Teaching the Unreached
This has been a long time coming – since we first decided that EC’s Giving Back programme needed ‘another level’ and we committed to partnering with an education charity. Back in 2015, I started the process of trying to find the right partner – and opted for United World Schools (UWS), who ‘teach the unreached’ by building schools in post-conflict countries. The fact that they are as enthusiastic as we are about building bridges between people through a hands-on approach (as opposed to the somewhat cynical approach of other, larger charities that exchange sizeable donations for the licensed use of their logo on corporate websites) meant they were a natural choice.
Once we had funded the building of a new school for the children of Ban Houy village in North-East Cambodia (see our first Miracle Fruit story on it here), the next stage was to select a group of volunteers to take advantage of UWS’ once-every-3-years offer to allow their sponsors to visit the schools they built. As the days go by, I find that this group of nine, despite differences in our roles, locations, culture, age and gender, all get along fantastically – and all bring a heartfelt passion to give something back.
Our Miracle Fruit
14th February 2017
A typical Valentine’s Day for me, as a married father of two, is a day at work followed by steak and a bottle of red with my wife once the boys are in bed. Not so on Valentine’s Day 2017 – I find myself in the lost and found department of Siem Reap airport with my two travelling companions, Leanne & Aga, having found that our luggage, which travelled with us from Heathrow, decided not to make the last leg of our journey from Bangkok. The three polite but somewhat confused Cambodian airport staff look at the report form as if they’re also seeing it for the first time.
Luckily for us, our luggage arrived on a later flight, and back at Babel Guesthouse in the bustling, noisy, dirty city that is Siem Reap, we reconvene with the rest of the Dream Team – nine people brought together from various locations around the world with two things in common – we all work for EC and we’re all here to try and make a difference.
15th February 2017
After a reasonable night’s sleep, we pile into a van (air-conditioned, thank goodness) and bump our way across Cambodia’s pot-holed roads for eight hours. After stopping for lunch – which can best be described as rice and bones, and later for some delicious road-side bamboo-barbecued sticky rice, we eventually arrive in Siem Pang.
Siem Pang is essentially a dirt track next to a river with a handful of ‘shops’ (I use the term loosely as there’s not much to differentiate habitation from shop – all the structures are basic wooden shacks, but some have goods on display).
Having picked up our UWS team of translators and a cook on the way, we dine by the riverside and discuss the days ahead – what we will be teaching and how. Later, back in Siem Pang, we decide to take a walk – and see a place that looks as though it might be a bar. However, after trying and failing to communicate with the owner/resident, we’re not sure if it is a bar or just someone’s house. We sit down tentatively, while the owner/resident pops round to a friend’s house/shop to get some beer for us. It was all very amicable and ridiculous, but after the exchange of beer for money everyone seems happy.
16th February 2017
After a healthy breakfast of noodles and coconut water, we pile back into the Barang Bus (Barang is Cambodian slang for foreigner) for a couple of hours towards Ban Houy village. We leave our van to cross the river in a somewhat rickety-looking wooden raft, and as we’re half-way across we see the villagers and children of Ban Houy coming down to the riverside to meet us.
We traipse through the village, dodging stray dogs and cockerels, and giving the slightly annoyed looking water buffalo and her calf a wide berth, and suddenly the school appears through the trees, with the children lined up to greet us. As we walk into the school grounds, the children applaud us and give us high-fives, which seems to be a new thing for them as they look a little confused by it. It’s all quite emotional for us, and many of us feel both humbled and proud at the same time.
The next four days are intense, both physically and mentally.
17th – 19th February 2017
The next four days are intense, both physically and mentally. The nine of us are sleeping in the school, three to a classroom. Home is a hammock strung up in the corner of the room, with my worldly possessions crammed into my backpack residing on the floor. After a shower, which consists of pouring a pot of river water over your head, breakfast of rice and/or noodles is followed by the first lesson of the day, at 7.25am.
There are four classes – music, arts & crafts, group logic, and individual logic – and we team-teach in pairs (and one group of three), sticking to the same class while the four student groups rotate. The groups are roughly divided by age and, to a lesser extent, ability – the smallest are between 3 and 5 years old, while the eldest group are anything from 11 to 18. Group sizes tend to be somewhere between 20 and 30.
