Students bear much of the burden for their education

June 1, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

By Jayshri S. Patel

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – Dam Samnang jumps on the back of her sister’s motorbike for the ride home from her voluntary English-conversation class. Up and back, the trip’s about an hour – same as the class.

The sisters are typical of young Cambodians struggling to become educated. From long, dusty rides on the back of a motorbike, to working one or more jobs, to fulfilling the volunteering responsibilities of scholarships, these students bear the burden willingly.

Two young Cambodian girls walk together to school on Thursday, May 27, 2010 in a town near Siem Reap, Cambodia. All children in the public school system are required to wear the uniform of navy pants and skirts and a white shirt. (Photo/Frances Micklow, micklowfm@gmail.com)

It took the Khmer Rouge just five years to destroy this country’s school system. When they were done, only 54 teachers remained alive, according to experts at Yale, who wrote that “the KhmerRouge were against education in principle and preferred to rule over illiterate people.”

Two generations later, the Khmer Rouge is but a harsh memory and a new, government-run, school system is in place, including primary, secondary, and higher education.

But the system struggles.

The World Bank ranks educational attainment as low throughout Cambodia. Some 50-60 percent of students drop out in the transition from primary to secondary school. UNESCO says the two most common reasons are “the inability of parents to afford school supplies and the [labor lost to parents] when sending children to school.”

If Cambodia ever hopes to join the Asian economic tigers that surround it – Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam – experts say it must boost educational attainment. Despite government effort, much of the burden is on the children.

Muong Savon, a parent and vice-chief teacher at Krous Primary School, talks with me under the shade of a tree outside the school. “Children have big responsibilities if they want to come to school,” she said. “They must work at home as well as at school.”

One of them is Yiv Chhayleang, who graduated from high school at the age of twenty. But his childhood and adolescent years were not just about going to school and studying. Chhay had responsibilities. In those thirteen years of primary, secondary, and high school, from the age of seven, Chhay had to help his family plant and harvest crops, help his mother cook, take care of two little sisters, sell goods at the market, and prepare food for monks at a monastery.

His motivation was simple: leave home, move to the city so that his life would not be like his parents.

I asked Chhay if his parents motivated him to study. “My father just [said] that if I go to school I will know how to read the signs in the city.” Chhay thinks that people who live in the city live longer.

Chea Channary, whom I know as Nary, is a scholarship student at Build Bright University here, studying project management. She works at a B&B as an accountant and receptionist. On top of work and study, Nary volunteers three to five hours a week for a microfinance project run by a local non-profit organization.

“I decided to run away from home to live, [study] and work in Siem Reap,” Nary told me. She is a quiet but determined young woman. She refused to abandon her studies even when her stepmother told her to stay home and care for her stepsister.

Nary knows that educating herself is up to her.

“Education in Cambodia is so difficult,” she said. “Kids have [three] responsibilities even [when] they are just in primary school,” work to earn money, help at home, and study.

Dam Samnang and her older sister, Dam Barang, turn away when I ask them about their futures. “I do not know my plans,” said Dam Samnang. But she knows she’ll continue to attend the four-times-a-week English conversation classes.

“I want,” she said, “to study.”

Traveling in Cambodia

May 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Is it the adventure of a lifetime? It may be the first great adventure, but it’s sure to set these students up for more.

Professor John Greenman from the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication has spent the month of May in Cambodia with 10 UGA students working on a travel writing course. The Maymester program is based in Siem Reap, best known for its Angkor temples, including Angkor Wat. The students take two classes a day, go on three-to-five hour reporting trips, and then write.

“It’s a stunning pace,” Greenman said, “especially in 105-degree heat.”

They have been posting regular updates to their online blog and now have their final pieces online.

Students are, front (l-r): Elliot Ambrose, Cindy Austin and Colin Tom. Back (l-r): Jayshri Patel, Beth Pollak, Elizabeth Wilson, Kema Hodge, Frances Micklow, Brianna Randall, and Nicole Meadows.

With knockoff, pirated and smuggled goods, you get what you pay for

May 28, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

By Elliot Ambrose

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – The movie starts to skip then freezes. I’m an hour into The Killing Fields, but now the DVD stops working. Tapping the side of the player and cleaning the disc doesn’t help. The picture on the screen remains frozen. Chances are it is because the disc is an illegal copy that was bought at the Old Market here.

The lines blur between legal and illegal commerce in Cambodia. Merchants produce and sell unauthorized goods. Knockoffs and pirated or smuggled products are not sold in dark alleyways or from the trunks of cars. Instead, they are openly available in markets, on street corners, or even in retail shops.

Workers quickly sort through the rows of counterfit movies to find the one the buyer is looking for on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo/Frances Micklow, micklowfm@gmail.com)

With major label brands such as Louis Vuitton, The North Face, and Giorgio Armani available in the 20 shops I visited, one might think that the Old Market is a high-end strip mall or a collection of boutiques. But it’s not: the Old Market is a dim, un-air-conditioned jumble of stalls selling clothes, accessories and smelly, unrefrigerated, meat.

The products offered here are imitations, or knockoffs, and their cost and quality reflects this. I was able to buy a backpack with a The North Face label and similar styling for $7, less than a tenth of what I would pay in the United States. While I saved myself from spending $85 or more for a comparable pack, I noticed that the zippers are faulty and that the stitching on the seams is weak.

Despite the knowledge that the products are not genuine, many market-goers still opt for such goods. Tourism is Cambodia’s fastest growing industry and every year nearly a million visitors to Siem Reap flock to the markets to take advantage of prices that are far below those in the United States. When I asked an Australian traveler, who was looking to purchase a large Deuter camping backpack, what he thought about knockoff goods, he said  that it was great because he could buy souvenirs and gifts for his friends at a low price and that it didn’t really bother him that the products were not  authentic. When I asked a shop owner if the Ray-Ban sunglasses she was selling were real, she smiled sheepishly and simply replied, “Copy.”

