This is a personal site. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Wedded bliss?

As I write this entry it is 5.00am. There are two weddings in the local area. One is reasonably quiet, the other seems to me to be in the exact spot as the week before (I mean, why bother even taking down the marquee?) and started blasting music at 4.30am. It will not stop until 11pm this evening and will also go on all day tomorrow.

Khmer houses are not built to be sound proof. There is no glass in the windows, no double-glazing, only bars and mosquito netting. The sound is actually so loud that if I were hosting my own party, I would consider it anti-social, because the guests would not actually be able to hear each other talk. To top it off, it’s not like its even good music, just some loud form of Khmer/Buddhist wailing, truly designed to test the peace, serenity and goodwill of the surrounding community.

It just doesn’t make sense. On every other level the Khmer people are quiet, reserved and amicable. They are famous for their smile, will always agree to everything (this doesn’t mean it will actually get done) and are nothing but hospitable. Why then, do they insist on pushing everyone’s (well, my) sanity to its limits? I have considered buying earplugs, but what if they work, I oversleep, and accidentally forget to go to work?

Sadly, it’s all to do with a show of wealth. The bigger, louder and more annoying your wedding, the richer you are. The more of a street you can block the better the party. And what ever happened to tradition? Did they have loud speakers and bright marquees in the days of old Angkor Watt? I think not.

In all honesty, given that I'm now sleep deprived and grumpy - I don’t care how beautiful the Bride looks in her 16 (yes, 16) dresses. It just doesn’t make sense. I went to a Khmer wedding the other week, and yes it’s interesting to learn about the Khmer ‘culture’, but what really struck me is just how much everything is for show. There is, for example, a hair cutting ceremony. But no hair actually gets cut – they just pretend. The cutting of the cake (the most intricate cake I have ever seen, there were even bridges connecting different bits of the cake for god’s sake) is another one. They pose for the photos, but the cake doesn’t actually get cut.

And whilst I'm on a role - the photos! Ha. I think Cambodia must be single handedly responsible for success of Adobe Photoshop (or they would be if they weren’t all using pirate copies). Every picture is a) the same as everyone else’s pictures in any other wedding ever, and b) airbrushed to high heavens. The bride and groom are unrecognizable, as is the location of the swirly, mystic background they add in. If anyone’s reading from Serif – have we ever considered the Khmer market? PhotoPlus X3 would go down a treat! On the plus side, it’s actually possible to get yourself kitted out in the wedding attire and get some sample photos done in one of the shops in town. I wonder if the lovely Matthew would find this a fun activity during his visit?

And as a final note: who actually pays for this wedding? Khmer weddings cost an absolute fortune. The one I attended last week cost $7000 – and let’s remember that teachers will earn roughly $50 a month. So what happens? They borrow money, and then because they have to have this big party, they’ll invite 700 people, all of whom have to pay $10 for the privilege of having their ears assaulted, to pay for the party they have to have. The process of inviting people is also mad. Here everyone saves their wedding invitations so that you know exactly whose weddings you’ve been to, and who to invite. Just so you can get your own back. It doesn’t matter if these people are friends or not, as long as they can pay $10 (which, by the way, you don’t get out of paying even if you don’t go to the event itself. Once invited you’re obliged to pay). This unfortunately means that barang (foreigners) are a popular choice for wedding invitations. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for celebrating the love of people I actually know, but it’s one thing living in a house near a wedding tent. Can you imagine actually being made to sit in it?

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

Well, not exactly. It might be winter, but it’s still 30 something degrees outside – the sky is blue, the roads are dusty and the khmers are walking round in woolly jumpers. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that it is the festive season, and by this I’m referring to the odd christmassy remark left by those on facebook and the token (rather limp-looking) christmas tree that decorates the outside of the Golden Crown hotel.

So, in a vain attempt to feel christmassy (it’s hard to feel festive when it’s so hot) me and a fellow Peace Corps volunteer decided to introduce some festive cheer into this weeks art class.

Art class?! Yep – every Friday in Preah Netre Preah I help provide ideas, materials and the novelty value that only a barang can offer, to a class of forty students for one hour. Really, it’s more a club than a ‘class’, but I love it and the kids love it. I think they just enjoy the chance to do something a bit different, and I enjoy the chance to just do something, and what’s more, something that’s just for me – because I like it. Anyway, inspired by one of my numerous Serif
4 O’clock Challenges (there’s a group of readers out there who know what I’m on about), we decided it would be fun to make paper snowflakes (isn’t it great how the ability to make these is just ingrained from birth?). And you know what? It really was.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

A lesson in self-reliance and personal motivation

Warning: This entry is a little on the long side of acceptable. Perhaps I should have written a bullet-point summary at the end?

