Monday, January 26, 2009

7 (Christine W.)

Battambang Day 2

Battambang is much more impoverished that Siem Reap, and has nowhere near as many tourists. Our hotel, which was very nice and had a pool, looked out of place in the middle of the city, most of which looked pretty poor to me. While Siem Reap seemed underdeveloped, there is a slum-like quality to the poverty of Battambang. If you are not in the city in Battambang, you are in one of its villages, which is where we spent our second day, visiting two NGO’s working on rebuilding Khmer society through youth education programs.

Tean Thor
Tean Thor, which is Khmer for “Acts of Compassion,” is a small HIV/AIDS hospice and rehabilitation center that provides education to orphans of parents who died of AIDS and hospice care to HIV/AIDS patients living in the Battambang community. Staff members of Tean Thor find HIV-positive members in the community, many of whom are looked down upon, and offer them a safe haven for rehabilitation and HIV/AIDS education. At the center, the members can choose to take either antiretroviral medication to fight HIV or traditional medicine provided by a medicine man. One of the aims of the organization is to improve and prolong the life of HIV positive parents so that their children do not become young orphans.

We were all impressed with the amount of warmth and hope that emanates from Tean Thor. We met several of the HIV positive patients who all seemed content to be there despite their discomfort and afflictions. Jenny, one of the peaceful staff members from Switzerland who “receives her funding from the universe,” talked about her search to find an organization to work for before deciding on Tean Thor. She said she visited 15 different organizations before she settled on this center, and she was frustrated at the fact that all of the previous organizations had problems with corruption and egos.

We were given a full tour of the facilities, including the room where the traditional medicine is kept (stinky), and we dropped in to visit the young students during their class time. We brought fake tattoos to share with them, which sent them over the moon. Though they were shy and hesitant at first, after we applied a few tattoos, it was a madhouse. By the end of the day we had them all looking like PG-rated sailors. Before we left, the children sang us two of their favorite songs: Celine Dionne’s My Heart Will Go On, which I will never hear in the same way again, and The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye,” which was equally precious. Nobody wanted to leave.

The next organization we visited was FEDA (Friends Economic Development), a secondary school for the children in the village of Ksach Poy. This is a much larger organization, with more funding and beautiful grounds. FEDA places a strong emphasis on hygiene and English, and the teachers are all young and motivated, many of which are FEDA alumni. The teachers have a large task before them because the Cambodian educational system is reeling from the eradication of entire generation of scholars during the genocide.

The grounds of FEDA are lush and tranquil, scattered with coconut and banana trees. The main classrooms are upstairs in a beautiful new building made of dark wood. Some of us, myself included, were asked to teach an impromptu English class. It’s quite a humbling experience to teach English to a group of children whose language skills you underestimate. I co-taught with Brandon, and we decided to play games upon the teachers’ suggestion. We started with hangman, but changed the hanging man to a frowny face because we didn’t know how appropriate it would be to explain that the dead man hanging in a noose means you’ve lost the game. The students were much better at this than we had anticipated, perfectly capable of spelling words like “cat and rabbit,” and only when we snuck in “California” did they get tripped up. We then had them create new words out of the letters they could find in the phrase “United States of America.” Upon reflection I wish we hadn’t been so nationalistic with our word choices, but you don’t think of these things when you’re in front of 30 pairs of blinking eyes. To our surprise they came up with words like “dictation,” and my personal favorite, “tsar.” So much for C-A-T.

After we returned, we discussed some of the differences we saw between Tean Thor and FEDA. For starters, there are a total of 800 students that attend FEDA, far more than the amount of students at Tean Thor. Additionally, FEDA has more funding than Tean Thor, more foreign visitors, and since it places an emphasis on hygiene and English, the children that we met at FEDA seemed privileged compared to the children we met at Tean Thor. We then launched into a discussion about the importance of avoiding generalizations about the face of poverty; since the children that attend these organizations come from equally destitute communities and families, it is dangerous to consider one organization more deserving of funding than the other. If there is one thing I’m truly learning in Cambodia, it is that still waters run deep and appearances are not the sum total of reality. We also discussed the importance of personality and style when it comes to grant writing and asking for money, which also plays a major role in the amount of funding organization receives.

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