Tuesday, December 11, 2012

And so. . . . farewell.

Our final afternoon of our 'tour'  this time was spent in the delightful company of the SSF Apsara dancers - those children that Nick watched rehearsing with Lyda, their teacher, a few Sundays ago. Sarin had arranged for a full public performance, in costume, especially for us - and we felt very privileged to be sitting in the shade of the large tree in the compound -  one which Sarin had planted there some eight years previously - to see the fruits of all that practice. It seemed fitting to watch this dancing taking place outside in the sunshine, dancing enacting practical movements of planting and harvest and the usual village activities.As we sat there watching the children perform with such enjoyment, naturalness and easy manner, with many of the pupils from other classes joining in the fun, we were reminded just why we had been drawn to the Spitler School Foundation years ago. 

Sitting talking to Sarin, reflecting on Khmer society and matters of life and death, we were aware of the "family" that we have joined. Like all families we sometimes disagree, strongly, get disheartened, tired and fed up, but always there is someone else in the family feeling optimistic, energetic and full of ideas to get us back on track.


Sophea and Choeumroeun shake clean hands.
That morning we had again welcomed our friends from Pannasastra University into Spitler School to help with the hygiene training. They were enthusiastic about using the finger puppets (germs that come off one at a time as we use water, soap, brush etc) and the hand puppets enacting scenes about the village. They remarked about how "different" the school felt to their own experiences of primary school and we hope to have extended their teaching repetoire beyond the chanting and usual stuff they have known. We look forward to continuing to work with them as they make excellent role models to our village children of what can be achieved through education.
They are happy to volunteer their time, when they are not working for exams at University, and it is good for us to realise that we do not need to turn exclusively to Western volunteers for expert help. We hope too that the new "nurse" in place there will continue to work with the children to raise standards of cleanliness beyond their experience to date.
A dramatic moment for Socheat and Chomroeun

Kangna, our new 'nurse', is introduced to the children.

The day before we left we were saddened to hear of the deaths of nine people who lived and worked in the Night Market. Fire had spread rapidly and many people living above the market stalls had been trapped. Siem Reap mourned their loss with funerals at the wats around town and processions of people carrying their lotus flowers. Although Siem Reap is very busy at the moment with high season, anyone who lives here for any time is touched by the kindness of local people who are experiencing severe poverty with such pride.

We have left Siem Reap now, faced the joys of a border crossing in Poipet, been madly driven by taxi to Bangkok and now settled for a few days in Hua Hin. Already we are reflecting on our friends back there and wondering what they are doing.

We hope to meet up with our "other half" Jim, in a few days time to talk, plan and have a few jars. The Foundation is at an interesting crossroads now, needing to look ahead to the challenges of the future and build on the strong foundations that have been laid over the past eight years. We wish our supporters well and will continue to update this blog with news when we can.

And don't forget - the foundation relies totally on donations to support these two schools.  Without these funds some seven hundred children would lack a primary school education. We personally regularly hold "Curry for Cambodia" evenings at home where we invite friends to share a meal cooked by us and auction off various scarves and trinkets found in local markets. All the money raised goes directly to the school and on one occasion we raised $407 which we sent off. Coincidentally Jim had asked for $400 in order to buy some books for the library  on the same day. No matter how much or little we send we know that good use will always be made of the money donated. We think the curry evening idea could go global!

And finally . . . the boys join with the girls for the coconut dance!  They're certainly getting there, and the girls show, we think, a remarkable tolerance and good humour.  A real reflection of the Cambodian temperament.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Wedding, a new teacher - and a Nurse.

One of the wonderful things about being a long term volunteer out here is the deep friendships that are forged with many of the local people. Of course most of our relationships are with people that have worked for many years at Spitler School and more recently, those at Kurata School. These relationships haven’t always been easy; our role means we sometimes “tell it like it is” regarding  the need for child protection, play equipment, time keeping and so on. But always, always the kindness of the locals wins through.

