Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for February, 2013

Community coming together around logging and education

February 27, 2013 By: karig2 Category: 2013 February Trip No Comments →

Aural, the district where our schools are located, is an area of the Southern Cardamom Mountains that has been the focus of many unsuccessful conservation efforts.   My feeling on this subject is that until now conservation efforts have taken the wrong approach.

Everyone here is illiterate and between the need to survive and the greed of a corrupt military,  illegal logging has been rampant for years.  For years the local communities have been trying to stop the onslaught through a structure called the Community Forest Protection Committee, or something like that,  a structure made up by some NGO and the Ministry of Environment.  The structure is not a social norm and the villagers were not empowered to enforce anything or fund anything.  Their job was to observe illegal activities, take notes and names of people doing it and report to government.  In practice when they tried to do this they were met with violent threats to their lives by forestry officials, police and military personal – all of whom are involved.

After tracts of forest were cleared, land was grabbed by the government and sold to Chinese companies who planted a huge cornfield and sugarcane field, who is currently the only local employer.   According to villagers who work there for $3 per day, they use heavy amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, with very little protection for the workers.  Sometimes when it rains these pesticides flow into the river it will kill all the fish.  The villagers are highly concerned about this.

At the same time,  before SSI started working toward a sustainable education model, there were new school buildings built in these villages by foreign donors but they all stood empty for lack of teachers, school supplies, government and community support, a polluted school yard, you name it, complete dysfunction.  As such no one completed primary school and everyone got into the logging business.

While I have been coming here and supporting the school I built at Chrauk Tiek for 12 years, it is only since 2007 that I started on a mission to find an economically sustainable way to support the school.   My first attempt failed as I went straight for an alternative cooking fuel training, in hopes of creating an alternative to fire wood.  What I learned from that experience became the core of our program going forward.  The first step is local human resource development, it must be in place before any income generation project can succeed.  With a little hope generated from a functional school, and a focus on a clear path to economic sustainability, the community becomes empowered to participate in environmental conservation.   Most of the villagers strongly agree they want to protect the forest and they are totally frustrated by their inability to do so.  However, our school program is strengthening them.

Human Resource development takes many forms.   On a community level it is a slow process of participatory learning, working constantly to instill our five core values:  participation, communication, honesty, trust and solidarity – the Khmer Rouge period having completely dismantled these values from the culture.   It is now a culture of deep distrust.  On a school staff level, it moves a little faster because we are dealing with more educated people, so it is a matter of training teachers and principals how to see what we see, organize, communicate respectfully and productively, and care collectively about the result.   This process requires SSI staff living and working on site for several years and funding for several support initiatives – they are all government teachers working on a salary of $50 per month who we support and enable to do their job of teaching the government curriculum.   The most promising of all our human resource development activities is our Leadership Program for high school and college scholarship students who have a community service commitment to come back to their village and serve as teachers, doctors, agriculture specialists, and SSI staff.  We instill in them our five core values, self-developmet skills, and leadership skills; that brings about the culture change needed to carry this program into the future and to bring it to scale across the region.

Our current scholarship students told me that 80% of the people in their villages, and many of their own families, are involved in either logging or trapping wild animals. They want to change that.

It took us about 5 years to turn around the first school at Chrauk Tiek, making it not only functional but also human resource sustainable.  It takes about $15,000 per year to sustain them, so now we are working on the income generation to finance that.  We tried 3 times and failed at community owned business, each time learning more and more and now we have two successful income generation programs going  – the Community Prosper Bank is a micro loan program managed by teachers with profits used to pay teachers.  It is very popular with the community.  Also, the agricultural project, a fishpond and aquaponic vegetable bed,  produce abundant fish and vegetables that fetch a higher price in the market because it is organic. It’s water recycling system uses less water and less space than a traditional farm, making food production easier.   A lot of villagers are really interested to learn about that.  We are working out the kinks, the productivity looks promising.

