ABOUTAsia Schools has already made a difference to more than 53,000 Cambodian children, but Annie Caulfield finds the charity’s project workers never stop thinking about how they can do more.
ABOUTAsia Schools supports children’s enthusiasm for education in Cambodia
“I noticed that one of our Cambodian trainee teachers had the most fabulous teeth. In rural Cambodia most adults don’t have shiny teeth like that. So I had to ask.”
Sarah Pyecroft is the young project leader of ABOUTAsia Schools, a not-for-profit organisation, supporting the education of more than 53,000 children in Cambodia.
Sarah’s constant questioning and noticing of things is one of the reasons this small not-for-profit organisation succeeds; nothing is assumed and nothing is taken for granted.
The schools’ activities are funded by 100% of profit donations from ABOUTAsia Travel, set up in 2006 by locally-based businessman, Andy Booth to generate a consistent stream of income for an education programme.
So, why did the trainee have perfect teeth?
“He told me that when he was a kid, an NGO (non-governmental organisation) had come to his village giving lessons on teeth cleaning. They taught them a teeth cleaning song and gave them toothbrushes.
“His had a motorbike handle. He made motorbike noises to clean his teeth and the habit was formed. Although he assured me he has an ordinary toothbrush now, and doesn’t make the noises!”
Sarah took this as a big lesson.
“If I’d been buying toothbrushes for an NGO I’d have gone to a discount store and got the most for my money. But kids are kids, easily bored.”
Similarly, children in Cambodian classrooms, like any kids, are easily bored. In rural Cambodia they are also frequently malnourished, exhausted and anxious.
“How do you hold a child’s interest when they’ve walked five miles to get there and had no breakfast?” asks Sokun, one of the Cambodian teachers, trained by ABOUTAsia. “In Cambodia the teaching method is to stand at the front and read from the text book, but even with limited resources, there are better ways.”
“How do you hold a child’s interest when they’ve walked five miles to get there and had no breakfast?”
Assisted by a volunteer from Birmingham, Sokun begins an English lesson that involved a team game of children racing to the board to pair picture cards with names. “Football!” “Basket!” “Bicycle!”
“On top! Left, left!” One team shouts at their girl hovering with the bicycle drawing.
“Things like these cards we can make ourselves. Then all it takes is energy.” Sokun laughs pretending to wilt.
Bringing vitality to classrooms is the least of it. ABOUTAsia provides school supplies, uniforms, breakfast, rain capes in the monsoon season, bicycles and ABOUTAsia’s Cambodian staff go even further – to the children’s villages to talk to the parents.
“We have to persuade parents that education is important and has no hidden costs. In rural areas they want the boys to help with the farming. The girls help in the house and care for younger siblings. For girls there is also a fear for their safety outside the home. Sometimes girls do get abducted, trafficked, but sometimes the fear is an excuse to keep them home.”
Sokun concludes: “The thing is to teach people to have confidence, hope… education is to be trusted, something for everyone in the house.”
ABOUTAsia currently supports 110 schools in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province, yet both the organisation’s founder, Andy Booth, and project manager Sarah, don’t rest.
“NGOs can get stuck, very invested in the idea that what they’re doing is working and don’t change.” Andy tells me. “I’m confident that Sarah and her staff are always out there thinking, innovating, so that our money is spent in the best possible way.”
Sarah and Sorm, the regional co-ordinator, are indeed constantly out in their tuk tuk checking on the schools. But they kept passing through villages where dozens of children, particularly girls, were not in school.
Talking to the villagers provided a new solution: Community Learning Centres. Right in the village, a centre to provide books, toys and free lessons. A flexible schedule is improvised around whatever else the children needed to do in their day.
The pretty wooden building for the first learning centre originally housed a children’s playgroup set up by a charity. Then the charity abandoned it. The village elders said ABOUTAsia could have the building on one condition: “That you don’t leave us.”
Sarah, Sorm and I arrive to find the learning centre thronged. Children are supervised by Siney, a young Cambodian woman gaining experience while training to be a teacher. Her presence encourages female attendance. The centre isn’t only for children; Siney tells us that older people come in to use the library because it includes ‘How to’ books on animal husbandry, market gardening, fish farming and dressmaking.
Older people are also getting involved teaching traditional crafts, or simply telling stories – what happens here is fluid and organic.
At the class I attend, girls learn to make paper flowers. This is to decorate the classroom but is a useful thing too, as paper flowers are something they might sell in the market.
I wonder where the little boys were?
“Boys don’t make paper flowers.” Siney smiles. “Cambodia has very clear lines that way.”
The boys are outside, learning to use skipping ropes. As flower making finishes, the girls come out and take over the game. They skip faster, higher and know more skipping songs than the boys.
“‘It’ll do for them’ is a terrible place to start when you’re trying to improve people’s lives.”
“Often I think girls learn faster.” Siney observes. “Because they don’t have such fixed ideas about how they are meant to be.”
Soon the skipping rope is put away. Girls and boys rushed back inside for a maths lesson. We leave to the sound of laughing and shouting. About maths?
“They start with all the children standing. Subtract seven. Seven go outside. If the seven outside are multiplied by two, how many more go outside? It means a lot of shouting but it gets them interested.” Sorm explains.
While the school support programme will continue, it seems to Sarah the village centres are more suitable for the way Cambodian rural people live.
“I’ve been here five years now. Observing how life works is essential. People arrive to see the temples of Angkor Wat and are shocked by the poverty here. But sometimes they rush in with such crazy ideas.”
ABOUTAsia’s newest venture is to offer Responsible Aid Awareness workshops to visiting groups.
Sarah tells me these have been attended enthusiastically. “People mean so well, but our workshops help them to help in effective ways.”
Sorm laughs, remembering a group of backpackers who approached them with a brainwave – plastic bottles could be crushed flat and tied with some string to make free shoes for the children.
“First of all, plastic bottles are collected for recycling here. One kilogram gets 500 riel. About 10 English pence. But people need that. And imagine, string and bottle shoes!”
Sorm, who’d spent most of his own impoverished childhood barefoot, shifts from laughing to a deep sigh.
Sarah nods as she remembers the bottle shoe incident.
“It’s like the toothbrushes; why not give the good ones? What are you saying to people if you think they have so little dignity they’ll gratefully wear squashed up plastic bottles and string for shoes?
“If you’re giving shoes, ask people what kind of shoes they might like. That’s a big lesson I’ve learned. ‘It’ll do for them’ is a terrible place to start when you’re trying to improve people’s lives.”
* For more on volunteering in Cambodia with ABOUTAsia, or links to donate www.aboutasiaschools.org
* If you’re already working enough and want great holiday coordination in South East Asia, remember all ABOUTAsia profits go to the education projects www.aboutasiatravel.com
Sadly, Annie died in November, 2016. Please consider donating to the Macmillan tribute fund set up by her sister Jo Caulfield in Annie’s name. https://macmillan.tributefunds.com/annie-caulfield