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aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for the ‘2013 February Trip’

Exciting news from Cambodia!

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

Grateful Scholarship Students

I have very exciting news to report.

The next school where we have expanded our model is called Bonteay Pranak.  It has both a primary and secondary school and is central to the Aural district. In two years we have turned it completely around to make it functional.   It is not yet human resource sustainable but within another two years it should be.  It is the only secondary school in the district, and all primary school graduates who want to continue to 7th grade must travel here.  There  is a lot of drop out between 6ht -7th grade even from Chrauk Tiek and Sre Charp.

Secondary School completion is needed to have an effect on conservation as the primary curriculum is only basic reading, writing and math.   The high number of drop outs after 6th grade tells me that the villagers do not value the secondary school curriculum because 1) it is not relevant 2) their child is old enough to work and needed to support parents.   3) they see no clear path to income generation unless they go beyond to high school and college, which takes too long, costs to much, and is impossible to envision when you need to eat now.

However… our goal of 9th grade completion is aligned with the Prime Minister’s goal,  yet within the current government system it is impossible to achieve in remote place like Aural.

I presented the idea of our Community Enterprise School to offer a life skills curriculum for 7th-9th grade including trade skills such as : sewing, beautician, power tiller repair and moto repair as well as business and financial management skills, and the villagers agree.   When I told them about our plan for an enhanced agriculture curriculum, offering instruction on aquaponics, organic fertilizer production and honey bees, that really got people’s attention.  This curriculum will end with a certificate that qualifies the graduate for a loan from the Community Prosper Bank to start their business.  The classes themselves will operate as a business to produce income for the school alongside the bank, in order to sustain it in the long term.

I held a meeting at Bonteay Pranak to discuss this with the community.  Hundreds of people showed up which means that we are really getting a lot of attention, as attendance is quite unusual.

More importantly,  a high ranking local government official came to the meeting, from the provincial ministry and not the education department (most of whom are corrupt).  She is a 50 year old WOMAN, and even more rare, she is UNMARRIED.   What that means is that she is unencumbered by the typical obligations and motivations to be corrupt,  she really cares, and takes a meaningful approach to her work.  This is very rare in the Cambodian government.  She is a KEY ALLY with the government. She has a strong belief in education, a common goal to reach 9th grade graduation rates, and a belief that education is the path to conservation.   She is committed to helping us have a good communication and cooperation from the government.   THIS IS THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY.

She is totally supportive of our vision and  the Community Enterprise School concept.   She was thrilled to hear of our expansion to a new primary school in a village called Sre Ken.

I was taken to the village of Sre Ken on my first day here by the Charuk Tiek principal because he really wants SSI to include them in our program.  This village is in our target zone as our goal is to be a model of education sustainability at the district level and Sre Ken is in the district.  We traveled 27 kilometers from Bonteay Pranak,  down an extremely bad road by moto to get there, and found another sad story.  A new school building plopped down with not even a fence to keep the cows out, not to mention a teacher.  The government teachers assigned here never show up, for good reason, they have no support to survive much less teach.

The significant thing about Sre Ken is that there IS A LARGE TRACT OF FOREST TO SAVE.  Sre means forest, just like Sre Chrap before, it is remote, deep in the forest and close to Aural Mountain.  If you read about FFI conservation efforts in the region, you will learn about the community of Phnom Aural – this is that community.   On the road to the village one side is completely cleared and a sugar cane field has been planted.  The opposite side of the road has big trees,  and forest covered mountains.  However, smoke and chainsaws buzz everywhere.   The community at Sre Ken really wants to conserve the forest but they are having trouble with the illegal loggers,  our new ally in the provincial ministry says she will help them.  Everyone agrees we need to turn around the Sre Ken primary school and get the Community Enterprise School going in Bontreay Pranak so that children and families here can learn an alternative way to make a living so they won’t be forced to destroy the forest.

I interviewed students in the Sre Ken primary school which had one new teacher who was living in a house with no roof.   There is no 5th or 6th grade at this school because there are no students who make it that far.  There were only 11 fourth graders.  I interviewed a group of girls in second grade who were aged 13 and 14 years old, it has taken that long to complete the second grade curriculum with the teacher absent often..  I know they will drop out.   I spoke with the Sre Ken village chief about this and he agrees that  the opportunity to complete primary school and go on to  learn life skills at Bonteay Pranak secondary is the best way to help empower the community to stop the forest destruction.   As we were talking his own son sat there staring at the ground.  This boy is the only person in the village to finish 9th grade, having traveled the bad road daily to get to Bonteay Pranak, which means he had a strong drive for education.  But between the teacher being absent often ( before SSI started there) and the irrelevancy of the secondary curriculum, what is he doing now?  Cutting down trees!

The Sre Ken village chief asked me to please not wait too long to help his school, as the newly assigned teacher does seem to care, but they need barb wire for a fence and a roof for his little house.  We are starting this project right away.  Additionally, he said the Community Enterprise School at Bonteay Pranak will help his villagers have a better skill to make a living.   His concern is that they cannot stop the outside people who come in to do the illegal logging with impunity, villagers are afraid to report them.  That’s were our lady friend in the government comes in, she says with more people in the village who can write, they can collect the evidence she needs to stop the illegal activities.  She said that the government really wants to stop it, but it is hard to root out the problem if the villagers are too illiterate and scared to gather the evidence.  Both the villagers at Sre Chrap and Sre Ken have told us they are willing to take the chance if she will help them.

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.