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Archive for the ‘2008 October Trip’

The Final Analysis

October 11, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 October Trip, General No Comments →

Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The morning I am to depart for the United States I receive a phone call, three more kids from the village want to go to high school. Unfortunately the boarding house run by Sam Sundoeun near Phnom Penh is full. Sovann tries to convince me that giving one student a scholarship will make everyone else jealous. So what am I supposed to do, let the Cambodian penchant for jealousy stop a bright kid from graduating high school?

I try another approach, giving the task of scholarship selection to the school supporting committee. We have scholarships for 2 girls to go to secondary school and 2 scholarships available for high school, for either gender. We establish a set of criteria based on financial need and academic achievement, an application process and a mechanism from securing the students commitment to come back and work in the village for 5 years once educated.

The school supporting committee must decide priority needs for the village and then select the best student to be educated to meet that need. This is a grand experiment to see if scholarship recipients will honor their commitment to help develop the village infrastructure. I will consider the program a success if the selected scholars are actually deserving students and not just someone’s relative. Trust, respect, honesty, solidarity, open communication—are they capable of building that foundation? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, one is going to high school and a 5th grade drop-out girl will complete primary and perhaps find the power to chose secondary school. The first, second and third grades are teaming to capacity with over 100 in each class. We need another building but that will require another 5 teachers plus we are trying to build a sustainable mechanism for the village to support those teachers. Once they do, we can build a new building.

On the sustainability front, there is good and bad progress. Market research indicates both positive and negative reactions by consumers. Briquette embers don’t last as long as charcoal, that’s a negative; however, they also don’t stain your hands black and that is a positive. We hear a consistent complaint of too much smoke, but our own tests reveal this is user error. Briquettes must be lit with a big flame; too small a flame and it will smoke. Lighting it correctly requires a change in behavior, no matter how many times we tell them people try to start it will a small flame like charcoal. Education is needed to inform both how to use it and why you should. We have some ideas to use radio advertisements and make a traveling road show with our truck to perform in front of the vendors shops, showing photos of the forest destruction and using theatrical storytelling to explain how to use the briquettes properly. However, the greatest force for change is price.

Dig this. The opposition Sam Rainsy Party is on Radio Free Asia everyday talking about corruption and the destruction of the forest. People are listening and starting to respond, I see a lot more Sam Rainsy Party signs throughout my travels. So during the recent election cycle the police cracked down on the illegal transport of wood, resulting in higher bribes paid by charcoal transporters to enter the city. Thus the price of charcoal tripled which made our briquettes easier to sell. Now that the election is over with the ruling Cambodia Peoples Party, run by ex-Khmer Rouge Hun Sen, securely in power for another 5 years, the “crack down” is over. Charcoal and wood vendors enter the city daily paying lower bribes and selling charcoal at the same price as briquettes. How would you like to do business in that kind of a political mess?

The reality for our villagers working hard to introduce an alternative is that it is impossible to progress under a government that won’t enforce it’s own laws. The incredibly dense, hardwood trees of Cambodia are some of the most important carbon fixing species on the planet. Using them for firewood is as wasteful a use of a natural resource I have ever seen. It is something everyone on the planet should be concerned about—if they only knew.

In the meantime, our briquette production manager, Bun Vanna, soldiers forth attempting to take over full management of the briquette business with oversight by the school supporting committee. Our job is to help them succeed in finding customers and a full marketing plan is in the works. However environmental sustainability in this political climate may prove impossible. One option is to move the briquette program to a school in a treeless Takeo and Svay Rieng Provinces, where the forest destruction is already complete and people cook with cow dung. Accessing these local markets would reduce the transportation costs enough to make a profit to support their local school.

For the village of Chrauk Tiek, we are working on a partnership with Heifer International to develop the land behind the school into a sustainable agriculture demonstration site, integrated with chicken production with hopes of making a school lunch available to our malnourished students.

The King Pin in our program moving forward is developing Sovann’s capability as a community organizer. The situation is precarious and I am not sure of our ability to fundraise now that the US economy has tanked. It’s good to know that greed doesn’t pay…but I can tell you from experience that doing good doesn’t either.

