17 November 2008

A day in Savong's School

I couldnt help being wary and extremely conscious in scrutinising Savong and his counterparts' demeanour when they came to our hotel the day we arrived in Siem Reap. I wondered "why did he not come alone?" "who are these 3 other guys with him?". Savong, was nothing like i had initially imagined; tall, distinctive, and charismatic. He was none of those. Instead, almost immediately, i decided i cannot hand over a thousand US dollars for his keepsake this instant. Perhaps, it's my instinct or perhaps i dont feel i could trust him with this much money. My excitement took a plunge, and i wondered what i got myself into.


Over dinner, Savong shared some stories about his school with us. I felt i belittled this man and his friends, who were part-time teachers. i was quick to judge the book by its covers. Savong's command of English was good for decent conversations and at times bowled us over with hints of American accent. He was well-spoken and extremely polite. And so, we set a date to do some shopping and a visit to his school.

This is probably the best book store in Siem Reap, adjacent to the end of Pub Street. We stacked as many books at the counter as we thought relevant for the students.

Computer hunting was quite an adventure. Savong led our driver to a make-shift PC store that supposedly has a good deal on a 2nd hand laptop. It was more like a gaming-cum-repair centre. Bits and pieces of what makes up a computer were scattered everywhere leaving very little room for us to move, which i wasnt very keen on anyways because the place was friggin' dusty! After exchanging some words with Savong, in a language we couldnt understand, a half-naked man showed us a 2nd-hand NEC laptop that is going for 400USD. Eric's inspection unfolded crap specifications, and unwilling to reduce the price any lower than 380USD, we decided the money is better spent buying a brand new desktop.

This is where we finally secured two desktop PCs for 700 USD, bargained to the last drop of sweat from Eric's forehead. Even after scoring a good price by Cambodia's standards, he wanted to make sure Savong was covered for after-sales service, "Sekali, the PC breaks down . . ."
SEKALI! Short of being white with an english last name, Eric is the most British-Chinese i've known. SEKALI is the last thing i expect out of him. I nearly broke down in tears, from laughing.

And 30mins away from town...

The size of the school is pretty much what i expected. There were 3 classrooms, each can sit up to 30-40 students depending how they squeeze themselves onto the benches. Two languages are taught in Savong's school, which is by default the must-know language to keep up with the tourism industry; English and Japanese. We were pretty impressed with the methods used to teach English . We saw evidence of grammar based syllabus in use, vocabulary building, dialogues, and usage of pictures and illustrations. What was far more impressive was the student's ability to comprehend, and their level of spoken English. Dare i say, some of them speak better English than some of our poorer kids back home.
.(L): Some of the older students, one we asked was 22 years old, attending the advanced level of English classes. (R): Pointing out where we're from in the world map.

.Their favourite past time sports are Hula-Hooping and Volleyball. (L):I shrilled when i had a closer look at the girl's t-shirt - fancy finding an F4 (Meteor Garden's cast) t-shirt in Cambodia!. (R): Savong.

.Their resident pup.

During the 1 hour break, Savong showed us to the newly raised library. He explained his dream to us, attempting to cast away any doubts we had in us. He also prompted us to ask him questions, which he was quick to answer. But i realised his school does not follow a strict curriculum. Students were free to attend classes whenever they want. He does not want to force the children and make learning a language a chore. "It's supposed to be fun, i want them to enjoy themselves". Eric gave him some good pointers on raising awareness for the school.

By 4pm, more students appeared through the gates in their bicycles. As soon as it was announced our presence today is to conduct a Chinese class, everyone started flocking to our classroom. Some of them even lulled benches from the next room. I am amazed at those sheer determination, the enthusiasm on their faces makes it all worthwhile. This is probably their zest for life - an escape route from poverty.

.I'm so proud of our Chee Ting!.

Chee Ting was our appointed teacher of Mandarin 101, given she is a qualified teacher =P. The men were in charged of handing out notes courtesy of Eric's Mandarin lessons in UBD. CT taught basic conversational mandarin, e.g. My name is; hello, how are you; i am fine; thank you; goodbye; gdmorning teacher; etc. 2 teachers were present to provide translation assistance, and not long into the class we could pinpoint who the teacher's pets are. =)

The class was fun, we called upon the 2 teacher's pet and got them to demonstrate a conversation infront of everyone. Although shy, they pulled it off...

.This boy's keen interest put a big smile on my face. As we progress, he diligently pen down translations in Khmer.

