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Writing Through Cambodia – A Retrospective

One of the youngest learners, Battambang provinceFor three months this year I had the privilege of leading Writing Through workshops in Cambodia, teaching children sponsored by Enfants du Mekong (EDM) how to write poems and stories in English. Fifty lessons, hundreds of poems and stories and six “big events” later, almost 200 children have received a ‘magic pencil’ and with it the new experience of writing creatively in English.

The workshop represented a lot of firsts. It marked one of the first large-scale projects funded by Children of the Mekong – the UK division of EDM. It was Writing Through’s, largest roll-out so far, and one of the first times founder Sue Guiney handed over the reins to her carefully devised workshops. As for me, it was my first formal experience of teaching, and my first time in south-east Asia.

The biggest first of all was for the students. Answering a questionnaire before the workshop started, almost half of them said they had never written a story before, whether in Khmer or a foreign language. Just 28 per cent said they felt they “had something important to say” and only 17 per cent said they “felt confident” before the workshop started.

Their reservations were understandable. The workshop, which includes group work, speaking in front of the class, creativity and spontaneity, differs from the typical Cambodian education style, which relies on rote learning and places a high importance on respecting the teacher, rather than freedom of expression.

Added to this, reading for pleasure is not common in Cambodia. The national literacy rate is around 73 per cent, and even lower in the poorer, rural areas where EDM’s sponsored children come from. On bumpy bus rides between EDM centres in Bantaey Chhmar, Sisophon, Samrong and Preah Vihear, I did not once see someone reading a book, or even a newspaper.

Reading out loud, Prear VihearThis context can make teaching a challenge. Tell a group of English, French or American seven year olds to write a story about anything they want, and most of them will start scribbling away. Asking a group of 12, 15 or 21-year olds they are about to do the same, and I was met with many blank, or plain terrified, faces.

Here is where the careful structure of Writing Through comes into its own. Through brainstorms, group discussions and visual prompts, the students are gently nudged towards writing for themselves. As in any classroom, confidence, ability and enthusiasm varied across the children, but by writing first as a class and then individually or in small groups, students were able to learn at their own pace.

The theme of each workshop was “Taking Risks”. Before each session, I showed the class photographs. Some showed physical risks: a woman climbing a mountain; a girl who had fallen off her bicycle; a man smoking a cigarette.

Some were emotional or intellectual; and harder for some of the students to identify as ‘risks’. In many cases, these inspired the most interesting work – an image of a boy crying on his friend’s shoulder led to discussions about emotional risk and how the students dealt with their problems. A picture of a Khmer couple on their wedding day prompted initial exclamations of “Sah Aht Na!” or “Beautiful!”, but often produced discussions about arguments, poverty and even alcoholism and violence.

The students I taught ranged both in their ages and their abilities. So did what they wrote about. For younger children, talking animals and ghosts in the forests were perennial favourites. University students in Battambang wrote an impressive anti-smoking poem, including the catchy line: “When we smoke, we choke”. Traffic accidents, remained a constant, and quite understandable, theme across groups.

The capacity for conceptual thought also varied. In Preah Vihear, EDM’s newest centre, the Grade 11 and 12 students were shy about speaking out in class and tended to base their stories and poems resolutely within their own province, often in their high school.

In Sisophon, EDM’s longest-standing Cambodian centre, the confidence and ability of the students was more developed. My final groups wrote sophisticated, Bollywood-inspired stories featuring poison, disguise, revenge and romance across enemy lines. For them, several years learning in EDM had made an obvious difference, as had regular film screenings and a well-stocked library. I am confident that within a few years the students of Prear Vihear could be at the same level.

Post event celebrations, Preah VihearIn every centre I was particularly touched by the student’s enthusiasm for learning English and their apparently boundless curiosity about England and my life there. They were surprised that I did not live with my parents, concerned that I did not usually eat rice every day (or even every week), and were shocked that, unlike them, I did not consider 6am to be a lie in, and in fact would have happily slept until 1pm when I was their age.

In turn, they told me about their siblings, families, ambitions, favourite foods. The boys sang mournful warbling Khmer songs after dinner, hand on heart, while their friends sat with their heads bowed. I mastered my own interpretations of both Let it Go and My Heart will Go On, and came dangerously close to believing that my singing was as “Sat Aht Na!” as they claimed it was.

One girl, Sali, a Grade 10 student in Sisophon, told me that she was one of seven brothers and sisters. Her youngest brother was “too lazy” to go to school, she told me, with the classic distain of the older sibling. Her oldest siblings were working in factories or at home with babies. Her 17-year-old brother wanted to continue to learn but had no bicycle with which to travel the 20 km to the nearest High School.

