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Archive for April, 2012

Meet the Borrowers

April 10, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

April 9, 2012—Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

The test drive of our Community Prosper Bank is going exceedingly well. There are 22 borrowers who met informally to discuss the banking policy. Overwhelmingly, they want to work together to support the school and they believe many more business people in the village would do the same. My mission was to convince them that their policy of having people who borrow under $200 pay back only interest until the end of the 14 month term, when all the principal is due at once, is a bad policy. It’s not good for the borrower because they may not be able to pay back, or may have to borrow from someone else at a very high rate in order to hand back the principal for the short time needed for the loan to be reissued. In this a typical scenario, the money is acting more like a base of working capital than a loan, and that is not good for their bank. That is not good for the borrower either because rather than building personal wealth, they are essentially working for the bank.

That was a difficult concept to communicate. The reason to not collect principal on loans under $200 is that it is “too small money” to do anything and too much work to manage it. While these are valid points they agreed that the risk is greater to wait to see if the borrower can come up with the whole principal amount at the end of the term. And the borrower could get into trouble by being over extended.

We discussed allowing more time, say 90 days, for payback to begin, in order to give borrowers the time they need to allow their business to start generating income. While some agreed this would be helpful, the majority said having different policies for different types of loans is too complicated and difficult to manage. They decided to change the policy so that all borrowers, regardless of loan size, pay back monthly interest and principal and a small amount of savings. This naturally excludes many people, those needing agricultural loans and those with no business skills. However it’s the safest way to earn money, lending to the business people in the relative middle class of this extremely poor town. Since our focus is to generate income to pay teachers, this seems to be the best policy. Tackling agricultural loans will have to wait. For the majority of unskilled poor living in absolute poverty, whose only source of income is chopping down trees and making charcoal, it looks to me like what they need is new skills that offer an alternative line of work. Good thing we’re a school, because that is what education is for. Credit combined with education is the only way to reach the most marginalized rural people.

Meet the borrowers. Each one is paying back on time and most believe that with more funds available they can grow faster. Many people in the village who would do the same thing and borrow to support the school. We are in the process of conducting a survey to find out if that is true.

Nat and Hoeun: This couple are livestock dealers, butchers, and retail meat sellers. The specialize in buying and selling cows. A lot of people want to sell their cows to buy a power tiller, and the city has a growing demand for beef. They borrowed $500 to expand their business. They have no problem repaying and like supporting the school.

 

Meng Sron  and Hoeun: This couple borrowed $400 to start a little Coffee & Karaoke shop. This is their second business, the first one is an established beauty shop. Their new business is only making about $50 per month right now but they are helping it grow by selling noodle soup.

 

 

Vong Van: He borrowed $500 to buy inventory of spare parts for his power tiller repair business. Since the rural farmers in this area are slowly converting to power tillers or field work, he has a lot of business and he has taken on apprentices who are learning this viable life skill.

 

 

 

Kum Muy and Sait Song: They borrowed $100 to expand their business making cement rings, bricks and cisterns. Every house needs a claypot cistern for catching rainwater, or cement rings to build a water tank, or bricks to build a bathroom. You can get a sense of the families income and stability by the number of clay pots they have. It takes two days to make a claypot and the profit is about $2. His wife also has a small grocery and she would like to borrow more to expand. Her nickname is Ee and she serves as adviser to the loan committee, determining a potential borrowers credit worth by their reputation in the community. You only get a loan if Ee believes you are good for it.

 

 

Sowin borrowed $400 to buy fabrics for her sewing shop and glass cases to display her finished products. She is also our sewing teacher and wants to expand into the wholesale fabric business. As her sewing students graduate and open their own shops they will need bulk fabric. Sowin sees a need to fill because it is a pain to travel 2 hours to Kampong Speu or 3 hours to Phnom Penh to buy fabric.

 

 

To read more about the Community Prosper Bank click here.

The Mother of the Teachers

April 09, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

April 8, 2012—Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

I found the solution to get the teachers to open up and talk about their true feelings: Beer.

I hosted a fascinating dinner party for all the teachers from all 4 schools at the new teacher housing at the Bonteay Pranak School. I hoped that the Sre Chrap and Chrauk Tiek teachers could knock some sense into the primary and secondary school teachers at Bonteay Pranak.

We fried up 30 whole catfish with sticks of lemongrass in their mouths and a huge pot of rice and loaded up the power tiller wagon with an ice chest full of beer and the teaching staff and paraded 8 km down the dusty, cow-pie pocked road to the secondary school. I was greeted by English teacher Sopeah with a sign over his door that said “Welcome Back Kari, Thank you for the nice house!” Teacher Sopeah has gone from a chronic school skipper who charged fees for private English classes on the side, to our most fervent convert. He has solid attendance and helping build the school from the inside out. The reason for the change: $100 bucks a month teacher attendance bonus. Although the new teacher housing is definitely helping, the rest of the Bonteay Pranak teachers do not receive it, they have improved greatly but not yet fully committed. We won’t be able to pay them until they prove their worth. There are twenty teachers between the Bonteay Pranak Primary and Secondary schools, which will cost $1,000 per month minimum and we don’t yet have the budget for it.