A few weeks ago we were presented with a red and gold envelope. One of the teachers was inviting us to his daughter’s wedding. We knew what to expect, kind of, so we were looking forward to a trip out with our friends, lots of food and drink, and lots of noise. We were not disappointed! Some of the interesting features of a Khmer wedding include the fact they can last over three days, the main players might change anything up to seven times into beautifully ornate and brightly coloured clothes, there will be seven courses served (good luck number)  and EVERYONE will clink their glasses, touch their elbows and have a lot to drink. The level of busyness cannot be underestimated, food flies out of the cooking area, the huge, stacked speakers make conversation pretty well impossible and people laugh and shout. Glasses are spooned full with ice, guests are dressed up to the nines and children enjoy playing together and talking to their relatives. Rice appears at the end of the meal to avoid looking as if people are feasting on that and the courses generally include lots of chicken, duck and fish.

Sarin, Nick and Loll.
Loll - with Vebol and Daro
 in the background.
This particular wedding was a very happy occasion, with many of the teachers from Kurata and Spitler School enjoying a moderate drink.  Nick, presented with cans of 8% Panther Beer (a very dark stout), felt that moderation wasn't entirely within the spirit of the occasion.  We were sitting with some of our friends about one metre away from the sound system.  Its funny how soon you get used to the intensity of the noise, which you feel with your whole body, not just your ears.  In some respects, it makes life easier: no need for small talk (my Khmer only allows for the most minimal of small talk anyway) and lots of opportunities for clinking glasses and smiling amiably.
Our teachers in relaxed mode!

Enjoy a few more shots of the wedding - including the back stage mass-catering, the grandmother and her granddaughter - and, of course, the bride and groom themselves.

New English Teacher at Kurata
Neang Pisey
After an exhaustive (and exhausting search) -we have finally managed to replace our Kurata English teacher, Phoeum, with a young lady from Siem Reap.  Her name is Neang Pisey, and she started work at the school at the beginning of this month.  Although she does not yet have a lot of teaching experience, she speaks very good English and has shown that she has a lovely attitude towards the children.  Ratha, our other teacher at Kurata, has agreed to mentor her in the early stages, and we are confident that we will gain an excellent teacher in Pisey.

Loll and Nick went in for their final Activity Afternoon, and we all worked together on introducing new songs, doing some phonics, reading a story about a washing line (I know - but it's actually a bit more interesting than it sounds) and then doing some matching cutting and pasting (real cutting and pasting: glue and scissors! No computers at Kurata yet) and clothes bingo.

It was also our last opportunity to bring out the parachute, kindly donated by Northlight School, Singapore.  Pisey seemed to enjoy the experience, but looked a bit apprehensive about using this last item.  Don't worry, we said - it's not compulsory, and you will learn!

The Hygiene Programme
Sour Savang
Along with other things, this has been one of Loll's most important projects for the Spitler School Foundation on this trip. She set up some hand-washing instruction, using the lively talents of a number of students from Pannasastra University (and they are coming out to Spitler School this coming Thursday to repeat their instruction) and had identified a woman from her 'Play and Share' Sessions with the women (and young children) from the village who could act as a school nurse.  Sour Savang met with Loll and Vebol on Monday, and Loll was able to talk to her about the hygiene programme and what we should expect from a school nurse.  Of course, she has no medical qualifications, but she is a sensible woman, with young children of her own, and is very keen to promote good hygiene in the school, as well as try to cut down on the number of diseases that can afflict a poor community.  We were able to give her a copy of selections from a wonderful book called Where there is no Doctor - a book designed to give essential information about health issues that can be applied in very poor communities.  The folder we gave her deals with common problems, such as dehydration and how to mix a re-hydration drink, the link between malnutrition and diarrhea ('Malnutrition causes diarrhea; Diarrhea causes malnutrition'), as well as dealing with skin problems,  burns and wounds and snake bites - and many other things.  It's a well-illustrated book - and, crucially, is in English and Khmer, so we can all understand it! Savang will make sure she sees every class once a week, and will keep a close eye on children's attendance so she can pick up any underlying problems.  We also have a list of materials for a basic but appropriate First Aid Kit - which we can put together for the princely sum of $25. (Donations welcome!  And the donation link now works properly, so there's no excuse!)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dancing with clean hands.

