Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for February, 2010

Proud to be an American

February 27, 2010 By: karig2 Category: 2010 February Trip No Comments →

“I pretend I don’t understand him and speak back in English, but we weren’t going over 40! He is confused by the encounter, and we pass without payment. The driver and our staff chuckle with delight at the way the police don’t want to mess with a “barang” (foreigner) with a camera. I had to jump into the front seat and repeat the process three times before we left the outskirts of Phnom Penh.”

By:Kari Grady Grossman

PHNOM PENH and CHRAUK TIEK, CAMBODIA-It only takes three weeks for the corruption in Cambodia to really start irritating me. It makes me sassy.

On our way out of Phnom Pehn, heading to school with a van loaded with supplies, we are stopped at a checkpoint by policeman demanding bribes. It’s only 2,000 reil (roughly 50 cents) but with every motorist passing by it quickly adds up. The amazing thing is that they do it with such impunity. This is no secretive slight of the hand exchange. At least 5 policeman  in full blue and white uniforms, stand in the middle of the road taking a payment from each car, while their commander and two deputy’s sit at a table on the side of the road shoving the bills into a large suitcase full of money. It’s a spectacle I can’t resist.

I jump into the front seat of our van and whip out my video camera to capture the whole thing. The policeman at our window insists that we were going over the 40 km speed limit which would be impossible in the crawling traffic. I pretend I don’t understand him and speak back in English, but we weren’t going over 40! He is confused by the encounter, and we pass without payment. The driver and our staff chuckle with delight at the way the police don’t want to mess with a “barang” (foreigner) with a camera. I had to jump into the front seat and repeat the process three times before we left the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

I love to mess with them.

That evening in Chrauk Tiek village, Paul and I share a beer at my favorite dessert stand. Walking home through the village in the dark under a blanket of a thousand quite stars, we keep pace side by side with a caravan of oxcarts hauling huge tree trunks from the forest. It is the illegal timber trade that fuels the economy of this town and fills the pockets of the military police. We see the MP come to the side of the road with his flash light intending to collect his bribes. Paul and I pretend like he is there to greet us, and we take great pains to compliment him on how well he is keeping his place picked up, thanking him profusely for supporting the children and their efforts to keep the town clean.  We filibuster until all the oxcarts have passed without stopping to pay him. He spot checks them with his flashlight, but is culturally obligated to continue to receive our compliments. We tell him what a wonderful example he is to the whole community by keeping the garbage under control and walk away, secretly satisfied that we stood between him and his quarry.

Corruption has even infiltrated the United Nations World Food Program.  I sent a message to the country director about the problems we are having with the school director being hassled to pay rice kick backs to the distribution network above him.  The “power man” is a provincial education department employee called Duon who is tasked with the job of liaison with the World Food Program in making food requests and deliveries to schools. He claims to be doing the job volunteer, that’s why he demands some rice. In an attempt to please him, our school director has tried to cut three of our malnourished kids from the take-home food ration program, reducing 18 kids to 15 who are supposed to receive 18 kilos of rice a month. But Paul won’t let him do it, so Duon does his best to make the director’s life difficult, hassling him with paperwork and not answering questions by telephone, threatening to find something wrong and shut down the program. The World Food Program has strict rules to ensure that no rice is pilfered, and Paul stands behind Sokha the stockroom keeper in making sure they are followed to the letter. He will not allow the three children to be cut from the program. The school director is distressed.

“But this is the way the system works,” he says, “you can’t change it.”

Want to make a bet.

Within 24 hours of my message to the World Food Program country director, three field monitors show up. We tell them everything. The director and stockroom keepers receive phone calls from Duon while the meeting is going on; he claims to need the party to stick together. They tell him they have no idea what is going on, it’s NGO business. It’s not the first report of Duon’s shenanigans that the field monitors have heard. Do you want him removed? They ask us. Yes, absolutely, we say.

We have a long, positive and productive chat with the World Food Program field monitors about how World Food Program and Sustainable Schools International could partner to help them make their school breakfast program more successful. The truth of the matter is, it can’t be done without us. The attitude and leadership training we provide on a daily basis is crucial to strengthening a community’s ability to participate in the school breakfast program on the level the World Food Program expects.

