Letters from Cambodia

This one appeared in the Guardian Weekly 19.07.2011

Phnom Penh 22nd February 2011

As a volunteer, I am committed to cultural sensitivity in all I think, say and do.  I have tried to learn all those obvious ways in which my normal behaviour might cause offence (shoes in the house, giving money with the left hand).   I have been both chastened and amused by stories of cultural faux pas.   Most memorable is the apocryphal tale of the Peace Corps volunteer caught short shortly after arriving at an Asian friend’s house who asked for the ‘wash room’.  Once safely inside, seeing no toilet facilities, just a water tub with a scoop for bathing, such was his desperation that he could do no other than deposit an unwanted parcel in the drain channel in the corner of the room.   The drain led out through a small hole in the wall and so, by pouring water from the tub and pushing and prodding a little, he managed to get rid of the offending item through this hole, only discovering later that the drain led into the kitchen, where the women of the family were appalled by his inept, and highly unhygienic, antics.

However cultural sensitivity is not just about individual actions.   Being from ‘the west’, one inevitably falls heir by proxy, whatever one’s individual role, to an entire history of cultural insensitivities, nowhere more so than in language, where English constantly infiltrates and seduces.  I see it blaring in the English phrases in karaoke songs, mirrored in the scrolling texts of love which run underneath the many pop videos of Cambodian TV; in the advertising slogans promising a consumer nirvana;  in the drop down menus of Windows 7;  in my day to day work, part of which involves helping to develop the English language curriculum in Primary Schools within the Ministry.  I defend my actions to myself by arguing that avoiding English is not an option for Cambodian children, that knowledge of the language will empower them rather than enslave them.  I take some comfort from the essay Politics and Politicians of African Literature, in which Chinua Achebe provides a far stronger defence than I ever could of the continuing value of the English language in Africa, despite its colonial origin.  I also am pleased that the course materials for teaching English in Cambodian schools which I am promoting aim to avoid the cultural insensitivity of a previous generation of texts, which carried the message that a certain British way of life was an aspirational norm.   The English language learning in this programme is firmly based within the lives of the children – family, school, village, farm, pagoda.   The children will use English, at least at the foundation level, to talk about and describe their own environment, social relationships and cultural events.

My pleasure was greatly increased when I saw the equivalent French texts.   The authors unashamedly admit their readers to the French way of life – a calendar of French holidays, photos of French towns, descriptions of how French people spend their leisure time.   The text is paid for by the French Embassy and Valofrase, an organisation funded by France and the governments of some other French-speaking regions in order to promote French throughout South East Asia.  ‘Which part of the concept of neo-colonialism do these French authors not understand?’, I asked myself in a self-satisfied way.  But such feelings of moral superiority relative to the French offer only temporary relief.  For good and for ill, the English language is an agent of globalisation here and elsewhere.  I cannot feel comfortable about all that English inevitably brings along in its train.

Phnom Penh 22nd February 2011

This one should appear in the Times Ed Supp in March

Volunteering, for all its many ups and downs, is a wonderful way of life and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is a great volunteering organisation.  Cambodia hosts one of VSO’s biggest country programmes with around 100 volunteers in three areas:  education, health and liveliehoods.    The current strategy is focussed on ‘capacity building’ – volunteers should never do a job which could be done by a local person.  Their role is to develop the abilities of local partners.   Volunteers are placed at different levels in the system.   Some education volunteers are advising on learning and teaching in local education offices, some are training teachers in the teacher training colleges, some are working to energise communities to support their schools. My position is in the Ministry of Education, dealing with policy and planning –  areas which have a significant impact on the capacity of  Cambodian schools to deliver quality education, since  the curriculum and associated textbooks are  mandatory.  The current English textbook, for example, is too difficult for students to follow, but across the country teachers are obliged to teach textbook lessons in sequence, whether or not the children understand it.  It is heartbreaking to see, as I have, young people in English lessons struggle with words and ideas well beyond their capacity but, following the social norms of obedience and conformity, accepting their passive role in repeating words they do not understand or writing sentences that might as well be in code.  One of my current projects is to help the Ministry to develop a more effective English curriculum.  It is a real privilege to be involved in this work.

