Getting to Kampong Cham after work on a Friday night is not very easy. The last bus from Phnom Penh leaves mid-afternoon. Everyone with a car is a taxi in Cambodia, so I assumed that I could get a ride but it was more hassle than I predicted. Turning up at the market place and hoping for the best may work, but it may not. Drivers sell you a seat in their car but will only travel once they have a full car (the more bodies, the cheaper the fare and locals are not averse to squeezing in on top of each other to make it more affordable with reports of 10+ people in one ordinary sedan!). So you buy your ticket and unless you’re the final passenger, then you wait. If enough seats don’t sell the driver may decide not to travel that day, in which case you’ll be reimbursed. This was not an experience I needed to have, nor a chance I was prepared to take. One of MSF’s rules for expats, is that we travel in a car with one seatbelt per passenger so I would have to purchase a number of “spare” spots in any car planning to travel this way. I now understand what is going on at the various transport junctions through the country, where men chase tuk tuks and motos calling out, hanging on to the sides, and even jumping aboard for a hard sell. They are chasing the next seat in their car or mini van!
Colleagues asked around for me, with quotes from Phnom Penh drivers between US$50 and US$100 per car, all above what I was prepared to pay. So I called Dan in Kampong Cham who said “my friend is a driver, I will call him”. Moments later I had a reasonable quote from a Kampong Cham based driver happy to travel to Phnom Penh and pick me up at the door of our clinic. I was acutely aware that a single passenger boarding a car to drive all the way to Kampong Cham must have seemed so extravagant to my colleagues, yet I was paying similar to what public transport for that distance in Australia, would cost. As happens every day here, I was acutely aware of just how free I am, compared to most in this world.
One of my reasons for visiting Kampong Cham was an invitation to attend a celebration at an NGO yesterday. I knew little about this NGO until yesterday’s event, except that one of the staff at my usual Kampong Cham haunt was able to go to university because of a scholarship she received from them. It was this staff member who proffered the invite. I have met the occasional western volunteer based with the organisation, as well.
Yesterday I learned more about them and their work is worth sharing. Kampuchean Action for Primary Education (KAPE) is the largest local NGO working in Cambodia’s education sector. They run a number of different programs, connected with thousands of the country’s poorest students across 11 provinces. Yesterday’s celebration in Kampong Cham was hosted by this year’s new students entering university through KAPE’s Cambodian Tertiary Scholarship Program (CTSP) in Kampong Cham. These 30 students are the third cohort for CTSP which began in 2010 and has so far seen 116 graduates, all of whom have found employment with companies, government departments or NGOs.
I spent some time talking with a dynamic young Cham woman working as program manager with CTSP, who explained a little about the scholarship and students. “The living conditions are so poor, you cannot even believe it”, was her description of where the students come from. Criteria for scholarship selection include impoverished home life, single parent families and minority ethnicity or religion such as Cham but also female gender due to the inequality of education between genders. KAPE’s selection process includes media announcement via radio and through high schools, applications from potential students, shortlisting to the poorest applicants, an entrance exam and finally a home visit to each applicant, to ensure those with the highest need are selected.
Successful applicants to CTSP receive a scholarship to attend university in Kampong Cham. This includes accommodation at the house where all 30 students live together and a $30 per month allowance. They put $22 of this towards food which leaves them with $8 per month for extras. They pool their spare $8 together, in order to make it a more spendable amount. I would love to know more about this, as it is another example of the Khmer teamwork I have observed in so many different situations.
Yesterday’s event was held at the dormitory where these 30 students are boarding while they attend university. A pink and white nylon awning, as used for weddings and other ceremonies, was draped in the front yard of the elevated wooden house, with pink chairs covered in tight plastic set in rows facing a stage area. The excitement as I arrived was palpable as this year’s 30 students, dressed in their navy and white uniforms, were joined by the previous two cohorts plus a number of guests such as various organisational directors. I was one of a few expatriates and the hosts insisted that we sit in the front row.
Showcasing the CTSP, two of this year’s students were emcees to the event, standing confidently and speaking to an audience of 100+ people, many their peers. The Cham Program Manager more than once told me about individual students taking their turn on stage and the home life they had come from – always shocking poverty. It was hard to imagine as each stood with their heads held high and presented themselves eloquently. By the end of the afternoon I had the distinct impression that the CTSP scholarship was doing more than educating these young people. They were also benefiting from a camaraderie with their fellow alumni and a sense of self assurance and purpose.
Some of the girls have just started to learn traditional dance and performed a beautiful show in borrowed costumes before we heard people such as organisational executives and previous graduates speak of their experiences with and thanks to KAPE. The students acted out a highly entertaining stage show illustrating the difficulties of education for girls in poor families, where boys tend to be given first preference and where poverty incorporates so many other problems, from domestic violence to ill health. Two of the girls belted out a rendition of Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You”. When the official schedule ended, chairs were rearranged with round dining tables moved into the yard. A meal of noodles and Khmer curry cooked by the students was served. At the same time, the boom box came out and the students took turns at serenading us with various English songs before the crowd merged onto the dance floor for a whole lot of frivolity.
Yet another organisation doing valuable work in this country where there is so much need. It was so uplifting to learn about KAPE and to personally observe such powerful results when an education and a sense of value is offered to young people who did not grow up believing that their future could be something other than destitute.
KAPE rely on donor money and with more donations, they could offer educational opportunities to more impoverished youth than the 30 per year who have so far been given the chance to attend university in Kampong Cham. CTSP is only one of KAPE’s programs and when attending home visits, the CTSP team have observed children not eligible for sponsorship but for whom something else could make a big difference. Small interventions, such as a bicycle, or the small daily fees required at public schools, can ensure that children otherwise missing out, will continue to attend school. Being in the community means KAPE staff can identify other children most at need.
The point of yesterday was to celebrate International Women’s Day with a group of (mainly girls) receiving an unexpected education. They in turn, delivered a surprising insight to their audience, of just how inspiring young people can be, when given the opportunity to shine.