The corruption is so undermining to a community’s ability to be honest, and to build trust and solidarity. The poor school director is in a very difficult position; we require him to be honest, and his government bosses require him to be dishonest. Honesty is the foundation of trust, trust is the foundation of solidarity. When the government employees act dishonestly, the community refuses to participate, which means they can’t communicate, and this is the root of the problem. It is the government of Cambodia that is keeping the people poor.

Paul is surprised and delighted by the World Food Program response. It’s you they’re afraid of he says. You’re American, and here that represents so much power that everyone is afraid of you. I’ve never felt so proud to be an American.

The schoolyard children flock to me for the hugs, I give out gratuitously. Adults hang out at the school just to be around Paul. Like flies to a lantern, they just want to be near us to feel the warm rays of honesty, kindness, and love.

There is hope.

Fresh, Delicious Chicken

February 21, 2010 By: karig2 Category: 2010 February Trip No Comments →

“She scoops up a fat hen from her yard and ties its feet upside down with the plastic bag and hands it to me. I’ve never been given a live chicken before, but feel compelled as I carry it home to tell the upside down bird how lucky it is to be a Cambodian chicken.”

By Kari Grady Grossman

CHRAUK TIEK, CAMBODIA-Chrauk Tiek has great food and everyday someone from the school committee brings me a tasty treat: bananas, papayas, coconut, and live chickens. The school breakfast cooks stay all day to prepare lunch and dinner as well- a mountain of fresh vegetables, hand pounded sweet brown rice and the world’s best chicken, skinny but delicious; a whole new experience in “free range.”

Thankfully, we have a very nice bathroom now, complete with two private stalls and a tile lined shower featuring a Khmer style cistern and plastic saucepan to dump cool river water over your head. This was the School Supporting Committee’s sustainability project last year, and I have to say I am quite pleased with the result, not only for my usage, but for the six guests teaching English. Each one of them ended up making a donation to the school. It is also special for the teachers, who are living in the teacher residence we occupy this week. It’s the first bathroom they’ve ever had in their lives.

We spent the afternoon of our Sanitation Day lounging in hammocks and taking refreshing dips in the river, feeling very satisfied with ourselves.

I held a training with Soka, our intrepid librarian, to hold story hour with the new Khmer language early reader system I had printed. She even has a “big book” to work from in front of the class. Soka is one of our gems. I met her four years ago when she bravely stepped forward, while pregnant with her fourth child, to give me a letter detailing her distress about the illegal logging that had descended upon her village. Since then I have learned that Soka is one of those impeccably honest, soft-spoken but strong willed women that holds a community together. She volunteers for every NGO project that comes through town, but she loves her job with us best.  It is the only one that pays her.  She shows up every morning at 4 am to dole out the UN World Food Program rations from the stock room; she is the only one trusted with the key.  After cooking, serving the children breakfast and cleaning up, she opens the library for the children after their first recess, all for $45 per month. She grew up in an orphanage and graduated 8th grade, which is a high level of achievement for a woman her age and economic level. She is interested in the new early reader books but clearly tired. I hope we can find a way to give her more support.

The library needs more bookshelves and a ceiling installed to make it cooler. The tin roof bakes in the sweltering heat, which makes the space unbearably hot in the afternoon.  Chanta, one of our Khmer – American volunteers from Minnesota, has brought a donation from her home community. She donates the bookshelves, a table for the director’s office and a thatch roof hut to give the children for a place to read outside in the cool breeze.

In the evening, the school committee members gather to eat dinner with us in the cooking shelter next to the stock room. The pleasant feel of our achievements gathers into a sing -a- long. Ek Chun, a small statured Souy man who’s daughter Saram is our scholarship student who will become the first Souy girl to ever go to high school, has decided that his gift to me is a song. He starts to sing a beautiful, stretched tone love song, and we all clap to the beat. Then one-by-one each of the Khmers sings for us, each expressing their joy in Khmer culture’s unique way. No one seems inhibited, except of course we westerners who can’t find a tune to save our life. The best we can come up with is John Denver songs and Oh My Darlin’ Clementine. It feels both tribal and spiritual, like the connection between our souls is celebrated.

The good vibes of our singing is cut short by the Chinese New Year Party we must attend at Vong Vaughn’s house.  He is the chairman of the School Supporting Committee. I don’t want to insult him by not showing up. So we walk the half kilometer in the dark clapping to Khmer songs until we reach the loud music pulsing from his yard. I subject myself to another ear splitting go in the Romvong circle. Thankfully, since we are not the hosts it is easy to excuse ourselves when we’ve had enough and the party can go on all night without us.