Such branding infringement is more infrequent in the United States but in Cambodia, neither buyer nor seller seems to be concerned with the ethics or legality of the situation. It seems that as long as tourists are willing to buy the imitation products, they will be easy available.

If you buy a movie in Cambodia, there is a very good chance that it is a pirated copy. Movie and music piracy is commonplace and shops openly sell counterfeit copies of both local and foreign films and music CD’s. Some shops, although perhaps only as large as a small office cubicle, rival the selection available at an American Blockbuster and house numerous shelves of discs.

Walking through one such shop, I was amazed to find American movies, released just weeks before in the United States, packaged into little plastic folders and slapped with labels that appeared to have been made on a home computer and photocopied. The shop owner, noticing my interest, approached me and began gesturing to the wide variety of titles. I grabbed Sherlock Holmes, a recent release, and asked her what the price was. She told me it was $2 dollars but that if I bought three movies, she’d knock off a $1. I could expect to pay at least $20 in the United States.

I also noticed that the shop offered a variety of pirated software and video games as well. Programs such as Windows 7 and Photoshop were on display for $5 dollars apiece and popular American gaming software filled the space of several racks.

When asked about her inventory, the woman smiled nervously and shook her head. Either she didn’t understand me or she didn’t wish to discuss the details of her business with a foreigner. I asked again, hinting that I would normally pay much more in the U.S. for such products, but again she dismissed my question. She seemed more interested in a sale than an interview.

Cambodia produces virtually none of the knockoff or pirated consumer goods that are sold within the country. According to the Economic Institute of Cambodia, almost everything enters through the border from Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Many of these products are smuggled into the country.

One product that is commonly smuggled into Cambodia is petrol. Bottles of the yellowish liquid are displayed on roadside stands and outside of homes and, despite being illegal, are available practically everywhere.

Returning from the market area late one night, the tuk tuk I was riding in sputtered and then died, out of gas. Luckily, we were right across the street from a stand with several Johnnie Walker one-liter bottles full of illegal gasoline.

“Sorry, it’s not my bike,” said the driver. “We need to go across the street.”

We pushed the cart across the street to the stand where the driver shelled out a few thousand riels and, in no time, we were back on the road. For an illegal transaction it was casual and efficient.

“The police don’t really care,” said Dare, another tuk tuk driver.

He admitted to buying the gas regularly and explained how some Cambodians will take it out into the countryside to sell it at marked up prices. He told me that the gasoline in the bottles is leaded and is bad for the motorbike engines, but because it is so cheap most Cambodians prefer to purchase from stands rather than gas stations that provide unleaded fuel.

Why the Scotch whiskey bottles?

“It’s easy to measure out one liter that way,” said Dare.

While smuggled gas is used primarily by Cambodians, other products illegally make their way into the country and into the hands of tourists. In 2006 report released by a think tank of the EIC, $22 million dollars were lost in tax revenue from the smuggling of beer and cigarettes.

The availability of cheap goods in Cambodia, despite being counterfeit or illegal, is a major draw for tourists and a major source of income for Cambodian people. It is up to the consumer to decide what ethical or moral implications the purchase of such goods creates. Additionally, they must understand that these products will have their drawbacks. A knockoff Gucci handbag is not going to be crafted as well as the genuine article for Italy. A pirated DVD may not play all the way through to the end. Smuggled leaded gasoline will eventually destroy an engine. While prices are great for tourists in Cambodia, you end up getting what you pay for.

Choosing to become a monk for religious – and practical – reasons

May 28, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

By Elizabeth Wilson

SIEM REAP, Cambodia –As we sat on his blue and green bamboo mat, I asked Huot Sothy why he became a Buddhist monk.

“Because I wanted to learn,” he said.

We are in Wat Rajabo, a Buddhist monastery here. Wearing his bright saffron robes, he fidgeted with a spool of red thread as he answered my questions.

A Buddhist Monk poses outside a tower of the Ta Prohm temple on Friday, May 14, 2010 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo/Frances Micklow, micklowfm@gmail.com)

Huot has been a monk for eight years. He is from the countryside, and his village only provides schooling until the eighth grade. As a poor child from a rural area, becoming a monk was his chance not only for a religious life but also for a fuller education.

In a country with high levels of poverty and illiteracy, monastic life turns out to be a pivotal tool in developing an educated class. In addition to strengthening their spirituality, young men with a hunger for education, but no opportunities to fulfill it, become monks to study.

Much like young Americans who enlist in the military for the educational benefits, many young Cambodians choose to become Buddhist monks for the same reason. Becoming a Buddhist monk need not mean a vocation for the rest of one’s life. Just as many American soldiers leave the military to go on to do other things, Buddhist monks may leave when they wish – and many do.

Before Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863, this idea of education in a Buddhist monastery, using monks as teachers, was the only formal education available in Cambodia. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, from 1975 to 1979, 90 percent of all teachers in Cambodia were killed. Now Cambodia works to reestablish its education system. With only 50 university teachers and 207 secondary school teachers left in all of Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge and with an illiteracy rate of more than 40 percent, Cambodians returned to the idea of monasteries as a main source of education for young men.

Since the late 1980s, the number of monks and novices in Cambodia rose from 8,000 to more than 60,000 today. This 7.5-fold growth in almost two generations reflects the hunger for education among young Cambodian men. It reflects that monastic life is the way to satisfy this hunger. Buddhist schools are almost the same as traditional government schools, but they have four additional subjects, Pali, Sanskrit, Buddhism and Meditation, that pertaining to Buddhism.

This cycle of monastic life as a fix for those craving education begins in rural Cambodia, where hundreds of villages lack functioning primary and secondary schools. Sokhoun Tui, a monk of 13 years, explained that monks are “less from the city, more from the country.” Modern monks tend to come from rural areas.