So, while our sustainable education model is still a work in progress, it is available to help other primary schools in the region at least become functional.   We have already started it at a village called Sre Chrap and in just two years have turned their school around to become functional.  This village used to have thick forest around it which has mostly been cleared.  Almost every single house has a large woodpile in front of it.   And the villagers tell me they must travel for a whole day to get to the forest to cut wood. They hate it and would welcome an alternative, easier way to make a living.  The school committee people also tell me that really want to protect what forest is left but they need to be empowered to do so.   Additionally, the logging lifestyle causes a lot of alcoholism and domestic violence among the men, making it difficult for women to live safe and productive lives, when they can make a living closer to home and in cooperation with their family and community, the domestic violence decreases drastically.

Success is not just infrastructure, its attitude

February 20, 2013 By: karig2 Category: 2013 February Trip No Comments →

In the past 48 hours I have been given 10 coconuts,  7 handmade necklaces, 4 papayas, 6 fresh flower bouquets, several bunches of bananas, a pile of ripe mangos, 3 watermelons, 4 chickens and lots of hugs.   I have arrived in Charuk Tiek.   One boy named, Chat da has a huge smile as he hands me a giant seed pod that looks like a demonic batman face, I can tell it is a prized possession that he wants to give me.

It’s a bit like holding court, I guess, as word of my arrival spreads around the village and slowly people start stopping by to greet me and chat, mostly sitting on the porch of my little hut to ask about my trip and my family.  I invite them to sit on a chair but most prefer the floor, which puts me physically above them, and that feels strange.  But that’s the way they like it, so I just go with it.

The first visitors are some scholarship students parents,  each one clasps my hands and bows to me, and when I grin they giggle. Not quite the somber response they are used to from for a “high ranker” but hey I am only going to let the deference go so far.  They will never accept that I believe we are equals and do not feel above them at all, to them, that’s the way it should be.

I notice something interesting in their “Akun”(thank you). They used to only thank me for helping their own child with the scholarship,  now I hear them saying how happy they are that I make education possible for all the children around here.

Chrauk Tiek school is number one for good reason. To a western eye it may look like a dismal affair,  but the fact that the teachers are here everyday, breakfast is cooked everyday, there is no garbage and no cattle in the school yard, is a stark contrast to the many dismal yellow buildings we passed on the road out here, each struggling to be a school.  We have  hundreds of happy children who show up early and stay late to play because they love school!  But its not just because of the functional infrastructure.  There has been an attitude change.   Paul Chuk has done an amazing job of training the teachers and the community to see what we see, treat each other with respect, communicate effectively, and a living example of what honesty looks like, proving that working together will get us farther faster than the constant fighting, jealousy and fear.   One thing for certain, the children are learning a whole different outlook on life – and they LOVE IT!

Seeing the school building I built stand empty for lack of teachers gave rise to my dream of sustainability in 2008.   And here we are 4 years later and we are very close to our goal.   Charuk Tiek is  90 % human resource sustainable, everyone knows what to do and how to do it.  One teacher has even begun to train the people at the secondary school how to see what we see and take responsibility for every detail to improve the school and make it better, each person has a role to play.

The last nut to crack for Charuk Tiek is financial sustainability and that is the tough part.   We have tried several community owned business ventures here, failing forward three times before we found the right approach.

Our community prosper bank program is operating extremely well.  Two teachers run it and the community is very supportive, choosing this micro loan program over others in the area because they know it supports the teachers.  Currently, they are making about $200 a month from interest payments, enough to pay two teachers.   Two more years and this program should produce enough income to pay all 9 of them.   In addition to that, the fishpond project is well underway.  The first set of fish have grown to maturity and will be harvested and sold soon.  The water from the fish pond is so nutritious that the  children use it to water the all the trees, plants and flowers that Paul has planted to beautify the school yard. A water hyacinth floating atop the water spreads quickly with it’s feather-like roots filtering the water for the fish.

