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From Cambodia with Love - Voluntourism


From Cambodia with Love

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world, for indeed, that’s all who ever have.”- Margaret Mead

By Deborah Huth 

God might have created the world in seven days, but he wasn’t working in Cambodia. When we fell in love with Cambodia and its people during a trip to the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, the search began to find a place to volunteer. CONCERT, a non-profit organization based in Siem Reap, matches people who want to help, and local organizations that need the kind of support and expertise they can give. They directed us to Anjali House.

I wanted to work with children and use our talents in the arts, since I am a former childhood education dance teacher and my husband is an artist. Cambodian public school is dominated by academic studies, and the inclusion and promotion of contemporary arts subjects make up one of the exceptional aspects of the program at Anjali House. Our plan was to stay for three weeks and work on a play based on a traditional Cambodian folktale “Hanuman and Sovann Macha”. My husband, Gerald, would teach art and work on the backdrops with the students, and I would be responsible for the script and choreography. The story is part of the Ramayana, a great Hindu epic, known by people throughout Southeast Asia. This folktale has the advantage of not only being entertaining, but also reinforcing the value of cooperation and continuity of tradition. 

Anjali House targets children from six to seventeen years of age who are sent out by their families to sell souvenirs, postcards, and trinkets to the tourists, rather than attend school and get the education they so desperately need. It functions as an after school center where the children get enrichment classes in English, Social Studies, and help with all the social challenges that can arrive in impoverished households. The children often come from families who do not value them. In order to allow Anjali House to educate and support the children, the families must be “bribed”. A contract is made with the parents to subsidize the subsequent loss of income with supplies of rice and other commodities at a wholesale price, which they can then resell at the market for retail. This is contingent on the agreement that the children will be allowed to attend Khmer school and participate in Anjali’s program. They provide each child with free healthcare, education, food, and clean drinking water. “Let adults earn, and children learn” is their motto.

Our first day is chaotic. The children are a wild bunch, not used to discipline or focus, except for the older ones who have been coming to Anjali House for a few years. Sokli is bawling her eyes out, inconsolable. She is the narrator in the play, and I tell her that I am giving four lines of her part to Buntha. Buntha and Sokli are the two girls with the best command of English, and Buntha, as Princess Sita, has only one line in the first scene and one in the last. I didn’t think it was a big deal when Buntha sweetly asked me if she could also do some of the narrator’s role. How wrong I was! Divas know no nationality. Quickly I dispatch Sophea, the Khmer teacher, to talk to Sokli. “No, I don’t want to be in the play at all. Buntha can do the whole thing,” she whimpers, her body heaving with heavy sobs.

The “young adult” group, helps me harness the little ones, who alternate between scampering around the play yard and looking at me with a blank expression. The girls are very proud of their achievements and are usually the best and most disciplined students. The boys are another story, and keeping Hanuman’s monkey army in line proves daunting. While I am trying to work on the play with the girls, I turn around and see the younger boys hitting each other with the monkey masks made out of paper plates; Hanuman does not want to get too close to Sovann Macha (the mermaid he loves) and Sovann is equally mortified at that possibility.

Costumes prove to be a challenging adventure. Mermaids decorate their crowns with so many sparkles and beads that they become too heavy to wear. Sokli is still sulking, but has joined in, after all.

My frustration is tempered by the knowledge that it is not easy to work with children who have known neither discipline nor respect. Gerald and I conducted a workshop for the staff about the value of teaching creativity. The common denominator in the development of a confident child is a feeling of self worth. If one child is not proficient academically he/she can excel in other ways and still feel good about themself.

 By the second week I lay down the law and tell the children that I know they are capable of far more than they are giving. One of the six-year-old girls, Sok, whom I had identified as “slow”, is particularly unruly. I consider telling her she cannot participate, but when I give her a role as a Mermaid, I see how attentive she becomes and the seriousness in her face tells me she will be fine. She beams when I tell her how well she plays the part. 

“You guys look exhausted”, says Rhonda, a longtime volunteer from Australia, as we leave school for the day. 

 On the final day before the play, half the students in the main roles are absent, due to Khmer school obligations. After only one full rehearsal I am ready to strangle the boys because they are running around and disappearing. We are sure the performance will be a disaster. Self-confidence is important for these children in order to be able to succeed in life and we don’t want them to feel like failures. I do a group-rallying cry of “WE CAN DO IT” and repeat it three times to keep the students motivated. Both Gerald and I have butterflies in our stomach, worrying if they can pull this whole thing off. 

 The only way to assuage my nerves is to treat myself to an afternoon at one of the luxurious spas that are easily found around Siem Reap and cost a mere $25. Afterward we have dinner in a restaurant known for its celebrity chef.

We are not prepared for how well it all turns out, and for the level of commitment on the part of the students. After the curtain, emotions reign supreme, very unusual for Cambodians who do not show feelings easily. Two of the girls hide in a corner, and cannot say good-bye because they are ashamed that they are crying. The older boys, whom Gerald, as teacher and mentor, has pushed to dig deep inside and let their spirits inhabit the roles, hug him tightly.

But the children said it best: (translated from Khmer)

“When I am acting it helps me feel confident and trust myself. Maybe when I grow up I will be brave enough to do things”- Peng Li

“Gerald told me no one has a mistake when you draw. I remember this and it makes me brave to draw and not be afraid” –Say

When it is time for us to return to our lives, I am sad to leave the students and wonderful staff behind and I am humbled, reminded that humility, compassion, no expectation and high hopes are the lessons these students taught us.