its history was complete and quite shameful.

Then I decided that I was going to move there for two months, volunteering at a local school, with no pay, sharing a bedroom with a stranger. As a primary school teacher here in England I had always wanted to teach abroad. I’m one of those fortunate people who are passionate about their job and I had become focused on taking the experience I had and using it to educate and hopefully inspire children from another culture. This was my first naïve misconception about the experience I was about to undertake – that somehow my time in Cambodia and teaching the children there would somehow leave a bigger influence on them than it would leave on me.

And so I made my first steps towards learning about this strange and exotic country. I watched the aforementioned film and admonished myself for knowing so very little, I used the internet, I read books, I spoke to people who had travelled there. I learnt that the language was called Khmer, the local food was less spicy than that of neighbouring Thailand, I knew who Pol Pot was and discovered that the Angkor Wat temples were considered the 8th wonder of the world. I bought a back pack, purchased some dollars and decided that I’d leave my hair straighteners at home which seemed such a sacrifice at the time. I had attended interviews, supplied references and undergone thorough police and health checks. I had numerous inoculations for which the cost almost equalled that of the flight out there. For about two days I felt prepared and confident in a smug self-righteous way.

But then I received an email from the organisation who was organising my trip informing me of the placement I had been selected to teach at. The Cambodia Landmine Museum. AT first I was confused – teaching at a museum? Then I learnt that attached to the museum was a school for children aged 6 to 18. Some of them were orphans, some had been deserted by their families. Some had parents who had been maimed or killed by landmines. Some of the children themselves were disabled by polio or were HIV positive. And it was at about that time that I started to realise that the challenge I had been looking for was possibly larger than I had anticipated.

The museum

Anyway, I packed my bag, and off I went. I arrived at midnight, automatically breathless from the humidity. I was met by a Cambodian man who bowed and put his hands together in what became the familiar greeting of local people. He escorted me to a tuk tuk and I embarked on a short ride through the streets of Siem Reap where, due to the time of night, I saw little that was remarkable. Nothing yet seemed too concerning. Arriving at the volunteer house I was shown my room and slipped into bed, ignoring the mosquito net that hung above it as I thought it was some kind of decoration. Another lesson I learnt very quickly.

The next four days involved an orientation designed to give us a flavour of the culture we were joining and hoping to understand, live within and uphold. We saw the sunrise at Angkor Wat – possibly, no without doubt, the most beautiful sight Ive been lucky enough to see, we then went from the beauty of Cambodia to the poverty by journeying through a floating village and witnessing a kind of daily life we couldn’t imagine and one which even with our keen touristic eye felt unable to take pictures of. We had a khmer lesson where I unintentionally learned how to curse and visited the markets where everything could be bought from pigs heads to bleaching agents for our skin. I was least excited about the 6 hour course I had to attend on child protection. Ive been to several of these in my role as a primary school teacher and once again felt there was nothing new I could learn here. How wrong I was. Not only were we warned about acceptable practise within schools, we were graphically made to understand as best we could the reality of life for a child in Cambodia.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

I’ve heard horrendous stories as a teacher in the uk and Ive been witness to situations that I wish I could forget but even this didn’t prepare me for some of the stories that were retold to us in preparation for our time there. The responsibility we had taken on, not only to uphold a culture we were unfamiliar with but also to know that regularly we would have to fight against our own western instincts in order to do this was bewildering and disturbing.

I will offer you an example of this:

A small, obviously malnourished child approaches you in the street. Her clothes are far too small and covered in filth that clings to not only her clothes but her skin. Wrapped around her is a sling, equally as grubby, carrying a baby. The baby may be crying or appear to be sleeping and the girl will stroke the babies tiny head and look up at you with pleading brown eyes. In an accented English learnt from who knows where she tells you she doesn’t want money she wants food. Not for her for her brother. Please  come with me to shop and buy me some milk. How many tourists with a pocket full of dollar notes can resist the impulse to feed a starving child? She doesn’t want money after all, she just wants food. So, you go to the shop, you buy the milk, you hand it over to the child whose big brown eyes smile back with overwhelming gratitude and you walk away feeling like you have done a good thing. You don’t know that when you have walked away the child goes back in to the store and sells the millk back to the shop keeper. The money is then given to either the gang leader or an alcoholic parent. You don’t know that the baby in the sling is quite possibly drugged to appear sick. You don’t know that the baby isn’t the childs brother or sister but purchased from a village as an accessory to this sham from a parent who cant afford to feed the baby anyway. This is just one of many such scams that fill the streets of Cambodia.

What we were advised to do was to remind the child that free milk can be collected anytime day or night from the Angkor Childrens Hospital not far from the centre of town. Responses to this were mixed. You could be kicked, spat at or hear that curse word I accidently learnt on my first day. I was never thanked for letting the child know of an alternative way of getting milk.

There are projects out there to assist getting children off the streets into schools and wonderful projects that also involve the parents of these children learning new trades that they can utilise to earn money themselves rather than expecting their children to walk the streets until gone 3am when the drunk tourists filter out of the pubs and clubs and are more likely to spare a few dollars. The motto here is let adults earn and children learn.

Which brings me to my experience of actually teaching in one such school that is trying to offer under priveledged children a start.