An old lady from the village of Ang Chagn Chass looks through the grill of the library window on a Sunday morning as the young girls and boys practise their Khmer dance routines, under the careful eye of their dance teacher, Chea Chanlyda.  This image shows us something important about Cambodia today, as it captures the wistful expression of this woman, who has lived through the turmoils of the past - the civil wars, the period of genocide under Pol Pot and, no doubt, the loss of family members and friends.  It is difficult to judge her expression, but she seems totally absorbed by the graceful movements of these young people, who represent the future of this country.  These children have escaped the horrors of the violent past, but are still very much victims, living in extreme poverty in a country which still does not, yet, value education sufficiently to ensure that it is available and well-funded for all children.  Which is, of course, the point of Spitler School Foundation.

The dance class runs every Sunday, from 8.00 am to 10.30.  Regular readers will remember that we missed the class last Sunday as we were too late, and also wanted to join with the university students presenting their hygiene programme at Kurata school.  This time, however, Nick set off with determination on his bike, to cycle the 40 minutes in to Spitler School to find out just what was going on.  What a wonderful experience.  Some 22 kids are crowded into the school library, from Grades 3, 4, 5 and 6 and Lyda gently but firmly encourages them through the complex movements of Khmer dance.  The older children work with the younger ones, ensuring that the fingers are sufficiently supple to bend into the most extreme angles.  Most of the dancers were girls, but the five boys who joined in certainly put their souls into the enterprise and what they lacked in grace they made up for in enthusiasm.  This class has been funded by a generous donor from England, and we are determined that it will continue.  The children also have costumes which they put on when they are dancing for special occasions, such as graduation.

Wonderful Washing ...


It seemed that the opportunity to stay in contact with those wonderful university students was too good to miss as we needed help with selling our hygiene programme in Khmer. Nick and Loll met up with the jolly group in town and Loll explained how our finger and hand puppets, made by local mothers and children, could be used in a fun way to educate about the evil world of invisible bugs and germs. A bit apprehensive but nevertheless willing, they agreed to helping out on Saturday morning, their only  free time. We tried linking it into an overview of "Staying Healthy" looking at the need to eat fruit and vegetables, take exercise, clean teeth then - hand washing. Our focus was on the latter and soon the children were joining in the fun and able to recite the order of how to wash hands using soap, and possibly a brush. The finger puppets acted as germs that gradually fell away as water and soap were used. A little play, based on some adventure in the village, was acted out using hand puppets. The adventure involved sharing and eating of food, playing with animals, going to the toilet etc, all without handwashing. The poor puppet dramatically acted out the possible consequences of germs reaching the tummy and the children were well able to identify with these results. (There was no Western squeamishness about 'rest rooms' or 'bath rooms': the student with the 'sick' puppet squatted most realistically on the dais at the front of the class, to the amusment (of course) of all the kids!

We were pleased to be able to talk to all the morning children at Kurata school about this including the kindergarten and we tried to explain to one of the teachers that many of his frequently sick children might only need basic washing eqipment and not expensive medicines to improve their health and school attendance. It was lovely to see the children dashing to wash their hands before accepting some biscuits to eat. It's a long road but a start has been made. Spitler school children this week were helping to make simple posters that they proudly stuck around the school reminding all of the importance of personal hygiene. Gratifyingly, the message has also been adopted by the sewing group who now are washing before eating our shared snack. From that group we have managed to identify a lovely woman who might be able to act as our "school nurse" at Kurata who, if we can get the funding, would be able to check on general cleanliness of children, visit sick children at home, arrange hospital visits and teach basic hygiene techniques. All of which can be life saving. Maybe someone out there would feel they can support this? Nick and Loll have only three more weeks in Siem Reap before they return to the UK and would be pleased to have someone in place, trained up in both schools, doing that job.

Off to wash our hands!

The hard facts behind the smiling faces of our images.  This, from a recent UNICEF report on Cambodia:

Findings from a 2010 National Sanitation and Hygiene Survey show that only 31.8 per cent of Cambodians use latrines, only 16.7 per cent of Cambodians have a fixed hand washing place in their homes and only 62 per cent of respondents reported practising hand washing. Yet, the use of a toilet can decrease diarrhoeal deaths by 30 per cent and hand washing with soap by more than 40 per cent.