As the only one in school, her working siblings sent money to help with her education. She laughed as she told me that that is why she was the first to go to bed in her dorm, and why she always missed the centre’s film screening on Sunday so she could study. She brought out library books she was reading in English to show me and we talked about our favourite characters in Harry Potter. She told me her aim was to learn “all the languages”.

In some ways, Sali’s knack with languages (she is also doing well at French) and herwillingness for swapping Bollywood for biology make an exceptional student. But, time and time again, I was struck by how seriously the students took their education, how welcoming they were of me and how receptive they were to learning. It frustrates me that there are those like Sali, living in villages in Cambodia, that could be bursting with the same creativity, academic potential and willingness to study, but are not given the same chance.

At the end of each Writing Through workshop, the children read out their work to an audience. This often took on a party atmosphere; in Samrong we had a traditional Khmer band, in Preah Vihear we spent the afternoon making decorations and there was singing and dancing afterwards. In every centre, there was an abundance of quite disgusting durian- flavoured biscuits. Each child received a magazine with the work produced during the workshop, complete with illustrations drawn by the children and some photographs of our time together.

Asked to evaluate the workshop afterwards, 89 per cent said they planned to write stories and poems by themselves and 88 per cent said they would now feel more confident going to their English lessons. Nearly every child said they would like to participate in the workshop next year. Asked if they had anything else to add, one student in Preah Vihear wrote: “The workshop helps us to have self-confidence. We learn to be brave, to persevere and to write. We think that things are difficult but after we realise that we can do it.”

There is a certain Khmer art to telling the listener what he or she wants to hear. In the space of a week, I saw each child progress in confidence and ability, whether by a small or large amount. For some, I think our week together will be the start of them using writing to express their thoughts and ideas. For others, I hope the workshop has opened up new ways of thinking about the world and has taught them that learning English can be inventive and fun.

Watching the big event, SisophonAs the workshop drew to a close, it was clear that Sue’s theme of “Taking Risks” was a very pertinent one. It is a risk for an NGO to prioritise a programme that teaches poetry and stories; whose focuses on confidence and conceptual thought are subtle and difficult to measure. It is a risk for these children to express themselves in a language that is foreign and in a style that is unfamiliar. To think in new ways; to stand up and share their work; to write.

I believe it is a risk that has, and will continue to, pay off. I thought it would be fitting to end with a short poem, written by Sompha, Hom, In Chhorm and Sith, Grade 10 students in Samrong centre.

Today we are very happy

Because we study with

Teacher Katy about poems

And short stories

The first time we feel afraid and

Have difficulties with this

Now we don’t feel afraid about learning

Because we have no problem

We can write

A short story and poem

And then we can read

For our friends

And each other

And everybody

Listens to us

We hope that

We can be successful!

Interns wanted!

We are looking for interns to join our team for fall (September to December).

interns_wanted

About the role

Where? : Lavender Hill, London SW11 5RL (Southwest London)

When? : All year long, 1 month minimum (ideally 3 months).

Working days: Monday to Saturday, 9.30-6.30. (5 days a week)

Paid? : Unpaid. Transport allowance of £50/month.

What does it involve? :  Both work in the charity’s office and shop.

1) In the office: Coming up with new fundraising ideas and organising them, helping create and re-phrase reports, newsletters and blogs on the charity’s progress, preparing grants applications, and running the charity’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.

2) In the shop: Running the till, providing good customer service and making sales, organising and pricing stock, keeping the shop tidy, keeping track of the shop‘s accounts; and eventually acting as shop leader: delegating roles to other volunteers throughout the day and being responsible of closing and opening the shop.

What do I need to do this job? : No specific work experience is required. However we do ask that candidates possess the following skills.

Good English writing skills and the ability to use Microsoft Office are necessary for a lot of the office work, whilst creativity is especially helpful for coming up with suggestions for new fundraising ideas or ways to improve the charity.

Basic arithmetic skills are also required to keep the accounts in order and work the till.

Above all, punctuality, organisation skills and a good work ethic are required to ensure that work is done on time and always to the best of your ability.

Why it is a great opportunity for you? :

  • You are helping the children in need in South East Asia,
  • You will learn various tasks,
  • You will part in a great team and will work in a good environment.

If you are interested, please send your CV and Cover letter to Eugenie Prouvost

info@childrenofthemekong.org

PS: We are always looking for volunteers!