Street kids, Cambodia

In order to give you the full picture of the Landmine museum school you need to know about the man who started it. His name is Akira. Not a typical Cambodian name but one he was given, because he is not sure of his real name or even how old he is. As a small child he was taken by the Khmer Rouge after his parents were killed and trained to be a child soldier. He was trained to hold and fire guns. He was taught to plant landmines. He watched many of his friends die. He said he didn’t know the difference between right and wrong.

Akira stayed with the Khmer Rouge until the Vietnamese started their liberation campaign in 1979. He changed sides after being captured and fought with the Vietnamese. In the years that followed he also joined the Cambodian army. As he began to understand the legacy the Khmer Rouge had left his country he felt a huge responsibility to make right the evils he felt he had contributed to. And so with no real family he walked into the jungle with a stick and assorted basic tools and started to look for landmines. When he found one he made it safe. This was his life. He started to collect the old landmine shells and bring them back to the place he had made his home. After a while word travelled fast and people came to look at the large collection of old landmine shells that the crazy guy in the jungle had dug up. This grew and grew until eventually it became the Landmine museum.

Akira’s desire to right the wrongs of his past did not stop there. He travelled to villages to help clear fields that were known to be full of mines. Occasionally he would come across a child, orphaned by a landmine and perhaps missing a limb themselves. He started bringing these children home where his new wife welcomed them and together the landmine museum developed into a home for children that were affected not just by landmines but children who needed food and an education.

There are now over 30 children who live at the Landmine museum. They receive schooling, food, clothes and are taught to make crafts that are then sold in the museum shop and allow the children a small income.

Compared with other schools that volunteers I spoke to were working at, the Landmine Museum school was well resourced and the children’s English was already at a high standard. Electricity was dependent on solar power so during the rainy season you wouldn’t expect the fan in the classroom to work which was the main reason for the electricity. There was a whiteboard, desks, chairs and an assortment of books and that was what we had to work with. Children were encouraged to drink two glasses of water an hour to discourage dehydration which would result in a trip to the local childrens hospital and 24 hours on a drip.

Teaching these children was such a pleasure and everyday I was moved, inspired and consistently surprised by them. These children would wait for us to arrive everyday and grab our hands and race with us to the classroom such was their enthusiasm for the lessons. Some of them had prosthetic limbs but could still be found playing volleyball, climbing trees and there was never a sense of them not being completely equal to any other child in the school. They laughed and smiled continuously and in two months I never saw a Cambodian child cry. They fought with each other as children do but the confrontations were honest and over within minutes. I never had to deal with “behavioural” problems and the closest I came to admonishing a child was getting them to quieten down as they were tirelessly animated about every subject.

The smaller children would creep into the older childrens lessons and happily sit on the floor trying to learn even more. One girl, aged about three, who was not yet old enough to attend class could regularly be found climbing the stairs to the classroom, wandering in and depositing herself on top of a school desk. Usually mine. I became adept at teaching while holding this child on my hip. The children wanted to learn, whether it was geography (they knew that Kampuchea was near Thailand but couldn’t all find it on a map of the world. Not even one where Asia was in the centre), bingo (their favourite game in the world), Friday sing-a-long (they became big fans of Ronan Keating) and their dedication to pronouncing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Cambodians struggle with certain letter sounds that are not found in their alphabet. Putting an s at the end of a word is really challenging for them which meant my name also caused problems. I was regularly referred to as Teacher Ali).

The weeks flew by in a haze of phonic lessons, past tense verbs, vocabulary misunderstandings and a lot of bingo. On my last day they threw me a party. There were party games, (more bingo), they tried to teach me badminton and hula hooping (neither particularly easy wearing flip flops and on gravel), they made me friendship bracelets, drew me beautiful pictures, sang songs and danced for me.

It was not an easy goodbye especially when a few of them tried to get on the tuk tuk with me as I drove away. I promised I would come back – a promise I vehemently wish to keep. And as I waved goodbye and drove away past the rice paddies and the malnourished cows wandering in the road I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was possible they would miss me anywhere near as much as I would miss them. In a few weeks a new volunteer would arrive to be dragged skipping into class, they would hear the cry every Friday of “Teacher, teacher we play bingo now?” and would have the pleasure of all the girls running out the classroom whenever the rains came so that they could collect in their laundry. I hoped I had taught them something valuable not just how to recite lines from Mary Poppins. But what had I learnt from them?

These children were survivors. None of them had easy lives in comparison to western standards. They were dealing with amongst other things, disability, HIV, abuse and desertion. Not to mention that they are growing up in a country still in the shadow of its own dark and very recent history. And these were the lucky ones. All of the children I taught were guaranteed a scholarship for further education when they graduated.

Cambodian relief centre

Cambodia is without doubt a country trying desperately to heal itself. Every person I met had a story to tell and they told it with a smile on their face and an undisputed air of positivity. At the moment (and after visiting Thailand I can see how this could change) they welcome and appreciate tourists. If they find out you are a volunteer they thank you for coming to their country and helping them. They want change and that change will come from this generation of children who are growing up in a world where it isn’t a death sentence anymore to be educated. Speaking English will be one of the many skills they can learn to help themselves to a better future. Have I contributed to that? In a very small way, I hope so. Have they contributed anything to my life? Absolutely. In more ways than I can list here. And I will go back and keep my promise. Because there are still children asking for milk instead of asking for a chance to learn.

Alice Jackman is a Primary School Teacher in the UK and took a few months out to teach over in Cambodia. This inspirational post was written upon her return to the UK this month.