And this from theGlobal Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing Initiative:
The two biggest killers of children in the developing world today are diarrheal disease and respiratory tract infections. The simple act of washing hands with soap can cut diarrhea risk by almost half, and respiratory tract infection by a third. This makes handwashing a better option for disease prevention than any single vaccine.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Life is full of coincidences. Like the time Nick and I flew into Australia from Brunei where we were living with our three daughters, settled into a hotel then started chatting to the first person we met in the bar there. No, we didn't know him but we knew all his friends, we had lots in common and we both had had homes in Worcester. Well today was another day a bit like that. 

Over the last few days I had announced that I was suspending all energies apart from keeping my sewing, Play and Share, groups going and my next few weeks were to be concentrated on introducing a hygiene programme into both schools. Nick would keep the English work going in a scaled down but beautifully planned way. As we only have about a month left here I was determined that we would make a mark in this area. Over the years the level of personal cleanliness does not seem to have improved so this week was going to be IT! I'd been to the market, bought up brushes and soap, hand wash and bowls ready for SSF Wonder Wash Week.

Then we get an email that Phoeum, one of our English teachers, was bringing in a lot of University students to introduce the importance of hygiene to our Grade 4, 5 and 6 students at Kurata. Not only that, parents too were invited in, exposed to the evils of diarrhea, dengue and other problems, and it was all happening this Sunday. Brilliant!

So Nick and I, along with some local friends headed out there to see how it was going. 

What a great turn out ! One room contained parents and children of various ages and the other held our  students. Each set was receiving excellent instruction from Health Care students about the need for health awareness in a fun but informative way. Many questions were asked, some laughs had and the Wonder Wash Week was launched. So a very fortuitous coincidence and we hope in future we will continue these important links.

So WWW will hopefully get going this week. The sewing group will be encouraged to use some hand made puppets to get the message across, some posters will be made by the children, some demonstration on hand washing will be given and we hope to have some lasting impact on the good health of our children and their families. One concerning problem discussed by parents was how they often hate going into town to the clinics or hospitals. They find the overworked staff there rather rude and abrupt and doctors get angry that children weren't brought in earlier. So a vicious circle ensues. Vebol was made aware of this and we hope earlier intervention in health matters will make a difference.

And more accidents!

As previous readers will be aware Vebol has had a nasty accident but is now back at school on light duties after coming off his moto. Last week also saw Jim, our volunteer coordinator, being struck by a moto while on his bike. Despite chipped tooth, cuts, grazes, shock and needing stitches he has still managed to preserve his good looks (he believes) ready for his return to the US this week. The roads are certainly a lot busier now as high season approaches and cycling doesn't hold the attraction it had earlier on.  (Nick has also sprained his ankle slightly - or, as he puts it 'broken his navicular metatarsal talus in several places'.  Anyway, he is limping in an exaggerated way and hoping to gain attention.)

And finally ...

We send our best wishes to Danny Spitler and his intrepid friends who are hiking through the Grand Canyon in order to raise money for the Spitler School Foundation.  And - once again - you can contribute by clicking on the link to the right. Or go to:


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sewing and Child Protection

It's been a busy week, one way or another, and mostly good, though we did have one piece of shocking news a few days ago:  Vebol - our wonderful administrator and recent father, had been knocked off his moto and spent three days in hospital having a head injury, broken finger, damaged leg and multiple bruising attended to.  He is at home now, and recovering well, but it was a nasty accident  and not his fault.  He (and we) are hoping the car drivers who forced him off the road will pay compensation as he now has very hefty hospital and x-ray fees to pay.  It's a good reminder to us all of the dangers of driving/riding on Cambodian roads.  Mostly the traffic is slow - almost walking pace - but there is none of the road discipline you might expect in the West.  If you're moving forward, and particularly if you're moving forward and you're a large Lexus (driven by a wealthy 'businessman') or a truck then you just keep moving.  Generally, in Siem Reap, most people obey the few traffic lights on intersections.  Well, I say most: something like 70% perhaps, which makes it even more dangerous as you never know who is going to shoot across your path when you think you have right of way.  We have learnt the 'correct' way to turn left (we sort-of drive on the right here - a French legacy): you gradually manoeuvre yourself over to the left hand side of the road, then you turn left into the oncoming traffic and then slide yourself effortlessly over to the right hand side of the road. It works because everyone does it!  On bigger roads outside the city some traffic moves pretty fast, and overtaking can be very dangerous.  It looks like an overtaking car coming towards Vebol forced him off the road without, luckily, hitting him. Anyway:  our best wishes to Vebol for a speedy recovery.

