Part of my role as SKOPE coordinator is to identify rural schools which may benefit from our projects. This is harder than it sounds because there are so many obstacles. The first one is language. Although I have weekly Khmer lessons, I am unable to easily have flowing conversations, especially about specific topics such as whether a school’s well is in good working order. I don’t even know the word for well. The second obstacle is the fact that I’ve chosen to focus SKOPE’s attention on rural schools, ergo they’re not near where I live and usually involve long journeys into unknown areas of the country. Thirdly, Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and therefore one cannot simply go around offering to donate money to schools or buy supplies without there being a trustworthy advocate.
Luckily for me, all three obstacles were easily surpassed for my first two schools thanks to my Khmer teacher, Salamon. I have been having lessons with Salamon for three years and I think he would sum up my progress as “could be much better if she did her homework.” Yes, even as a teacher myself, I still avoid homework as a student. Anyway, Salamon has helped me with projects in the past and very kindly agreed to help me again. He comes from Kampong Thom, a province just less than three hours north of Phnom Penh. He also has links to a local pastor who works closely with the local communities. Salamon gallantly gave up one of his Saturdays to accompany me on a bus to his pastor’s house. There, I met his extended family and the pastor himself: of course the epitome of an honest, trustworthy human being and therefore the perfect person to act as a link between SKOPE, myself, Salamon, and the schools.
Actually, Salamon didn’t come to the schools as he had a legal case to work on (Salamon is a qualified lawyer), for which he got paid one chicken.
So whilst Salamon was earning his chicken, his pastor, Samreth, took me to visit two different primary schools near his house. Samreth spoke excellent English and was able to translate for me with both head teachers, neither of whom were able to communicate much outside of their native Khmer. And why should they? Surrounded by rice fields, cattle, and a snake (!), what use is English to the communities? I’m pretty sure no westerner had ever visited either school before I arrived.
The projects SKOPE intends to pursue are very much in the early stages but I wanted to write a little about the schools I visited. There were two primary schools, both teaching Grades One to Six. The first one I visited also had a secondary school which went up to Grade Nine. If children wanted to study above this stage, it was about a ten kilometre journey, usually by bicycle, to the nearest high school. Most children did not attend school past Grade Nine (about Year 10 in England).
Neither school had a working well. Neither school had a working water filtration system.
Neither school were able to provide their students with pens and exercise books.
Neither school had a computer on which the head teachers could complete administrative tasks or, say, ask for grants from the government to help them repair or restock their schools. One in particular wanted to be redecorated, to make the school a pleasant place for children to come and learn.
The second school had a poorly stocked library, the first school didn’t have a library at all.
A lot of the children at the second school were barefoot: there were glass shards all over the grassy playing area from broken bottles thrown there during festival celebrations.
The children at both schools were delightful. Curious, smiling, laughing, and eager to learn. Whatever hand they have been dealt, they were making the most of their lives and SKOPE aims to make them better. If you would like to donate to this project, please visit our Crowdfunder site by clicking here.