My position also gives me an overview of Cambodian education.  There are some very positive signs:   about 40% of the population is in some form of education;   the govt continues to expand the teaching force;  most indicators show great progress over the last decade;  many government policies, such as ‘Child Friendly Schools’, are progressive and, if implemented, will lead to real positive change over a twenty year period.  I have also met many extremely able and hardworking people at every level in education.   There are also some very real challenges:   educational standards are improving but lag well behind those of its neighbours;  there is great inequality, with extensive pockets of rural poverty;  higher education is not well matched to employment needs (a fantastically large percentage of University students are studying management and accounting, areas in which there are few job opportunities);  progression from basic education into higher or technical education is unbalanced and unequal;  the integrity of examinations in school and higher education is compromised by the sale of papers and model answers prior to examination; private schools for children of the educated elite flourish while accountability across public sector is uneven.

Currently VSO Cambodia is reviewing its strategy for the next five years.  Hopefully by the end of those five years, it can withdraw from supporting Cambodia’s education system.  Meantime there is still good work to be done by experienced volunteers.


Phnom Penh 26th January 2011

On a recent holiday, we hired a motorbike to pootle around Kampot Province in the South of Cambodia.  Kampot is beautiful.  Sea salt is prepared in massive ‘salt pans’, many local farmers are converting land to cultivate the famous Kampot pepper, while everywhere a soft breeze brings refreshing sea air from the Gulf of Thailand.  Somehow or another the rear tyre was punctured in Kampot Town.   We needed an urgent repair.  There are no KwikFit shops in Cambodia, but in town you are never more than a couple of hundred metres from an all-purpose bike shop.  They’re easy to spot, as tyres are hung at the roadside, guaranteed new by their bright sealed wrapping.  I pushed the bike towards a lean-to.  The two young lads beneath the palm leaf roof, aged anything from 14 to 18, spoke no English and my limited Khmer did not include the word ‘puncture’, but the right index finger can often communicate just as well as the tongue.  They abandoned the job they were doing, proffered a plastic stool and set to work.  One took out the inner tube while keeping the wheel on the bike.  The other quickly found the hole and repaired it with a mixture of patch, glue and naked flame.  It was all over in ten minutes.   Service came with a big smile.  The cost:  about 35p.   A girl who had been lazing nearby in a hammock sprang to life when the money was handed over.  She was in charge of the cash and wrote a careful receipt.

Almost every roadside house in Cambodia has such a family enterprise:  a few bananas harvested from the garden, some lotus flower seeds or maybe some soap powder or an insulated cool tub with various cans of fizzy drink; skilled artisans tailoring, welding, weaving, repairing and recycling all manner of things.   Everywhere children and adults work together  –  a few extra dollars each week for the family.  In his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, the Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang reminds us just how skilled, hardworking and enterprising people in developing countries are.  They have to be.  There is no welfare safety net.   Real poverty is only a few days away.  At the bottom end of the labour market, only the most skilful survive.

Recently, over a cup of tea, Moly, a friendly wizened elderly Cambodian, told me with the leap of imagination necessary for one who had only ever had enough money for today, that there are rich people in the world who have so much money that they don’t need some of it.  He speculated about what they might do with this extra money.  The next time I checked my bank balance online I felt a guilty shiver go up my back.  I could see his friendly quizzical face as he suggested that these rich people had so much money that they could just take their money out of a box, look at it and put it back again.

Phnom Penh 25th January 2011

As I cycle around the streets of Phnom Penh, I frequently have strong feelings akin to road rage.  A tuktuk decides to do a fast U-turn just as I am overtaking it; a motorcyclist, without looking, speeds out  in front of me from a lane on the right– I am forced to swerve into heavy traffic while braking;  a 4×4 driver clips the back of a child’s bicycle sending her sprawling to the ground and buckling the wheel , then drives on without stopping.  A sudden anger tightens my muscles and I want to scream.  Another VSO volunteer, telling of close encounters on his bike, put my feelings of rage into words:  he told me that hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t want to shout out, ‘You stupid XXXx!  Why did you do that?  Did you not realise that you were cutting me up / making me swerve / putting that child’s life at risk??!!’