As the sunset and the beers cracked open, the teachers loosened up and started to have fun. Especially the Bonteay Pranak teachers, who were still in their deer-in-headlights, scared of the white lady mode. A line of student desks pushed together created a long dinner table under the teacher house portico. A single thin florescent light bulb hung from the rafter powered by a thin string of electrical wire connected to a crusty DC car battery. A car pulled into the school yard and out came Prom Kin Thon, the District Chief of Education and his family. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen him.

A table for 30 decked out in fried fish, rice and vegetables along with free flowing beer gave rise to a heart warming discussion about life and the dismal situation we are trying to overcome. We are all in this together:

I went first. With Paul interpreting, I used my position at center stage in the middle of the table to first validate the teacher’s feelings and acknowledge that life is hard here. I understand that the house is good but they need more, they need a water tank, a bathroom, a shower, electricity, school supplies and more salary. I understand. “Your government should be providing these things so you can do your job, and it doesn’t,” I said, in part for Prom Kin Thon’s benefit. But we can’t wait until those things are in place, too many students are dropping out. I am doing the best I can to build the infrastructure the school needs to function, but I need their help. Now that we have the teacher house, the kitchen, and the play ground, we need to work together. Once the rainy season fills the fishpond, they can grow fish and vegetables to eat, to sell and to learn. The aquaponic system will both increase yields and conserve water.

To create a sustainable salary for them, we intend to implement the “Education That Pays For Itself” model which teaches students relevant, income generating technical skills and entrepreneurship. These income generating life skills include: aquaponic fish and vegetable framing, beekeeping, commercial scale chicken raising, pig rearing, sewing, and small engine repair. But we are not going to get there without their help. They need to step up their commitment, their attendance and their care of student learning.

I recognized the Sre Chrap teachers for doing such a good job with so little support from us, especially principal Chim Cham. One of the Sre Chrap teachers stands up to say how much they appreciate SSI’s support, and also their community. He emphasizes that the most important thing is their close relationship with the community. I am glad that Prom Kin Thon is present to hear this.

Principal SoBun surprises me when he stands up and starts talking about leadership. He has come a long way but his community only trusts him 50%. Like all the other principals he used to have the typical authoritarian attitude, lording his power over teachers and students, doing as little as he could get away with for the school and finding ways to embezzle as much school funds as possible from all sources. Now he tells the others about how important it is to care about the students and check on them if they don’t show up. “Check the bathroom every morning is very important,” he says, “especially for the girls, if its disgusting they may not want to come to school.” Remind the students to do their part to keep it clean, don’t scold them.

In short, he said, “you need to treat the school like your own home, because it is your home and for the students it is better than home. That’s why they want to come to school.” He hit the nail on the head and the central point of our school success logic model. Make School Attractive so the Kids Love School. The “how-to” comes from us.

Prom Kin Ton speaks last, telling the teachers and principals how lucky they are to have SSI behind them. He calls me the “Mother of the Teachers.” He has seen the success of the Chrauk Tiek school and says that when another organization asks him how they can help the school he tells them to do like SSI, start with a teacher house and salary supplement for the teachers. We are his role model. I tell them all, if we work together, we can make the whole Aural District #1!

With the beer supply exhausted and our bellies filled, we depart with a tangible feeling of connection, tinged with a nice buzz from the 5% alcohol beer. Hearts have opened. This feeling of happiness is rare.

The next morning, when Paul shows up at Bonteay Pranak school to observe what the teachers are doing, primary teacher Son Try approaches him and asks for a piece of paper. Son Try used to teach at Chrauk Tiek and we kicked him out because he was lazy and showed up drunk too often.

Now Son Try tells Paul, “I need paper, so I can record what everyone is doing around here, we will never get the salary supplement if we don’t improve.”

The Mother of the Teachers is proud. Her patience and persistence paid off. What mother wouldn’t be pleased when her dependents finally see the light.

Melea’s Story

April 07, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

April 5, 2012—Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

I followed Melea home from the Sre Chrap Primary School today. She is in 5th grade and wants to be a nurse. She walks about forty minutes each way with her brother and sister, barefoot on the hot, dusty road, and down a little cow path deep into the jungle. Both her parents are home on the day I visit. Their house has more to it than the open air thatch huts that the poorest families use. Her home has good hard wood walls and some tin roof helping the thatch to keep the rain out. The house is raised on pillars, so the family has a nice big room to sleep off the ground and a good quality mosquito net to sleep under. The bamboo floor of the kitchen is a little hard to walk on and I’m afraid I might break it and fall through. I’m glad to see that eating and sleeping take place up off the ground but the water source is another matter. They don’t have a bathroom and they walk to a little creek several hundred meters away in order to wash clothes, bathe and haul water back for cooking. The little creek is brown and barely moving water.

