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Success stories: volunteering in Cambodia

Infested dogs and English teachers go out in the

midday sun

Former social services director David Townsend ventures out of his comfort zone to go volunteering in Cambodia

Friday October 12, 2007
SocietyGuardian.co.uk

Education in Cambodia
David Townsend teaches English to a child in Cambodia.
 

It wasn’t when I discussed the risks of Japanese encephalitis with my GP. Or talked about malaria or dengue fever. Or even when the injections for typhoid, rabies and hepatitis B were stuck into me that I thought I was floating free of my comfort zone.Nor when I arrived in Siem Reap with the day temperature at a humid 38c (and dust flying everywhere) at the lovely little guesthouse run by Mr Kunn, Mr Hug and Mrs Jasmine. Not even when I found that for my $3 a night I had the mod con of a giant ceiling fan that clanks and rumbles on like the propellor of Biggles’ Sopwith Camel. Or realised that Baden Powell’s dictum about taking frequent cold showers really is a necessity.

All that was no big deal. No, I burst free of my comfort zone, one grounded in infrastructures of all kinds in English local authorities and the New Zealand ministry of health, when I went as a volunteer to the orphanage school in the tiny village of Sray Srong near Angkor Wat.

There, I would be assisting, I thought, local teachers or monks to teach English to orphans and poor/homeless children aged from four to 16, most of whom had never been in a school before and had never held a pencil or written anything in Khmer let alone English (or Anglais as they say with a nod to a distant French connection).

The general purpose is to enable them to improve their English to the point that they can, in later life, get jobs in the tourist industry. Even a job serving drinks may be worth a small salary and free food, removing the need for begging. The shock was that there were no teachers or monks. I was the teacher.

The education of these children is up to me and the other volunteers who are also not generally teachers by profession. The classes contain up to 70 children, who are getting the one chance of some sort of education in a country poorer and more deprived (not least by its own corrupt government) than almost any other in south-east Asia.

The classroom is a simple arrangement: desks and benches in a bamboo hut with a woven coconut leaf roof without electricity or running drinkable water. English lessons start at 12.30pm with each group of children and last 50 minutes, interrupted occasionally by violent dust storms, tropical rain that pours through the roof or the arrival of bus loads of well-meaning tourists who come to photograph and “cuddle the darling children” with their tatty clothes but wonderful smiles.

The children (all 44 of them) eat and play in and around the very simple buildings surrounding the classroom and sleep at night in the room next to the classroom under mosquito nets. They are accompanied by tick- and scabies-infested dogs and balding chickens.

School day starts at 5.30am with Khmer dancing and singing lessons and lasts until 4pm. Despite the long hours, only the smallest children fall asleep and no one plays truant. The resources available to teaching are white marker boards, exercise books, a starter English book, pens and pencils. These resources are, in part, provided by the volunteers who pay for the privilege of working with children who are desperate to learn. Teachers in almost any part of the western world would die for the sort of enthusiasm and determination these children show.

For my three-month stay, I paid $1,500 to Globalteer, a charity that supports a number of educational and other projects, although none is exactly or sometimes even vaguely the same. My days are spent teaching in sweat-soaked clothes, enjoying the humour and the glimpses of success with some children who never give up.

Because so much is left to volunteers, the importance of health and hygiene is part of our school agenda: put simply, what’s the point of learning body parts if your own are infested with lice or your ears are bunged up with impacted wax and you can’t see properly anyway?

Few children in Cambodia wear spectacles because the tests and costs are too great. Lines of children and their families camp out overnight outside one of the children’s hospitals for an appointment to see a doctor. Dengue fever is of epidemic proportions and blood donors are urgently required.

So, with other volunteers, I have taken part in all day de-licing operations on all 44 children and taken some children to hospital, a round journey of 30km (18.6miles) by tuk-tuk, the motorbike attached to two wheeled carriages that provide a living for thousands of men and their families in what is a tourist town along the lines of Blackpool.

Of course, it is not hard to feel that our efforts are like pushing stones up hills: this is a country with vast entrenched problems. Beveridge’s five wicked giants rule this land. Children with any degree of English ask: “How can we go USA/Canada/Australia/New Zealand?” rather undermining what we would like to think we are about. But the bottom line is, you won’t do any harm and you may very well do some good by volunteering, even in the midday sun.

· David Townsend is former speech writer and special adviser to the 1976-79 Labour government, former deputy social services director for Camden, former social services director in Haringey and Croydon, former member of the disability services directorate of the New Zealand health ministry and columnist for the Wellington Evening Post.

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