Volunteering in Cambodia
Volunteering in a Cambodian school: it's a win for all involved. Photo: Larissa Ham
All my life I'd dreamed of volunteering in a developing country. In those dreams I was probably in Africa, maybe tanned, perhaps in the back of a Land Rover and definitely doing something exciting and worthwhile.
But when it finally happened, when I plucked up the courage to head off to Cambodia by myself for six weeks as a volunteer English teacher, I realised one essential factor had been missing from that dream. Sweat. Oh and the Africa bit.
"Perhaps the first real shock was hearing how one of the fathers had sold his daughter to an orphanage for $20. Twenty dollars!"
It was day one, and I was standing in baking sun in Siem Reap, in front of several hundred cute faces at Feeding Dreams Cambodia - a school providing free education to some of the country's poorest kids. Although many of the children didn't reach my waist, I was a little terrified. And hot. Little did I know we were also about to lead a giant sing-along.
'Good moooor-ning, Teacher Larissa," the kids yelled, before a spirited rendition of the Hokey Pokey.
Then, it was straight into the classroom – a thatched hut with one fan. I would be helping a petite Khmer teacher who could bring a classroom of 60 excitable kids under control with a few sharp raps on the whiteboard.
Each day we played maths games, drew animals and practised English; "What colour is this? Yellow. What colour is this? Pink! Do you like spaghetti? I like spaghetti!"
Sometimes it was repetitive, often chaotic, but mostly just fun. The older students told me what they liked doing on the weekend ("studying",) and of their dreams of becoming lawyers, doctors, teachers and tour guides.
The school's students - more than 500 - didn't have to be there, but in a town dominated by English-speaking tourists the free classes were too good to pass up. Education, virtually wiped out a generation ago under the Khmer Rouge, wasn't taken for granted.
It wasn't long before small stories began to reveal how desperately the children needed the school. Some were so malnourished that their stomachs could barely handle the free food.
Perhaps the first real shock was hearing how one of the fathers had sold his daughter to an orphanage for $20. Twenty dollars! The school had lent him $30 to get her back. Just a few months earlier the same man had sold his newborn boy for $200, but no record remained of the 'buyer'. It was like some kind of barbaric Cash Converters.
Writing sponsor profiles for the school's website, I visited some of the slum areas where the children lived.
With Gi Gi, the school's funny social worker, we arrived at a village by motorbike to meet one of the poorer families. I already knew two of the boys, happy little characters that I sometimes mucked around with during breaks.
Their family's 'home' – a sweltering wooden hut falling apart at every angle, was a challenge to even enter. There was a pile of tattered clothes in the corner, which the mother was afraid to throw out unless nothing better arrived. There was no toilet, certainly no shower, barely enough food and in rainy season, the water threatened from above and below.
Their story was typical of most families. Some had abusive partners, many people gambled, drank too much, or simply left their children to take off with a new partner.
Others had lost family under Pol Pot, been duped over the internet or by other Cambodians, or were in dire health. Some teenagers were at constant economic risk of having to abandon their studies for a life of prostitution.
As my fellow volunteers and I debriefed over a couple of cocktails, we constantly struggled to comprehend the heartbreaking imbalance between our lives and theirs.
We had to admire those running the school, Australian Blaed Perkins, his mother Kerry Huntly and her husband Kenneth Okoh – and their staff – who had given up a comparatively easy life for a long haul that offered little financial reward or creature comforts.
Still, the moments of fun and laughter came thick and fast – a moto tour, a lazy afternoon beside a reservoir, floating villages, too many massages to mention and firm friendships. There was also Gi Gi's highly memorable Khmer wedding, where we danced around in the dust in thick local make-up and huge false eyelashes, drank Angkor beer and as always in Cambodia, danced to Gangnam Style.
My last school day proved to be as dramatic as the rest.
A blind man with a heavily scarred face, a counsellor with the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, was led into our classroom. His wife had thrown acid over him because he was handsome and she believed he had been cheating. Shockingly, they were still married years later.
A teacher told me these attacks were not unusual in Cambodia. "Triangle love," she explained.
My final task was to help write a sponsor profile for a family with eight kids. Things were grim, with the father left holding the reins.
Weak after battling tuberculosis, the father had been forced to change jobs and was earning $20 a month fixing bicycles. For lunch his family had shared three eggs, and after falling two years' behind in rent – about $500 in total - they surely faced eviction.
Six weeks in, almost melting in the humidity, my time was up. Back in front of another school assembly, the director tells the children I will be leaving, and asks if they have anything to share.
I've seen this ceremony before, but it doesn't prepare me for the tsunami of cuddles that descend. Laughing, I almost fall over with the force of all those little arms. After a few beers with the staff, I catch a tuk-tuk back to the hotel with a heavy heart.
Under the shower, as I wash my dirty feet, I cry my eyes out as I think of all the people I've met, the shocking stories and the simple unfairness of life. And I wonder when I will return.
as featured on April 11, 2013 - Larissa Ham