Thursday, 28 February 2013

Cambodia: after the floods, a brighter future

Leng Silong, 12, writes equations on the board at a flood affected school
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia but also has perhaps the richest culture and history. In ancient times it was the seat of the Khmer Empire that stretched across the region and influenced the culture and religion of present day Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. More recently, it suffered the massacres and misrule of the Khmer Rouge, from which it has yet to fully recover.

I visited Cambodia to work with the UNICEF country office on digital communications and train staff in local ‘zone offices’ to write stories about children. I had a punishing schedule, with three provinces to cover in four days and groups of up to 20 people to manage. However, it was a great chance to see the country and meet local communities.

Our first destination was Prey Veng Province, which in 2011 was engulfed in the worst floods to strike Cambodia in a decade. Three-quarters of the country and over 1.2 million people were affected, with children particularly vulnerable.

We had a 5am start followed by a long drive over roads of varying quality – some tarmac, some packed earth. At one point we came to a wide river with no bridge and had to take a ferry across. But we made good time and arrived at Preak Cham School mid-morning. The high water mark was still visible in some places, with paint missing from the concrete walls up to about six metres. Other ground floor buildings were repaired and freshly painted.

A teacher rang a metal bell to indicate the start of the morning break, and children in clean white and blue uniforms ran out of the buildings and into the school yard. Some played football or skipping, while others fetched water on long poles to water plants. A group of boys waved at me from the balcony of the flood-stained library.

Children outside the school library, with the high water mark still visible on the wall
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
At the school, we met representatives from the local community, including 84-year-old village elder Prak Phay. I asked him about the 2011 floods. “It was the worst flood in my lifetime,” he replied in Khmer in a shaky voice. “Many villagers fled to the pagoda, which was crowded with people and animals. It was the beginning of harvest season and most of our crops were destroyed.”

In some ways, the school fared better than others. Most of the classrooms were raised on stilts and teachers were able to save furniture and equipment by stacking desks on top of each other. The school was closed for a month until the water receded below the upper floor level. Older children returned first, coming in by boat, with younger children following two months later when the water had completely disappeared. UNICEF provided bookcases and textbooks to restock the library.

We met several children affected by the floods. I choose the most articulate, 13-year old Loinh Chantou, as the focus of my story. “My family are rice farmers,” she said. “When the water came we had to move all our rice and belongings upstairs to keep them safe. Our house is on stilts but it was flooded up to the top steps. It was very windy and stormy. I felt afraid, particularly for my younger sister. I had to watch her all the time to make sure she didn’t fall in the water.”

Chantou missed school for several months but was able to continue her studies. “I went to a learning club at a teacher’s house near our home,” she said. “She had a few textbooks and we studied Khmer language.”

Chantou at home with her mother, younger sister and baby brother
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
After speaking to Chantou at the school, I asked if she could take us to meet her family. Her home was nearby, down a dusty earth road and past a cattle stockade. It was a wooden stilt house painted green and decorated with pot plants. Her mother Chuon Sean, 33, sat on a wooden deck underneath the house, breastfeeding her youngest child, 18-month-old Sochea.

Sean was very friendly and happy to receive the unexpected visitors. She remembered the floods vividly, not least because she gave birth to Sochea during the disaster. “I couldn’t get to the health centre because of the flood waters so I gave birth at home with a traditional midwife,” she told me. “I was very scared. It took me around five hours to deliver.”

The family also struggled with food shortages. “People with boats were able to fish but it was very hard for us,” Sean continued. “The well was spoiled and the flood water was dirty, with dead animals in it. We drank river water but we had no wood to boil it. The children got ill with diarrhea, skin rashes and fever. We had to spend all our money on medicine.”

The family nearly lost Chantou’s younger sister Thoen, now a lively and happy seven-year-old. “Thoen fell off the steps and into the flood water,” Sean said, pointing up at the porch. “She nearly drowned. My husband jumped into the water and rescued her. She had swallowed a lot of water and we had to resuscitate her.”

