Last November I was on business in Cambodia. It’s a country I had visited on numerous occasions as I was on the board of a Cambodian microfinance bank for a couple of years. So I knew life away from the urban or tourist centres, the incredibly tough life farming rice and raising children on two dollars a day, life in urban slums where one’s house is totally submerged by the rising rivers during the rainy season. Thus, when Jean Marc created Children of the Mekong, it was an easy choice to support that charity as I could connect to it. So this November I visited Samrong to get a direct impression of the kids and the centre Children of the Mekong would be supporting with the sale of paintings on January 22nd.
Samrong is about a two hour drive from Siem Reap and the centre lies idyllically on the outskirts of the small town. The centre itself is charming with a large football pitch, colourful buildings, wide open-air classrooms, happy cats, a dancing dog, chicken, flowers – and yet it is simple, and the classrooms and accommodation are rather spartan. The most noticeable feature is however that the whole place is full of enthusiasm and loads of positive energy.
Bruno, a civil aviation engineer and his wife Lucille, an art-restoration specialist and wonderful artist are the volunteers running Samrong this year with amazing dedication. It’s a 24 hour job, taking care of the kids, organising the centre, the surrounding schools, participating in the activities which range from football to harvesting rice. Both have a great rapport with the kids and neither seems to be missing life in France too much.
The names of the kids are on a big white-board in the office. Most kids have a ‘guardian’ who is paying the bills. Don’t forget, only twenty four pounds a month is the difference between construction-site slavery and higher education. All of them asked how Jean Marc had done in his muay thai boxing fight as if they feared they’d be kicked out of school if he lost.
So how does the centre work? Most kids come from surrounding villages where people live as farmers on less than two dollars a day. Their parents are too poor to allow their kids to be educated. Girls are usually married off at a young age and end up farming or working in factories and boys work on the fields or go across the border to Thailand where much more money awaits those 15 to 16 year olds who are prepared to slave away long days on construction sites.
This is where Children of the Mekong come in and break the cycle by enabling bright kids to get a proper education. So these youngsters come to live in Samrong in one big and evidently cheerful community and go to a local high school. The problem is, however, that the quality of public schooling is so poor that even the brightest children would not have a chance to get decent enough A-level results to go on to university. So Samrong organises intensive extra classes from early morning to night and thus these bright kids get a chance to move on.
At the centre, boys and girls live in separate dormitories which consist of large rooms with beds on the sides. No luxuries like single rooms. And the day starts well before sunrise. Already before 6 am the first classes start at the centre, giving the students a headstart before trodding off to the local school for ‘official’ education. After school it’s games, or rice harvesting and more classes till dinner. We joined the girl’s dorm for Sunday dinner and sat on the wooden floor enjoying a delicious meal the girls had cooked. Khmer cuisine is, in contrast to Thai food, not well known abroad but wonderfully spicy and varied and in my view more delicious than Thai food. It certainly was that evening.
As school starts early and as there are no Youtube or TV distractions, the place should have been dead by 9pm but walking past the classrooms showed how determined the children are. A large number of them were still studying. So I looked at the blackboard where some 15 year old boys were arguing over some chemistry formula. To be honest, I did not understand the formulas so I asked Bruno to explain, who, with a thorough French scientific education would be better able to understand things. Alas, the level of chemistry these kids were discussing was beyond all our reach.
What was great to hear was the plans for the future each of the kids already have. Whereas in previous years most wanted to become teachers or doctors, as these seemed to be the only academic role models they knew, now the picture was more differentiated: a number of girls wanted to become lawyers, but some were thinking about journalism and even chemical engineering. Each of them seemed fully aware of a potentially great future ahead of them. Each of them was incredibly enthusiastic and determined to see it happen. Without Samrong, it would not happen. Instead, these future lawyers, doctors and engineers would end up marrying as 16 year olds or in factories, on the fields or building sites.
So, back in London I felt inspired and motivated again to paint to raise money. And each painting sold will change some kid’s life for the better.
Marcus Fedder will hold his Art Auction at Reed Smith, on Wednesday 22 January 2014. All the proceeds will go to our Education Centre in Samrong. Click here for more information.