The picture is courtesy of Toutes à l’école
Welcome to Cambodia or,
ស្វាគមន៍ការមកកាន់ប្រទេសកម្ពុជា (som svar kom kar mok dol kampuchea)
You're reminded that you're a long way from home the moment the airport doors slide open. The sanctuary of air conditioning is soon forgotten as the heat envelops you, followed by the constant buzz of tuk tuks and traffic horns, and the pungent aroma of street food that fills the air. Chaotic, intense and occasionally corrupt (so I'm led to believe): this is the start of a teaching journey like no other.
My name is James and in April 2015 I was given the unique opportunity of moving to Cambodia to teach English at Happy Chandara's newly built high school, 40 minutes from Phnom Penh. I'd enjoyed teaching the summer stint at OISE for the last 5 years, while residing in Berlin as a freelance teacher the rest of the year. I loved my life in Europe, but had a nagging sense that a change was needed. And they don't get much bigger than being a volunteer in an economically emerging country.
Before I knew it, another summer had passed, I'd packed up the few nomadic possessions of an English teacher and was on a plane 9,000 miles south east to Phnom Penh.
But enough about me, every month I'll be here to give a snapshot to Happy Chandara's developments, what life is like at the school and introduce some of the amazing students that make it so special. In this first post I'll provide a brief history to illustrate why I felt so compelled to join. So here we go!
Having been a well- travelled journalist for over 20 years, and Chief Editor of Marie Claire, Tina Kieffer had closely monitored and reported on the deep gender inequalities that still exist for women in many societies. Abuse, forced marriage, early pregnancy, a life without freedom of opportunities including the basic right to an education, which so many take for granted. Her trip to Cambodia in 2005, visiting an orphanage and hearing the candid stories of the people she met would prove seminal.
“The day had come when sharing, revealing and condemning was not enough”. Tina, so affected by the girls she had met and galvanised to make a difference found her mission. And in Cambodia was a country she felt particularly compelled to contribute to, one that still bore the scars of it's brutal genocide that had decimated much of the country's educated population. In December 2005 she founded the association Toutes à l’école (School for every girl) and opened Happy Chandara, a school to educate disadvantaged girls and help them one day become free women and educated mothers.
A lot has changed since 2005. When the school first opened its doors, only a a few dozen families were waiting to enrol their daughters, and now the school welcomes over 1000 students. What was once a primary school on a single plot of land, has seen the addition of a college, high school and boarding accommodation across 3 sites. A great deal has changed, but the objective remains the same- that these girls will one day become doctors, teachers, policy changers, and mothers that will in turn educate the next generation and begin breaking the cycle of poverty.
The motivation of staff, students and parents to have the girls in school is strong, however it's not that simple. How can a girl do so if she has no means of transport, or no medical care and is sick? What if she must work to help earn money for the family?
The school has thought of this and continues to strive towards ensuring an education is accessible to everyone. The girls receive dental care, and a nurse provides vaccinations and treatments for illness. Every girl gets a nutritious lunch and food provisions are given to the families to compensate for the loss of income. The girls that live further away are given bicycles with helmets, uniforms too, the list goes on!
My first few weeks have been and gone and it's been quite a learning experience. Knowing the school's beginnings and mission have been crucial to understanding my role and responsibilities. It's left me full of ideas and I can't wait to get started!
Next month I will tell you about life in the classroom, the latest news at school, and my visit to a nearby village to meet some students in their homes.
Please stay tuned and see you next month!
New Phrase: មេឃភ្លៀងខ្លាំងណាស់។(Mek pleang klang nas) ''It's raining cats and dogs''. With it currently being monsoon season, I enjoy daily practice of this idiom at around 4pm. My pronunciation always gives the girls a good a laugh at the end of a long school day.
New Food: Crickets. Similar to eating a prawn that's been left out of the fridge, minus the flesh and with extra shell. Not bad with salt and chilli but leaves a strong aftertaste for the next half an hour. Best accompanied with water!
New Place: Orussey Market. Central and The Russian Market might be favoured by tourists, but for me Orussey Market is the best of the bunch. Inside the enormous concrete building is a labyrinth of stalls that sell everything from kitchen supplies to tools, electronics to fabrics. Just don't expect to find clothes in 'L' without a little perseverance.