Very  few  places in this world have made as strong an impression on me as  Cambodia .  It was a friend who motivated me to visit the country.  And  in 2005, I took off, with a few assignments on hand, hoping to mix work with pleasure.   I was lucky to have someone who knew and loved the country. Through his eyes, I caught a glimpse of  Cambodia normally denied to visitors.

Call it  snobbery,  foolhardiness, or simply a case of  addiction to the unpredictable, I have always avoided tourist guides.  In my younger days, I  bought a  few, leafed through a page or two,  and then discarded  them. I  was  terrified  of   a guide   unless I  trusted the writer’s  sensibility.  It was the same fear which kept me away from package tours.   A tourist guide, I felt,  would  ‘prepare’ me for a country,  point me to specific places, programme me to look at a place, its people through the lens of the tourist guide writer, tell me what is important, what is not.

I didnot want to be prepared. I wanted to be taken by surprise, by shock, even if they were rude ones. For me, that was the charm  of  travelling. But when you are going to exotic lands on a work-cum-leisure trip, you do need a strategy. Mine was simple. I read  history books,  scanned newspapers, browsed the net,  and then arrived.  Ready for anything and yearning to encounter a place,  a person, a situation which had the ‘surprise’ element. Once I reached, I roamed the streets for a day or two, with no specific plan,   except to follow my instincts.  Inevitably, I  found my ‘own’ guide, usually someone who had nothing to do with the tourism industry. In Zagreb, Croatia, I found my “guide” while sipping a cup of coffee. He was a teenager who was trying to earn some money walking around the town square carrying a placard  on his back. It was an advertisement for a new pizzeria. He spoke better English than any Croatian I had met. He told me he earnt a dollar for every hour ( that was way back in the mid-nineties) for the work he did. I offered to double that rate. But there was one condition: he had to take me to all his hangouts. We spent eight wonderful hours together. It was fun. We ate at student joints, made fun of the beau monde who had acquired their elevated status through war-time profiteering. We met his friends. We browsed through local magazines, while sipping coffee. He was keen to practic English. I obliged.  At the end, I was brimming with ideas which were eventually translated into features for the international press.   Just after the Berlin Wall came down, I travelled through East Germany. I had little cash and could not afford  translators. My guide was a theology student  who spoke fluent English ( with an American accent). On prodding further, I discovered he was a ‘gay’ and had contacts with American gays — that’s what explained the language skills. Each time, these ‘guides’ showed me a slice of their country which I would have not seen had I stuck to the regular trail.  But it was important to find a guide whose sensibility, reflexes matched yours. Otherwise, it would be wasted hours, days.

My friend was a little amused at my request, called me a frightful snob, but being a friend, figured out soon enough what I wanted.  One morning,  he introduced me to a motor cycle driver who lived in a shanty in the outskirts of Pnom Penh. The young man who became my ‘guide’  was trying to learn English and we made a deal. Take me to the people tourists donot get to meet and I promise you English lessons as we go, and so we went, every morning in his ‘moto’. One morning, after my official interviews my motor cycle driver and I went to the  Choeung Ek  Killing Fields ,  now a memorial to the terror unleashed by the Khmer Rouge.  Gangs of urchins milled around. It was a ritual, my guide explained. The tourists come, take photos, shell out a few dollars and leave.  I  wanted to know a little more .  My guide introduced me to a little girl who told  me her story — she wanted to go to school but her  family depended on her daily earnings. We went to a school in the outskirts of Pnom Penh and many lanes and by-lanes tourist guides do not speak of.   Through my motor cycle driver’s eyes, I saw and experienced  a Cambodia off the beaten track.  I am glad, I didnot buy that tourist guide.   One of the stories that came out of that trip  is  copied below.


Five days a week, between four and six in the afternoon, teenage boys and girls troop into a makeshift classroom beneath a traditional wooden house on stilts in Mittapheap village, Russey Keo district, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.

There are chairs and tables, but not enough for the 21 pupils (between 11-15 years of age). Latecomers have to share seats. Those who have nowhere else to park their younger siblings bring them to class. When it rains, street dogs stray in, triggering shrieks from the smaller children perched atop tables or squeezed into chairs.

Not quite the ideal setting for learning. But for youngsters like Srey On, 15, the informal literacy class, run by Khemara, Cambodia’s first indigenous NGO, offers the chance of a future denied to their parents. Khemara was started by Cambodian women in 1991.

Srey’s father drives a motorcycle taxi. Her mother sells vegetables on the street. Three years ago, she was studying in a government school. But her family could not afford to pay the unofficial fee (bribe) of Riel 300 (1 US$ = 4000 Riel) each day. So she dropped out. But the literacy class has given her another chance. (In Cambodia, government teachers are paid very badly (less than US$ 30 a month) and most try to earn extra money by charging an unofficial fee.)