6 month update!!

Can you believe it’s been six months since we opened our charity shop in Clapham – how time flies!

In those past 6 months things have constantly been changing; from new interns and volunteers to the donations we receive in our our shop. But there has been one person who been there from the very beginning, and that is Eugenie – our Operations Manager.

ep

Eugenie the Operations Manager

Eugenie has spent a lot of time and effort with Children of the Mekong and has been here from the beginning! All her hard work has paid off; since opening the store we have raised over £18,000 from selling donated items!! The money raised has helped fund projects in Southeast Asia including Samrong, Cambodia where volunteers and project managers are currently building an education centre for 360 children.

Being a charity shop we receive a wide range of items: from quirky items like wigs, an old school suitcase to extravagant ones such a Dolce and Gabanna sunglasses and a chandelier! The donations we receive never cease to amaze us!

In addition to the shop the interns have helped organise events and activities to help raise extra money. In March we teamed up with LK Bennett in Clapham where we had a fundraising event. LK Bennett donated 10% of the total proceedings they made which totalled to £150!!

 

More recently, we have started making street collections! So if you’re around Clapham you might see two green dinosaurs roaming around. Street collections will help us become a more established charity in the local area as well as help us raise more money for the charity, so it’s a win win situation!

We have a lot of exciting events coming up in the next few months. For starters, Children of the Mekong will be taking part in the British 10K run again this year. Last year 15 runners participated in the race and raised over £15,000! This year we hope to emulate the same success.

Moreover, we hope to start a brand new project in Cambodia. The project is still in the planning phase but keep your eyes open and we’ll be updating you with details later on in the year.

full intern

The current interns at the Children of the Mekong. Clockwise from top left: Julie, Eleonora, Harry, Andrea and Dayle.

 

If you thought the last 6 months were great then you’re in for a ride as we have a lot of upcoming events for you to support starting with the British 10K run. For the second time, Children of the Mekong with be participating in the British 10K run. Last year we raised over £15,000 and we’re hoping to do the same this year.

The money raised from the 10K run will be used to a brand new project in Cambodia. The project will be organised by the interns with Eugenie so everyone is really excited! We can’t tell you too much as this stage except that it’s for preschool children. We will keep you posted with more details in the near future!

That was just a short update six month update about the Children of the Mekong! Make sure you follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up-to-date with our progress and please do send us your thoughts and opinions.

We are always on the lookout for more interns and volunteers so if you are interested in joining our team (even if you can only volunteer for a few hours a week) send us an email. You can also get involved by sponsoring a child for £24 a month which will contribute towards his or her school fees, supplementary food and medication, hygienic products as well as pocket money. We also accept donations, no matter how big or small as we sell a wide range of items in our shop.

Thanks for reading!

Children of the Mekong enters the British 10K race!

It’s time to do sport!

On the 12th of July, the British 10K will take place in London. This race is really popular and once again Children of the Mekong will be participating. Last year, our fabulous team of runners raised over £15,000 which contributed to the building of a foster home in Cambodia.

Some of the runners before the race!

Some of the runners before the race!

 

This year, we have 12 runners and we’re still looking for more! We give you the opportunity to join our team and to run for us. This year we aim to raise at least £15,000 which will be used to support the construction of two new classrooms in the village of Ban Homephan, Laos.

 

 

Group photo

Group photo of all the runners

 

If you would like to run for us, please let us know as soon as possible so we can register you for the race. Or if you can’t run but still want to get involved, ask your friends to join our team. Last but not least, feel free to come on the D-Day to encourage our runners!

 

 

Your green t-shirt is waiting for you!!

Written by Harry

Cambodia’s health reformation – The Health Strategic Plan (HSP)

The Ministry of Health, part of the Cambodian government, is currently nearing the end of its 7 yearlong Health Strategic Plan in which it hopes to increase the health and well-being for all Cambodians.Cambodia Healths

The health system in Cambodia has experienced several periods change; from a rudimentary health care system placed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960’s and early 1970’s to using a Vietnamese model in the 1980’s. It was not until 1993, however, when the first Royal Government took office that the healthcare service in Cambodia began to improve. The Royal Government reformed the health sector by establishing a Ministry of Health (MoH) that aimed to improve and extend primary health care through the implementation of a
district based health system. In addition, a Health Sector Strategic plan 2003-2007 (HSP1) was formed to help facilitate the process.