Luckily, the family made it through the floods and their life began to improve, although they are still struggling financially. Sean is illiterate but her daughter is top of her class. “I’m very proud that Chantou is doing so well at school,” Sean said with a smile. “If she studies hard she can get a good job and earn money for her future. I would like her to go to university and become an accountant.”

Communes fight poverty

Brown fields and skinny cattle during dry season in Kampong Speu
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
Our next destination was a rural area of Kampong Speu Province. After another early start and long drive, we arrived at Tang Kroch Commune. Palm sugar trees lined the earth road. It was dry season and the bark and leaves had turned orange with dust from passing vehicles. A tuk-tuk drove by, loaded up with logs.

We passed men wading through a river catching fish in nets, while women worked in the paddy fields and children played in a muddy lake. A farmer led a skinny cow on foot by a rope leash. Most homes in the area were wooden stilt houses – the only substantial buildings were temples. Monks sat outside a particularly grand pagoda, broadcasting Buddhist messages to passers-by through a megaphone.

Our story was about communities that had been helped by UNICEF’s ‘social services envelope’ scheme. This enables commune councils to provide extra help for the poorest families with a budget for housing, school supplies or medicine, depending on the family’s needs.

Ly drives her five siblings and cousins home on an old motorbike
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
We visited several families who had been helped by the commune. At the first home, we met a grandmother, 55-year-old Chum Voeung, but the children weren’t there. Then I saw them coming down the road on a motorbike. It’s a running joke in Cambodia that you often see entire families on a single motorbike, but even by local standards this was remarkable. There were six children on the antique vehicle. It was being driven by the oldest, 14-year-old Yav Srey Ly. It’s one of my favourite photos from the entire trip, but we had to use it with a health warning.

After the children’s parents died, Chum Voeung was left to care for her five grandchildren alone. “I felt empty when my daughter died and I thought about putting the children into care,” she told me. “But I decided to keep the family together.”

The commune secured land for the family to live on free of charge until the girls have grown up. “Everything has changed for us now,” Voeung continued. “The children can go to school. They have better clothes and are healthy. I’m so happy that Ly is getting a good education. It will help her get a good job and provide for the little girls when I have passed away.”

Leak with his home-made toy car outside the new family home
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown
In a nearby village we met 12-year-old Kong Leak. He used to sleep with his mother and two brothers underneath other people’s houses. The family was homeless and didn’t have enough money for food and shelter. “It was a very difficult time for us,” his mother Soun Nai, 42, told me, with tears running down her face. “I couldn’t find enough food for the children and they got sick all the time. I couldn’t send them to school. It was a struggle just to survive.”

The commune built the family a house on a small plot of land, bought cheaply from a local landowner. They also provided food and clothes for the children, plus a bicycle and school materials so that the two youngest boys could go to school.

“I’m happy that I can go to school,” Leak said. “I enjoy reading, writing and maths, and I like to draw pictures. At home, I help my mother with washing clothes and cooking. I have many friends now. I like playing with them on swings and in the school playground. We make toy cars from sticks, rope and tin cans. When I grow up, I’d like to be a factory or construction worker so I can earn a living.”

The long march

School children take part in a ‘long march’ in Pouk district
© Pouk District DOE/2012/Chek Setha
Our final destination was Siem Reap province. We visited the UNICEF zone office so I could run a training workshop. It was just outside town in a small compound shared with other UN agencies. Next door was a warehouse belonging to the World Food Programme, stacked from floor to ceiling with large bags of rice.

The next day we left for Soksan Primary School, which had recently run a campaign to encourage parents of out-of-school children to enrol them for the new school year. It was dry season and the yellow fields merged with a line of green trees on the flat horizon. Villagers drove motorbikes loaded with crates and baskets, or sold chickens, fruit and bottles of petrol along the roadside.