When I asked Sen Santhou, a city boy who grew up in Phnom Penh, whether he had been a monk, he laughed and explained, “City boys don’t become monks; country boys – yes.” As a boy from the city with a good private school education, there was no need for him to look into monastic life.

On the other hand, Sokhoun Tui, was permitted schooling only until the eighth grade. Afterwards, he had to work for his parents. He looked to monastic life to further his education and now as a Buddhist monk studies a lot. Sokoun is going to study English at a college in Seattle this upcoming year. Because he is a monk, his tuition is funded by donations as well as by the government. He is given this opportunity because he is a monk.

Even Sokhoun Tui explained that after he studies in Seattle, he will stop being a monk so that he can work for a Non-governmental organization. Just like the military, those that want to get educated enlist, with hopes of one day leaving the ranks to pursue their dreams.

Chhiev Hoy is an example of this. He explained, “I was forced to be military, but I didn’t want to. I got a better education when I was a monk.”

When Chhiev was young in the late 1980s, the Khmer Rouge attempted to move some 15,000 Cambodian refugees into Thailand to control zones inside or close to Cambodia. Chhiev’s uncle was in the military, and when Chhiev was forced to go to into the military, his uncle issued him fake papers. Chhiev escaped to a monastery. “So I became an illegal novice,” he joked.

He completed his entire education as a Buddhist monk, and when he felt his time was done, he left monastic life to become a tour guide. The English he learned in monastery served him well as he guided us down the Tonle Sap. Because his village only allowed for his education through primary school, Chhiev became a novice and continued on to be a monk, completing the education that he wanted. His monastic education helps him be successful today, even after he took off his saffron robes.

Uong Sauuth, a monk of 13 years, was the principal of the Buddhist high school at Wat Rajabo. He explained, “When you arrive in Cambodia, you see a lot of poor people. They do not have the ability to study. When I was a boy, I had no time to study because I had to work at home. I studied but only until grade four, then I helped my family. I must become a monk because a monk has a chance to study also.” Even at a young age, Uong understood the practical benefits of monastic life.

This is the common mentality among young men in areas without sufficient schools. Uuong told me that in his small village, they had “only primary school. No junior, no high school. So if you wanted to study – you became a monk.” When I asked about his students in the monastery, he explained that “most of them from poor family who have to study here, the rich family do not want to study here because they have money to study in private school.”

In a country that is recreating their entire educational system, monastic life is a solution. Monasteries create a highly educated class that would have otherwise dropped out of school at a young age. In addition to the spiritual side of monastic life, becoming a monk has very tangible educational benefits that are quite practical. For many poor men from rural areas of Cambodia, monastic life is their only opportunity for an education past primary school.

As Huot Sothy and I sat on the blue bamboo mat on the porch at Wat Rajabo, he explained the hunger for education that he shared with many of his monk brothers. When I asked Huot if he intended to be a monk forever, he looked down and said, “I do not know.” I couldn’t help thinking about the others that I have met that took their education and ran. Maybe Hout will go on to leave the monastery and have a family, taking his education with him, or perhaps he will don his saffron robes forever.

When it comes to small business loans, women are preferred

May 28, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Brianna Randall

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – About two minutes into a small village sits a house built of bamboo. A college-age loan officer named Lida Reach approaches the owner of a vegetable stand, a Khmer woman named Sopheaktra. In her hand is the weekly payment against her $250 loan, which she gives to Reach in exchange for a receipt.

Yuem sweeps the concrete floor outside of her house in a squatter village in Siem Reap, Cambodia on Monday, May 10, 2010. Yuem recieves microfinance from JWOC. (Photo/Frances Micklow, micklowfm@gmail.com)

This scene repeats dozens of times each week in this historic, Cambodian city, where women like Sopheaktra, who own the bulk of the country’s small, often informal, businesses, are the microfinance industry’s most-frequent, least-risk borrowers.

Developed over the last 50 years, microfinance institutions have, according to global micro-lender Kiva, lent more than $2.5 billion to 16 million people worldwide. Cambodia is one of the most rapidly developing microfinance areas in the world according to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. Here in Siem Reap, the micro-lending nonprofit, Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC), focuses on women like Sopheaktra who are the “poorest of the poor” in Cambodia.

Camilla McArthur, a JWOC managing director, said the organization prefers lending to female borrowers.

“Why?” I asked.

“Women are just better,” McArthur said.

In fact, several studies on women’s role in microfinance, including one by Allianz, conclude that women are more likely to repay their debt, cooperate more effectively, and make the micro-institutions themselves more efficient.

Brandon Ross, co-founder of JWOC, identified other reasons that make female borrowers more desirable.

“Women are more tied to their community,” said Ross. As the homemaker facing greater pressure to act responsibly and provide for her family, the woman of a household is less likely to leave her surroundings and neglect her duties, lowering the lending risk for JWOC. “It just makes sense,” said Ross.

The nonprofit requires that each borrowing group have a female leader to ensure repayment timeliness among her members.

McArthur arranged for me to meet with JWOC borrowers and observe.

I accompanied Sokly Nem, a JWOC scholarship student and loan officer. Following her into a general store in the heart of a small village, I saw behind the small display of goods and products an elderly woman and the owner, Tepchu.

“She [has] borrow[ed] from JWOC five times, and she [is] a group leader,” Sokly said. She then took the borrower’s weekly payment in riel. With six more weeks until her loan is repaid, Tepchu plans to borrow again to replenish her inventory, which was visibly low.

“Good customer,” said Sokly after finishing the paperwork.

Later, with Reach and Sophon Bros, another JWOC loan officer, I met another borrower. After riding down the dirt road of a village and walking past dozens of chickens, we found the home of Phon, a vendor in Siem Reap’s Old Market.

While Reach sat at the wooden table with Phon to take and document her group’s weekly payment of 19,600 riel, about $3.80, Bros praised the borrower. Despite caring for four children, one of which requires constant medical attention, Phon has a perfect borrowing record with JWOC, said Bros.