In a country where there is no ‘Highway Code’ and the roads are a free-for-all of anarchic behaviour, each individual tries to squeeze an advantage for him or herself through overtaking, undertaking, pushing out into a gap, beating the lights, cutting up.  The first rule of the road appears to be ‘take no account of what anyone else might have to do as a result of your driving – what they do is their problem’.   But the second, more interesting, rule is ‘never lose face’.  However inconvenient the behaviour of another driver, one must accept it without emotion.  He has overtaken you then stopped suddenly, blocking your passage, 15 metres further down the road.  OK that’s fine, no problem.  He decides to turn left across all the traffic without warning or indication, forcing you to stop and the man behind you to run into your rear wheel.  Just laugh.  It is not just on the road that Cambodians display such a perfect phlegmatic temperament.   As I walked through the local park recently, I passed a group of boys playing football with a small rattan ball.  The ball was kicked away and as one of the players ran over to retrieve it, a younger bystander kicked it away in the opposite direction and started to laugh.  The even-tempered player stopped, shook hi s head, laughed back and ran off after the ball.   I was put in mind of an incident in my previous life as a headteacher in Central Scotland.  As I arrived at the football field after reports of a fight, a mob was dispersing.  One boy was picking himself up with a bloody nose and bruised ribs.   On investigation, it appeared that he had kicked away the ball the other boy was playing with.  One of the most remarkable aspects of the incident was that both the assailant, and later his parents, believed that this behaviour deserved the angry assault which followed.   In Cambodia, they would have lost a lot of face!   Cultural difference – there’s a lot to be said for it!

Phnom Penh, 23nd January 2011

Volunteering, for all its many ups and downs, is a wonderful way of life and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is a great volunteering organisation.  Cambodia hosts one of VSO’s biggest country programmes with around 100 volunteers in three areas:  education, health and liveliehoods.    The current strategy is focussed on ‘capacity building’ – volunteers should never do a job which could be done by a local person.  Their role is to develop the abilities of local partners.   Volunteers are placed at different levels in the system.   Some education volunteers are advising on learning and teaching in local education offices, some are training teachers in the teacher training colleges, some are working to energise communities to support their schools. My position is in the Ministry of Education, dealing with policy and planning –  areas which have a significant impact on the capacity of  Cambodian schools to deliver quality education, since  the curriculum and associated textbooks are  mandatory.  The current English textbook, for example, is too difficult for students to follow, but across the country teachers are obliged to teach textbook lessons in sequence, whether or not the children understand it.  It is heartbreaking to see, as I have, young people in English lessons struggle with words and ideas well beyond their capacity but, following the social norms of obedience and conformity, accepting their passive role in repeating words they do not understand or writing sentences that might as well be in code.  One of my current projects is to help the Ministry to develop a more effective English curriculum.  It is a real privilege to be involved in this work.

My position also gives me an overview of Cambodian education.  There are some very positive signs:   about 40% of the population is in some form of education;   the govt continues to expand the teaching force;  most indicators show great progress over the last decade;  many government policies, such as ‘Child Friendly Schools’, are progressive and, if implemented, will lead to real positive change over a twenty year period.  I have also met many extremely able and hardworking people at every level in education.   There are also some very real challenges:   educational standards are improving but lag well behind those of its neighbours;  there is great inequality, with extensive pockets of rural poverty;  higher education is not well matched to employment needs (a fantastically large percentage of University students are studying management and accounting, areas in which there are few job opportunities);  progression from basic education into higher or technical education is unbalanced and unequal;  the integrity of examinations in school and higher education is compromised by the sale of papers and model answers prior to examination; private schools for children of the educated elite flourish while accountability across public sector is uneven.

Currently VSO Cambodia is reviewing its strategy for the next five years.  Hopefully by the end of those five years, it can withdraw from supporting Cambodia’s education system.  Meantime there is still good work to be done by experienced volunteers.