Now that Sovann’s dream of going to America is about to come true, he’s seems scared. “I never been abroad” he keeps saying after repeatedly asking if he can come with me now. He’s nervous about flying, 45-years-old and he’s never been on an airplane. Can you buy food on the plane? Where do you sit, in the front, the middle, or back? He doesn’t want to bring any checked luggage, won’t bring back a big Buddha for me, and won’t carry a letter for someone else because he’s afraid he can’t find the post office. It seems he wants to focus on only one thing, getting himself on and off the three planes through 10 time zones. I’ve detailed every transfer procedure for him, and he’s asked me 10 times if I will be there to pick him up in Denver.

I’ll be there with bells on my friend…

Stay tuned…we’ll be blogging Sovann’s Adventure in America!

To our donors and supporters thank you for taking this journey with us.
I am grateful for your support, your emails and love.

Kari, from the Seoul Airport, out.

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Sovann Granted U.S. Visa

October 08, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 October Trip, General No Comments →

Chrauk Tiek, Cambodia

Rattana, the English teacher, walked around the village with me to get acquainted with her new home. Our happy little reality can be a little skewed at school and I want to see how the people in the 5 villages are living. Over a metal bridge from Chrauk Tiek, the place is called Spean Daik, the market town. People here have money, mostly from the illegal timber trade, to set up little shops and restaurants. Many of them are newcomers, a kind of logging boomtown mentality reigns. The snooker shop is the most popular place in town. We turn down the lane and walk through the loggers camp at the end of town. The forest destruction is incredible. In 2001, when I first came here, the lane twisted under a pristine jungle canopy. Now not one tree is left standing and the people live under miserable conditions, chopping logs and hauling water from the river, seven days a week under hot son. There are no more trees for shade.

On the other side of the logging camp is the old village of Ca Peou, and the people we originally came here to help. Souy mothers and grandmothers watch many dirty children running about, while the men are off in the fields or forests from dawn until dusk. The Human Rights Party sign draws me toward one home, and the family invites me in, anxious to discuss a problem that has them quite distressed.

Their 17-year-old son Sothea wants to go to high school very badly to continue to study. But there is no high school nearby. He is the first student from our school to complete and pass the grade 9 test. His mother asks me to help, she is illiterate but she tells me how he always works very hard reading books at home. The boys downcast eyes shoot up and smile when I ask him if he’d like to go study in Phnom Penh. Our friend Sam Sundoeun runs a boarding house on the outskirts of Phnom Penh specifically for the poor and gifted kids from the countryside. He accepts Sothea to come live at his place, where he will provide accommodations, food and use of the communal facility with the 35 other students he supports. I agree to a scholarship, paying an $80 bribery fee to the Phnom Penh school to allow him to register and $20 for a bicycle. His mother bows to me and calls me sister. Her son will be the first student from this village to go to high school.

I’ve given the school supporting committee their first challenge, in addition to setting a monthly meeting and administering the teacher attendance policy, I also want them to take care of Rattana. We pay her a salary of $120 per month, but the price of food in Chrauk Tiek is very high. The school committee needs to arrange community contributions, particularly from her English students families, of a can of rice, or fruit or vegetables per month. She is bringing a very important skill to this village and they need to treat her like a daughter.

In addition to teaching English she plans to teach them how to make bracelets wrapped with string that say SSI Ambassador for our contributors and supporters. Everyone is excited that they can make them and sell them for 2,000 riel (50 cents). I tell them no, we want to give them as a gift to anyone who contributes $100 for our school or for a scholarship.

Bun Vanna, our briquette production manager, asks me why I gave a scholarship to a boy whose parents are woodcutters. I tell him, “if we don’t want him to follow in his father’s footsteps, we have to give him an education to do something else”. This forest is being felled by ignorance.

On the way back to Phnom Penh, we stopped at a few more schools to discuss their interest in our briquette project, or other income generating ideas to help support their school.

At the Lia Lotus School, in the southern region of Kampong Speu Province, we made a demonstration to the teachers who were interested to find out more. They have coconut peel and rice husk aplenty to make them. They decided to keep a sample to show the commune chief and they will invite us back for a meeting to discuss forming a school supporting committee.

At Pum Cham Bey School, the school director shows me a broken roof, a flooded school yard, and a decapitated kindergarten room. He has a strong school committee and they have actually built and maintained their 3 buildings and 10 teachers on their own. They would like to start a micro-loan program in this village and use the profits from interest collected to start a community fund for school repairs and for medical emergencies for the poor villagers who cannot pay transport to the doctor.