Child Protection
Most people will be aware of some of the horror stories coming out of Cambodia about the ill-treatment of children, sometimes - but not always - by foreigners. (Topical news from Britain: Gary Glitter has just been arrested in connection with the Jimmy Savile sex abuse allegations.  He was conveniently deported from Cambodia a few years ago, rather than prosecuted, and so was able to enjoy himself in Vietnam before eventually being jailed.)  If you visit Pub Street of an evening, you will find many children on the streets selling books, postcards and bangles; some carry tiny babies and ask passing tourists for milk.  If offered money they will decline and say it must be milk.  Gullible tourists will then be taken to the nearest pharmacy where they are persuaded to buy the biggest tin of powdered milk, which they give to the girl with the baby - who promptly returns to the shop and sells it back to them.  Many orphanages in the country are unregulated (and unnecessary - see this website: Orphanages are not the Solution) and clearly have no child protection policy in place.  As an NGO, working over two schools with many potentially vulnerable children in them - and as a member of ConCERT Cambodia - we have a responsibility to have a rigorous and robust Child Protection Policy in place.  Cambodian people can be very open and friendly - particularly to Western tourists - and one of the things we, like all institutions dealing with young people, whether in the East or West, need to control is access to our children. Some unregulated orphanages in town invite tourists in off the street to watch dance displays or even 'play with our children', and we need to make sure that all our staff are aware of the potential dangers of allowing strangers, however apparently well-intentioned, onto the school premises. There is more to child protection than this, of course - and we also wanted to deal with the vexed problem of cleanliness and protecting our children from germs.  Recent statistics show that some 40% of child deaths from disease could be prevented by simple measures like hand-washing with soap after using the toilet or before eating.  We have encouraged the permanent availability of soap near the wash basins in both schools, but we need a lot more training before all our children learn the right habits.
Our Child Protection training session earlier this week was run by Loll and Nari, from ConCERT Cambodia  and was intended to address all aspects of child protection - from abuse to hygiene and to allow all staff (including ancillary staff) to get to know and own our published Child Protection Policy.  Loll started the session with an ice-breaker so that the staff of both schools felt comfortable working with each other.  It must have been a shock to most of them, however, to discover that this section of the training was to be in English.  They soon overcame their inhibitions and joined in enthusiastically. It was a pleasant surprise to discover just how well many of the staff are coping with English and are happy to use it with us so the English teachers were not called on too much for help. There was considerable relief, however, when Nari took over and the rest of the session was conducted in Khmer.

Sewing at Kurata
Following the success of the 'sewing circle' at Spitler School, which brings a number of mothers (and their little children) into the school to work with Loll on producing materials that will be useful in the classroom, our first Care and Share session took place this Thursday morning with a number of the mothers from Kurata School.  They had been busy on previous weeks planting rice, so it was a wonderful surprise to see so many turn up for this first session. With little common language they soon settled to producing some excellent finger and hand puppets and the principal was keen to join in too. This will, we hope, develop into a regular slot where mothers can help to develop ideas for making toys from materials easily found around them. We have observed very few children playing with anything in Cambodia apart from the donated play equipment in  our schools and this might encourage more parents to spend time with their children in more fun and  potentially educational activities. Many of our children spend many hours in work related activities to help their families eke a simple and very basic living from the land so a change from that might be welcome. Loll was pleasantly surprised to hear some of the little girls mimicking her and saying, "Hello" and "It's ribbon" and "Lots and lots" sounding just like regular English kids. A great way to start with learning a second language! Some of the afternoon children also joined in and the room was bursting at the seams, though we managed to shoo out the dogs and chickens! The session ended up with consuming much needed crackers and bananas and shared cans of drink. A very positive experience we hope even without the help of poor Vebol.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mothers and Kindy

And just as we thought the rainy season had finished - a TORRENTIAL downpour.  Luckily, this occurred overnight, and today it appears to have stopped - and it's rather pleasantly cool.  Too much rain makes it impossible to get into school on our bikes, but we hope that it holds off today for further English Activity at Spitler School.