“Now, I do housework in the morning and come to class in the afternoon. I love it here, especially the hygiene classes. One day, I hope to get a job in a garment factory or an NGO,” says the teenager, the oldest among seven children. Like many others, Srey comes to class carrying a small child, her two-year-old sister.

Cambodia’s educational system was devastated in the late 1970s when the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) closed schools, damaged books and executed thousands of teachers. The regime viewed teachers and other intellectuals as potential sources of opposition to its attempt to create an ideal socialist, agrarian society where “rice fields were books, and hoes were pencils”.

Thousands of professionals, including teachers, also fled the country. Ever since then, efforts to revive the education system have been severely hamstrung by shortage of funds and trained personnel.

Today, as this conflict-scarred, largely agricultural country in Southeast Asia tries to rebuild itself, poor education remains a critical stumbling block, slowing down labour productivity and weakening Cambodia’s ability to create a sound economic base.

The gravity of the situation is heightened by demographics – almost half the country’s 13 million-plus population is under 20 – and aggravated by widespread corruption.

Even conservative socio-economic surveys report that on an average, unofficial monthly school fees at primary levels is Riels 500 per pupil. That goes up to Riels 8000 at lower secondary and Riels 10, 200 at upper secondary level, acknowledges Cambodia’s ‘Education for All National Plan (2003-2015)’, an official report.

Such informal levies have added to the complex dynamics of poverty, culture and geography barring Cambodian girls from equal access to education.

Despite the Education Reform in Cambodia in 2001, and encouraging trends in girls’ enrolment in recent years, adult literacy rates are significantly higher for men (82.9 per cent) than for women (61.1 per cent). More than one in three persons over 25 years of age has not attended school and, of these, 73 per cent are women, according to official statistics.

“Very few girls complete secondary schooling at all. This limits the pool of women candidates eligible for higher education, professional and administrative careers, and impedes efforts to encourage women to become teachers whose support encourages girls’ enrolment and completion of primary and secondary schooling,” notes the report.

So what is the way out of this vicious cycle?

There isn’t a quick-fix solution, stresses Koy Phallany, the current Khemara Representative, while pointing to her organisation’s catalytic role in advancing women and girls in Cambodian society through community mobilisation and informal education with flexible timings.

The initiative was launched way back in the early ’90s with international donor support. In the beginning, there were four literacy classes with 100 children between the ages of 10 and 18. Gradually, the number of classes went up to 14.

It was not easy to convince illiterate parents – mostly migrants from the countryside eking out a living as loaders, vendors or motorcycle taxi drivers – to send their children to literacy classes, but Khemara’s activist-teachers doggedly went house to house, hardselling the idea of education, especially for girls.

“We would begin by asking them to list the benefits of education. Gradually, many of them started saying that education enabled people to read road signs and books in the village library,” recalled Sam Rany, a teacher associated with the literacy project.

Flexible timings were instituted at the request of parents. Another challenge was figuring out how to teach children who were in the same age-group but had different levels of learning.

“We ignored the age factor, and divided them, instead, into groups – level one, level two and so on. Level one consisted of those who could not read or write, level two had children who could read a little but not write and level three had those who could read and write a little,” says Rany.

Right from the beginning, the emphasis was on group discussions and not lectures. For those at ground zero, educationally, television and audiotapes were used to make learning more of an exciting experience. Other incentives included books, pens, nutritional supplements and a transport allowance.

Over the years, hundreds of children have become literate and numerate through Khemara’s efforts. Out of these, over 100 have rejoined the formal stream.

The take-away lessons from Khemera’s literacy classes go beyond the three Rs: students have internalised key concepts in diverse areas such as the culture of peace and personal hygiene. Given Cambodia’s blood-spattered history, lessons on peace are meant to equip youngsters with values that shrink from conflict and knowledge of personal hygiene translates into drinking boiled water, keeping one’s home and surroundings clean etc.

The literacy project in poor neighbourhoods has also served as an entry point to a dialogue between local authorities, communities, students and parents, and generated an atmosphere that encourages children from poor communities to go to class.

But ironically, just as the idea of learning has begun to win more converts, donor support is drying up. And there is a real danger that Khemara’s literacy initiative will go the way of so many other pilot projects in this aid-dependent country.

“The number of literacy classes has come down from 14 to one. Donors have other thematic priorities,” says Phallany.

The future looks uncertain. The only silver lining is that the pioneering work done by Khemara in Russey Keo and neighbouring villages has whetted the appetite for education in poor communities and kindled the ambitions of girls like Srey.

Patralekha Chatterjee
July 17, 2005

By arrangement with Womens Feature Service


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