Whilst waiting for a taxi in Singapore last month, my parents and I got talking to a Portuguese woman, Ana, who joined our taxi and later ate dinner with us in the food street of Chinatown. When asked what I was doing in Asia, I told her about teaching English in Thailand. She said she was doing a similar thing voluntarily in Cambodia – though when she told me about her working environments, the children she teaches and their attitudes to learning English, I couldn’t help but feel like our teaching experiences in Asia were worlds apart. I’m a big believer in things panning out like they’re meant to, but also taking opportunities that people offer you, so when she offered me a chance to see the work she does, teacher Ais and I hopped on the bus to Poipet at the first chance we could. I hope now that the words I write measure up to the eye-opening experience we had shadowing Ana for just one day.
After a few last-minute phone calls, we were greeted mid-morning by “Ana’s Tuk-Tuk English School”, which is exactly as it says on the placard. Ana keeps a stash of resources in this little mobile machine (including worksheets, arts materials and a radio!) After a quick detour to pick up a donated sewing machine, our adventure begins heading out of the city centre towards the outskirts, where the landscape decreases in buildings and starts peaking with rice fields.
The first of four schools was one of the more developed schools we saw. Veasna is a young man who started the school four years ago, with just one student. At first, he dealt with a lot of opposition from locals, who’ve doubted his ability to teach. As parents have become more and more assured, he now teaches 250 children. 250! Every day! Classes start from 7am and he stops working at 10pm. Veasna is paid $1 per student each month, making his monthly salary $250. In my eyes, his humility is truly inspiring.
The classroom is made of barrels and stools for chairs, a whiteboard and paper & materials donated by Ana’s foundation. It’s only since this spring that the classroom has had fans put in. Recently, the black tarpaulin that used to create the wall from outside the shelter has been swapped with cross-hatched bamboo reeds. Students’ art work is exhibited all around the room, taking up any available space on the wooden beams. The work that has gone into this one man’s story is beyond belief, but the school still has a long way to go.
Older generations of the family use skills they’ve learned from years ago to make an income for themselves. Two women learnt how to make wooden baskets when they were teenagers, and as one of the few skills they know well, they make baskets to sell in different sizes as parts of sets or individually, for just one dollar a piece. Veasna told us that they will sometimes get a few orders from restaurants or small companies in Thailand. (We couldn’t resist buying a couple, even if we did have to lug them across the border for three hours on the way home!)
Just down the road from Veasna’s school was our second stop of the day, an orphanage-cum-boarding school. As it was Khmer New Year, some of the children had gone to see families for the holiday, though around half of the girls and one teenage boy lived there permanently. Coming from a private school where a lot of 10 year olds are difficult to motivate, the will to learn from these kids was dazzling. Many of the kids here aspire to learn both English and French. Having a conversation with Ro, the young boy of the bunch, was like speaking to Teacher Ais or Ana. His best teacher is himself – he learns English from watching people in films, on TV and sometimes just walking around the town, then he’ll “do what the people do”.
For me, the most touching part of my day with Ana was our third visit to a kindergarten school. Whereas the two schools before could be defined by their respective physical walls, here, five or six straw huts created a circular area at the end of a dirt track. This was the school.
Unlike the others where there were even basic chairs and tables, there’s nothing but the open space here, so Ana’s made do and the activities involve a lot of dancing and singing. With each visit from the tuk tuk school, Ana starts the class singing songs she can play on her own little portable stereo, with small actions to do along with each song. Materials are really basic but the kids were so enthusiastic to play with the simplest of things – you wouldn’t believe how much fun they can have with a piece of paper with a letter on it! They were so eager to show what they know and to always learn more, even the babes of the group.
After half an hour, four youngsters took us hand in hand and the lesson moved into nearby rice fields. This was about as rural as we saw Cambodia, and resembles nothing like I’d seen in Asia so far.
On the outskirts of the circle is a straw hut house in solitude; a young woman who’s 24 lives here with her partner and her three children. She’s currently expecting her fourth. As a means of making money, Ana has taught her to make ragdolls, using spare fabric Ana has provided. Ana hopes that for a dollar a doll, both families with children from neighbouring areas who have no toys to play with and tourists visiting Siem Reap will buy these little gems. For most travellers, a dollar is very little – some people would rather let it stay on the floor than bother to pick it up. To this woman, making a few dollars a day feeds her family and gives them some well-needed care. At the time of our visit, one of her sons had an abscess on his ear, and was only getting treated because of Ana’s help. This whole situation highlighted the harsh reality and fundamental problems in the lack of education here in not just English and other subjects, but in life, that in the western world we have since before we can remember and unquestionably take for granted.
As the sun started setting, we had our last lesson of the day. In the suburbs of Siem Reap, the unfortunate tale for most of the villagers goes that around five years ago, they were rehomed here from the idealistic location by the river in the town, for “making mess” and as an answer to the increasing amount of tourism in Siem Reap. This knock hasn’t shifted positivity levels though; many of the villagers are still in high spirits and are eager to get back on their feet.
As Ana’s tuk tuk rolled down the track, kids from every direction started grabbing piles of plastic tables and stools that Ana’s invested in and are used only for English lessons. This was the most varied group of children in age and ability, some being teenagers who picked up phrases and keywords with ease, to little ones who’d come for the cutting-and-sticking.
Ana finished off the lesson by giving out t-shirts that had been donated by supporters of the organisation, which were gratefully accepted, along with a handful of the ragdolls our forementioned lady had made. Everybody, even the parents, were eager to see them and play – even a doll is a true privilege to have.
Teacher Ais and I learnt that Ana’s day is exhausting, it’s dusty and dirty, it’s wearing and it’s hard work. It’s also emotionally stirring, rewarding and uplifting beyond words. Though people often say we don’t know how lucky we are, it only takes seeing the positivity in the Cambodian people and the conditions they live through to realise that we really don’t take time to appreciate even the smallest things we have, like the education available to gain what we know as common sense and constantly advancing resources to hand in education alone. The important thing we realise now is not to just comment on what we’ve seen, but to ask, “how can we help?” Sure enough, we’ll be back some time soon, and next time we’ll be bringing friends to the party.
Thanks to the gift of all things techy, helping Ana’s cause is so so easy. Her story is that of a real life superwoman, but there’s still a lot of mountain to climb.
Check out the footprints she’s made so far and help her make new ones here.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/helpchildrencambodia