More recently, the government developed a second Health Sector Strategic Plan 2008-2015 (HSP2) with its vision to ‘enhance sustainable development of the health sector for better health and well-being of all Cambodian, especially of the poor, women and children, thereby contributing to poverty alleviation and socio-economic development’.

The HSP2 takes a strategic approach in implementing its goals and does this by focusing on three health program areas: reproductive, maternal, new-born and child health; communicable diseases such HIV/AIDs and Malaria; and non-communicable diseases and other health problems. In addition, each of the three main health area programs implement a set of five cross-cutting health strategies which are: health service delivery, health care financing, human resource for health, health information system and health system governance.

The HSP2 also includes a plan of the cost which takes into account many factors, which includes: increased utilisation of services due to population growth as well as increased demand for public health services, scaling-up contracting and the expansion of key interventions aimed at improving maternal and child health.

The financial plan is around $170 million and is funded by the World Bank, Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Department for International and Development and others, along with a partial pooled fund. As with most financial managements, reporting mechanisms and auditing also occurs.cambodia health

In a recent update report in March 2014, the results from the plan proved successful. For example over 1 million people in Cambodia now have access to a basic package of health, nutrition or reproductive health services compared to just over 150, 000 in 2007. Moreover, 50% of all health centres are now implementing Health Equity Funds compared to only 13% in 2008. In some cases, current results have already surpassed the target; the percentage of birth deliveries by trained health personnel at health facilities it now at 80% although the target is only 75%.

Despite the positive trends, however, there are still a number of significant constraints that limit rapid improvements occurring throughout the health system. This has been foreseen by the MoH and a third Health Strategic Plan 2016-2020 is under the formulation process which plans to increase health spending with improved efficiency, use more stable sources of financing as well as a more effective financial management including budgeting.

Article by Dayle Burnett-Quarry

Sochea’s Story

“If I make it through this, I’m going to help the poor in my country”

Previously published in Enfants du Mékong magazine, Wednesday April 2014

Sochea image

Sochea’s story is just one of dozens… hundreds… thousands of success stories made possible by the support of Children of the Mekong (some names have been changed).

Article: Yves Meaudre, Photo: Antoine Besson

A child aged about 10 sits on the decking outside the hut where he lives. He swings his legs back and forth, contemplating the sunset over the paddy field. The buffalo immersed in the ditch opposite could be mistaken for watchful crocodiles as they blow into the water. White birds use their horns as perches. This is a happy child, a child with no harrowing story to tell, but also a child with no future. Beside him, sitting with her legs curled up beneath her, a shaven-headed Bonze woman in an immaculate sarong, her teeth stained with betel, offers the boy gentle advice about life, wisdom and the happiness of contemplation.

“Sochea, who has no clothes but the shorts he is wearing, climbs onto the truck. His fate has been transformed.”

A pickup arrives, a puff of golden dust billowing up as it comes to a halt. The people of the region are familiar with the little pennant that flies from its roof. From the truck emerge a Belgian, Pierre, a young French woman, Élodie, and an older Cambodian man, Savouth. The lady calls them over.

“Look at this child,” she says. “He is very intelligent”.

“And very handsome, too” says Elodie, beaming.

“Is he always top of the class?” asks the Belgian.

“No, no, he doesn’t go to school.”

“Then how do you know he’s very intelligent?”

“I just know!” She spits out her betel and places her hand on the child’s shoulder.

“Go with them. You’ll have a bright future.”

With a disconcertingly uncomplicated air, Sochea, who has no clothes but the shorts he is wearing, climbs onto the truck. His fate has been transformed. That is the way things are in Cambodia: very simple. Such confidence in children is what Children of the Mekong is all about. The charity’s work is built on the close rapport established between its staff and the local population. The population take responsibility for shaping their own destiny, and COTM gives them the means to do so. It was in this way that, aged 10, Sochea embarked upon a new life. And what a future awaited him!

He went to school. He worked so well that he completed two school years in one. He was so successful that, after his high-school diploma, he was awarded a place at ITC, the prestigious engineering school in Phnom Penh.

Then, tragedy struck. An enormous tumour was found in his lung, plunging everyone into a state of panic. At the time, there was insufficient surgery provision in Cambodia to attempt such a high-risk operation. The tumour spread to his aorta. Elodie fought hard, searching high and low for a solution. Finally, she persuaded a professor in Toulouse to operate on the young man. Moved by Sochea’s story, the surgeon offered his services free of charge, but the costs of transporting him to France and of a lengthy stay in hospital were high. COTM organised a huge concert with soloists from the Paris Opera, the French National Orchestra and the musicians of the Garde Républicaine. The event, entitled “La beauté sauvera Sochea” (“Beauty will save Sochea”) was an immense success. This great generosity shown by those who contributed had a profound effect on the young student. “If I make it through this,” he vowed, “I’m going to help the poor in my country.”