“Never miss,” said Reach, showing me her weekly records. “Next loan, she [will] probably borrow again because her payments [are] so good,” predicted Bros. “When we collect from her, [it’s] so easy for us.”

Female clients like these are the reason that, for the most-recent loan cycle, the organization achieved 100 percent repayment from its borrowers.

NGOs like JWOC serve 35 percent of microfinance clients worldwide but, according to the Center of Financial Inclusion, commercial banks provide 60 percent.

ACLEDA is one of the 15 commercial banks in Cambodia that makes microloans and, according to the Asia Resource Center for Microfinance, the only one that operates in rural areas of the country.

My interpreter, Nary Chea, and I visited an ACLEDA branch in Siem Reap. During the long and bumpy tuk-tuk ride, she explained the difference between services from an institution like JWOC and those from banks like ACLEDA.

“Most rural people don’t go to the big banks. Sometimes, ACLEDA will offer lower interest rates than a place like that,” she said, pointing to a local microfinance office that we happened to pass by at the moment.

“But,” she continued, “ACLEDA wants a lot of collateral, and most small businesses don’t have it.”

Sok Rattana, ACLEDA’s assistant manager, told us ACLEDA requires a substantial amount like land, major equipment, buildings and large amounts of inventory.

Though ACLEDA’s borrowers are still 60 percent female, collateral requirements hinder small businesswomen as, according to Chea, “the men usually own land and equipment.”

According to McArthur, some women have the sufficient amount of collateral to work with a bank but fear losing it. “If they do, that’s their whole life gone,” said McArthur.

According to the International Labour Office, microfinance institutions serve fewer female clients upon becoming commercial banks and setting standards that tailor to the large-scale business sector dominated by men.

The main criticism of micro-lending, according to the New York Times, is high costs.

JWOC’s annual interest rate is 24 percent.

“I know it’s high,” McArthur said, “but with local lenders, the interest could be 25, 50 or even 100 percent.” ACLEDA’s rate is 30 percent.

Some banks do charge as much as 100 percent interest. But experts identify only a small percentage of institutions as the profit-seekers and still consider microfinance an effective alleviation for the “worst blows of poverty.”

Last week marked the beginning of JWOC’s next six-month loan cycle. I peered through the glass doors of JWOC to see a room filled with local applicants. All but three were women. Of the 190 applications that JWOC received for business loans, 94 percent were submitted by female business owners. Only two of the 36 accepted into the program were male.

Despite these numbers, female empowerment through microfinance is still limited. Though 79 million women were provided microcredit in year 2006 alone, the International Alliance of Women estimates that only 5 to 8 percent of women in financial need have been served.

A prime example of this unreached population is a 52-year old woman who applied to JWOC’s microfinance program in January 2010. Though she only requested $150 to better her rice and noodle soup stand, she presented an unpromising business plan. When the microfinance team went to observe her business, they found it closed, leaving her unemployed. As a result, she, along with other informal businesswomen around the world, was rejected.

Palm sugar: How sweet it is

May 28, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Beth Pollak

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – Chart Chean, the patriarch and primary palm juice collector for his rural Cambodian family, hiked up the red shorts under his green krama, whipping off the traditional scarf-skirt in the process. He strapped a thick woven belt around his waist, a sheath for his large knife. It was business time – time to scale a sugar palm tree to retrieve the sweet juice from the fruits.

A few days earlier, curiosity got the best of me. I asked my tuk-tuk driver to pull over so I could see what was being sold in palm frond-encased packages outside of nearly every house on our 25-mile journey to Banteay Srei temple. The familiar praline-like taste transported me back to my South Georgia home. Hooked now by this confection, I set up a reporting trip to visit a rural sugar palm farmer. The first house we stopped at belonged to the Chart family, and they agreed – with traditional Khmer hospitality – to show me the whole process of palm sugar production.

Chart Chean gathers the palm juice out of the containers that surround the flowers of the tree on Thursday, May 20, 2010 in a village near Siem Reap, Cambodia. The palm juice is the key step in the production of palm sugar. (Photo/Frances Micklow, micklowfm@gmail.com)

I was about to learn what every Cambodian knows: the sugar palm tree has something foreveryone.

***

The sugar palm tree, Borassus flabellifer, is the national tree of Cambodia, so decreed in 2005 by King Norodom Sihamoni. No wonder, given its uses. The root is used in traditional medicines that are said to treat illnesses ranging from malaria to STDs to measles. The wood is used in house construction and for furniture. The leaves are used for thatching in the roofs and walls of traditional Cambodian homes. And the fruits are where the juice is produced – the source of the palm syrup and sugar. Palm sugar is a healthier alternative to its cane equivalent. It has a low glycemic index, meaning it is a slow-release energy source and won’t produce the infamous sugar high. It is also full of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, potassium and vitamin C.

No wonder the plant Cambodians call “thnoat” surrounds the majestic Angkor Wat temple.

***

The hardest part of palm juice collection is also the first: securing a length of bamboo with string to the trunk, which is more than 30 feet tall. Some use the natural offshoots on the bamboo as footholds, but others attach wider rungs from other pieces of bamboo to the ladder. For adjacent trees, collectors – or “neak lerng thnoat” in Khmer – use bamboo to make canopy-high walkways, saving the time it would take to descend one tree and ascend its neighbor.

I noticed as Chean climbed the 40-foot tree that there was a wooden hook on the back of his belt, but by that time he was too high up for me to ask about its purpose. He took 30 seconds to scale the palm – 15 of which were spent posing partway up the tree for photos. Then, out of sight high in the fronds, he began collecting the juice that had dripped into seven different soda bottles since he retrieved the previous night’s bounty just five hours earlier. He then climbed back down the bamboo ladder with a bottle of juice dangling from his belt hook.

The hook also turned out to be a place to hang his clamping instruments. Chean must climb to the top of the tree each morning for 10 days to “massage” the fruits with his tools for four to five minutes each. This process softens the fruit, making juice flow easier. On each bunch, he keeps some of the flowers intact to grow into fruit. He cuts others off.