Phnom Penh, 22nd January 2011

On family car journeys, we used to play ‘I spy with my little eye’, a game which is possible only when there is a certain familiar predictability to the landscape or cityscape seen from the car window.   It is a game you could not play in Cambodia, where even a big eye would struggle with the variety of what it spies.  Seen from the window on a short recent bus journey: first, we pass ten bullock carts overloaded with pottery wares packed in straw.  On the other side, we are passed in turn by a rusting yellow Daewoo Minibus, 25 people crammed on to its 14 seats, four or five more up top.  They sit directly on the roof with no anchoring to hold on to, casually confident.   Behind them, the rear door is swung up to horizontal to allow the maximum number of boxes, crated livestock and luggage to be crammed in behind the back seat.  Hanging on at the back, a motor bike bounces up and down on elasticated straps.  Coming towards us is a procession of trucks, full of garment factory workers, faces masked by brightly coloured sun hats with wraparound scarves so that only the eyes can be seen.  They stand in rows, sculpted one body into the body in front and the one behind, knees pressing into knees, curves fitting curves.  Only the heads do not touch.  Transport is used to maximum efficiency.   A common sight is a family of five on a motor bike, Mum at the back, perched on, two children in school uniform squeezed in the middle, Dad in front, one hand holding the throttle gently, the other holding his mobile phone – but not to worry as a two year old in brightly patterned pink pyjamas is standing on his knees.   Staring straight ahead, alert to all that is going on – the tuktuks which swerve without warning across the road, the pony traps which refuse to move aside for faster traffic, the hordes of bicycles emerging from school at lunchtime – she has both hands on the handlebars, looking for all the world as if she is in control of the motorbike.   But why look at what is on the road when you are passing shocking green rice fields, water glinting in a bright sun;  ponds full of freshly opened lotus flowers; palm trees swaying against a light blue sky;  wooden houses on stilts offset by shimmering white pagodas with tiered orange roofs?  And everywhere, people: saffron-robed monks with sun umbrellas, roadside stallholders sleeping in their conveniently slung hammocks, men in animated conversation under a banyan tree and children in uniform going to or coming from school..  I saw two little girls of seven or eight, white frilly puff-sleeved blouses and navy blue pleated skirts that they will grow into next year, walking arm in arm, heads gently resting against each other, oblivious to the world around them, intent on their conversation;  best friends walking home together under the Cambodian sun.

Phnom Penh, 23rd December 2010

(this one will appear in the Times Ed on 28th Jan)

When I first arrived in Cambodia as VSO volunteer,  I received a brief ‘in-country training’. One of the sessions involved a briefing from British Embassy staff.  It was frank. We were told that Cambodia is a “low income, post-conflict, low governance, fragile state’.  This surely doesn’t sound like a country looking forward, yet all around me I see people with a vision of a better future, expressed most clearly in the commitment of parents and government alike to  education – the 95% enrolment rate in primary school, 83% of whom complete all 6 Grades, represents great progress.  Most of the time we volunteers focus on the negative:  5% not enrolled, poor attendance or high drop-out rates (particularly in remote rural areas), variable quality in teaching, poor progression rates into secondary schools, pupil:teacher ratio of 49:1.  But we should also take the longer view and realise just how far Cambodia has come over the past decade.  At the heart of Cambodia’s educational improvement is the ‘Child Friendly Schools’ policy (http://tinyurl.com/249hyk ).  Its ‘six dimensions’ provide a template for schooling that would be hard to beat anywhere in the world:  access, effective teaching and learning, child health and safety, gender equality, community engagement and quality management and support systems.

Using ‘CFS’ as the foundation, the Cambodian government has set ambitious targets for further improvement:  UN Millenium Development Goal 2 (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/index.shtml) aims for universal primary education for all by 2015.  The Cambodian Education Ministry has increased that target to universal secondary education (to Grade 9 / age 15) for all.   They count on the support of the many NGOs and aid agencies which flourish in Cambodia.   I choose the work ‘flourish’ carefully.  Living and working in Phnom Penh it is hard not to be aware of how deeply aid agencies have penetrated Cambodia’s economic and social life.  On my short (and eventful) cycle to work, I pass Save the Children Norway, the UN Food Programme, WHO, NZ and Australian volunteer centres, Aide et Action, HIV charities.   In visiting Cambodian schools, I have encountered buildings built with Japanese and Korean aid, libraries equipped by charities passionate about reading (SIPAR, Room to Read), early literacy materials from Belgian charity BETT, teacher training materials from the Flemish charity VVOB, experiments in online learning from ‘Connected Schools’.  Conferences I have attended have been supported by UNICEF,  SIDA, World Education, the ILO and USAid.   Local NGOs have also developed apace, ranging from Hagar or Friends, which educate street children in useful job skills through enterprising fundraising, to KAPE, which is entrusted with significant USAid funds to deliver basic educational improvements.   Each offers something different, to a different part of the country or a different client group – the special contribution of VSO is not money, or resources, but skilled people.   The ‘Child Friendly Schools’ policy provides a common agenda for Ministry and aid agencies to work together.  There are problems in this ‘low governance, fragile state’, but also cause for optimism in the smiling faces of Cambodian schoolchildren.