… I’ve been threatening to write about my job for a while – and so at last, here it is:

My official job title is Community Assistant, and as the job description for this role is three pages long, I wont bore you with it (there’s so many other ways to do that). Basically, I have been asked to work in the Province of Banteay Meanchey, in three districts: Mongkal Borei, Preh Netre Preh and Sisophon. I’m working at ‘District Level’, which is somewhere along the lines of the English Local Education Authority. I’m based in three District Offices and one Provincial office, but spend a lot of my time out and about in local primary schools. In short – I’m all over the place.

In a somewhat optimistic plan, the Cambodian Government have recently developed a policy known as 'Child Friendly Schooling'. This policy has 6 dimensions to it, all somewhere along the lines of inclusion, gender, effective teaching and learning etc. The basic idea is that if primary education is more child-focused (i.e. interesting, colourful and fun) then children are more likely to stay in school and actually learn something. Dimension 5 of this policy is ‘Community Involvement’, and this is where I come in. My task, in a nutshell, is to work with a small selection of focus schools in order to develop their understanding of community involvement and, in turn, the community’s understanding of education. If the community understand what is happening in schools and become an active part of school life, then this can have a positive effect on drop-out rates and inclusion (it also helps tick a few governmental boxes). At the moment people have no clue as to what their children are learning or why it’s important. Similarly, the school’s idea of community involvement seems to rotate around the basic notion of banging on doors and asking for money.

So that’s the task in hand. The next obvious question is how on earth I am actually going to do anything, especially when I’m spread across three districts and only have a translator two and a half days a week. Sadly, I don’t think my new found ability to discuss the weather in Khmer is going to get me very far in an office environment (although they do seem to enjoy talking about my boyfriend – maybe that’s a way in…).

The second, third, forth and eternal questions relate to the utter complexity of this whole situation.

Imagine this: The government wants Child Friendly Schools. To pluck at thin air, one example of this might be - group work. How then, asks the teacher, do you facilitate group work in a classroom packed to the gills with 90 children? (That’s a very good question, I said). As far as I’m concerned, it’s an achievement not to have children hanging from the termite ridden ceiling rafters – though I did go to a school where one died from the monsoon flooded school pond.

So then maybe you think about resources. But where does the money come from for these resources? And what’s more, who even knows what to make? Or has the time to make them? Despite numerous training sessions (which people are paid to attend) the whole concept is entirely foreign - and let’s not forget that the entire trained professional population of this country has been wiped out. With 50% of the population under 16, who does the teaching? Or trains the teachers? In Banteay Meanchey alone they are 1000 primary school teachers short. I have seen female teachers, nursing their children in hammocks, in their classrooms, whilst teaching! And of course, if there are no toilets in the school (or toilets, but no water) the women staff wont come to work for one week out of four anyway, because (and as a woman I sympathise) – who would want to do that?

Maybe then you think about lesson planning (PGCE flashback). People don’t like it in England, and in Cambodia, they don’t even have the luxury of not liking it – they simply don’t have the time to do it. To put it into a vague form of perspective, as a volunteer, I earn $354 dollars a month. An experienced teacher will earn $50 a month at best (less, after it’s been skimmed by higher authorities). This is not enough to survive. So when they are not teaching they are planting rice, driving motos, teaching private lessons, working on market stalls and worrying about minor things like, where’s my next meal coming from? On the general scheme of things, that puts lesson planning – and anything else for that matter - fairly low down on the list of priorities.

And yet people train to do it, and some of the teachers I have met are wonderful and do a great job in a difficult situation. But every time you even try to examine one problem and think about how to tackle it, you discover a thousand more.

On a day to day basis, effectively, I have no boss. That is, there’s no-one to tell me what to do. Or, if what I am doing is right. Here, I have got to trust my own instincts and judgment and do what I think is right, but in culture that I am only just getting to know. It would also be very easy to lie in my hammock all day. But then I’m not the sort of person who will let that happen, and I will go to the office without my translator because I like the feeling of at least being there - and you never know when someone might say something I understand. I’ve also started going places armed with props. Photographs are a great source of conversation – I think I might try baked goods next.

Don’t get me wrong, despite the little ball of nerves I have each morning before I begin, I feel like I’m chipping away at things and slowly shaping up my job. People are still speaking to me, smile when they see me and today I had meetings that went really well… I even have a poster on the wall! It’s just that when I step back and try to think about the situation as a whole, I just can’t escape how complex everything is. There is sooo much to know and understand – and I came here with the best of intentions and want so badly to do a good job, but on the otherhand – who am I to know what’s best?

VSO weren’t joking when they said it would take three months for me to get my head round what’s even going on.