The child you educated is now helping to save his country.

Sochea was given the all-clear and returned to his studies with great zeal. Four years later, he graduated as one of the highest-ranked students in the country. The young girl who had followed him since his childhood was thrilled. She put him up for a place at ENGREF, a prestigious engineering school specialising in water and forest engineering in rural areas, and he got in with disconcerting ease, his characteristically calm, humble, joyful smile never far from his lips.

With another qualification under his belt, and speaking French and English like a native, Sochea’s future appeared to be all mapped out. He seemed destined for a career in a major agrifood firm or an international institution, with a monthly salary in excess of what a Cambodian family might earn in twenty years. There were plenty of enticing offers.

Sochea, though, wanted to help the poor people of his country.

As he is a very practical person, his guardian angel put him in touch with an engineer from Lyon and he went on to found a very simple, very intelligent and much-needed NGO. The aim of his organisation was to supply villages with pure water, disinfected using ultraviolet rays in small processing plants powered by solar panels. He set about installing such plants in remote, isolated villages. In Cambodia, 20% of children under 10 die from water infections. Many of them catch dysentery. To address this problem, Sochea and François have now developed their extremely simple, economical and ingenious idea throughout Cambodia, as well as in Madagascar.

Sochea has been recognised as one of the ten most promising youngsters on the planet, receiving the award in Antalya! An entire page was devoted to him in Le Monde. A dinner jacket was hired for him for the ceremony, which had all the pomp of the Oscars or the Nobel Prize. As he received his prize, he answered the questions of the French daily with disarming candour, and gave thanks with the same dazzling smile and unfazed and modest demeanour as ever. He replied to the journalists with the same calm, simplicity and kindness he had when he was 10. While he meets all the gold, pomp, palaces, prestigious awards and press attention with good humour, they ultimately leave him completely indifferent.

His mind is focused on one thing alone: helping the poor.

The poor boy who we helped with his education is now helping to rebuild his country.

Yves Meaudre (This is a translated version of the original article.)

At the heart of the plight of childhood AIDS

Previously published in Enfants du Mékong magazine, Thursday 5 June 2014

Aids 1

Mathilde, a ‘bambou’ volunteer in Laos, tells us of her intense discovery at the Baan home hug Centre, which takes in children who are victims of AIDs. A poignant experience.

The Baan home hug Centre is situated close to the town of Yasothon in Isan, the region bordering on Laos. Considered to be one of the poorest regions of Thailand, a lot of Thai people leave to look for work elsewhere. Many fall into prostitution in Bangkok or Pattaya then contaminate their families when they return home. This is one of the most AIDS-affected regions in Thailand.

The centre was created around twenty years ago with the primary aim of taking in orphaned victims of AIDS. It was founded by Mae Thiew, an extraordinary woman of a rare kindness and generosity. Today the centre is home to 55 children, with ages ranging from 18 months to 22 years. All these children have something in common: they are orphans. Their parents have died, abandoned them or are unable to look after them properly.

 

“When I arrived at the centre, I wanted to know each child’s story. But I soon realised I would have preferred not to know”

 

17 children are infected with AIDS. Moreover a large number of the other children have a link to AIDS since one or both of their parents have died from the virus. Sometimes these children also have brothers or sisters who have died for the same reason. The centre does not solely care for children affected by AIDS; it also takes in children who have lived in an unhealthy or even dangerous family environment. For example, they have been exposed to violent parents, drug addiction, or alcoholism. About two weeks before this article was written, a young girl came to the centre to escape child trafficking. Now the centre is her new home.

Aids 2

Everyday 13 mothers called ‘mé’ (‘mum’ in Thai) and 4 fathers called ‘po’ (‘dad’ in Thai) look after this troop: they take care of the children night and day. This kind team is charged with raising the children, caring for them, and loving them. These mothers and fathers genuinely consider the children to be their own; it is very touching. Incidentally, when I asked a ‘mé’ if she had any children and how many, she replied without hesitation that she had 55. Some of them have always lived here because they were taken in when they were very young. The first thing that struck me upon my arrival was the discovery of such alert children. They watch over one another and look after each other as if they were brothers and sisters.