The family has just three children and none of them have died. They have enough to eat although they only make $50 -70 dollars a month catching fish and snails in nearby Piem Levia Lake. At least they aren’t making charcoal. As Melea gives me a tour of their home, she is so soft spoken and shy I can barely hear her. What a difference from the kids at Chrauk Tiek who are no longer afraid to speak to me.

Melea’s dad, Mon, supports his family as a fisherman and sometimes Melea helps him after school. He is an interesting man and a strong supporter of education. He’s one of the leaders who gets the Sre Chrap community working on school projects. Melea’s mom, Sieng Lea, only went to 2nd grade and can’t read but her father completed 7th grade and he likes to read. He is hungry for knowledge and wants his children to achieve a good education. He understands that the community has to work together to achieve this goal and he agrees that too many people are lazy and not willing to help themselves. He is very thankful that the Sre Chrap School has gotten much better this year, with the teachers there everyday on time the student attendance has tripled. Melea’s father is 100% behind her desire to be a nurse. He’s a good man, a rare find. He takes the responsibility of husband and father seriously. It is so frustrating to see so many men that are drunk and abusive and not taking care of their families. Often the women do all the work.

Now that this family has access to a school with reliable teachers, I think they could really pull it together if they just had access to a clean water supply and a decent road. The longer I do this work the more I realize that the necessary requirements to climb out of poverty boil down to three thing: access to clean water, a good road and a teacher that cares. Is there anyone in America who doesn’t have access to those three things?

Before I leave Mon gives me fish and snails and later that evening he brings me a giant jackfruit, telling me it ripened on the tree which makes it sweet. It is delicious. The boiled seeds of the jackfruit also make a yummy, potato-like snack. Mon is someone we call an opinion leader, like a community insider who can influence others to change their thinking. We need him as much as he needs us to achieve our mutual goal. And he grows a mean jackfruit.

Lost Hoodies Find a New Home

April 04, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

April 3, 2012—Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

At Sre Chrap Elementary School, deep in the jungle, the kids welcomed me with individual signs they made on poster sticks and two songs about saving the trees that the monks had taught them. So cute!

This community really impresses me. They are more poor than the others but more dedicated to education. The room was packed for the community meeting and the monks were there too. I attribute their success to the honesty and integrity of the school principal Chin Cham. He is not very educated, barely finished high school, but the level of education doesn’t really matter. What matters is his relationship with the community and his ability to lead. Chin Cham has the magic touch with both. He is a simple man who speaks plainly. He’s trustworthy and likes the poor people because he’s one of them. The teachers like him too and for the first time ever Sre Chrap was requested by a teacher who had been assigned to another school. His wife is the first grade teacher and they have a 7-month-old baby, all living in the ramshackle house the community made for them. They said its fine for now. They like working with Chin Cham.

I apologized to the Sre Chrap villagers for not being able to support them with more, they receive the least help from us. We are concentrating on Bonteay Pranak Secondary School because it is the only path to higher education for all the primary graduates. But now Sre Chrap has the teacher housing, a fence, a playground and two shade huts built by the community with just a little help from us. We provide a teacher salary supplement of fifty bucks a month and an English teacher. That has been enough to pull this school together and lift the community’s spirits to believe that a better future is possible.

I distributed about 80 hoodies to the kids at Sre Chrap that I had collected from the lost and found at Dunn Elementary in Fort Collins where my daughter goes to school. They were thrilled. There is no lost and found here in Sre Chrap because no one has anything to leave behind and the few belongings they do have, they cherish. This was their reward for good attendance. While the kids at my daughters school could care less about their hoodies because they have so many, the kids here admire and call them “sa’at nah” which means very beautiful. There were many bright smiles going home with those forgotten hoodies.

A boy named Koeun came to see me. He grew up in Sre Chrap when it had a terrible school and attended Bonteay Pranak Secondary while it was completely dysfunctional and now he is attending high school in Kamong Speu in our scholarship program. I admire him for making it this far. He must have a strong internal drive, just like his sister Suon our successful tailor with the 4th grade education. He wants to become an English teacher and return to Sre Chrap with his ideas to help develop his community. People respect him because he used to be a monk. Interestingly, he sees the obstacle to community development the same way we do – the problem is aide. The villagers always think “why do I need to help when the organization has millions, they can do it.” That attitude is pervasive and it is the reason that foreign aide does not create sustainability. Koeun gave an example of LWS which built the Sre Chrap school and has many different projects handing out water filters, mosquito nets, health care trainings, sewing programs, fish pond incentives, the list goes on and on. They drive Paul crazy by giving out free sarongs and soap when they gather people together for a community meeting, making it difficult for us to get people to show up without a free hand out as incentive. LWS is the multi-million dollar international relief organization of the Lutheran Church, good people trying to do good, but doing it the wrong way.

