Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 9: Volunteering

Last time I explained the obstacles I was facing trying to get street children an education, and how I couldn’t support the activities of the NGOs I’d come across in those early days. I soon, however, began to uncover some that seemed encouraging. Two manifested themselves to me at the same time:

I discovered that a group of students at the university have started a project outside the city across the river where they have established a school for very poor children many of whom are orphans and HIV+. The students seem idealistic and thoroughly decent and many are student teachers adding to their teaching experience. I said I’d take a look. An hour later a friend who frequented my ‘sanctuary’ bar asked me to visit the slum where he was helping out.

A few years ago the government wanted to clear out the thousands of residents of a notorious housing scheme so it mysteriously caught fire, killing many. Now the government is hankering after expanding ministerial buildings into the area so sooner or later another accident will happen (the location is a supreme example of ostentatious wealth right next door to the most appalling poverty).

In the meantime hundreds of raggedy kids have no education and they’re looking to us. Under a tin roof with no electricity to drive the fan the heat in the classroom will be murderous but on the other hand I feel far less intimidated surrounded by yama’d up young Khmer gangsters than in bars populated by American fuckwits. The director is a crazy toothless old man who had been a monk before the Khmer Rouge gave him the choice of disrobing or death and he’s offered to create a room for me where I can live rent-free.

I’ve lived without electricity and running water before but not in such intolerable heat or amongst drugged up gangsters, and I’ve gone a bit soft lately so I’m holding back on that. The wily old chap – I thought he’d invited my friend and me on a guided tour of the area but he whisked us off to have dinner with his family. I thought my mate cottoned on pretty quickly as he took an inordinate interest in dad’s brass badge making workshop, leaving me trapped with the women as they all-but married the eighteen-year old daughter off to me. Okay it’s nice to meet one of the invisible majority of Khmer ‘good girls’ but come on.

I got more embedded into the other project run by the university students. It’s in a slum community which is usually on the bank of the main river that flows through Cambodia. At this time of year towards the end of the monsoon the land is flooded – this happens every year and is quite expected but the abject poor can do nothing to prevent their flimsy homes disappearing.

The pagoda welcomes the community within its walls and allows them to build temporary shacks which still suffer flooding when it rains heavily and the place looks and smells pretty rank. Having said that it is my feeling that I’ve finally found what I didn’t really see in Thailand – real religion.

The monks serve the marginalised peoples. I met one monk who has some financial backing from an Aussie NGO which enables him to give rice and medicine to families and he teaches a class of Buddhist-based morality for some of the kids, many of whom are orphans and HIV+.

There is a government school within the pagoda compound and in common with other state schools the teachers are so inadequately paid they have to charge pupils for the free education – except that here they don’t because the monk pays the teachers to not charge the children. It’s not corruption – it’s Cambodia. I usually go to the class held at lunchtime since the evening class clashes with my university teaching, but one time I went in the evening at it was quite scary to see every third unit for a kilometre on the road leading there is a two-buck brothel.

They offer English classes to fifty of the local kids whose ages range from about 9 to 17. They rent a very basic open-sided room just outside the pagoda gate which has a tin roof and no electricity. The first day I went the classroom and area within the gate was deeply flooded after a heavy downpour the previous night. I returned the next day and found the kids delightful, so desperately poor but whilst not angelic they have an innocence about them which makes them distinct from the kids at the other community.

In both cases I just felt right, same as tutoring the kids on the streets on riverside. I’m nursing a bruised foot just now after it was run over by a motorbike. It’s the kind of accident you expect to happen in Cambodia, but not in a classroom when you’re standing in front of the whiteboard.

My early impressions of the organisation is that the people are just the sort I’ve been looking for. It was established nine months ago but is still in a very embryonic stage with no funding beyond the core members’ pockets and whilst they have a good mission statement and vision to bring education to the poor children at various locations on the outskirts of the city and deep into the rural provinces none of that actually exists yet.

What I do see is real potential and a group of truly idealistic, good-hearted young people most but not all of whom speak good English. There are enough of them to currently teach the children basic English perfectly well from what I’ve observed but they are genuinely keen on bringing me in and calling on my experience and expertise.

As I mentioned, the feel of the other project is very different. Everyone is very touchy-feely – small children, sassy teenage girls and old men will all take me by the hand and lead me around. The kids are hardened streetwise types but in their own way very likeable – even the 18 or 19 year old drug-trafficking gangsters.

I hope I come to feel the same way about some of the older men. Reminding me of my experiences in India, the community’s boxing instructor tried to convince me that it’s the rule in the community that anyone coming in to support a project in the community has to ‘support’ the boxing programme first. I politely suggested that if the community wants me to teach its children it changes its rule

The contrasts between jobs is quite interesting. As I said the students in my class in The Building are the earthiest you can imagine but they are reasonably attentive and well behaved in my lessons. That must be down to my experience at class control because the kids at the other voluntary project are much more polite but the Khmer teachers cannot assert any sense of discipline so the kids tend to make a right din and disrupt classes. I guess some teacher training will fall on my shoulders.

Andy Ahmed

3 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 9: Volunteering

  1. Dermot Sheehan Reply

    “I thought my mate cottoned on pretty quickly as he took an inordinate interest in dad’s brass badge making workshop”

    Ha! If only he had! Nuff said…!

  2. Jake Reply

    You still doing this teaching gig? I’d be glad to contribute, if you still find it worthwhile. Drop me a line.

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