Walking back in the dark, I am beckoned into Chen’s home, another member of the school committee, one of our favorite ladies who is well loved by Paul for her endless contributions of delicious treats. She scoops up a fat hen from her yard and ties its feet upside down with the plastic bag and hands it to me. I’ve never been given a live chicken before, but feel compelled as I carry it home to tell the upside down bird how lucky it is to be a Cambodian chicken. I explained how horrible it is to be a chicken in America, so she should consider herself blessed. She will be delicious in the morning.

The chicken comes with us and all the kids on a field trip to Piem Levia Lake the next day, giving us the chance to show our foreign guests just how low the economic situation can get in Cambodia. Our lorry full of children passes through the neighboring village of Sre Srap, where people seek out an existence from who knows what and dirty faced, naked children abound. Their school is in our target area. It only has 93 students and one teacher, and she has a fourth grade education; at least 3 days a week she’s gone. 90% of the children in this village don’t go to school at all.

The kids, the chicken, cooking implements, hammocks and table china for 30 are hauled through the forest to Piem Levia Lake, which in the dry season resembles more of a huge mud puddle. The chicken is boiled with a preparation of rice and peanut sauce with vegetables and fresh cashews we picked from the trees. The children splash and squeal ecstatically in the water. They’ve found three leaky dugout canoes and are playing battleship, continuously overloading and sinking their vessels. The Canadian teachers joke about what the mortified safety chaperones in our home would say. This is no matter. It is so pleasant to see children who have nothing expressing their joy with wreck less abandon.

Essential Lesson: “Lian Dy Saboo – Wash Hands Soap”

February 18, 2010 By: karig2 Category: 2010 February Trip No Comments →

“‘The flies carry disease from garbage to the food and this is why everyone gets sick, it’s like eating your own shit,’ we told them.”

By Kari Grady Grossman

CHRAUK TIEK, CAMBODIA-Cambodian dance is called Romvong.  It involves a large group of people moving in a circular fashion around a center piece, while twirling the hands from the wrist.  Khmers look graceful doing this, and westerners look like clowns.  Nevertheless, we all have a good time at the school dance.  The kids ruled the Romvong circle. The parents largely stay to the outside and watch. The rented karaoke speakers from the wedding entertainment shop blast Khmer love songs at a deafening volume into a dark school yard with 300 people participating in the spectacle.   Alternatively, groups of little boys and girls surrounded me with their big smiles and gyrating hand gestures for a chance to dance with “Niat Srey Carrie” – that’s me. It was so cool and so happy.   No wonder we have kids at school from sun up to sun down everyday – it is the most happening place in town.

The only security issues were the two drunken policemen who were invited by cultural obligation. They were so drunk and high that we were a little afraid they might fall over and the AK-47 strapped on their backs might go off.   They are the worst people in town.   Three doors down from the school gate, the civilian police and military police sit drinking and gambling all day, while 24 / 7 oxcarts stop in front of their house and pay bribes for the illegal tree trunks they carry from the forest.   These guys are complete pigs with fat bellies and a disgusting squalor of garbage surrounding their outpost.

Can you imagine the cultural mountain we need to move in order to instill the value of responsible parenting in this context? Paul and I often catch each other’s eye and just shake our heads. What we are doing for the whole community is a lot like parenting, and we are trying to show them a different kind of role model. I keep in mind a little sign in my mother-in-law’s bathroom – Children learn what they live.

We responsibly turned off the music at 10 pm which by Cambodian standards this is sacrilege.  By this time the littlest kids are starting to lay down to sleep in the school yard. It’s a school dance after all, and the children need to get some rest. They have a big day tomorrow. All night they’ve been stressed out from the adults throwing garbage around the school yard and trying diligently to keep up with it. At home they cry to their parents about how hard they try to keep their home clean.

In the morning over 400 of them fan out into the village to pick and burn the foul stench of garbage that fills every yard and alley in the little market village called “Spean Dyke” across the bridge. These are the wealthiest people in 5 villages that our school serves, and most of the kids come from the much poorer farming villages surrounding it. This is where our cultural change begins. Even the village chief joins in to model the behavior, and it is absolutely unbelievable that a village chief would pick up someone’s garbage. I am really proud of him. Son Sen inherited the title of village chief, but the poor guy has zero education or leadership training. However, he is smart enough to see that methods Paul and I are using work from the inside out. That feeling is the spark of hope we are trying to fan up into a bonfire.