Kong has already built a structure to recycle the nutritious fishpond water to feed an aquaponic vegetable bed.  He has checked out the market prices and our organic vegetables will fetch a higher price because they are in high demand.   The fish too. In December and January there was a glut of fish from the Tonle Sap river harvest saturating the market, but that has died down and now the market for our fish is returning.  They will sell the product for $2 per kilo, the weight of about 3-4 fish and there are 2,500 fish in the pond!  If they sell them all and deduct the cost of the fish and fish food, the profit is about $650.  Not bad for a first attempt.   The fish take six months to grow to maturity, so there is potential for two production cycles per year.   If the net profit stays around $1,000 that will cover all the school supplies for the year.

Between the fish, the vegetables and the community prosper bank, they have a diverse portfolio of income generating activities underway.  All we need to do now is stay the course.  Next year we will begin weaning our support, the last critical step to full sustainability.  I am sure that we still have much to learn about that crucial transition.

Here is the best news of all.  The new secondary school teachers have told us that not only do students from Chrauk Tiek outnumber students from other primary schools, they are always the top of the class and much easier to teach, meaning that they are coming to them with the foundation of a good primary education.    Now that is a real mission accomplished!

They still wonder what I’m doing here

February 19, 2013 By: karig2 Category: 2013 February Trip No Comments →

Feb 10

With both the King’s funeral and Chinese New Year finally over,  we left for the village.  Stopping in Kampong Speu along the way, we found a government sponsored life skills training program offering:  moto repair, beautician, computer and english classes for kids 18-20 who have finished 9th grade.  This is good to know about, so we can steer our middle school graduates who don’t get a scholarship toward this type of program.   We found out that if we have enough students at Bonteay Pranak, they will send the instructor to us.  This opportunity might help us get the Community Enterprise School going faster than expected.

On the long dusty road northward we have to deal with two broken bridges and a very repetitive video that our van driver has selected featuring several different celebrity spoof versions of GangNam style.   Suddenly the van is being flagged down to stop and who is beside us but principal Bun with his wife Sowin and their two small children, all covered in dust on their motorcycle. The family travels this way all the time but clearly it is not comfortable, as the wife and children ask us for a ride.

As we travel down the road toward Charuk Tiek the houses get smaller and poorer.   We stopped at a little road side stand selling clothes and meet Theary, one of our first sewing program graduates to open her own tailoring business.   She has a big smile, proudly showing us her shop.   It cost her about $750 to buy all the necessary equipment to open the shop but it is now much easier to make a living. She averages $5 per day and on a good day can make $10 or $15.   She only has a 6th grade education and with no skill it was very difficult to make a living just buying and selling used clothes here and there.  Now she has a glass cabinet full of new mens shirts she has made, and a rack full of new fabrics to choose from.

Her family is so proud, they all gather round and her 51 year old father thanks me over and over, finally deciding to climb the coconut tree and chop down a bunch of coconuts to give to me.   My first food offering of the day,  there will be more.

I am not in Chrauk Tiek too long before people start showing up to greet me and offer me food.  Several of them are scholarship students parents, bringing me coconuts and ripe papaya. Three young students bring me Ansom, a sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaf.

I feel  like I am holding court or something with all of these parents sitting around me, stumbling though a conversation with my limited Khmer.   Mostly, they just like to stare at me. And I think after all these years, they still wonder what I am doing here.

We take our dinner at Bonteay Pranak, having been invited to a “parent honoring ceremony” at the home of one of the secondary school teachers.  It looks a lot like a wedding, only all the guests wear white shirts and black pants, as I recall that was the same uniform for the Kings funeral.   The party spot cannot be missed with a colorful tent and prayer flags adorning the muddy yard, the clergy-man greeter chanting a blessing over newly arrived guests into a loud but unclear microphone , his voice barely audible over the traditional music blaring from the bank of loudspeakers in the middle of the crowd.  Lots of people recognize me and amble over to greet me.   I am the honored guest, yet also a friendly face and member of the community now.   I sit with the other teachers around the table of fancy dressed up plastic chairs and enjoy the soup the family has prepared for the several hundred guests stopping by.   They sure do know how to feed an army.   The soup is steaming hot and a little salty, the best way to feed a lot of people when you are poor.