It was early morning and the fields were full of florescent lamps on wires, set up with plastic sheets above trays of water. I asked a local colleague what they were for. “These are used to catch crickets at night,” he explained. “The crickets are attracted to the light but fall into the water and drown. In the morning, the villagers fry them and eat them for breakfast.”

But this wasn’t the worst food on offer. A journalist who was travelling with us remembered being offered a meal of poo soup. She was, naturally, horrified. “Don’t worry, it’s okay,” the villagers attempted to reassure her. “It’s not human poo, its cow poo.”

We soon arrived at the school. There were two long single-story buildings, clean and freshly painted. Outside were latrine blocks with colourful murals, a water pump and well-tended flowerbeds. In one classroom, young girls sang a hand washing song. “We will always be clean and wash our hands before eating,” they chanted in unison. “We do not play with dirt because it will make us ill.”

The school mobilised over 400 people to take part in a ‘long march’ through nearby villages to broadcast messages about free enrolment and the value of education. “It was the first time we had had such a big march,” School Director Noek Vuthay said. “In the past we put up posters but many parents are illiterate and couldn’t read them. We marched for four hours. The children really enjoyed it and wanted to keep on going.”

Pan In (centre) at home with her mother and siblings
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Andy Brown
At the school, we met 10-year-old Pan In, one of the children who joined school for the first time as a result of the march. She wore a clean white-and-blue uniform. “I walk to school every day with my brother,” she told me. “It’s a long way and we don’t always get there on time, but my teacher is nice and she doesn’t blame me. I like learning literacy but not maths. Between classes, I water the flowers in the school yard.”

Pan In was a shy girl and older than the other children in her class. Sometimes she found it difficult to fit in. “Once the children in Grade 2 stole my pencil and ruler,” she said. “I told my teacher and she made them give them back. They don’t steal from me anymore.”

Pan In’s mother, 36-year-old Saing Al, decided to send her children to school after the long march came to her village. “I’m illiterate but I want my children to be able to read and write,” she told me. “Before the march I didn’t even know when the school year started. Now I feel happy to see my children learning. We are a poor family and it is sometimes hard to find money for them to buy snacks at school, but I don’t want them to drop out.”

Saing Al had a difficult time bringing up four children on her own. She divorced her husband because of domestic violence and now lives with the children’s grandfather. “We produce around 300 kgs of rice per year,” she said. “It’s enough for the family to eat, but there’s none left over to sell. We also keep ducks and plant other vegetables to sell at the market. We earn around $25 a year.”

Pan In’s younger brother Pean, 7, on the family farm
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Andy Brown
After visiting the school, we went to Pan In’s home. It was down an earth track a few kilometres from the school. Their house was a thatched wooden building on stilts. It was shaded under tall trees, beside a duck pen and a few fields. There was a toilet but no electricity. At school, Pan In was shy and quiet, but at home she relaxed and became much more playful, laughing frequently. She skimmed stones across a pond in the field and played with her siblings.

“When I’m at home, I help my family in the fields and look after my younger siblings,” Pan In told me, balancing her baby sister on her hip as she spoke. “In the evenings I help my mum around the house and do my homework. I like playing hide and seek around the rice fields with my brothers and sisters.”

We said goodbye to Pan In and her family and returned to Siem Reap. Several of my colleagues had a bus to catch back to Phnom Penh, where their families lived. I stayed put and Joyce flew out from Bangkok to join me. We spent the weekend revisiting the ancient temples of Angkor.

You can’t visit Angkor without noticing the contrast between Cambodia’s ancient glories and its present poverty. The contrast was even more striking, coming on the back of a UNICEF field trip. But there’s always hope. I saw enough positive signs to feel that Cambodia has a chance to rise again, and that the lives of the children I met will be better than those of their parents and grandparents.

Two of the massive stone faces at Bayon temple, Angkor
© Andy Brown/Cambodia/2012

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