As part of my attempt to encourage people to separate the role of community from the word ‘money’, I decided to run a study tour with my focus cluster to see the work of another VSO volunteer in Battambang. It was fool proof. I’d been with the two deputy directors from the District Office of Education in Mongkal Borei the week before, we’d checked out what we were going to see, more importantly – they liked what we were going to see, and I’d linked with another more experienced volunteer who helped me to plan the days activities. All I had to do was hire a mini-bus and make sure we left on time…
Nothing is ever foolproof.
In the days leading up to the event everything was going to plan. As requested by the Director of the District Office in Battambang, I was hauling everyone up extra early so that we would be in ‘the bong’ at 7.30am (it takes an hour to get there). I lied to everyone about the kick off, and as anticipated everyone was late, so we left on time.
The mini-bus was sparkling new, I’d even bought us breakfast the night before and everyone was in high spirits. Unfortunately, as we neared our destination I began to get a little concerned about the colour of the sky. As you've probably guessed, the sky in Cambodia is normally blue. Unless it’s the monsoon season – which right now it isn’t.
On this day, however, the sky was a worrying shade of grey and as we pulled up to the office for our first meeting the heavens opened and it started to rain, or to be more specific, it started to monsoon it down. I had a sneaky feeling that this rain would make the outdoor-based community open morning we were heading to see, a little difficult. Then my phone rang. The director had decided, at five minutes notice, to cancel our morning meeting. So, trying not to feel too guilty about the fact I’d just dragged 14 people out of bed early for nothing we headed to the first school to see (or not see) the open morning.
It continued to rain and as predicted, no-one came. So we got to sit around for an hour and a half. I can honestly say that this is the first time in Cambodia I have ever been cold. And to put a cherry on it, Roy, the volunteer helping me organize the trip, told me he thought the road to the second school would be too dangerous and slippy for us to drive on.
Now, I know it was no-one’s fault, but I have never wanted to scream so much in my life! It hasn’t rained in Cambodia for three months. Why it decided to rain on this particular parade, I don’t know.
Fortunately, and bless the Khmers who will smile anything, everyone was still in fairly high-spirits (I think just being out of the office was enough), so with the promise of some good food and maybe a little sight-seeing before we gave up and went home everyone was more than happy.
But then someone of greater good took pity on me. The rained stopped and some people turned up. Slowly, slowly we began to salvage the day. The community morning had sadly been thrown by the rain, but we still got some sweet performances from the Student Council, it's just a shame that the flow and excitement of the morning had been lost and the monotony of Khmer speeches took over. I tried desperately not to despair as the school director discussed the history of the school and started telling all my keen eared visitors that he’d won some money gambling (which is illegal for Khmers) and this is how he’d started the development process in his school – sorry VSO, he was meant to be talking about the role of the community and his new Student Council!
Still, considering what was and what could have been, we managed to get a little something from the morning. So, fuelled up with a hearty lunch accompanied by just the one beer, we decided to brave the road to the second school. Luckily we didn’t slide off the road and into the river – and we actually managed to have a very lovely afternoon meeting that almost made my 5am start worthwhile. To be honest, I was surprised and impressed by everyone. Maybe things being rubbish is just so normal they really weren’t bothered by the way the morning turned out. We left the school in a jolly mood and I was even hoping we’d have the time to take in a temple before we went home, but sadly we didn’t. Still, we managed to pick up someone’s son who wanted a lift up to Svei and everyone had a good nap on the journey back.
And in conclusion? Well, it may not have been the day I was imagining, but I’m beginning to learn that nothing every will be – and that that’s okay, I’m in Cambodia not England. The important things is we saved it and managed to get something from it after all. No, it wasn’t the greatest revelation ever, but it was a start – and the nicest part of the day? Not the schools, not the open day, not the meeting… but the fact that everyone went home smiling, and I think what we achieved most that day – a little bit of unexpected team building. And that’s sustainable.