“If I clamp all three, the juice isn’t as good,” he said through an interpreter.

The male and female fruits – which look dramatically different – require two different clamping devices. Both instruments are made from any light wood to make them easier to carry up the tree. The tool to squeeze the male fruit looks like flattened tongs, about three inches wide and 20 inches long. The instrument for female fruits is made of two round sticks, about an inch and a half in diameter.

On the end of the 10th day, Chean will cut off the small young fruit. He then hangs a water-filled container beneath the fruit to collect the juice. A natural bamboo tube, about five inches in diameter and one foot long, is used at night, when more juice is produced. Chean uses a two-liter soda or water bottle – bought from the market – to collect the smaller amount of liquid produced during the day. Dozens of both the bamboo and plastic containers hang all around and within his family’s stilted house. Both types of tube require a two-inch long chunk of bark from the pohpel tree, which makes the juice sweeter and prevents unwanted fermentation.

***

After collection, Chean poured us each a glass of the milky-yellow juice. The fresh-from-the-tree liquid was warm and had the slightly-tart taste of coconut juice, but sweeter.

The rest of the fluid – that which is not consumed as juice or fermented into palm wine or vinegar – is used for sugar production. Chean’s wife, Rin, stirred the liquid with a three-foot-long stick to a frothy white boil in a large silver bowl over a fire. The bowl is around two feet in diameter and six inches deep. Rin uses any type of wood for the fire, which burns from a hole in a dirt mound reinforced with bricks.

Once the juice began boiling, Rin removed the bowl from the dirt stove and stirred the liquid constantly for about 30 minutes. The juice solidified, turning from a pale yellow liquid to a molasses-brown syrup. Rin then scraped the confection into recycled plastic jars.

***

Chean estimated that his 12 sugar palms produce about 100 liters (26.4 gallons) of juice per day, which translates into about 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of sugar. With one kilogram equal to 3000 riel (about $0.75), the family could potentially earn over $10 in a day – if all the sugar they made was sold each day. The Chart family’s customers consist of both tourists and locals. The Khmer buyers purchase jars of liquid sugar, while tourists eat up the frond-wrapped solid sugar packs. Chean said business is not regular, so he never knows how much money he’ll make in a day – if any.

***

When Rin got to the bottom of the bowl, scraping the last remnants of syrup into her jar, the kids swarmed to get a taste – bringing to mind the image of Western children licking the bowl after Mom makes a cake or brownies. Seven of them ran in with palm leaves, or just their fingers, to sneak a sample. Rin shooed them away, laughing, but it was no use. Even the new puppy managed to lick the bowl clean once the kids – and I – finished tasting the sweet, satisfying confection with our makeshift utensils. Everyone got to have a hand in the palm sugar process, even if the role was simply enjoying the sweetness

Helping a clean-water team in a rural village

May 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Frances Micklow

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – Our tuk-tuk stopped outside of a cluster of palm-leaf thatched, stilted houses that form the village of Kork Por. Motorbike exhaust mixed with the smell of animals and cooking. We broke off into our assigned groups and began a key step in the process of providing this village with better access to clean water.

An estimated 21,000 Cambodians die each year due to unsanitary water. Groups like Journeys Within Our Community, a Siem Reap based non governmental organization, are bringing clean water, sanitation and hygiene education to villages like Kork Por.

Reath Kanha and Kunthy So, JWOC scholarship students, work through a baseline survey with a member of a Kork Por village family on Sunday, May 22, 2010, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The village family is scheduled to recieve a new well through JWOC's clean water project. (Photo/Frances Micklow, micklowfm@gmail.com)

The problem is worldwide: an estimated 884 million people – about one in every eight – lack access to clean water. One-tenth of global disease could be prevented by improvements in watermanagement and hygiene.

Brandon and Andrea Ross saw the need for cleaner water in the Siem Reap and in 2006 launched JWOC’s clean water project. JWOC’s scholarship students, required to volunteer five to 10 hours a week, facilitate the project. The students receive “clean water officer” training and provide much of the work that goes into carrying the project through.

I spent a day with a student surveying team. One student interviews the villagers and writes the condition and usage of the well. Another takes pictures of the well while another reads the GPS coordinates. The day becomes a pattern: house after house, assessment after assessment. We wandered through our portion of the village, finding refuge in whatever shade we could. Sitting down with the head of the household to talk about the state of the well became sitting down with the whole family, livestock included, as the people flocked to the five students dressed in matching black T-shirts.

JWOC next decides which wells get fixed and where to install new ones. “There are a number of steps that try to intervene in the village with the goal of giving them ownership of the resource,” said Andrew Piner, one of JWOC’s managing directors. After the identification and the assessment surveying, the clean water team carries out 10 more steps, from building the wells through the education of the villagers.

Peering down into the large concrete well, the water from deep in the ground was a reddish color. Rust. Another well only produces water in the wet seasons. Dry. Another consists of a mere PVC-pipe pump coming directly out of the dusty ground. Dirty. The people collect water in large concrete jars and plastic buckets. Looking into one of these, a crab and a fish swim in the shallow, murky water. “Tonle Sap pond,” joked one of the students. Despite jokes, the students work towards providing a remedy.

Since 2006, more than 300 new wells have been built and JWOC hopes to reach five new villages this year, averaging 15 to 20 wells per village. JWOC Staff hires a local contractor for the drilling and construction. Visitors of JWOC’s parent project, the Journey Within Bed and Breakfast, help fund the project. However, a small monetary contribution and time commitments are required by the villagers as well. The village chief and JWOC staff members decide an amount, which ranges between $1.20 and $3 a household. “We decided on an amount that is enough so that [the villagers] care, but not enough to be a burden,” Piner says. JWOC requires the villagers’ attendance at hygiene, maintenance, and filter workshops. The contributions create a sense of ownership amongst the people of the village. By feeling such ownership, JWOC believes the people will take better care of both the well and themselves.