Phnom Penh, Saturday 18th December 2010

.. how cool can you be ..

This one appeared in the Guardian Weekly, 18th Feb 2011

It’s a cool Friday afternoon of around 20 degrees.  I am nearing home on my city cycle and stop at traffic lights but, as usual, not everyone wants to stop.  A scooter, liveried in shocking pink and white, follows a couple of other bikes into the opposite lane and rounding us all, crashes the red light and bullies its way into the deep stream of motorbikes swarming South.  There are only two passengers on the seat behind the woman driver.  They are also young women, with that haughty sassy style of young women anywhere.  They sit side saddle, perfectly aware of exactly how they look with their tight short skirts, right legs crossed over left and high heels hanging suspended in mid-air.  For all the world they could be sitting on a park bench – so casual.  One of them is checking her nails.  The other is sweeping her waist length hair back over her shoulder.   The scooter forces its way into the centre of the traffic stream and we obedient citizens who stopped at the lights watch it crash, in slow motion, into another bike which has had to move towards it to avoid an SUV pushing in from the wrong side of the road.   Might is right on the streets of Phnom Penh.  There’s a metallic crashing sound, some bits of trim are torn off, and bike and scooter hit the road at slow speed.   Three policemen, who have watched the whole thing, call the innocent rider who has now stood up and tried to restart his bike, over to the side of the road where they are standing.   They must have decided that they cannot make money out of this, as they impatiently wave him on.   He picks up the bits of trim that fell on the road, weaving his way back through the traffic, and carries on his way.  The two girls, scarcely batting an eyelid as the bike falls to the ground, have jumped nonchalantly off their side saddle pose and stand in the middle of the traffic looking first at their driver, then at the other bikes swarming all around like so many wasps.  Not a hair is out of place.  They wiggle their rear ends as they pull down their skirts, and when the scooter is back to vertical, they sit on, cross legs in time, like synchronised swimmers, toss their heads back to settle their hair, and disappear in the stream of traffic.   Everything you want to know about Cambodian city society is somehow found in the traffic of Phnom Penh – social conformity mixed in with anarchic individualism, the sassy style of the young Cambodian women turning heads, the indifference of the police to law enforcement, the motorbike as an extra limb seemingly surgically attached to the body, the inability of old cultural ways to cope with the challenges of the modern world.  If I was a Cambodian policeman, I too would just stand and watch.  Another fascinating Friday afternoon in Phnom Penh.

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6 thoughts on “Letters from Cambodia

  1. Hello Danny

    an impressive painted word picture of traffic, girls and the attitude of the law enforcers, which reminds me of my scary experiences in Cairo on that unsuccessful partnership expedition!
    You have yet another string to your bow with this “cultural impressions “debut, which has brightened up a dull late December afternoon.
    I hope you are having a good wee holiday with the family.

    Love from Jennifer

    • Hi Jennifer
      Nice to know you’re still there!!
      We’re off to Siem Reap today and the temples of Angkor Wat!
      After New Year I’m not sure what we will do.
      Hope 2011 brings your family happiness and prosperity!!
      D

  2. Loving the letters Danny. I really like your writing style- engaging, colourful and lively – athough I don’t think I’m in a position to critique it, but you did ask for feedback! Lesley.

    • thanks Lesley! heard you had a nice walk on Sunday and felt quite jealous of a cold misty atmospheric Scottish wnter day. It’s not rained in Phnom Penh since December 17th!! D

      Best wishes

      Daniel Murphy

      VSO Technical Adviser Dept of Curriculum Development Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport Personal Mobile: 078809938 VSO in Cambodia: 023216734 http://www.vso.org.uk

  3. I’ve really enjoyed your letters Danny and have passed on messages to various former colleagues to look out for them in TESS. I’m sure there’s a series or a wee book in there somewhere, especially for a Modern Studies class or for a comparative education text.

    I also read your piece in TESS about school governance – left all the other comments standing. If you have seen the recent news about changes in school inspection in Scotland, I hope you see in there the influence of your series of articles on the inspectorate.
    I’m sure you could make a fine living from writing when you are home.

    You’ve had an eventful 5 months, with lots still to do by the sound of it. Enjoy your journeys with Joan in April. My most exciting event , the birth of my 4th grandchild, is imminent. Will send you a photo when I recover!

    Love from Jennifer

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