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Published: November 29th 2011
Yesterday we completed three months volunteer teaching in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Reflecting on our time now I have no regrets with our decision to use such a substantial amount of our travel time this way, as the experience itself has been so unique and invaluable in terms of insight into a country with such recent troubled history.
It was a Sunday morning in Korea when I came across the website Volunteer in Cambodia
. After reading the information I immediately called Chris who was playing football in Seoul. I was so excited to have come across such a rare volunteer opportunity, in that our personal contribution was substantial, sustainable and (would you believe it?) free! Everyone knows that nowadays philanthropy costs! If you want to spend two weeks in Africa for example, building toilets for a starving family, it’s going to cost you at least $1,000 in fees before you even get there. Realistically your money would be much better spent (and go further), firstly in paying a fair wage to local tradesmen to do the job, then as a donation to a reputable organisation who is familiar with the specific needs of the community. But we won’t get into that...
three months ago we found ourselves in Phnom Penh; we were to be the new, volunteer English teachers at “Conversations with Foreigners”
. The school itself is not for the poorest of the poor; they provide heavily discounted education with foreign speakers for a cost of $40 per 10 week semester, which breaks down to 75 cents per hourly class, made possible due to the fact that all the teachers are not paid, but volunteers. The typical cost for this kind of ESL class in Phnom Penh is around $240 per semester, so we are told. But still, $40 is not easy to come by in Cambodia, where the average wage is just $3 per day. The school does provide scholarships however, to some poor and disabled students
That said, many of the students are from the middle class, but not all. My students came from all walks of life; from a previous Economic Minister to a hard working travelling sales man, from a teacher whose wages would typically work out at $4 per day and another student who was working every hour possible to support his own education as his family was not around to help him. Further, the range of
ages in one class would be typically anywhere between 16 and 64.
The real selling point of CWF is that its profits are used to support another local NGO, Cambodian Rural Development Team
, which (as the name suggests) exists to develop rural communities in sustainable ways. We visited one of the development sights on Koh Preah, close to Steung Treng, to see firsthand the work they are doing. The first thing I noticed on the island is how well managed the waste was - i.e. a complete absence of litter which is typically unavoidable in most areas of Cambodia, presumably as a result of poor environmental education. We were shown around the village, which is actually the site of a new Eco-Tourism project rather than a pure development site, and the changes made since the arrival of CDRT were demonstrated to us. With their help, families had installed water collection tanks, and were using gas cookers fuelled by recycled animal waste. They were given more efficient ways of cultivating land and further they were rearing livestock to supplement their income. The focus was very much on self sufficiency, sustainability and education.
CWF does much more than it says on the tin,
and in addition to contributing to development in rural locations, CWF creates its own social project in Phnom Penh, providing fair wages, education, opportunity and support for its team of Khmer staff, lead by managing director, the ever-smiling Huy Sambo. In our three months Chris and I got to know the staff well, and it was our pleasure to do so! As a stranger in a new place I have never been made to feel so welcome by anyone individual, let alone a whole group. Both Chris and I will remember the experiences we shared with our new Khmer friends for a long time to come and we are thankful to them for their kindness. One person in particular we couldn’t not mention is Soriya, or “Soso” as she is called on account of her easy going and laid back nature. Such a sweet heart, you never did meet!
Likewise, both Chris and I enjoyed excellent experiences with our students. Not wanting to turn this blog into a history lesson, but it is worth mentioning briefly how the Khmer Rouge tortured and ultimately killed many educated people in Cambodia. Now these people are devoted to their studies
and always eager to learn and to further themselves; not to acquire extravagance, but to support themselves and their families. The majority of my students were enthusiastic in the classroom and wanted to know every intricate detail of the English language, particularly enjoying the inherent culture exchange. My students were gracious and kind to me, so that each day I returned home the happiest I have ever felt after a days’ work. One day my level two students, a young group with whom I had a good rapport, decided to take me on their Moto’s for pizza and karaoke. Chris had similar experiences! On our final day we threw parties for the classes and again I was taken to a restaurant and sang karaoke! When the time came to say goodbye it was genuinely harder than I ever expected it would be... but we already have ample new messages on our Facebook walls, so I imagine we’ll be keeping in touch!
In addition to teaching at CWF Chris and I became involved with a local orphanage, the Center of Peace
, home to 72 children between the ages of 4 and 17, with a further 7 young adults living in separate housing
but still supported by the center. A wonderful woman named Bophal ran the home, and once I had proved my commitment to her and the children she confided in me the situation that some of the children found themselves. But those stories are not mine to tell, and as our experience here is ultimately a very personal one I do not wish to write much publically here, other than how utterly wonderful it has been to have the opportunity to spend time in the company of such awe inspiring children.
During my time in Cambodia my eyes were opened to social problems beyond my fathoming. As a girl I thought I could change the world, in reality I know now that there is very little I can do to change any small part of the world. I’m proud of the commitment I made to CWF and Bophal’s children. Education is vital for change, so we’ve used our time and limited skills to contribute what we can to those we met in those three months. If you feel you could do the same, then I urge to visit the website above, and speak to the wonderful Volunteer Co-ordinator, Mr. Erin
Barker. You won’t regret it. I would also encourage you to read a very inspiring book entitled “Half a Sky"
or looking into the life, past and present, of Somaly Mam
. The information you will receive on both accounts will be compelling indeed...
And that, my friends, concludes our time in Cambodia. Personally, I’d do it again in a heartbeat! Before I sign off we’d like to say a final “orkun jaran” (lit. thank you a lot) to our housemates and all the staff at CWF!
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