 

“The centre’s founder said something which has really stayed with me. She told me that she did not pity these children but she understood them”

 

As soon as I arrived, I found myself surrounded by 3 or 4 children. Without fear, they took me by the hand and showed me where I would be staying. For the duration of my stay, they gently and kindly tried to explain to me what to do and what not to do. These children’s levels of maturity and problem solving ability are incredible! The older children start to look after the youngest ones from an early age. For example, a little girl of 11 is in charge of bathing the youngest child, aged only 18 months. A toddler of 2 explained to me how to put on her nappy and where to find her pyjamas. As soon as possible, the team of mums and dads teach the orphans how to be responsible and take care of things themselves. When they cry, they have to learn to soothe themselves. I have rarely encountered such affectionate and smiling children. When you least expect it, they come and stick to you like glue. Even someone who is not overly fond of children would fall for them. It’s truly magical!

You quickly forget where they come from and what they have been through.

When I arrived at the centre, I wanted to know each child’s story. But I soon realised I would have preferred not to know. Everything I heard sent shivers down my spine. Some of the children had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere when they were very young, or even when they were 7 or 8. At this age they knew exactly what was happening to them. I am completely astounded by these children. If I hadn’t know about their backgrounds, I wouldn’t have imagined that they’d lived through any horrors. They are such happy, smiley and funny children! They are incredible! The centre’s founder said something which has really stayed with me. She told me that she did not pity these children but she understood them. Her solution to try and bring some relief to these children is simply to bring them love and tenderness. “Baan home hug is the place where we give and receive,”, hence the name of the centre. Those few days at the centre passed very quickly and I would have like to stay longer. The days were very busty. My stay at the Baan home hug Centre has given me one of the biggest life lessons I have ever received. The centre is concrete proof that with tenderness, joie de vivre and smiles, we can really make a difference.

 

Text and photos by Mathilde Levivier

This is a translated version of the original article.

Children of the Mekong’s charity shop is now open!

charity view 1

As you may know, Children of the Mekong was planning to open a charity shop in South West London, in Clapham Junction area, at 32 Lavender Hill, SW11 5RL.

After a few changes of plan and negociations with the landlord who needs to make some renovation works in the shop, we are opening a pop-up store for a few months!

Even if we will be open for business only for a short period of time, it is a great opportunity for us to get some experience in the retail business, see what works for us or what needs to be improved.

charity view 4

We are making a big bet here, the charity shop will be a good occasion for us to diversify our incomes and send even more children at school!

As we are a charity, every penny we earn thanks to the shop will go to the running of our organization and to our programmes in Southeast Asia.

As every other charity shop in London, we are selling a great range of different items: men and women clothes, shoes, handbags, kids toys and clothing, homewares, bric a 

charity view 3

A little twist with others charity shops though: we have an Asian handicraft corner; you can buy here presents for you or a relative, a little something you probably won’t find that easily somewhere else.brac, books, DVDs, games, jewelry, and much more!

This shop is also a good solution as we can finally settle and have an office!

We can now welcome all our supporters and volunteers in our brand new office and even offer them a cup of tea!

With the shop, we will extend our network: by having a high street shop, Children of the Mekong gains in visibility: more and more people are aware of our existence, they can walk-in and ask for information about Children of the Mekong, our missions, our values, the programmes we are running as well as the children we are sponsoring.

flore + sign

Now, how can YOU participate in this project?

Well, first you can donate items for us to sale.

We are always looking for:

• men’s and women’s clothing and shoes;

• children’s clothing, toys and games;

• books, multimedia like DVDs, CDs and vinyl, music instruments;

• accessories, non-pierced jewellery, belts, handbags;

• bric a brac, crockery, glassware, vases, tea sets, photo frames, bedding, curtains, cousin covers, small rugs and ornaments;

• any old clothes or textiles that are no longer useable can still raise money by being sold to textile merchants.

andriana + lucilla

Then you can volunteer with us at the shop: as we don’t have paid shop manager, the running of the shop rely only on volunteers.

You can join us to help on the sorting out, cleaning and preparing all the donations into saleable items, be in charge of the till, but also join us to support the admin and accounting. 

There are a lot of benefits for you too; you will be part of a friendly team, gain work experience, learn transferrable skills in retail, and meet new people everyday! It also brings you the satisfaction of knowing that the work you do in London is making a tremendous difference for the kids that Children of the Mekong is supporting.

So, what are you waiting to join us?

vitrine london weather

You can come and visit us anytime at the shop and you can always contact us via facebook, twitter or by email.