It all boils down to too many free hand outs, not enough community participation, and zero leadership skill development. Koeun with a high school education, attitude and leadership training can now see how this situation keeps his community from developing and he wants to work on changing that. He is graduating in July and moving on to college in our scholarship program. We’d like to accelerate his English, Computer and Teacher training so that he can get back to the Sre Chrap and become the community leader they need faster. Our scholarship program requires reciprocity and we select the students who match the human resource needs in their village with ability to embrace our five core vales and become good leaders. Koeun is one of them.

Why Am I Doing This?

April 03, 2012 By: Kari Category: 2012 March Trip, General No Comments →

April 2, 2012—Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

I’ve had a whirlwind of activity here. Two more school supporting committee meetings. Home visits with 4 of our students. An endless stream of visitors, each of whom brings me food. That’s how people here participate and show their appreciation, it helps me know that we are doing things right. I’ve received food gifts of 8 chickens, 1 goose, a dozen coconuts, 10 kilos of mango, two homemade desserts, sour soup, fried bananas, snails, fish, wood apples, jackfruit, homemade noodles and fried red ants but I didn’t eat those. Yes, fried ants look as gross as it sounds but everyone here loves it, including Paul and Kong. They tell me it’s sour and crunchy.

Bonteay Pranak secondary school has improved drastically but it still has a long way to go. The teacher attendance is better but not 100% and it’s still very difficult to get the community involved.

When the blonde haired white lady shows up about 50 people turned out for the meeting. How to convert that attraction into genuine interest in supporting the school remains a hard nut to crack. We celebrated the success of finishing the teacher house and the playground and began to discuss the five core values: participation, communication, honesty, trust and solidarity. Some people are beginning to get it but for the most part the community is still pretty passive and lazy. This is disappointing. I ask why and one lady says that people are “too busy.” I laugh out loud and I ask; ” Do you know why America is a rich country?” No one does, so I ask Kong to answer. He’s a boy from their own town who attended this awful school and visited Colorado last summer as an SSI trainee. He talked about how busy Americans are. How they work all the time, no one is lazy drinking and playing cards in the day. He let them know what my life is like, raising two kids, supporting my husbands business, and raising all the money for these schools. “She comes all the way from America to help us,” he said, “why we can’t help ourselves?”

One teacher asked me, “Why are you doing this?”

I get that question alot actually, from my mother mostly, but friends and family as well. This was the first time a Cambodian villager asked why. This telling sentiment speaks not only to the rarity of someone genuinely working hard to help improve this dismal education system but the cultural presumption that the rich are naturally above them and could care less, and that the poor are the passive recipients of aide. More importantly it speaks to a pervasive sense of hopelessness, no one actually believes that change is possible, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This attitude keeps them poor and needy. We are all about changing that attitude.

They still can’t look at their own problem and come up a with solution. For instance, one woman says they want a high school here. Yet, barely anyone finishes middle school and they can’t even support the primary school that they have. What about life skills? If by some miracle we can get the 1,000 or so children in this area who should be attending middle school actually into the classrooms (only 190 attend now and that is a 50% increase), it would be an enormous achievement if everyone of them finished 9th grade. The reality is that most can’t go to high school because they are needed to work to support their family and high school costs too much money. Therefore, if the middle school offers relevant life skills training and the business skills to accompany to them, most can get the education necessary to improve their lives and carve a new future for their family. We talked with the villagers about beekeeping, fishpond / aquaponics, sewing and mechanics. Our hope is that while the students learn these skills and how to run a business with them, the products they make will also help support the school.

The fishpond is already underway and the aquaponic garden system will be added after the rainy season fills the pond but we need to figure out a low cost way to pump water through the system. The villagers really want to know more about beekeeping. They never heard of it. I find that interesting when you consider how much people like to eat bugs here. More importantly, honey sells for $10 a liter because its only harvested from wild beehives. In a place where people do the hard labor of making charcoal by hand for less than a dollar a day, the idea of raising bees to sell honey is a much more attractive option. Wouldn’t it be great if the bees could save the trees!

We have some beekeeping instructions to get started and a few resources here in Cambodia where organizations have started beekeeping. Paul and Kong will be researching it over the Khmer New Year which is starting soon. Speaking of Khmer New Year, school closes on April 5th for a two week holiday, yet at other schools students and teachers just stop showing up for class when is gets close to the date of the school closing for break. They feel like its close enough to the break so why bother. Isn’t that strange? This is a country wide phenomenon. Our schools, however, do not do this. We’re the role model of change and we respect the school calendar.