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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Cambodia's inquisitive children are an inspiration

The Khmer Rouge killed the teachers first. Now the country wants to be educated again, says Robert Leveson

Children at The House of Peace in Santepheap, Cambodia
'Dignified and optimistic': children at The House of Peace in Santepheap, Cambodia Photo: Robert Leveson

"I don’t fear ghosts. I fear bad people.” No, this was not the film set of The Sixth Sense and I am not Bruce Willis, although we do share similar follicular features. This was Siem Reap, Cambodia, in the days before Christmas, when expectation had yet to give way to indulgence. And this was no place for indulgence, either. It was and still is a home to children – The House of Peace, Santepheap.

I first became aware of it while working in Singapore, a nation that has conquered many of Asia’s demons with discipline, order and a series of well-placed mops. A colleague who was passionately involved in “a project” made it known to me, yet in truth, I had barely registered much before bidding farewell to the Merlion, Singapore’s mascot, with one of those handy packs of tissues and heading back to Britain. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, it echoed through my mind until I found myself wedged into a low-budget aeroplane seat on my way to volunteer.

For most, this part of Cambodia is synonymous with Angkor – the ancient temple complex created in the glory days of the Khmer empire. It bestrode a beefy part of South East Asia briefly, ascending for a couple of centuries before peaking in the 12th. When the French unearthed Angkor’s ruined monuments in the early 1800s, its future as a tourist hot-spot of genuine magnificence was assured.

In more recent times, construction on a more modest and unremarkable scale has gathered pace along the road to its weathered Southern Gate. And just before the crowded ticket booth, there is a sharp right turn on to a dusty red road, which bounces you all the way to a place that, I must confess, I found equally moving.

I am a teacher by profession, and it was a service I was asked to provide for a group of about 30 secondary-school children over two weeks in December. They live in large huts, one each for the boys and girls. Below the girls’ accommodation, there is a long table where meals are shared and thanks are given for their basic, healthy food. On either side of the sleeping quarters, there is space to play and wash. In the front section, near the entrance gate, there stands a fruit tree.

Beyond the boys’ hut, a volleyball net hangs over a desolate space where many improvised ball games are played. It is on the veranda that the lessons take place, with the children (and teacher) dragging out their tables to sit and be educated. And that’s it. This is life.

Since there aren’t enough schools for children to attend in Cambodia, they are taught in half-day shifts. That sad fact was caused by the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The haunting spectre of the past clings to the basic organs of society here, squeezing them mercilessly as it dances across the land.

Not only are the children of Santepheap orphaned, abandoned or impoverished – “childhood” for many is a time to hunt for bottles, wander barely clothed and wide-eyed, or sell postcards and trinkets to tourists who remind them they should really be at school – but also the ghosts of the past linger greedily in their shadows, stealing what should be a precious time of growth.

Though the nation was mercilessly victimised, the people I met – especially the kids – were remarkably dignified and optimistic. They put my tendency to find fault and impediment in endeavours to shame. Take my irrepressible tuk-tuk driver. He, like many others, would often sit for hours waiting for me to stumble through a museum or temple with my trademark Clouseau-esque articulation and agility. Did he complain or succumb to the frustrations of boredom? Perhaps, but while in my company, he chose instead to smile and tell me about his work with deaf and blind children. He once showed me an encased pile of skulls beside an elaborate graveyard and proceeded to explain how he was “the only one of me left”, referring to the demise of his family 30 years ago. They killed the teachers first, he said. And as if to reverse the trend, everyone I met seemed to want to educate or be educated.

A co-worker of mine, with whose words I opened this feature, once told me passionately that her “dream” was to be a teacher. How far I felt from the UK at that moment. Always questioning and investigating, she endeavoured to teach me some local lingo and praised my pitiful pronunciation. The owner of my guest house would often lead me to the library and select useful books on history and exploring the treasures of Angkor. People in the park would stop and practise their English on me, informing me in the process about orphanages and poverty in a non-invasive fashion. Taken to extremes, I was once shown how to pour water and even the celebrated skill of peeling a banana. Gladly, I gathered that I had been doing both correctly for years. Much of this I have experienced in south-east Asia before, but never with such resonance.

But it was the children who impressed me the most. Nothing was too much trouble – even when they were clearly tired or perplexed by one of my rather naff comedy routines. Their expertly choreographed dance show (which they perform every Sunday) was genuinely entertaining. Their approach to learning was inquisitive and industrious.

In their spare time, one fixed his bike, another adjusted his belt with my hole-punch. Not in 14 years of teaching have I ever received a more genuine “thank you” than when I gave one of my students my Changi Airport souvenir pen, since hers was constantly running out – she spent the whole day trying to give it back.

I was also reminded of the insidious culture of “health and safety” back home when my inquiries as to the wisdom of allowing a boy to climb a tree and whack fruit with a stick above our heads were met with a succinct reply: “You want to go up, too?”

A donation to Santepheap is always welcomed but if you have some spare time, a visit as a volunteer is of guaranteed benefit to all concerned.


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