By Andy Callow, Principal
Is it possible to feel so many conflicting emotions about one place?
Over the school holidays I joined a team of teachers (both current and retired) on an adventure to the Hope International School in Siem Reap. One of the wonderful opportunities our school has been privileged to take as part of our ongoing Partnership Project, yet I wasn’t prepared for the depth of my reactions upon being presented with the complexity of this nation.
It was confronting, inspiring, depressing, joyous, uncomfortable and delightful. Sometimes sequentially, and at other times simultaneously. But if I could reduce the experience to one word, it would be this - memorable.
The nation has lived through incredible tragedy, the rippling effects of trauma still visible from the years of the Killing Fields. The poverty is all-pervasive - the sweatshop labour conditions for the women is heartbreaking, the environmental problems are huge, and the climate is sapping for us Victorians. Yet the Cambodians are quick to smile and are invariably polite, hospitable and humble.
The contrasts in Cambodia are stark. There is a huge gap between the powerful and wealthy elite and the poorer classes. The average wage is around $50 a month (for those fortunate enough to have a job) and many people barely survive, living on less than $1 a day. It is estimated that there are over 250 000 human slaves in Cambodia, many of them sex workers.
Aesthetically, one can see remnants of beauty in ‘The Kingdom of Wonder’ now left to deteriorate, with only the ghosts of some of the beautiful old structures remaining. Electricity problems are common, with criss-crossing power lines speaking volumes about the challenges of providing infrastructure, and the associated high rate of workplace accidents.
In a nation where the intellectual class were the first victims of the Khmer Rouge, education is highly prized, and the country is highly receptive to the many NGO’s working to bring hope and practical support.
In our final days in Cambodia we were privileged to visit the floating villages of Lake Tonle Sap. It was startling, encouraging and inspiring. In a place where survival is dependent on the catching of fish, these families have made their homes literally on the river. Village families live in one room balanced precariously on pontoons made of bamboo or (luxury!) 44 gallon drums. Their homes are towed to safety (or where the fish are) when the waters rise during the monsoon.
The highlight of the town is the floating school in the centre of the village which is a huge key to breaking the poverty cycle. The students come to school by boat in pristine uniforms(!), studying enthusiastically in cramped classrooms, with minimal facilities.
For example there is one sole play area for the whole primary school. The combined basketball/soccer area is smaller than a normal classroom and presents interesting problems with balls needing to be retrieved from the river. There is also a library pontoon which must be accessed via a gang-plank, which the local children love to visit and read.
We were also greatly inspired by our visit to the ‘Dream Centre’, a house where Sophal and Glenda (local teachers at Hope International School) look after their own family as well as over 80 teenagers! The teenagers are graduates from the floating school who need a place to stay so they can attend high school.
The students display responsibility and maturity, cooking for themselves and maintaining the grounds. The property is impeccably clean and the most attractive place we saw in the whole country. Sophal and his Leadership Team all grew up in the floating villages. They are united in their determination to make a positive difference in their community and it is life changing for all involved.
The experience of visiting these places was also life-changing for me. I returned inspired, moved and encouraged, knowing that God is moving and working even in the most challenging of conditions to bring hope and love to his people.