We start our sanitation work at the hungover military policeman’s house.

The Sanitation Day was a complete success in terms of the solidarity shown by the school community.  But I have to say that this is by far the most disgusting thing I have ever done. Thankfully, I had brought 8 pairs of leather work gloves as gifts for the men on the school supporting committee.  I donned a pair of these and played the part of a good role model, helping pick up copious amounts of plastic, straws, shoes, rice bags, old clothes, the list goes on and on.  I mean this was completely gross but with almost 450 people working, yard by yard, alley by alley, the job got done in record time.  Pile after pile we burned and it stunk.   Paul walked up and down the road with a loud speaker and individually we asked each homeowner to please help us maintain a clean town.  We explained how important it is for the children to be healthy so they can go to school.

The flies carry disease from garbage to the food, and this is why everyone gets sick, it is like eating your own shit we told them. When we announced we were getting thirsty, the shop owners started donating crates of water. That was amazing in and of itself, because it is always so difficult for the school director to get any sort of help from these people, even though all their children attend our school. I imagine there was tinge of shame for them in watching “Niat Srey Carrie” pick up their foul – I don’t really care what emotion it takes to get them to change. The most powerful statement of all was to have “Professor Paul,’ 6 white foreigners, all 6 teachers, 5 members of the school committee and the village chief all helping their children.

After about 3 hours we were not quite finished, but we were exhausted so we called the children back. We all walked back to school down the middle of the street singing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”  Then we chanted “Lian Dy Saboo - Wash Hands Soap” and went to the water well to do just that.

Son Sen, the village chief, said he would hold a council meeting with the other village chiefs to come up with the system to maintain a garbage disposal system.

Even the military policeman promised to help enforce the people to pick up their trash.

We’ll see.

Through Communication, Trust & Solidarity Comes Breakthrough!

February 15, 2010 By: karig2 Category: 2010 February Trip No Comments →

“We can’t depend upon the donor forever,” he said.  “We must do this for our children and grand children and great grand children….forever….we must learn how to support the school ourselves.” OH MY GOD ….WHAT A STUNNING BREAKTHROUGH!

By Kari Grady Grossman

CHRAUK TIEK, CAMBODIA- My days are filled with the squeals of happy children and meetings with school supporting committees.  So many people are supportive.  It’s a striking contrast to the secondary school I visited yesterday where the school yard is treeless and dusty and no children play.

I met with a 16 member school committee, most of them illiterate women.  The principle began the meeting by saying that he thinks “it is an exciting day, from today we can progress.”  They are so incredibly excited to have the chance to work with us.

We used the beans again for each person to express their opinion on core values they identified as important to their success. Again, trust and honesty scored very low.  We talked about why that is so. Our school director bravely stood up to admit openly the mistakes he has made in the past and how it undermines community trust. We talked about how courageous it is to admit when you are wrong.   We laid out a road map of the 5 year process we will take to help the community sustain the school.  The first step is developing trust.  Interestingly, they also identified participation, communication and honesty as the way to build trust.   These people are much smarter than the government gives them credit for.

Today, we discussed a power tiller.   The school committee at our primary school has decided that purchasing a power tiller and renting it out is a small business they want to start to support the school.  Everyone wants to rent the power tiller because it only takes a half day to plow a hectare, a task that normally takes several days by hand.

There are amazingly complex ramifications about how this program must be run and facilitating their thought process took most of the morning.  I was truly amazed by a turn the discussion took when one man suggested that each family should contribute 500 riel to the school every month, and they could save that up to help support the school.

“We can’t depend upon the donor forever,” he said.  “We must do this for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren….forever….we must learn how to support the school ourselves.”


The discussion continued as we explored several ways to reach our goal…..and everything comes down to those core values:  Participation, Communication, Honesty, Trust, Solidarity. One man actually said, “we were in the dark, and Kari brought us the lantern.”

I can’t believe how incredibly well this is going.

More tomorrow….. we have invited the whole community to a school dance. The sound system has just cranked up and it’s blasting Cambodian Love songs into the school yard outside my window.

Hundreds of people gather, and the kids have a fantastic time. They’d dance all night long if we let them.  But we will have to cut it off early because tomorrow is a big day, the first ever community sanitation day. The whole school, school committee, Khmer teachers and 6 foreigners volunteering to teach English this week will all take to the streets in the village tomorrow and pick up all the damn garbage!