Fraser and I have landed the music class, which is taught outside, and in a moment of madness, we opt for teaching the kids ‘jingle bells’, mainly because there were sleigh-bells in the music box. The children don’t speak English and it’s a bit too much for them to learn the whole song, so we just focus on the first verse, and find ourselves drilling the same trauma-inducing verse again and again, complete with arrhythmic sleigh bells, in 40-degree heat. Meanwhile, in the cool shade of the school, beautiful feather head-dresses are being made in arts & crafts while in group logic they’re playing Jenga. No one wants to swap classes with Fraser and me.
In the afternoon, we put on a play for the children. We find out early on that cross-dressing in pantomime is universally hilarious, so we put on Cinderella, with Kyu, Fraser and I as the evil step-mother and her daughters. With the translators telling the story in Khmer, the children grasp what the ridiculous antics being performed by these strange westerners mean, and then re-enact the play for us.
After that we have the ‘skills’ lessons, in which we do more arts and crafts, play sport or endeavour to teach the kids a new skill (Kyu had some success in getting the kids to do some breakdancing). The teaching day ends at around 4:30pm, and we head down to the river for a dip and to wash away the dust and sweat of the day.
Check out the video below to see us in action!
In the evening after the children have gone home and the UWS staff have gone to their own accommodation (hammocks hanging underneath the school), the Dream Team sits around and has a few well-earned beers, discussing the events of the day.
We turn in around 10ish, and after undressing, climb into our hammocks and then again into our sleeping bag, get as comfortable as we can while swinging wildly from side to side and then zip ourselves in. I find that invariably I wake up a few hours later needing the toilet, so then spend the next 10 minutes reversing this process in the dark. Once dressed, I get my headtorch on and traipse to the toilet block across the playing field (the stars are amazing), and then return to bed in the same undignified manner as before. The whole process takes around 20 minutes and wide-awake, I spend the next couple of hours trying to get back to sleep. Just as I do so, I hear someone else’s zip go, and my hammock starts swaying from side to side as another of us undertakes the midnight toilet pilgrimage. And so it is that we find most of us average 3-4 hours’ sleep a night.
On our final night, having just returned from our swim, we look across the school field to see the villagers trooping towards the school, each carrying a dish that they had prepared that day – they have come to say thank you and to say goodbye. Moved by what we are seeing, we sit cross-legged on the floor and share our last evening meal at Ban Houy with the villagers.
The village elder tells us via our UWS translator that they are very happy that they have a school, and that their children can learn. She also tells us that many of them have never seen westerners before, and that our visit has been a big experience for them. For our part, we thank the villagers for their kindness and hospitality, and tell them that it has been a pleasure to teach their friendly, polite and intelligent children. Then it’s party time – we string up our headtorches and set them to ‘strobe’, and use a Bluetooth speaker to belt out some tunes – which the kids love, and the villagers apparently find simultaneously amusing and bemusing.
20th February 2017
The next day we head back the way we came – across the river on the raft, then back into the van. Much to our surprise, many of the children start crying, sad to see us go. Similarly, many of our group are upset at the prospect of leaving the children, despite only being there for a few days – such is the bond created with the children.
We head to the provincial capital of Stung Treng with mixed emotions – sad to be saying goodbye, but happy that our trip has been a huge success – and that we will be sleeping in a bed tonight.
21st February 2017
After the first decent night’s sleep in a while, we complete the journey back to Siem Reap. We settle back into the Babel Guesthouse and prepare for a final night out in Cambodia.
22nd February 2017
For our final day, we get up early to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat and complete a quick Tuk-Tuk tour of the temple complex, taking in Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. After taking dozens more photos with the rest of the tourists, we head back to the guesthouse and pack our bags, then one by one, we return to Siem Reap airport, and from there back home.
We’re exhausted, and sad to be saying goodbye to one another after becoming such good friends over the past 9 days – but also happy that we’ve had such an amazing experience, and to have had a positive impact on the lives of the people of Ban Houy, and on each other. For my part, I am ecstatic that the past 18 months of work have culminated in such a positive outcome. Now back to the UK and my family, to enjoy that steak and bottle of red over a few holiday snaps…