It is amazing to see the difference in capacity in a village like this, surrounded by huge rice fields, that has a little higher economic standing and a higher standard of living. I am interested to hear more about their micro-loan scheme and other income-generation ideas. If they can increase their 5-member school support committee to 12 and include 5 women, they can make a proposal to us after Sovann has had his community mobilization training in the U.S.

Back in Phnom Penh, we visit the American Embassy and guess what – SOVANN GOT HIS VISA!!

One small problem is price of the flight has increased to $1,677. We had only budgeted $1,200, so if anyone would like to contribute, we are $477 shy.

The Need for Local Control

October 07, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 October Trip, General No Comments →

Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia.

Getting to the bottom of the matter with the teacher attendance issue proved my point of the need for local control. It seems that our old English Teacher, who was provided by American Assistance for Cambodia and paid by them through donation from us, became increasingly hostile to following the school director’s rule. Two other Khmer teachers followed his bad behavior. They became more interested in partying than teaching, drinking palm wine and inviting friends to stay in the teacher residence. The school director was powerless to stop them without a mechanism to engage community support. Oversight by higher educational and government officials is non-existent. The last straw came when school director, Nhim Sobun, caught the English teacher showing pornography to the two Khmer teachers on the school computer. Sobun went to AAfC and fired him by himself. The entire episode enforces my belief in the need for a local community-based school supporting committee that is empowered with the authority to oversee the school and the money to enforce that oversight.

The issue resolved, however, because we have 2 new Khmer teachers and a new English teacher. We held a group meeting and hashed out a Teacher Attendance policy. A $30 attendance bonus, to supplement the $30 government salary, is paid only if the teacher attends to the class everyday, on time. For every day they are late $1 is deducted, if more than five deductions, they loose the whole month bonus and if they loose the whole month bonus more than one time, they will loose it for the rest of the year. The attendance record will be kept by the School Director and filed in writing to the school supporting committee every month. A majority vote must approve the record and three committee members sign for release of funds. Each teacher must sign a receipt of funds and both the signed attendance record and the receipts must be submitted to us within 30 days. Ridiculous, I know, but this is exactly the kind of infrastructure and community control mechanisms (dare I say, bureaucracy) that Cambodia doesn’t have.

Between the low pay and the lack of a school board, it’s no wonder there are so many new school buildings in this country with no teachers in them! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, to everyone who wants to donate a school to Cambodia – “a building does not make a school, people do”. Raising money for bricks and mortar is easy, raising money to build the human capacity to sustain the school is harder for donors to understand. People are messy, people make mistakes, people have relationship dynamics to deal with, and in Cambodia people have a culture of corruption to overcome. Making them accountable to each other is the first step. This is a perfect example of a keynote speech I give in the US, “The Relationship Matters as Much as the Money.” The work of Sustainable Schools International starts with the formation of a school supporting committee.

We go have a meeting with the School Committee chairman, Vong Sovong, the truck driver we have been trying to get involved with helping the briquette project for almost a year.

Sitting on the floor mat with he and is wife, under the light of multi-colored Christmas lights blinking above the spirit house, we find a solution. Turns out that Vong Sovong’s wife won’t let him help with the school because she is mad that the school director does not tell him when he receives some funds from us or some donation from someone else. I am floored. These two men live less than a kilometer apart and I have to come from the United States, take one by the hand and walk him down the road to talk with each other and resolve the problem. They have a serious communication problem, a legacy of the Khmer Rouge era that destroyed any semblance of community solidarity in Cambodia.

I share my opinion to form a school supporting committee with 12 members and set up a system of checks and balances. Everyone agrees and we discuss criteria for the committee: one representative from parents in each village, one teacher, one briquette worker, the school director, a treasurer, secretary, the chairman and a requirement that at least 5 members must be women.

Then suddenly, the briquette production manager doesn’t want everyone else to know that he is paid, afraid that they will be jealous. I ask him why not, he works full time and if he volunteers to come to the committee meeting for 2 hours a month it is the same as everyone else.