Students Show Stunning Level of Responsibility, Making Unprecedented Progress

February 12, 2010 By: karig2 Category: 2010 February Trip, General No Comments →

“I feel so fortunate to have found Paul Chuk to work as an education officer here, he’s the perfect person to implement my vision. Paul has a rare gift of communicating with people in a way that makes them feel respected and compelled to assist us.”

By Kari Grady Grossman

CHRAUK TIEK VILLAGE, CAMBODIA- Our days start at 4 am when the cooks come to make breakfast of rice and beans with tomato, papaya and mackerel soup for 410 kids. At 6:30 am the kids start showing up with their plates and spoons in hand, playing on the playground and cleaning the school yard until the metal rod hits the rusty tire rim that serves as a school bell. This breakfast program has helped us achieve unprecedented attendance.  No one is late. At 7:00 am breakfast is served around the school yard where each teacher is stationed with a five-gallon bucket.  The School Supporting Committee built benches and tables around the yard for the kids to sit and eat and the kids squish themselves into every inch of space.  They love it. When finished, they each walk to the well to wash their dish, activity supervised by the seven sixth graders who make up the student council.

The children have a stunning level of organization and responsibility. The community is beginning to get excited about the possibilities here. The kids come to school early and stay late. It’s the most happening place in town. There is more happiness in the school yard than I have ever seen before.

The World Food Program is not easy to manage, especially in a cultural environment where its every man for himself.  For more information on the World Food Program visit The temptation to steal the food is strong.   But our librarian Soka is the kind of woman who holds a community together. She holds the key to the stock room.  She doles out the exact ration of food for the cooks to prepare each morning.  She marks the open rice bags, so she will know if anything is stolen. She opens the 9 cans of mackeral and tomato sauce, specially formulated to fight malnutrition. She has four kids at this school.  She is not going to allow them to screw this up.

I met with the school supporting committee and 16 people showed up ! More than half of them are women.  I thank each one of them personally for coming. Only 4 of them can read.

Ummm…how are we going to teach them leadership skills?

We made a timeline of significant events over the past 10 years. They talked about the time before the school was built when the students studied under the tree.  At that time they only had 30 students and two teachers, no one completed primary school. There was a bad road and big forest, many animals and rampant malaria. It took 7 days to travel to Kampong Speu, the market town. After the school was built, we increased to 4 teachers and 150 students and about 10 % completed primary school. Since we started supporting the teachers and made improvements to the school, attendance increased to over 400, but still about 50% of students dropped out before completing primary.  In 2009, the director says, we had 90% complete 6th grade. In 2010 he believes we will achieve 100%. We are the only school in the district to achieve this. We all clap.

I draw symbols on the board like a pie, representing the students attendance over time. The teachers tell me that the students seem brighter and more attentive. The parents tell me their children are excited to get up quickly and go to school each day. I pointed to the increasing attendance pies and asked – how did we do this?

More importantly, how will we do it again at the dysfunctional secondary school?

I feel so fortunate to have found Paul Chuk to work as an education officer here, he’s the perfect person to implement my vision. Paul has a rare gift of communicating with people in a way that makes them feel respected and compelled to assist us. He is also a gifted teacher. In truth, the work we are doing here is a lot like parenting. There are so many basic things we take for granted that the people here just don’t know. This week we have 6 foreign volunteers teaching English for us, so Paul has time to help facilitate our work with the school committee.

We look at the core values we wrote down last year, communication, participation, honesty, trust and solidarity. I ask – did you hold to these? No one knows how to answer.

We write a symbol for each value in a place on the ground. I give each person 10 beans to put in the circles on the floor, grading their feelings about each core value. Then we count the beans. The results are telling. Trust scores very low. I ask what can we do to increase trust? Communication one shouts out.  Participation insists another. Everyone starts pointing and drawing arrows and a picture emerges. Participation is the starting point, which leads to communication, where honesty is required, to build trust, in order to create solidarity. I am not kidding you, this was the self-generated feedback of 16 illiterate adults! I clapped. They clapped.

I asked if the information was valuable. Ja! from the women. Baat! from the men, meaning YES!

Will you be role models to help spread this information to the other communities where we try to strengthen the secondary school for your children to continue?

JA!!   BATT!!

I honestly can’t believe how much progress we have made in a short time. Thank you Paul Chuk.