Posted on | March 17, 2011 | 3 Comments
Passports with Purpose cofounder Michelle Duffy — you might know her as WanderMom — recently visited the results of our 2009 fundraiser. Here are her words on visiting The Passports School in Preah Vihear. I’ve trimmed this so you don’t have to read PwP administrivia. As an aside, I’m so excited that this year, Beth visited the Passports village, Michelle visited the Passports school, and we have witnesses to your work, made real. Thank you.
The school is located in Preah Vihear province, Sangkum Tamey district, Sdoa commune. The village name is Soch. None of the district, the commune or the village was marked on my 1:1,250,000 map. Peng, the AAfC staff person who was our host + translator, said that this is a new district.
From Siam Reap, we drove three hours to the Preah Vihear provincial town of Tbeng Meanchey. The village where the school is located is a 1.5hr drive west (I think) from there – on roads too new to be on my map. The road is paved for the first 20-30 minutes of the drive and then becomes a dirt road which, according to Peng, is impassable in the wet season. There is road construction going on. Apparently China is funding a Chinese contractor to build roads in Preah Vihear in order to gain access to the mineral wealth (mines) in the area. There were at least three places where bridges are being built to help keep the road open in the wet season.
The district town, Sangkum Tamey, is about one hour from Tbeng. We had to stop here for Peng to ask for directions to the village. The road to the school is an unsigned one-lane dirt track off the larger dirt road about 20km from Sangkum Tamey. A paved road all the way would halve the time it takes to get from Tbeng to the village.
The school sits on a large plot of land on the edge of a tiny village. The land to build the school was donated by the government. When AAfC started $15k was half of the construction costs to build a school. Now, material costs have increased. For a school which is not in an out-of-the-way area, total construction costs are closer to $50k. For very rural schools, such as ours, the total cost can be up to $80k – mainly because of transportation of materials.
The government usually puts a well on each school property. In the case of our school, there were a number of attempts made to build a well but the water level was just too low. There is a large pond (~50m x 20m) in the village and all water currently comes from there – once I heard this, I was afraid to look in the toilet building. The teachers were unanimous that the lack of water was their highest priority problem.
The building is a simple concrete construction with shuttered windows (i.e. no glass) and a bamboo + grass roof. The desks are wooden, old-style, two-seater affairs. They are very basic but functional.
The government is pretty much complete with building primary schools and is now working on middle schools — our school is a middle school. I imagine that once they’ve got sufficient middle schools they’ll start on high schools. There are high schools in the cities but none or very few in the countryside. The current Ministry of Education goal is for all children to complete schooling to 9th grade.
The school has 5 classrooms and one set of toilets. It is next to an older building which houses the primary school. The intent is that children from this and 4 other primary schools will feed into the Passports middle school. Before the Passports school was opened, the closest middle school was in Sangkum Tamey because of this very few children (less than 10%) continued on to middle school.
Currently two of the teachers and the school nurse (a guy) sleep in one of the unused classrooms. It’s more convenient than having to get to + from Sangkum Tamey every day. We learned that food for the teachers is an issue because there are no restaurants in the village. They have started to grow some things in the space allotted for the school garden but again, water is an issue. AAfC has a problem getting teachers for the rural schools because they are so completely off the map.
The teachers were all young and enthusiastic. Only one is local. The English/Computer teacher was beside himself with excitement on meeting us. The Principal – who can’t be more than 30 – was very serious. Each of them, the English teacher, the Principal and the nurse took the opportunity to speak to us directly to ask for additional help.
We arrived at the school about 8:30am. I wasn’t too surprised when I saw a little stage with chairs on it and chairs under an awning for the “audience”. There is no shade in the area and the sun was beating down even at 9am – and this wasn’t even the very hot season.
All of the children were lined up in an honor guard, youngest to oldest, girls on one side and boys on the other. As we walked from the car to the platform, every child clapped and waved. My knees almost buckled, what a way to impress upon a donor the magnitude of the impact of their donation. If you had been there, I’m sure you would have had tears running down your faces. Every single kid was gorgeous. Peng told us later that we were the first foreigners that had ever been to that village and that most of them, parents and children, had likely ever seen.
There were four speeches, one each by the school Principal, the district head of education and the district governor (or deputy governor) and me. Funnily, Peng thought that Murph should speak instead of me, but we pretty much ignored that suggestion.
The Principal reported on the construction and operation of the school (# of students, etc) and then made a plea to parents to keep their children in school until 9th grade and to help build a fence around the property. The district head of education rambled on for ages. I missed the first part of his speech because Peng was explaining to me how he (the head of education) had lost his arm in the war.
As if on cue, the Head of Education then started talking about the war. We learned that this whole province was under Khmer Rouge until as late as 1996 and that there were no schools – which explains why this is a new school district. We were shocked to hear him tell of the conditions under the KR. Apparently the enforced agrarian work was continued right up until the end with everyone working long days in the fields and no time for education. He also talked about the fighting which again, continued up to the end. All of that seemed a long, if interesting, tangent until he wrapped it up by imploring parents to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the new school and to keep their children in school.
The Governor was even more rambling and he too talked a lot about Pol Pot and the war. Then he got particularly animated and passionate. Peng translated the lesson being taught: “You will rely on your children to sell your rice when you are older. If you take them out of school before 9th grade, they won’t know how to calculate prices and be responsible with money.” I’m sure most of the parents in the audience sat up a little straighter to that.
I gave a very short speech thanking them for inviting us to be there for the ceremony. I had intended to thank all the bloggers who were involved in raising the money but Peng had explained that the computer we’d installed in the school was likely the first time most of the kids had seen a computer. I guessed that they probably didn’t know what the internet was and definitely wouldn’t understand the term blogger so I thanked all the travel writers instead.
After the speeches we were given a tour of the school building – especially the room where the computer is set up. Then we got to give the stationary gifts to the students. They were asked if they had any questions for us. I think they were just too shy to ask anything. In return, we asked them if they were happy with their new school, of course they said yes.
It seemed wrong to walk out without an attempt to connect with them, so I asked about what professions they were interested in. The biggest show of hands was for “teacher”. Peng explained that this was the only “profession” they were familiar with so I changed the way I was asking the questions to “who would like to build roads?”, “who would like to know how to repair motorbikes?” for example. The sensation of being the first person to place an idea that these kids could do something like that in their heads was tremendous and very humbling.