When I first agreed to go to Cambodia, I was full of idealism with no real concept of what awaited me. I wanted to give something back and I had a skill to share. Conversations with Benedicta only furthered my desire to help as I learned what the people in Cambodia have faced in recent years. In the West, it is all too easy to remain ignorant of the plight of the less developed world and I had remained ignorant, even if unwittingly. But as I spoke with my old friend, I became more and more passionate about using the benefits of my (sometimes underappreciated) education to help her children. She spoke about them with such pride and passion, sentiments I know well from my work in state schools in Britain, that her enthusiasm was immediately contagious.
I ventured forth with some trepidation as it had been a while since I had travelled across the globe alone and I had become used to my creature comforts. However, upon arriving in Phnom Penh, I felt like I was home. Though the people may have suffered greatly in recent decades, they seem to lack the outward aggression and suspicion that can seem all too familiar in London from time to time. Suddenly every face held a smile and transition between life in England and life in Cambodia was an easy one. My time was filled with new adventures and close bonds with kindred spirits, both native and visiting.
Pheakdey, the centre’s manager, was on hand throughout my time with constant offers of assistance and this, paired with his easy manner with the children and his kindness towards staff and villagers alike, made him easy to warm to – off-beat jokes and all! He welcomed me into the centre and acted as guide, offering me a rare view of the conditions Mlop’s children live in.
My first day was spent visiting the villages which was a unique experience. At first, I was taken aback by the conditions, then humbled as I realised all the things I take for granted at home – running water, toilet facilities, electricity: things we consider a right and not a privilege. Though I was clearly an outsider, clearly ’barang’ (a term that was once used for the French but is now used affectionately for all Western tourists), the locals offered wide smiles and happy greetings of ‘choom reap soo’ah’. Though they live in conditions that were startling to me, they exhibited an indomitable spirit. Where I complain about the price of my gas bill, they were getting on with life: a stark reality check indeed.
The staff at the centre welcomed me and, though the task of sharing an entirely different learning culture was not without its difficulties for all parties, they showed willingness to try new styles and theories of teaching. Our first adjustment was to split the children into two classes so that we could focus their learning to their age (and thus their developmental stage) and this saw both children and staff thrive. As we worked together, I had the pleasure not only of getting to know the children but also of seeing the teachers evolve, showing their individual teaching styles and talents as they took responsibility for their individual classes. Poom is wonderful with a puppet and teaches the younger children with great care for their early emotional education, while Ri is ambitious to try Phonics teaching as she shared both the English and Khmer alphabet with her class. Both teachers looked at each child holistically, providing anything they needed from clean clothes to a healthy snack to a hug.
We built tables – I say we, but of course I mean the wonderful guard at Mlop (Ditta) – and together we introduced basic free flow activities that the children responded to with great enthusiasm. Though resources are scarce, the children had the opportunity to paint, play musical instruments, explore their environment (all down to the teachers as I could not identify ANY of the Cambodian plant life) and sing songs. I still have a Khmer song about Angkor Watt stuck in my head, though I can only approximate the words and I have no idea what it means beyond the numbers to 10.
The nannies at the centre continually surprised me with their dedication to the children and their gentle treatment of all the kids, not simply their key children. Every member of Mlop is deeply invested, from the staff in the classroom to the hard working men in the office, who keep the place afloat. Essentially, the centre functions as a family unit – a home away from home for these kids.
My time at Mlop has changed me, teaching me both what I am capable of offering but also what I should remember to be grateful for. I have memories – and pictures! – that will last a lifetime and I feel like Mlop has given me a new perspective on life, as well as new experiences. I hope I get to continue working with Mlop and I know the children in my class in Wembley are eager to hear more!