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.