While many people visit Cambodia and marvel at the sight of the ancient temples, soaking in the thousands of years of history, they forget about the people that call this place home. Standing in the shade observing a baseline survey, one of the small children ran over to the PVC-pipe pump well. He thrust his hand into the old, brown two-gallon bucket. In a swarm of disturbed flies, the young boy pulls a dirty plastic ladle from the standing water to his mouth, taking a long gulp. The water splashes as the boy drops the ladle back in the bucket and runs back towards the house.

A new well costs $350. But JWOC’s clean water project is more than just wells. “The wells are important,” Piner says. “But they’re not the core of the project. The core is education, giving knowledge so the people can keep with the well and use the water in a beneficial way.” The third step consists of baseline surveys determining the hygiene habits and basic water-related health state of the people. Many of the people living in the villages don’t think about hygiene in the way of what they touch before they eat, how long they leave water out in the open, or how well they cook their food, says Phay Narla, a JWOC scholarship student graduate and employee of Journeys Within. “The education is the key.” All of this, the knowledge and ownership, supports the goal of creating a sustainable charity— one that continues long after the presence of the NGO.

The people of the villages know the benefits wells bring. “With the new well I will feel very excited and happy,” says one Kork Por villager from the comfort of his hammock. “I use the water for shower, for laundry, for cooking.” When speaking with a family who received a JWOC well and training about a month ago in another village, they said that everything with the well and hygiene has been going well. The family says it is easy to keep clean; they can just walk to the well. They keep the filter in the house and bring the water out to drink. They shake the capped, half-full, half-gallon milk jug of water that they have just had with their lunch of rice and pork. “It makes the health better and save money,” says the man of the house, Long Luit. By using all the tools given to the family, they can work more and spend less by preventing sickness, therefore improving their economic situation.

Hungry, hot and exhausted after a long day of surveying, the students and I made our way back to the cluster of motorbikes and the tuk-tuk to head back to JWOC. The countryside disappeared once again behind the towers, tuk tuks and temples of the robust tourist industry of Siem Reap. Even though the village was now out of sight, I knew that the work done that day and the work to come would ensure a better life for the people I met.

Out of the jungle, a smile is born

May 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nicole Meadows

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – An estimated 20,000 children and young adults here are born with a cleft lip or cleft palate.

Sokcheata was one of those children. As the story is told here, she was taken into the woods by her parents, an ill mother and alcoholic father, and abandoned. They did not want a baby with a cleft lip.

Run Reurn displays her adopted daughter, Sokcheata, who was born with cleft lip, on Friday, May 21, 2010 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Sokcheata was abandoned by her parents, and in March received a free surgery to fix her cleft from Operation Smile, an international medical mission, in Phnom Penh. Journeys Within Our Community, a local non-profit organization, sponsored thier trip for the surgery in the capital city. (Photo/Nicole Meadows, nicole.e.meadows@gmail.com)

Cleft lips and cleft palates occur during the early stages of embryonic development – tissues of the lip or palate do not fuse together properly, which creates a gap in the lip or an open channel along the roof of the mouth. Babies have trouble nursing and often develop inner ear infections and speech impediments.

After days alone under the trees, the story goes, Sokcheata was found by a woman named Run Reurn, who cared for and adopted the tiny baby.

“It’s very lucky I found her,” she says.

She smiles at her daughter’s vertical pigtail and excited bounces. Little gold hoop earrings, a waterfall of drool, and wrinkled feet. Yet, without the work of volunteer organizations like Operation Smile, Sokcheata would not be able to smile back.

Corrective surgery for facial deformities is expensive. In the United States it can cost $5,000. But non-profit organizations like Operation Smile are making the cost of surgery affordable, as little as $240, a cost completely paid by donors. Patients can have the surgery for free, as long as they know where to go.

Since 1982, Operation Smile has helped over 135,000 children by providing cost-free medical assistance from volunteers. In the last fiscal year, 12,993 new smiles illuminated the world, 357 of those in Cambodia.

In 2002, at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh, the first Operation Smile Cambodia mission took place. An international volunteer medical team provided 169 surgeries.

Since then, 15 more medical missions have taken place, providing over 1,600 successful operations for Cambodian children. Phnom Penh, the capital, hosts the most missions, but they have also been in Battambang, Sihanoukville, Kampong Cham, and Kampot.

Only once did a mission take place in Siem Reap. However, many children from the area have still been able to receive medical care from Operation Smile.

Journeys Within Our Community, another non-profit organization based here, began a partnership with Operation Smile in November 2009. JWOC identifies itself as attentive to the needs of its community, providing initiatives and support for sustainable projects and education.

One of the needs they noticed was for children with clefts to be in contact with medical resources, so they began to recruit children for trips to Phnom Penh to visit Operation Smile. They announced the opportunity to the local schools and village chiefs. Information spread from there. When candidates come to them, they contact the volunteer doctors and plan the trip.

Reurn heard about the opportunity from a JWOC scholarship student living near her village. She brought Sokcheata to a meeting, and on November 30 they were in the capital city with three other children from Siem Reap’s provinces.

Sokhorn, Graduate Intern and Clean Water Project Intern with JWOC, organized and coordinated the journey south to transformation. It costs JWOC about $200 for a child to travel to Phnom Penh with a family member, and in a country where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, not many can afford to travel. But donors and sponsors, especially Rotary Club chapters, make it happen.

The first step of the procedure is to undergo a screening. Doctors assess the child’s case, determining whether they will be able to operate or not.

At 8 months old, Sokcheata was too small for the operation, and her health was not good enough for it to be safe. Factors like poor health, high surgical risk and medical conditions beyond the capability of the volunteer team disqualify patients.

This mission was Operation Smile Cambodia’s first local mission, meaning the majority of volunteers were from Cambodia. Only three of the 27 were international, a testament of the sustainability training and focused education Operation Smile provides for the countries it comes into.