It is the ceremony season, for weddings and for parent honorings. They are all basically the same and the invitations are daily, the rituals serve as both entertainment and a social diversion from the daily grind for survival.

The Dream Team

February 06, 2013 By: karig2 Category: 2013 February Trip, General No Comments →

I am just stunned by the amazing progress of our scholarship students.   This is largely due to the efforts of one of SSI’s newest staff members, Phearth.  He has

Students in a sharing circle work on self development skills with Phearth

been working with them on self development as part of their leadership training, teaching them how to think and reflect on their behavior.  The result is a heartening spike in their confidence and ability to explore new ideas.   He has the students sit in a circle on the floor and passing a ball at random from one to another, each offers a recap of what they have learned so far:  how to be on-time,  how to be patient, how to think things through, how to communicate a problem and find a resolution.   They get it.  They like it.  The world is starting to make sense to them.  As a team, they believe they have the power to change it.

I shared the SSI vision of sustainability, how each one of them serves a role in the big picture, giving back and passing on the gift of opportunity to those who will come after them.  They are the pioneers, so of course the villagers are suspicious and have doubts, making them act like education has no value.  But when these students return, they will watch their village improve very quickly.

Development is a human resource game and SSI seems to be the only education organization working in Cambodia that understands the importance of requiring reciprocity.   But who better to find solutions to the problems than the people who lived them?   For the first time in their lives, these students believe change is possible, and they are excited to bring it on.   They work together as a team, understanding for the first time that if you are self-fish and greedy you will attract bad things to your life but if you are generous and give of yourself, the world will give back to you. While this idea has its root in Buddhism, no one here ever thought about it like that that before.  Strange.

We have teachers, nurses, accountants and business dreams on the team and every one of those skills can be put to good use making the SSI vision of sustainable

Introducing SSI's newest staff member - Phearth

education a reality.    For the first time in their education experience they are being asked to think critically and come up with new ideas.  Already, they have returned to the village and conducted a self development program for the 9th graders at Bonteay Pranak and the change is being felt from this exchange of new ideas.  The scholarship students are planning another program to teach the younger  students when they go home for Khmer New Year.    This effect proves what I have been saying for years, if you want to change poverty, it starts in your own head. When you change your mind, the world around you will also change, this is a law of the universe.  I have learned the lesson many times myself.

We have a problem though.   We have been successful at secondary school and now have doubled the number graduating 9th grade.  All 27 of them are hoping and dreaming and praying for a scholarship from SSI.   We want very badly to expand our Leadership Academy in Phnom Penh and start an English school to fund it so we can support more students to higher education but right now we are maxed out.

I told the students about our decision to focus on creating the Community Enterprise School, to offer vocational training and business skills,  to encourage more students to continue to complete secondary school.  Upon graduation they can apply for our limited number of scholarships or they can qualify for a micro-loan to start a new business form our Community Prosper Bank, where the interest payments help support teacher salaries.

I asked them to consider their parents – would they allow three more years of education if their children learn a skill they can count on to earn money.   They all agreed it could work.

To reward them, I took them out for a night on the town to visit a shopping mall, experience their first ride on an escalator, eat Pizza for the first time, and visit the Royal Palace to join the throngs of mourners celebrating the King’s funeral for four days.   It was a fun community building exercise.

First Pizza! Some loved it and some thought it was weird.

Srey Leo and Srey Pum mourn the King at the Royal Palace.