We have a couple of new developments to report:  the revival of the 'sewing circle' and the introduction of English classes to the kindergarten children in both schools.  

A small group of women from the village turned up for this initial session and settled down to some very busy sewing of hand puppets which will then be used by teachers and children in their English classes.  The problem was that the back stitch suggested by Loll was ignored in favour of the much faster running stitch and soon a competition was in place for who could make the most! Eventually the suggestion that we fashion eyes, nose and mouths were picked up on and the puppets developed characters all of their own. Before the final tidy up and eating of biscuits and fruit much hilarity had taken place with the learning of the English for the facial features and similarly, but less successfully for Loll, those in Khmer! We hope in future to use old plastic bottles and yogurt pots to make toys for younger children and also using the session to discuss the nutritional and hygiene needs for the people of the village. One of the mothers is pregnant with her third child and we shared information about the situation for women giving birth from the village. Future events might also feature the need for play and how to get the children ready for school. Tomorrow a similar session will be held in Kurata school where we hope some mothers will get time away from the planting in the fields to enjoy a play and share session there.

The Scary Kindy Classes
 Several of our English teachers - and Nick - are rather apprehensive about trying to teach English to the youngest children in the school.  Nick is really only used to working with students who are over 16, and Ann Hoy, Ratha, Sokkol and Phoem are generally happier with older children.  You have to remember that while Western 4 and 5-year olds are rather small - the equivalent children from Ang Chagn village, many of whom are severley undernourished, can be absolutely tiny.  And many of them are also terrified of strange people, especially these weird barang (Westerners - the word translates as 'French person'.)  You begin to get an idea of their size when you go into the classroom and all the children are sitting at their desks.  'Stand up!' said Loll, yesterday, to our little group of Spitler children.  'Stand UP!' she repeated, in a more encouraging way - only for Nick to have to point out to her that they were already on their feet.  A few of them barely came up to the top of the desk, over which they peered with apprehensive eyes.

Yesterday, Ann Hoy was very worried about what we were going to do - and what we would be able to achieve.  Unfounded worries, of course, as he showed himself a natural with these little babies.  We all sang a 'Hello' song and waved; Hoy wandered around with a glove puppet scaring the socks off a few of them - but gradually gaining their confidence. (Actually none of them wore socks.  Only a few had shoes.)
The children began to respond with increased enthusiasm, though it was clear that a few of them were utterly bemused by the whole experience.  More and more, however, they began to join in until, when Hoy suggested we take them for a walk in the compound they all ran to line up ready for the adventure.  Still a little confused, a number of them decided to follow Nick, duckling fashion, despite Nick's attempts to shoo them off.  Luckily, the Kindergarten teacher was at hand to sort out these teething problems, and soon they were all happily following Hoy as he introduced them to various objects in the compound.  We looked at the teachers' motos, all parked under the shelter, to Sarin's car (and the dog underneath it), to the flag pole (with flags still at half mast for the death of the King Father), and we then headed off to introduce ourselves to the toilets.  Happy as I was to see the children say 'Hello moto, hello car, hello dog', I rather drew the line at 'Hello toilet', and the kindy teacher, who has only limited English, entirely agreed as she found the entire concept hilarious. We are very keen that the children gain this early exposure to English as we are all aware that opportunities for the children of the village to speak English are rare, and English is such a valuable language to have in this part of Cambodia.

And a final plug:  all this is entirely FREE for the children as the school is heavily reliant on funds from the Spitler School Foundation.  Luckily, anyone can make a donation to this fund by following the link on this page or going to the website.