So it turns out I’m pretty unreliable at blog posts – it’s hard to make myself write when there’s a million other things going on. I’ve been in the remote area of Siem Bouk for two weeks now, living a celebrity lifestyle in which everyone wants to say hello and laugh at me wherever I go. We’re the only white people in the area, and it turns out our muddled attempts at Khmer, mime (when Khmer is not enough) and hand washing our absolutely hilarious.
We spent the night in Stung Treng town, a place with a fantastic bustling market where they sell a million types of fish, so fresh it’s killed in front of you. The old market burnt down in April, destroying livelihoods and resulting in a confusing disarray of vendors as replacement.
We then drove down to Siem Bouk, about 40 minutes from StungTreng. This place is rural. If you search for it on the lonely planet guide, you are apologetically redirected to advice for the rest of the province, and the wikipedia page only contains the population according to the census in 1998. I’m living in a house right next to the office, in a small room under the stairs. My host mother seems fairly wealthy relative to the rest of the host homes, with a well furnished house, a working sink and an indoor, private shower. Its not exactly a Western-style shower, but a reservoir built in to the wall from which you can take a bucket shower. I have a lot of hair to be taking bucket showers and it can be quite a strenuous task, but dousing yourself in cold water each morning is sure to wake you up, and quite exhilarating.
Over the past two weeks we have been completing our action plans and beginning to implement them. I am in the Community Networks team, in which I set up student councils (that are far more complex than those in England), support the School Support Committee (sort of like a parent teacher association) and establish youth clubs. I’m hoping to do a post on education in Cambodia, which will explain the importance of those particular activities. I am also in the Community Action Day committee. A community action day is a Saturday when the team supports the local community involved in fixing problems that local people have identified. This can involve fixing infrastructure, or raising awareness on a topic, or any other way in which you can help the community to help themselves. I’m very excited about the work, particularly since Beata, a long term volunteer in Cambodia, came to talk to us about our work. When she spoke it felt like she handed over the responsibility of Siem Bouk’s development to us: this is the problem, how are you going to solve it? She is also massively inspiring, and her experience in development has been a massive help in preparing our plans.
Last weekend we spent Sunday in the most heavenly place. There is a stream about 3km away, with rope swings and shade. It was absolutely glorious. Even though the heat has not been so bad, and it had been raining a lot recently, after the cycle ride there it was incredible to go in the water. We left the office at 8am – everything outside has to be done early here. By 2pm it is either too warm for anything strenuous, or its absolutely tipping it down.
This past week has been more challenging, as we tried to fit all of the work we wanted to do into our calendar and our budget. 6 of the Khmer volunteers have been in exams and left us with reduced manpower. Then as we are shown the paperwork we have to complete, risk assessing every movement, I appreciated more fully the difficulties of development work. To make a difference anywhere, you must persuade a dozen different people that it’s a great idea.
It’s been a 6 day working week, as today we carried out a CAD in Koh Krouch primary school, which is on an island in the middle of the river. We took boats across the river at 7am this morning, which is one of my favourite things to do. The school is the smallest and least developed of those we are working with; The 3 teachers teach two classes simultaneously, in classrooms which are falling apart. The playground is a mess, and the bathrooms are not fit for use. It is also the school with the most dedicated students and teachers, who are filled with enthusiasm and eager to support the work of VSO ICS. Unfortunately when rainy season is in full swing, we will not be able to go there any longer because of the conditions of the river, and so we are focusing our energy there whilst we can.
In our CAD we picked weeds and litter from the playground. The awareness team had run a session on waste management in the previous week and we talked about making the activity sustainable with the members of the community too. It is even more important in a hard-to-reach place like Koh Krouch primary that the community takes responsibility for their own development and so our emphasis is very much on teaching the community how to make the school a better place, rather than doing it ourselves. We were overwhelmed by the number of people who turned up and their hard work whilst they were there. My fear is that if no one is designated responsibility for coordinating future efforts, it may not happen again.
Over the last two weeks I have been more relaxed and stress free than ever before; despite work pressure and being away from home, the work has been enjoyable and important and has felt great. The only negative has been Brexit, and hearing of post-ref racism over social media. Perhaps only being able to view the UK from the platform of Facebook, Twitter and the news gives a skewed image of how things are happening, but it has felt like there has been a catastrophic change in the atmosphere. It is also peculiar being so far away when it happened, amplifying the sense that this district is a separate world from anything at home.