Doctors and scientists do not fully understand what causes cleft lip and cleft palate. A mother’s health may be a catalyst – malnutrition, sickness, or drug use – but taking folic acid during the first months of pregnancy may reduce the risk of it. One child born with a cleft raises the chances of their siblings having the same affliction by 2 to 4 percent.

In the United States, ultrasounds check for clefts and alert the parents months before birth about what to expect. In Cambodia, limited education, superstition, and inaccessibility of medical facilities make a cleft situation more dangerous for an infant.

Some local Khmers believe that karma is the cause of a cleft lip or palate, a manifestation of badness from life before.

“Do good, you receive good. Do bad, you receive bad,” explains Sokhorn. Greater education is important to change the perceptions of facial deformities and their causes, and to spread the knowledge that there is a way to correct them.

Until Reurn heard about Operation Smile, she did not do anything about her daughter’s cleft lip because she did not know where to go for help.

But she found out where to go, and she was able to get there. Since Sokcheata was unable to have the surgery the first time, in March 2010 she returned to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in a group of ten children from Siem Reap. 108 children from across Cambodia were treated.

A week later, Reurn took Sokcheata to the Angkor Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap for a checkup. The doctors showed her how to clean the healing wound at home. Now all that shows on Sokcheata’s lip is a thread-sized fault line below her left nostril, a shift slight compared to the size of its impact.

“Before, people felt pity. Now they are happy, excited to see this happen. They treat her well,” said Reurn. Her hand spans the area of baby’s belly. “People say really good things about Operation Smile. And about JWOC – how they can engage people and bring them there.”

Before her operation, Sokcheata just talked a little – now she is laughing and dancing, little apsara hands fluffing the air.

Sokhorn and the teams that change lives may be unpaid volunteers, but the difference they make is worth the work.

“I am proud when they smile and have a beautiful life thanks to it.”

The beauty is spreading.

Where fashion is same same, but different

May 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Kema Hodge
SIEM REAP, Cambodia – On my first Friday night here, I found myself in a frenzy of disco strobe lights, green laser lights, disco/techno music, and many people moving to the beat. What I noticed most – and which baffled me – was the clothes. It seemed as though everywhere I turned, I recognized the language on the clothes even though I was not in an English-speaking country.

I set out the next day to understand why the words weren’t written in Khmer – the official language of Cambodia – but rather, in English. My question: Where is the place of American clothing brands in a country where the majority of people, experts say, don’t differentiate between brand names and most can’t read them?

Cambodia’s beauty, rich history and culture interweave themselves in the traditional clothing.

Shirts with english characters and sayings are sold in the Night Market in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo/Frances Micklow, micklowfm@gmail.com)

Kwintessential.com reports that traditional Cambodian attire consists of a sarong, more commonly known as a “sampot,” and the Krama, a checkered, multipurpose scarf. A Khmer fashion blogger wrote that in the distant past, Cambodians didn’t see a need to wear shirts. However, after theFrench colonization, shirts gained popularity. Still, even today, small children and men commonly walk around without a shirt. Political corruptness, wars, and also genocide marked the period between the French colonization of 1863 and the Khmer liberation. Thus, it may hold true what a tour guide named Yiv Chhayleang believes: the younger generation desire to distance themselves from the nation’s all-too-recent history in various ways – one of which is through dress.

Walking through Siem Reap’s marketplace, I see many older Khmer women clothed from head to foot in traditional Cambodian attire. Sitting next to her shop, I notice an older Khmer woman in a long sarong made of light cotton decorated in intricate designs and lovely colors. She fans herself to keep cool in the heat. I also see an older man resting in a hammock wearing a light cotton shirt with short sleeves. He bares his chest openly. In the countryside, I see both men and women wearing sarongs. These traditional pieces do not include a language of any sort – neither Khmer nor English – just intricate designs.

On the other hand, I normally see the younger generation dressed in apparel with words. For instance, one of our B&B’s staff members wore casual clothes one day with English writing and I decided to ask him about it.
“Why do you wear clothes with English writing? I asked 26-year old Phay Narla.

Narla said that he does so just because it is popular and he sees a lot of people wearing it. However, when I asked him if he knew what it meant, he replied that he didn’t really know, just that he liked the style and look of it. I heard this response each time I asked a person in town why they wore an English phrase or brand.
I heard the same explanation when I stopped in the marketplace to talk to a young male about his brightly colored t-shirt and trendy jeans with deliberately cut holes. His hair was spiked. He got the idea from a Cambodian TV show. Also around the marketplace, I spotted a young woman sporting a light tank top under a branded spring jacket with the word ‘Aeropostle’ on the back, a brand I also wear. Another young woman wore Playboy.

It seems to me that the younger generation here strives to be modern and trendy while the older generation prefers to wear traditional attire. I know that all over the world, people in the same country of different ages, regions, social status, and overall fashion sense also dress in strikingly contrasting ways. Being from America, I am used to varying fashion styles. However, it surprised me that brands I know well thrive even in developing countries. Furthermore, I know and can see that much of the people in Siem Reap struggle to afford some basic necessities, so I wondered where the clothes came from and how the youth got to it?

The CIA reports that about 30 percent of the population falls below the poverty line. There seems to be a huge divide between the lower class and upper class. As a result, when I see so many people sporting brands like Nike or The North Face, I question how they all afford it. Andrea Ross, director of Journey’s Within B&B, claims that many Cambodians purchase knockoff brands. Additionally, based on personal observation, 20 year old student Jayshri Patel believes that they duplicate the style of the designer but not necessarily the characteristic design.

Many people here seem to enjoy the benefits of purchasing branded items for lower costs. Even fellow UGA students reaped the benefits of knock-offs. Collin Tom, 21, purchased Nike shorts for $7 that cost more than $20 in America. Another student, Elliot Ambrose, also 21, now has The North Face branded backpack he bought for only $7, yet in America, it costs about $85.

