We left Kampong Thom at 6am and made our way towards the rural part of the province, Preah Vihear. Today we travelled to an extremely remote primary school that supports an ethnic minority group, the Kouy.
Even in urban areas, Cambodia is very green but the views as we drove towards the countryside were just breathtaking. As we drove farther, the roads became no more than bumpy dirt tracks. We began to see fewer cars and more secluded huts on stilts. It was clear we were getting closer to our destination as herds of animals shared the long road. We even saw cattle napping in the middle of the road – they didn’t move despite the oncoming traffic…we just had to drive around them!
During our drive, we learnt more about this province which was once a stronghold for the Khmer Rouge. Sadly, the area still bears scars of the regime, with land mines scattered across the province. Only three weeks ago two farmers were killed by an explosion.
We realised we were getting much closer to the school as the dirt track became narrower. On first impressions, the school looked impressive – it was very different to the floating primary school we saw yesterday. The children were very lively and enthusiastic about seeing us and had waited especially to meet us.
We were led to a small outdoor hut where we were greeted by teachers, education staff, the village chief and parents. The project here focuses on providing an inclusive education for all, regardless of upbringing, gender, age and ethnicity. The community was very appreciative and thanked us for our contribution to the project. They showed us pictures of the old school, which was made of small thatched huts, and they described how vulnerable they had been to natural elements before.
Building a new school had meant not just that isolated children were being given the opportunity to learn but also that the village had access to roads, electricity and water wells – things they didn’t have before. This access meant that children could get to school easily and teachers could commute.
When we asked the village chief, “What difference has the project made to children here?” he replied, “Providing them with an education means that children who are like seeds will grow strong like bamboo.” We felt that this was a brilliant analogy that made us appreciate what the Soft Toys for Education campaign can achieve.
They told us that of the 157 pupils, 82% were girls, which hit a key objective of the project because women are often discriminated against when trying to access education. Bormey, a Save the Children protection officer, explained that parents were hesitant to let their children go to school because of sexual exploitation that could take place on long walks in rural areas. This was really eye-opening for us… We thought about the challenges of being born a girl in Cambodia. We didn’t realise how lucky we are not to face such extreme prejudice in the UK.
We then split into groups and visited the local community. We were amazed to see the strength of the people and their willingness to support education. We had driven past villages of thatched-roof huts all day, and now we were able to walk in and see the everyday life inside them for ourselves.
Despite school hours ending, children still attended an after-school activity club under the stilts of a home. It was amazing to see, and we were greeted by parents who were keen to share their hopes and dreams for the future. It was clear that they were extremely proud of their children and that all their hard work supports the ambition of educating them further. This left us thinking about the power of education and why the opportunity means more than anything to the people we met… Inclusive education for all.