I give them my opinion about the importance of open and honest communication. This discussion leads to the establishment of a list of core values for the committee to commit to, they are: Communicate Openly and Honestly, Trust Each Other, Respect Each Other, everyone must Participate, and Solidarity. I ask them to add 5 more to the list at their first meeting where they will also need to approve the teacher attendance policy. We worked on how to establish a monthly meeting time and a quorum, how to hold an open discussion and take a fair vote. If they can establish an effective committee, they can establish a bank account and manage donated funds all together, whether they come from the social fund, local community donations, economic development projects or me. They will need to have this mechanism in place for any economic development project in the future that will support the school.

As a result Vong Sovong agreed to work for the production team 8 days per month, two days collecting raw material and two days transporting briquettes, every other week. This program is desperately in need of a truck to transport the goods to market. We need to raise $10,000. This truck will be used to help market the Smart Choice Fuel briquettes and take the program to other schools in provinces where there are no trees and people must cook with cow dung. If anyone would like to contribute click here.

This experience helps us shape our understanding of how to work effectively with another school community. I have several other schools to visit that have expressed interest in our project. The mission of Sustainable Schools International must begin with the establishment of an effective and functional school supporting committee based on the core values above. It may prove to be a tall order.

Today’s blog is a perfect example of a keynote speech Kari Grady Grossman gives in the US, “The Relationship Matters as Much as the Money.” Are you or your group is interested in social justice, history, education, global awareness or activism? To learn how to book Kari for your next event click here.

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Literacy Lost and Found

October 06, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 October Trip, General No Comments →

Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia.

The students lined up to form a corridor to the library and started clapping, while the village dignitaries and I made our way down the path to the red ribbon. Each one of us cut a little, first me, then Sovann, then the village chief, then the commune chief, our honored guest Sam Sundoeun, and finally the school director. With an uproar cheer, the Peter Pisey Library was officially opened and the students pile in to see the new books.

One of our economic development goals for the future is for the school to generate enough income to pay for the librarian, but for now we pay her $45 per month to take care of the books and school supplies and to attend to the weekly library hour for each class. We need a monthly sponsor for the librarian if anyone would like to contribute click here.

The upgraded and expanded Smart Choice Fuel production facility is complete, providing a more efficient processing center and shelter for drying and storing the briquettes. After the library opening, I met with the briquette production team. All but one of the 19 workers are women and girls, some are widows, some are orphans, all are desperate for the job. I asked who could read and two raised their hands. More than half had not finished primary school but there was still a chance for three girls, age 15, who had recently stopped their studies in 5th grade. I offered each of them a scholarship. I asked them to choose school or work, the money would be the same. Only one chose school, Socheata, age 15, 5th grade. I asked the school director’s wife to make her a uniform and then turned to the others and gave them a second chance. A young girl in the red shirt sitting in the back row looked like she was going to cry. Then I learned her story.

Her father is dead and her mother is mentally ill, leaving her, the oldest daughter, responsible for three younger siblings. Her salary of $33 per month is their only income. She is really 13, having lied about her age to get the job, and she only completed 2nd grade. I put my hand on her shoulder and told her again, I will pay her the same to go to school. She chose work. She does not want to sit in the 2nd grade at age 13.

Rattana chimed in, telling the girls that she used to scavenge the dumpsite and she did not start to study until she was 13. An NGO gave her the opportunity to go to school and she studied very hard, sometimes skipping the school grades. Now she is the English teacher, she can have a good job and a good future. She offered to help them, but her plea fell on deaf ears.

If we can find a sponsor for an adult literacy class we could make adult literacy an integral part of any economic development project at the school, perhaps half-day work and half-day literacy. This is where the poverty cycle begins, girls and women lost to illiteracy. Any income opportunity at the school attracts this most vulnerable population, so this is where the cycle of poverty must end, with both income generation and education of girls and women. Please help us help them. To contribute click here.

The only thing the girls really cared about was having a party. They begged me to rent the karaoke machine so they could dance. I was happy to oblige, except unfortunately, an extension cord from the neighbors generator could not be found. I promised them on my next visit, we would have a dance party.

After the meeting, a shy boy in an orange shirt was waiting quietly behind me. His name is Nuon Sokan, he is 13-years-old and in the 8th grade, the son of Nou Nuon my old friend the commune chief. Sokan wants to be a doctor. I discussed with him a scholarship that would require a commitment from him to work in this village for at least 5 years. He comes from a Souy family, their ancestors have been here forever. He says he will be happy to return here. He has one more year of secondary school to complete, and then our scholarship will help him to go high school in Phnom Penh and then on to University for medical studies. The goal seems a long way off, but I am certain that the investment will yield long-term results. The only way to build a medical system in the countryside will be to educate the people who live there.

