Update from Dad in Cambodia

Posted on November 24, 2009


Here’s an update from my Dad (John Mann) on the work he’s doing for Beaudesert Rotary building schools in the village of Chuor Ph’av, Cambodia (and now, it seems, Koh te Cho).

This post is my editing together of five emails – so, sorry Dad if I’ve mixed it up (here’s an earlier update).

Dear friends and family,

Its several months since I gave a good update on life in Cambodia. A lot has been happening.  I’ll send you five emails and hopefully 23 photos. I’ll start with the personal stuff and then in email two I’ll tell you about an incredible discovery and what will become an equally incredible project.  In subsequent emails there will be photos and news of the two schools in our village and some magical photos of school equipment….mmm how, you may ask can school equipment be magical?

Do you remember an early photo of a little girl sitting on a cow. Chanthai has been attending our first school for the morning session – 7am to 12.30 six days a week and every afternoon till nightfall she looks after her cow. Chanthai has no immediate family and owns nothing except this cow. She survives by rearing the calves and selling them.. She is 10 years old now.

I’ve added a photo of foundation work to this email. You may recall that a teacher/volunteer house is going in to the right of the two schools.  It will have solar power.  Our very first volunteer teacher arrives in January.  A young Australian woman who will teach English.  We have money to finish the house but I am still looking for money to equip the house – bedding, furniture, pots pans plates cups etc etc.   If you can help with money please contact me (the house is for Cambodian teachers too if they need it).

We have almost completed the second of the two schools in our villages in Prey Veng province and the school house will be complete by early January.
The next five photos are about a project that I feel very excited about and I think you will be too in around about three minutes from now.

The mighty Mekong River starts in Tibet then journeys through China and Laos before heading due south right through the middle of Cambodia. At Phnom Penh the river bends to the south east and at the border with Vietnam it divides into the ‘Nine Dragon’ delta.

Half an hour south east of Phnom Penh the river is very wide and there’s an island – Koh te Cho – in the middle. Think about “the smell of napalm in the morning” in ‘Apocolypse Now’ and the bombing of Neuk Leung in ‘The killing fields’ … That’s our island… and I mean our island in the same way that our villages on Prey Veng have certainly become our villages. Koh te Cho has 1000 school age children. There’s an old tumble down school house trying to teach 400 children in two shifts but 600 children can’t go to school at all. 20 years ago the villagers tried to raise money for some classrooms by making and selling noodles but gave up. They got as far as the concrete pillars which are now sadly decayed.

We will build them a school on that precise site.  The site that they wanted. Same as our second school it will have books computers solar power and we’ll help pay for the teachers. The Cambodian government will pay each of three teachers $1 a day and we will match it.

One photo shows me and the village leaders in the ferry that goes to the island. We see tiny fishing houses as we approach the coast.

There’s a huge reception for us at the dock and then lots of children come with mums and dads to the village square to discuss and plan and prepare. The photo with the old concrete stumps is the exact site.

When this school is complete, hopefully in a year from now it will be a VERY SPECIAL PLACE. An island in the middle of one of the worlds most iconic and tragic rivers with our school children at long last getting a chance in life.

This is the magic that will be our third school – KOH TE CHO – the island. Building will commence early in the New Year.

Every year in early November it’s the national water festival and around 900 boats with up to 70 oarsmen in each boat compete in a three day race on the Mekong in Phnom Penh. Our island Koh te Cho entered a boat with 70 oarsmen. There’s a photo of me with the island chief in front of the boat and another photo of me presenting the local equivalent of Red Bull for the team.

The next set of five photos is surely a lesson on how the world should value education.  I think they are nothing short of amazing to a western eye.

Over the past two months we have been gradually buying all the equipment needed for the second school – our senior school. I stay in the house behind the truck in one of the photos. It’s the largest house for miles and it’s where I stored everything prior to taking them the one kilometre to the school. As you can see there’s books – over 1000 text books, teachers books, 1200 excercise books, four new computers, lots of sport equipment, art equipment and musical instruments. There’s 300 full uniforms including flip flops, (or thongs or jandals depending on where you come from). (solar installation will happen the day the building is completely finished.)

In the west we would simply expect that these things would somehow materialize and there would definitely be little or no fanfare. In these photos and in photos in next email you can see first the piling of everything in a truck and then the ceremonial  procession past everyones house, there’s me and Chanthou our translator who is dressed in all her finery and great clowns and figures of huge cultural significance accompanying with drums and a lot of noise.

This next set has 5 more photos following directly from the procession of equipment to the school.   You can see all the children lined up and clapping us into the grounds.   In the  last set email you’ll see all the elders and government dignitaries lined up on the school verandah.  Here you can see the villagers have displayed everything for all to see and celebrate.   The children are under cover of a marquee.

Here’s the 300 uniforms on the table.

Here’s a photo of Chanthou paying money to one of the teachers.  Every six months we pay each teacher the $180 supplement. I like to place the actual money in real dollars into their hands. There are many many cases of money ending up in wrong places in Cambodia. I am very very strict and photograph as many transactions and purchases as I can.

There’s  also a photo of the two schools side by side. Foudations for the school house are in to the right of the buildings. There will also be water tanks for rain collection as well as a second toilet block.

A photo of happy looking adults next to school equipment includes the state (provincial) Premier next to me and a whole array of leaders elders and teachers. Two of the most significant people for me are the older man leaning forward and the younger man behind the computers who is looking away – these are Warn and his father and they are our main builders. They are good men.

We gave out uniforms and there’s a beautiful photo of four children the next morning about to set off for school at 6.30am. Beautiful for several reasons – these are very same cildren you’ve been looking at for the past two years and look at them today. I didn’t comb their hair. Just look at the pride! One girl found a watch and a bangle. I cried when I saw these children. It was a good moment.

And a personal story:

I receive a great many enquiries about Nang.

There are 2 photos of Nang – one in a yellow dress and one in purple (I bought the dresses for her).  A quick recap is that 3 years ago I was told there’s a ‘crazy’ girl to avoid in the village who doesn’t wash or care for herself.  I saw it was epilepsy and I made an instant decision to take her to Phnom Penh for a CAT scan and work out a medicine regime.  She had no father.  I bought her clothes and taught her to care for herself.   I look after Nang’s epilepsy and on January 7 this year I gave her away at her wedding. Her husband is an almost subsistance rice farmer but he is kind to Nang.

She had one miscarriage in March and a very small baby is now due on December 2.  I am worried.  There is virtually no medical care and I control her medicine by phoning a doctor who has never seen her and I buy her tablets from a market stall.  The baby will need vitamin k as soon as she is born (I took her to phnom penh for an ultra sound and that’s where she will have the very underweight baby.) …I’ll tell you what happens.

PS. If you are a praying sort of person, please pray for Nang…otherwise…fingers crossed.