During my time in Cambodia I was extremely fortunate to be able to spend a significant portion of my time in the small, rural indigenous villages where UWS works. Often based there for days at a time accompanying UWS staff, I was in a very privileged position of being able to see these communities up close whilst I was working; be it when wandering through the village, or when washing in the river, or simply seeing the students each day at school.
And for someone who grew up in the UK this was a truly novel experience for me, filled with new experiences from sleeping in a hammock out in the open, to getting up at 5am to shower using the village well, to dealing with the intense heat later in the day.
It’s hard to precisely capture the level of poverty in these villages, especially as spending any time in a place only makes it feel more quickly like the norm. Yes, in some areas of Bunlung and Phnom Penh I observed younger professionals as well as middle class families, all who earned sufficient money to live more comfortable lives, but this was a rarity, and in these more rural areas, completely non-existent.
The tiny villages simply had no wealth and life was extremely hard for all of the families there. Children would wear clothes tearing at the seams and had very minimal possessions (if anything at all). Perhaps that’s why they appeared so proud of their school bags as they walked to school each day. Their families all had very basic houses, often just a wooden shell with the children sleeping on mats on the hard floor or in a hammock. Some families would have access to a motorbike, and in one village I saw a TV in one house, powered by a generator. But this was the only one.
The children, when not at school or helping their families in their fields, entertained themselves with what they do have access to; the forest nearby, the river, their friends in the village. That’s it. In one village we saw daily games of volleyball – it’s the most popular sport in the country with courts in most towns, but not so in these villages. This court in fact only existed as it was part of the school site and for the other tiny communities I visited there wasn’t any.
The striking observation from my visits to these remote communities was just how happy the kids seemed. As I mentioned in another article, I did not see children arguing, nor did I see them upset or ever throwing a tantrum. They seemed, for want of a better word, just very content.
The other notable point (as I have written about previously) is just how much these children really appear to enjoy school. They have great relationships with their teachers (which appear to be reciprocated) and seem to commence tasks with real gusto. They can sometimes run out of steam in some activities but the educator in me feels this is as much about teacher delivery as it is a lack of enthusiasm on the students’ parts.
School is closed in the afternoon with many of the children going to work in the nearby farms, helping their families. We also saw children playing in the nearby rivers, sometimes overseen by an older child, but not always. They would also happily return to the school in the afternoon, borrowing some wooden balls to play with, looking at some of the materials, or simply to play amongst themselves in the school grounds. One afternoon a group helped a teacher decorate all of the classrooms; on another, a group came and sat quietly, amusing themselves by making bracelets for a couple of hours.
In a recent article I wrote about how United World College in Hong Kong places a huge emphasis on student leadership, seeing it as central to their educational model. Alongside this belief are situations that reinforce this ethos, for instance having a large number of extra-curricular activities so that students have to take a proactive role in leading some of them. And, whilst of course their educational opportunities are poles apart from those available to these village children in rural Cambodia, I wonder if a similar mechanism that reinforces central values (although with very different underlying causes) is in fact taking place there.
The students in Hong Kong appear to be given real leadership opportunities in an environment that continually seeks to reinforce the importance of such leadership, including its ethos, expectations, and curriculum approach. By extreme contrast, the village life for the young children in Cambodia appears to be about them taking genuine responsibility at an early age. With parents readily working in the fields, the older children have to take responsibility for their young siblings. If swimming in the river there is no lifeguard or adult around and so the children have to teach themselves to swim, with older children continually looking out for the younger ones.
This perhaps also reinforces the extent to which these small, localised villages are genuinely mutually dependent on each other for their prosperity. They have to look out for one another and work collaboratively. As an illustration, occasionally on Thursdays, schools do not open for normal lessons. Instead, students are expected to help their teachers clean the building as well as to tidy the surrounding area. Again, for a teacher familiar to the UK landscape this was quite a sight to behold. Especially at 7.30am in the morning..
In a similar vein of community, during a quick visit to one school we started throwing a rugby ball around outside with some of the kids during break time. Returning to our vehicle once our scheduled meeting later that morning had concluded we had completely forgotten about it. But the students, despite having returned to lessons, hadn’t. It was extremely unlikely that any of them had a toy like this and yet they knew it was their role to return this small ball to its owners. And so they had, leaving it neatly waiting by the door to our truck.
It is of course easy to romanticise about these small, rural Cambodian communities where children look out for each other, don’t argue, and seem very content, but it’s also worth remembering the downsides of their isolated existence with no real access to healthcare, very few job opportunities, no secondary school and a high infant mortality rate.
Such details brings to my mind a phrase I have heard many times in the UK and which I am certain parents, teachers and young people alike will react to upon reading this.
‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’
Given the context I am describing I would argue that this is in fact mostly true; the majority of British children are surely much more fortunate than they perhaps realise – especially in contrast to some communities across the world. However, and I think this is crucial, of course many don’t really realise this, how could they? Because until you really see other people’s situations I just think it is so hard for young people to really grasp their own situations..
And so perhaps this only reinforces both the uniqueness of these village environments in Cambodia. In the modern world it is simply so unique to live a truly isolated existence. Furthermore, I think it only reinforces the importance of a school to such a community – both in preparing them for the onset of the developing world but also acting as a focal point for the entire village, and perhaps that is something that has receded in more developed countries with more access points to learning, as well as other activities to keep young people engaged.
And so the school, even the building itself, brings a degree of structure to these children’s lives that maybe wasn’t there previously. Whereas before their only activities each day might have been to play with their friends or to help their families, the morning visit to school now seems to gives them a structure. More than that, despite school only opening in the morning, this building continues to provide a focal point for their energies with groups often heading there each afternoon. And, as mentioned previously, with no teachers around at such points, they again have to take the lead in organising activities amongst themselves, getting the most out of the equipment available, and taking responsibility for their actions.