In the next post, The Teacher Meeting, and the establishment of a strict, community enforced, teacher attendance policy.

First Day Of School

October 05, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 October Trip, General No Comments →

Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

So much has transpired over the past 3 days, it’s hard to know where to begin. I want to introduce you to the families of Chrauk Tiek village so I’ll keep the words to a minimum and let the images do the talking.

The first day of school A LOT of kids show up. Proud parents arrive to register their kids and to meet me. It’s a bit chaotic, as no one has yet divided the kids by grade and skill level, a task, which is anything but straightforward. The age range per class can be 3-5 years, depending on how old the child was when they started and how often they miss class and thus do not pass. As usual we have nearly one hundred register for grades 1, 2 and 3, and each year thereafter decreases by 25%. There are 24 registered for 6th grade, 18 attending secondary school and none attending high school. The drop out rate has decreased by only a handful.

I asked the school director, Nhim So Bun to arrange a meeting with the parents. I want to get their feedback about what they want the school to provide for their community. It is the first step toward engaging the community, but this will prove to be a tedious process. I have a list of 4 questions for each family. What is your opinion of the quality of the school? What is your opinion of the quality of the teachers? What would you like your children to be learning at school? What is the biggest reason children do not attend school.

I ask who can read and write. Two people raise their hands—a mental note, adult literacy class needed. I have 8 literate people with me from the city that have come to observe the briquette project, including Sovann, Sam Sundoeun and our driver Bun Thon, all of whom are engaged to help the parents of Chrauk Tiek write down their answers. It is difficult to enlist the help of literate students who are too shy to display their knowledge. Thus this exercise takes more than two hours.

But you find out amazing things this way. From the 38 surveys I collected, it is clear that no one has ever asked their opinion before. If empowerment begins with participation, we have only just begun to take our first baby steps. Here is a sampling.

From Kim Vorn, age 21, mother of 1 and 3 orphan siblings. Both parents died when she was 13 years old, she has taken care of her 3 younger siblings ever since. She has never been to school.

“We very happy that we got the closer school to my house and my sibling can attend school without payment money. We hope new teachers pay attention to teach all their best. We want to follow up all students and find out why some students always make up and complain if teacher absent without asking for days off first. Sometimes they came school but teacher always absent, sometimes they absent to much and afraid to come to school. Low income families has not enough money to buy school supply. But we will try to tell and explain from our best about important to do a lot in school. We want our children to be English Teachers.”

From Tau Soka, age 25, mother of 4.

“Teacher does not pay attention on his teaching. The children doesn’t understand the lesson well because the teachers doesn’t explain enough, it waste time for their study. Sometimes the children have fever and cannot go to school. Sometimes live far away cannot get to school. If they have the way and enough money or medicine when they are sick I think that the children can study all together. I request you encourage the teacher to explain to them and to teach them some morality.”

From Khim Savon, farmer, father of 5, the oldest has finished secondary school grade 9.

“He very happy and want his children to continue their study and want to have a higher class. When my children finish their secondary school. How can they continue to high school?”

From Kong Savin, age 31, father of 1 and 1 orphaned niece.

“I want all the teachers to teach from their heart and to strengthen the discipline. Request you support the study materials, student uniform to the poor student to make a beauty for their school. Very happy that we support the Chrauk Tiek school in development in the field of education and general knowledge. I am a father and try to take the children to school on time in order to respect the school rule.”

The theme of the poor showing by teachers is consistent. Sam Sundoeun spoke to the families as well, telling them that there are many schools near Phnom Penh that do not have what this school has, makes me wonder what happens at those schools.

Local control is important and I am a little miffed that our teacher attendance bonus was not administered properly to avoid this kind of problem. Apparently, the school director had no support from his community to deal with the teacher problems, he has now fired the 3 teachers causing the problem and we have 3 new Khmer teachers and a new English teacher. We developed a system of checks and balances for the local community to assure that the teacher attendance policy is enforced by THEM.

Tune in next time to hear about the teacher meeting and my admonishment to the new recruits.

We traveled past many schools on the way out here, none with the support that this school has, which strengthens my belief in the mission of Sustainable Schools International: to empower Cambodian communities to sustain schools through economic development.