While knockoffs seem to serve as a reasonable supply source for brand names, a source from F Magazine believes that some people steal these clothes from the factories. As a matter of fact, David Lynch wrote in USA Today that many American clothing companies like Levi Jeans and Gap turned to the skills and resources of Cambodians to make their clothes when the tariff on Chinese imports impacted U.S. business from 2005 to 2008. I did not find evidence supporting or rejecting the belief that they steal the clothes. Another source said that the clothes get smuggled in. However, when I checked the Counterfeiting Intelligence Bureau’s website, I didn’t see any reports of people smuggling clothes into Cambodia. The database available on that website dates back to 2007. Since then, the CIB seems to have either only captured pharmaceuticals being smuggled or those are the only substances Cambodians smuggle.

Perhaps my initial shock was naiveté. Now it seems to me that Cambodian youth just enjoy looking stylish. They, like Americans, want to impress their friends, showcase their personalities through their clothes, and stand out among the many people that look like them.

“Same same, but different” is a common English phrase found on apparel, which is well-known among Cambodians. It means that although two things may look or act similar, they are essentially different where it counts. Although not targeted or made for the Americans audience, it’s definitely one that is stylishly popular among many of the Cambodian youth. And here, in the major Cambodian province of Siem, Reap, that is what seems to matter most when purchasing clothes.

High population growth rates discourage education, foster poverty

May 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Cindy J. Austin

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – Plong Khom has nine children. If she were able, she says, she would have more.

Khom lives in a typical provincial village here, where the population growth rate balloons. At 1.77 percent, Cambodia’s population growth rate is three times faster than neighboring Thailand and almost twice the U.S. rate.

Choosing, as Khom has, to have a large family is one cause. There are others. The result? High rates of population growth, experts say, discourage education and foster poverty.

Children of the Chean family pose for a picture outside their house on Thursday, May 20, 2010 in a village near Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo/Frances Micklow, micklowfm@gmail.com)

“They have more children in hopes that when the kids grow up they will help out.” said Chamroeun Sosivann, M.D. from the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia. The RHAC is located on a downtown corner and offers counseling and prescriptions to women seeking knowledge about family planning.

According to Sosivann, nursing homes are scarce and it is tradition to follow the family member that has the most kids in hopes of being taken care of in old age. Women see their mothers or grandmothers who have had a large number of children and have been taken care of in old age and want the same for themselves.

There are other theories as to why women have many children, too.

“The people that have more children didn’t get information from a hospital about birth control.” Sosivann said.

The Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia started sending doctors out to rural villages to inform women about birth control and how it affects them financially and mentally.

“People who have the most children have harder lives,” Sosivann said. “And most of the duty is on the woman.”

It seems that many women in the village, however, know about birth control and still choose to have a large number of children. Sok Pove, a mother of two boys in another village here, has a different motivation for having more kids.

“I’ll keep having kids until I get a girl,” Pove said.

The three most popular forms of contraception are the pill, the shot and the patch. Forty percent of birth control users in Cambodia use the shot which lasts for three months and costs the equivalent of 50 cents, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

“I get the shot so that I don’t have to remember to take the pill,” said Keo Pang, a village woman who stopped getting the shots when she wanted to conceive her second child.

Myths about birth control deter some women. Some believe it will make them sick and others believe that it will strike them barren.

“The women [where I work] were amazed that I had taken birth control and then been able to have my two kids,” said Andrea Ross, an American who moved to Cambodia seven years ago. “They think if they take it they won’t ever be able to have kids.”

“Some people think it will make them sick,” said Linda Chhay, a Cambodian woman who takes the birth control pill, which costs 25 cents a month.

While there are myths about birth control, most women are aware of it and those who take it, like it.

“I’d say 70 percent [of the women who have tried birth control] are happy about it and 30 percent aren’t because of the side effects,” Sosivann said.

Although many women hope for a large number of children, Sosivann said unplanned pregnancy is a problem for some couples. Women may have an unexpected pregnancy if they are too poor to afford birth control or if they live in rural areas that don’t know about birth control.

To solve the problem of unplanned pregnancy, some women take matters into their own hands.

“A lot of people try to induce abortion,” Sosivann said. By using medicines for abortion or enlisting an old midwife to kill the fetus in the womb with her fingers, women try to fix the situation after conception.

The Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia does not perform abortions unless they are in response to failed at-home abortions or partial abortions.

While many families seek to have many kids, the economic consequences of numerous children are crippling.

“Half the problem is economic,” Sosivann said.

Some families don’t see the correlation between more children and less money. They choose to have more children so that the older ones can help make money for the family and raise the younger children. Others, however, have caught on to the economic consequences.

“If you have kids, you are poor for a little while,” says Liem, a woman in a squatter village here, as her third child sleeps at her feet. “If I have more kids I will be poor forever.”

In Cambodia, 31 percent of people live below the poverty line, compared to America where only 12 percent do, according to the CIA World Factbook.

“I want to keep a job instead of being around the kids all day,” Chhay said. She chose not to have any more kids so that she can keep her job at a bed and breakfast here and help support her family.

Women who have a large number of kids know first hand how difficult it is to raise children.

“It’s hard to take care of the kids,” said Chat Chean, a father of eight children. His wife was on the contraceptive pill but says it caused her stomach pain so she stopped taking it.

Like many families, Chean has had to pull one of his children out of school to help with the family. Children of large families often lack education because their families cannot support it.

“Our second oldest kid stopped schooling to help with the family,” Chean said.

Some older children drop out of school to help raise the younger children or get jobs to make money for the family, but some just cannot afford the materials schooling requires.

“It costs more money to have kids when they buy books and clothes [for school],” Sok Pove said.

Having children that can not be educated perpetuates a vicious cycle. If more women do not choose to stop having kids and educating the ones they do have, the problems of population growth and poverty are only going to worsen.

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