With this many students packed in a classroom, the heat and thickness of the air is almost unbearable. The fans were not working. And the mercy of sunset lit up their notes. The lights were not working either. I began to wonder if this place is even powered up at all. Nevertheless, these children hold tight to the opportunity given to them. Perhaps being poor has its advantage, it instills the drive and determination in you, it makes you take charge of your destiny, it gives you the power to strive to change your life. These individuals' initiative to walk & cycle miles to learn a new language is in itself worthy of praise.

.We 'stole' the kids' bikes and fulfilled our cycling wish. Hee hee.

.The unfinished 2nd storey.

Before we called it a day, Savong insisted we visit his new endeavour - an orphanage. He wants to give the orphans he's met hope and a new life. One story he related was orphaned girls fall in love, and when deserted they become devastated. With no explanation, no one to guide them, they start selling their bodies for sex in exchange for money. His arguments were they will cheat and they will steal; and he hopes education will make a difference.

.(L): 4-bedroom bungalow, each big enough for 3-4 person.

Mel D gave me something to think about when she asked about the Savong-experience. She said "So is he authentic?? I was getting worried about what you're getting yourself into". True enough, we might be in for a big disappointment. I guess the difference between Savong's school and other International NGOs are that NGOs runs on a proper governing and financial system, and are transparent in their actions and the resources they use. Savong, on the other hand is the sole operator, money-raiser, treasurer, etc... so you can never really know if the money you've donated is indeed pumped into the betterment of the school or to the new handphone he bought himself. That we have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
.Thank you guys.

For those that supported Savong, you know who you are, all in all we gave him 2 new desktops, books, and money for internet access. If you decide to visit Siem Reap one day, you should drop by Savong's school =).

.Next up - Tonle Sap Cruise.


Anonymous said...

from limubear

regardless of whether he builds the school with your gifts or gets a new blackberry. you did your (and your troops) part by blessing his school with your gifts. that's what counts


Anonymous said...

i read every single word of this post.. is a good and interesting one!

Anonymous said...

I can understand your wariness when dealing with a project which is not as transparent as the large NGOs in operation in Cambodia. I felt the same when I first met Savong. You ask yourself 'Is this genuine?' because there are so many scams in the country (Lonely Planet refers to them) that you do not want your donations to drop into the pocket of some unscrupulous money grabber. Savong has a wife and family, he has to live too (he now lives permanently in the school), and, of course, as the school has developed, some funding will be required for communication and transportation. But what makes Savong the genuine article is that everything he has said he wanted to do, he has done. 2 years ago there was no library - now there is. Two years ago there was no orphanage - now there is. While you can donate money directly to Savong, there is also a joint account which requires two signatories - Savong himself and a very strong supporter in New Zealand who monitors carefully the work being done in the school. I have been supporting the school for two years and am returning in December with a group of 32 students whose contribution is not only financial but also educational. In fact, the next project - a separate room for the computers which you refer to - will be built by my students and the money they raised will be used to buy the cement and bricks. And so, again, what Savong has planned, he will undertake for the benefit of these impoverished youngsters. It was super to read your article on your visit, and please keep advertising Savong's School. If I have one criticism of him, it is that he does not blow his own trumpet loudly enough!

Anonymous said...

I was there in early 2007. I wanted to donate books when he mentioned that he wanted a library, but Sayong wanted $$$ instead. I grew more apprehensive when he drove around in sporty car with BOOMING oversized speakers blasting away, and all the staff would talk about was $$$.

I donated stationery instead and distributed it directly to the kids, and "taught"English to the kids.

I am still getting emails from Sayong asking for $$$ from time to time.

You make your own conclusion. But whatever your conclusion on Sayong may be, please do not stop supporting the children who wanted to acquire education and skill to break out of poverty.

ktelontour on November 5, 2010 at 4:20 PM said...

I find the last post extremely unfair. I have visited the school twice in 2009 and again in 2010. Yes, they talk about $$$ a lot, but that is because they are desperate for cash to keep the school and orphanage running, and passionate about the welfare of these children. People talk about the transparency of the larger NGOs, but most of those donation receipts are spent on administration costs and they all drive 4x4s!! With Savong, I am totally confident that every dollar of my donation goes directly to benefit these children. My last donation was spent on a pump for the fish farm. I have also met the NZ treasurer of the school and a more honest, genuine individual you simply could not hope to meet. My name is Terri Robinson. I am not anonymous.
Please support Savong School and Orphanage. This is the real deal.

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