A big thank you to all of our volunteers and to everyone that helped us and wished us luck for this big challenge!

Hope to see you soon at the shop, 

Children of the Mekong team.

 

Vietnam : living on credit – part two

image articles vietnam7Here is the second part of the article “Vietnam: living on credit”; the credit system in Vietnam is widespread and involves incomes instability for both lender and applicant. 

Often the lender and the applicant belong to the same neighbourhood, which increases trust but also the ability to monitor the family in debt. In Can Tho, for example, next to Ngoc Dung’s home, twenty-four private lenders fight over the same neighbourhood. Lé Van Tôt was able to do the work necessary to save his house, and still continue to send his children to school. To do that, he borrowed 3 million dong (approximately 105 EUR) and pays back 300,000 dong (10.5 EUR) per month. For a family with a small income, this is an enormous sum, and they can barely manage to repay the interest on the loan. There is a strong possibility that Lé Van Tôt and his family will be in debt for life unless they come across a new revenue stream. To repay his debt, someday he will need to take out a new loan, or accumulate loans in a vicious circle of debt that is widespread in Viet Nam. “When we don’t pay our debts, the lenders send people to abuse us,” Lé Van Tôt confides. This statement conveys a situation that is similar to the system of usury employed by the mafia. “Hasty judgment about the informal economy in Viet Nam should be withheld,” warns Nicolas Lainez. According to him, lending is a business like any other with its advantages and drawbacks. These professional creditors can be divided into two categories. living on creditThe first category is comprised of ch? l?n (big bosses), and they are the ones in possession of money. They loan this money to the second category of lenders, retailers, the ch? nh? (little bosses), at a rate of between 3% and 5% per month. These retailers are the neighbourhood lenders or they lend to other retailers. “Money costs even more when it has gone through two or three hands,” the anthropologist points out, thereby explaining the exorbitant interest rates charged by private lenders. So the business is a double-edged sword. It makes it possible to get money quickly and at little cost. But it incurs a huge risk of debt. “It’s not rare to hear of private lenders going bankrupt or becoming indebted themselves because of too many outstanding loans,” Nicolas Lainez notes.

While many poor Vietnamese families are in debt stemming from the informal credit system, and can barely repay their loans (which are sometimes combined with bank loans), this practice is losing steam. A third of informal economy credit transactions were recorded in the 2000s while 77.5% of Vietnamese households used these loans in the 1990s. This sharp decrease is due, in particular, to macro-economic reforms implemented in the country during the Doi Moi in 1986, in conjunction with the poverty-reduction plans launched by the Vietnamese Communist Party. But since 2008, strong inflation, increase in the cost of living and the fact that certain free public services have become paid services (such as education or healthcare) have caused a shift back to the use of informal credit.

Today Ngoc Dung sells lottery tickets after school and thus takes part in the family economy. Her little six-year-old cousin, Nguyen Binh An is also looking for work. His father is a chiffonier while his grand-father is motorcycle taxi driver. But ever since the inhabitants of Can Tho have acquired the means to pay for their own motorcycles, that line of work no image articles vietnam5longer brings in very much revenue. Ngoc Dung and Binh An belong to a generation that some would willingly refer to as “those left behind by economic growth”. However, both attend school. They have support. Their parents don’t hesitate to take on debt so that in the future, thanks to their academic efforts and their work, they can finally leave their misery behind and come to the aide of their family. In the small and dirty houses of the Can Tho slum, “hope” is not an empty word.

Sidebar: Where does this informal credit system come from?

 Specialists say that informal credit is a practice that has existed everywhere from time immemorial. In southern Viet Nam however, some explain its significant development was a by-product of the presence of the prosperous Chinese community during the period of French colonialism.

 At the time, the Chinese living in Viet Nam were indispensable business partners, particularly in the sale of rice, pepper, wood and opium. The widespread diaspora and their tendency to loan money to both the rich and the poor without distinction quickly made the Chinese community a vital and choice ally for the French, who wished to turn Saigon into the “new Singapore”. Every bank and large trading house had their Chinese business agent and representative.

 But the Chinese met a formidable adversary in 1875. The Bank of Indochina was created by France to control the Indochinese economy using its exclusive right to produce Indochinese piastres. living on creditTo compete with that powerful institution in the business world, the Chinese community developed informal credit, which was already widely used in the Chinese tradition, on a massive scale. With the parallel economy in the hands of the ethnic Chinese, the Chinese community had a guaranteed place as primary intermediaries, both in commerce and in banking, thereby sapping colonial influence. This policy seemed to bear fruit. In 1936, the Chinese community held an estimated 46,000 hectares in Cochinchina. Even in 1972, out of the 32 existing banks in Saigon, 28 belonged to the Chinese.

