When Mick and Mike suggested that, after the success of last year, they wanted to give charitable donations instead of sending out printed Christmas cards I had the charity I wanted to help on the tip of my tongue. The Library Project, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a small teaching facility, set up on the edge of a slum area and (now moved) rubbish dump. Of course moving the rubbish improved the health of the residents but it also meant everyone now had to walk miles and miles to work every day. The rubbish dump they worked in, earning one to two dollars a day for bottles and cans was no longer local. This created the problem of making children traipse tens of miles with their parents, leaving them at home to fend for themselves in a dangerous environment or families losing out on their only source of income.
In September 2010 I worked at The Library Project for two months, teaching English. This project looks after the children from this slum area and also works hard to promote the importance of education. Many of the parents are not educated and so it can sometimes be hard for them to see how important education is for their children. The project gives rewards and incentives of food and help to families that ensure their children are always in school and pays for the children’s books, pens and paper. They offer the family a better alternative than the one of sending their children to work to earn money. Having said that, sometimes the kids will only appear in school for two hours because they are forced to work. The Library Project aims to help these children catch up and not fall too far behind the others.
They say the education system is free in Cambodia but children will rarely pass an exam or test without a bribe to the teacher. If they can’t provide their own materials (i.e. paper at the very least) they often don’t get taught. Due to the horrendous (and fairly recent) history of this country 50% of all Cambodians are under 16. There is a sense that it is this generation that will rebuild the country because it is the first educated generation after the Khmer Rouge. Education could not be more important here.
As well as English (seen as very important) and maths, etc the children also get taught basic hygiene. The kids are always getting sick because there is no sanitation and some of the community has HIV or other medical problems, which they get little help for. The children are often dirty, and one of my main jobs as a teacher was to check their nails and insist they wash if they are not clean.
The true Phnom Penh happens away from the riverfront in these areas, crammed onto plastic stools and slurping noodle soup by the dusty roadside. It’s about teaching barefoot and jumping around the red ants, or shouting over the excessive rain (which is deafening). It’s about convincing a HIV positive mother to get her child tested (the results came back negative) and getting contraception for these families who desperately need it. It’s about visiting a public school and having to pay the Khmer teachers for each Library kid, so they can “do well” in their classes. I only did this for a tiny two months but there are people who have dedicated their lives to these kids and for them this is just everyday Cambodian life.
To say I had culture shock here is an understatement. I’ve travelled through poor areas like Loas and rural parts of China but nothing prepared me for the experience I had in Cambodia. The children here, despite their circumstances, are some of the happiest (and often brightest) children I’ve ever met. They are friendly, incredibly kind and generous beyond belief. To give them a little gift of money this Christmas will be great and I know first-hand that this is money extremely well spent. Channa, who works at the project, is going to send us some photographs of the Christmas party so we can post these on the blog after Christmas. If you were expecting a Christmas card from Yodel this year you can feel very happy that a small donation has been made on your behalf to a very worthwhile cause. We hope you all have a very merry Christmas and see you in 2012!