Four Reasons Not to Have a School in Rural Cambodia

ASAP education project #301 supports four elementary schools in Cambodia. These schools offer free primary education to around 300 students. Unfortunately there is one big issue: following through after graduation.

Students finishing 6th or 7th grade still have a lot of education potential, but they are dependent on their parents. Many of the students that attend our schools come from low-income families and the meals we offer, in addition to the tuition-free education, take a lot of pressure off of the parents. When the meals and classes end, however, the students have few options but to start working however they can, in order to feed themselves and contribute to the family.

Often this means the students disappear after they graduate, being pulled back into their homes, street work, and the poverty cycle. Further education becomes less and less feasible as they get older. Students that have been baptized stop participating in their faith community. Others miss out on any more chances to study the Bible.

The Takong School

Ninety of these students attend the 1-6 grade Takong School, located in a rural part of the northwestern Banteay Meanchey Province. Last year alone, 20 students (many from Buddhist homes) were baptized here. Over its ten years of operation, teachers at Takong have introduced many students to Jesus in addition to teaching typical school subjects like math and Khmer.

Land at Takong
Land surrounding the Takong School could be developed for a training building or student gardens.

The school property includes enough unused land that it could be one location for starting the vocational training program that I’ve mentioned before. A work-study program like this is one very practical way to extend the years a child can remain in school. It allows students to support themselves and their families with earnings from their work while continuing to study high school level coursework and participate in a spiritual learning environment.

Unfortunately, starting a vocational school in an area like Takong still involves a few roadblocks–sometimes literally.

Winds, mines, fines, and rains

First, it’s the roads. Only one major road winds into the Malai District of which the Takong Commune, and the Takong School, is a part. And according to Google Maps, that road doesn’t even enter the Takong Commune. Julia, our ASAP Director, remembers spending a tedious hour riding over a rutted dirt road on her visit to the school, often wondering whether or not they would get stuck in the pools of water that sometimes covered the road. It isn’t terribly far from the nearest city–only 15 or 20 miles–but the drive there could take as long as an hour and a half.

Ruot Sreyla is able to make a comfortable living de-mining her countryside. Employment is perhaps one up-side to this serious issue.
Ruot Sreyla is able to make a comfortable living de-mining her countryside. Photo Credit: Maria Frio/UNDP

Second, it’s the landmines. During the Civil War and the Vietnamese occupation, combating forces laid landmines all through Banteay Meanchey, and today it remains one of the three most heavily mined provinces in the country. Since 1979, land mines and explosive remnants of war (ERWs) have exploded on 64,443 Cambodians, killing nearly 20,000 while injuring and maiming the rest. Although things are getting better, from January to August 2014 82 mine/ERW accidents were recorded by the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA). According to the CMAA, 4 of 8 nationwide accidents in August 2014 were within 100 kilometers of the Takong School. In an effort to hunt down these mines and disarm them, thousands of square kilometers have been cleared and some good has come from the jobs. A new industry has been built around clearing land, including de-mining professionals from public agencies and (though discouraged) private “village de-miners”. The public agencies have been able to employ and train otherwise poorly educated workers, including women like Ruot Sreyla, and offer them comfortable wages and benefits for their work.

Third, it’s the checkpoint fines. In 2013, 30 fruit trucks blocked a main road in the Ou Chrov District, next to Malai, in protest after fellow fruit truck drivers were arrested for refusing to pay checkpoint fines they deemed unreasonable. If one aspect of vocational training turns out to involve agriculture, the 20% cut to profits that the truck drivers estimated these fees to cause (if it hasn’t changed by now) is a very real factor for making any project sustainable.

The fourth only rhymes if you say it using Audrey Hepburn’s My Fair Lady cockney accent, but that doesn’t make it any less of an issue. For although the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plains, the rain in Thailand rushes over the border into Cambodia and seriously affects border territory crops.

Excuse me.

Rain and flooding really are forces to reckon with in Takong, sometimes killing people and often wreaking havoc on thousands of hectares of important crop land. Again, any agriculture projects would be especially affected by this environmental factor.

Opportunities in a former stronghold

Even with these issues at hand, somewhere around 45,000 people live in the Malai District where the Takong School resides. More live in the countryside surrounding the few square miles that make up Malai.

Being a Khmer Rouge stronghold in the 80’s and 90’s, the district only officially joined the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1996. The current governor of the district was once an associate of the KR leader, Pol Pot, who passed away from heart failure in 1998. He is now married to the dictator’s former wife, who defected to the Cambodian government soon after Pol Pot’s death, according to this 1998 Chicago Tribune article.

Despite recent history and the large number of former KR cadres still living in the area, the region has been acclimating to the new socio-political environment. Pol Pot’s only daughter was married this year, and at the wedding there was an intentional effort to have a purely social gathering. An official on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Phnom Penh stated that the daughter has no connection with the political life of Pol Pot. Additionally, a team from the Documentation Center of Cambodia have been working on a project, called Humanizing Perpetrators: Is It Possible? to integrate former KR cadres into Cambodian society through a book of interviews with the cadres and a photo exhibition. I’m not sure if the main purpose is to show the former regime members the humanity of their fellow Cambodians, or vice versa, but the fact remains that people, in some sectors at least, are making an effort at reintegration and reconciliation.

This environment, as I understand it, makes our local Takong School even more important. In the wake of such a conflict, I think people could be more capable of recognizing the impact of the great news vis-a-vis Jesus and His redemptive love than ever before, particularly if they see it working out in practical, productive ways that last into adulthood.

A grain of salt

Most of my findings, for the time being, are little more than you could drum-up with a Google search (as you can tell from my sources). There are factors upon factors of which I’m yet unaware. So please pray, always, and remember that my ideas (especially right now) may not be appropriate for the real time and place in which I’ll soon find myself. A vocational school may not, in reality, be best suited to the Takong Commune. If it isn’t, then woe to us for trying to put one there.

The goal, now as always, is to go to all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything Jesus has taught us. May we do that however we can.

  • Stephen, I am absolutely loving how invested you are in researching the place you are going. That is such a vitally important part of transitioning to life in a new place. You are also completely right in footnoting that everything you are researching now may be found completely irrelevant upon arrival. Let’s just say all of my plans changed when I got to THE OLMALAIKA HOME and realized not a single one of them spoke enough English to hold a conversation like a 3 year old in the states. Priorities will change and adaptability is key – you will do wonderful things. I’m praying for you.

  • Thanks Danae! Your comments are super encouraging! I’m praying for you, too. I’ll be excited to be able to swap stories of cultural integration with you soon! 11 more days!