Vietnamese families do not hesitate in contracting debts to ensure their children can attend school and build a brighter future for their families, but their position remains unstable as they are abused by an unfair arrangement which mostly benefits to the richest, leaving the poorest behind.

Text and photos: Antoine Besson. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.

Vietnam: Living on credit

Living on credit

Find out about Ngoc Dung’s family struggle to face their debts; thousands of Vietnamese have to borrow money to make the ends meet but these loans often lead to more poverty…

For the past several years, Viet Nam has experienced significant economic growth and development. These profound societal changes have kept the poorest families in a state of dependence on the often unjust informal credit system.

living on creditVõ Nguyèn Ngoc Dung is heading up the main street of Can Thó, the biggest city in the Mekong Delta in Southern Viet Nam. School is over and she is slowly walking home. She moves slowly, going from one passer-by to another, from outdoor café to stand in the hopes of selling all of her lottery tickets before that evening’s drawing. At 10 years old, like many of the children in her neighbourhood, Ngoc Dung has to work. Her grandparents took her in after her parents left to find work in Saigon, and cannot do without her meagre income. Võ Thi Hai, her grandmother, sells pastries in the street and Nguyen Van Sen, her grandfather, resells ice at retail price. These are precarious lines of work that pay less and less as time goes on. However, they constitute the sole income of Ngoc Dung’s family. Without it they wouldn’t be able to eat or pay for school. But like many families in the slum where they live, it is impossible to save money for future health issues or the inevitable maintenance a house requires. Ngoc Dung’s family is completely vulnerable. The city of Can Thó, with its countless river channels, floods from July to November each year. Twice a day, at high tide, the houses in the neighbourhood are flooded. Last year, Lé Van Tôt, one of Ngoc Dung’s neighbours, was forced to borrow money to pay for the work needed to raise his house out of the water’s reach.

Living on creditLé Van Tôt, who is in poor health, cannot work. His wife, Câm Sano, sells soup to the neighbourhood labourers every morning. She has difficulty earning 30,000 dong (1 EUR) per day, which doesn’t allow her to meet all the household expenses but is enough to place the family above the poverty threshold set by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA). Because of that, Lé Van Tôt’s family cannot apply for loans geared to the most disadvantaged and that are a part of the poverty-reduction policy implemented by the central Vietnamese Government. Having no material goods to use as collateral, they cannot take out a traditional loan from the State Bank of Viet Nam or from one of the four large public banks such as the Viet Nam Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (BADR), dedicated since 1992 to financing family farms, or the Viet Nam Bank for the Poor. In principle, these public institutions are intended to provide Vietnamese access to property and business development opportunities within the framework of poverty-reduction policies. But in reality, these banks “gradually come to target a clientele that, though not wealthy per se, have property in their possession that can be used as collateral,” explains Nicolas Lainez, an anthropologist writing a thesis on credit issues in Viet Nam. In particular, he points out that a number of Vietnamese households are currently excluded from the very rigid and costly financial system, one which requires a large number of administrative and material guarantees that they do not have. living on creditFor that reason, some Vietnamese, like Lé Van Tôt, turn to informal credit, a parallel financing system in which private lenders charge extremely high rates of interest. During the 2000s, use of the informal economy was still very widespread in Viet Nam. There are great advantages to these loans for families without guarantees or a steady income. The system is based on trust. The applicant is introduced to the lender by an intermediary who serves as guarantor. If the applicant disappears, the lender turns to the guarantor to honour his friend’s debt. The tradition is so widespread that there is a proverb that says “There are four stupid things in life: acting as a go-between, acting as guarantor for a debt, acting as lookout for turtledoves, playing the praise drum” (Trên d?i có bu?n cái ngu, làm mai, lãnh n?, gác cu, c?m ch?u).

In other words, the intermediary, the guarantor of a debt, the watchman who signals the hunter when the turtledove (a difficult bird to capture) appears, and the praise drum player, who keeps the rhythm for the ca trù singer (a form of sung poetry), all play the important role of mediator, though the risk they undertake goes unacknowledged.

This system of informal loans implies dependency for the poorest families and often lead to a vicious circle in which these families are trapped, sometimes for life. Stay tuned to read the second part of this article to understand how the loan system operates in Vietnam … 

Text and photos: Antoine Besson. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.