A Bucket of Crabs

February 01, 2013 By: karig2 Category: 2013 February Trip, General No Comments →

The night I arrived at the student house in Phnom Penh, all twenty of our scholarship kids came running out to greet me in a big group hug.  We stayed up talking until two in the morning, as I got to know the individual stories of our newest students. Three of the students now in high school were in first grade on my first trip in 2001, when they didn’t even have a school building and studied on a dirt floor under a tree. It’s amazing they have come this far. It is difficult when they are discouraged by their families and other poor villagers. It’s like living in a bucket of crabs, if one tries to climb out, the others will pull them back down.

Boeun Sokea is a 17 year old girl from a village called Prey P’dao near Bonteay Pranak school where she attended grades 1-9. She is the third child from a family

Kari and Buon Sokea

of five. She  likes to play basketball, volleyball, soccer and is captain of the team. She wants to be a policeman. Her father father died five years ago, falling from a damn he was crossing on foot while drunk.

Life at home was very difficult as it was her responsibility to care of her mom, with no money she couldn’t afford to go to school.  Her mom is an alcoholic and discouraged her from leaving home to study because she needs her help, she did not want her daughter go to school.
To bring home money, Sokea climbed palm trees, barefoot with no safety equipment, just a machete in her hand  to cut down all the palm leaves to sell. She earned  5,000 reils ($1.25) for cutting down one whole palm tree. Nobody taught her how to do this, she figured it out on her own and fell only once.
“If can’t go to school,” she thought, “I will have to do this work for rest of my life.” She loved school but almost quit at 7th grade for lack of money to fix her  bicycle. Somehow, she persevered and applied for a scholarship to high school. A teacher at Bonteay Pranak took her home to work on the rice field for five days and earn some money so she could have 15 dollars to start the scholarship program. When we didn’t pick her, she cried for 3 days and 3 nights. But another girl dropped and the open spot was hers if her mother would let her join the program. She gained the support of her older brother who lobbied with their mom. He only had a 4th grade education himself but he offered to help take care of their mother so his sister could study.
Still the neighbors discouraged her, saying, “Why do you want to go to school? You are so poor, your mom is getting old now, you need to get married and have a husband take care of you and do whatever you can to take care of your mom.”  They continually nagged her saying, “You go to school for what? There are many people financially better than you without education.” But Sokea was working in the Chinese cornfield weeding and planting corn for 10 hours a day for $3.  She thought, I can do hard labor work like everyone else now while I am young but what happens when I get older and can’t do it?
The mother kept insisting that she shouldn’t go because no one will take care of her.  Her daughter replied “Please let me go. If we continue to do what we normally do and just struggle to survive then nothing will change. If you let me go and if I make it, I can get a better job and things can change to make it better for all of us.”
Her mom said, “I’ll be dead by then.”
Sokea begged, “No one in the whole family ever pursue more education, please let me be the first one so maybe it can change and we can have a brighter future.”
She saw some people in town who had a good job because they have more education.  She wanted to try to be something different.

Scholarship students discuss their bucket of crabs

“Remember what I told you about the bucket of crabs when people discourage you,” I said. In a world where there is no equal access to education, opportunity, law and justice, people make rules of behavior to level the playing field. Like crabs in a bucket they will try to pull you down. All the students agreed. “You are the ones to change their mentality,” I said.  When you bring your education back to serve your community and they can see the benefit for everyone, they will not only respect you but they will stop acting like the crabs that need to pull everyone down because they too will have the opportunity to climb out. It’s a big mission for these young people but they want to make this change happen.

Originally, we hadn’t  picked Sokea because her mother was not supportive, but that would have been our mistake. She now wants to be policeman because she sees a lot of bad teenagers running around making her town unsafe. Every time they get drunk they disturb the neighborhood, make noise, steal chickens and fight. She wants to study the law.
When I asked how a scholarship change her, a big smile brightens her face. “I think differently now. Before I had no patience, I want something right away. Now I think it through.  This is the first time in my life I came to the city and see how people live with big houses and beautiful car. I want too have access to earn a good living.  I feel confident.  I’ve come this far, I am going all the way.”