First, Hope and Sack of Rice at Home

by Mom Chantara Soleil

Roeung just finished her last bowl of Num Banchok (traditional Cambodian rice noodle) served with spicy fish soup (Roeung’s favorite) prepared by her weak middle-aged mother out of love and misses to welcome the first visit of her beloved daughter after four months away (since October 2013) at Angkor high school (in Siem Reap provincial town) – over 80 kilometres from her home in Rolum village, Sre Krav commune of Angkor Chum district.

Though she gets busier without Roeung around, the singled mother is sitting calmly with thinking (mixture of some hopes, worries, misses, some uncertainty, etc.) look against the half wooden-wall of her kitchen and also bedroom for her grownup sons (roofed with thatches, standing on six wooden columns one-meter-and-a-half above the ground to prevent seasonal flooding), watching every movement of her daughter who will return to her government-supported dormitory (for outstanding female students from the poorest families) at Siem Reap town this noon.

“I cannot afford visiting home on my own from Siem Reap though I am worried about my mother and siblings. I can visit home this weekend because one of my friends allows me a free roundtrip on her bike. At the dorm we are not supposed to have a personal phone because they want us to fully concentrate on our study. But they allow us five-minute call per week to our family,” says former Plan and Krousar Yoeung facilitated child club leader Roeung – at times looking back at her quiet mother.

Now 19 years old and well respected and known for her outstanding school performance, Roeung started her first grade at the age of seven as an average student (unlike most areas in Cambodia, Roeung’s community gained peace from civil war quite late, in 1996. So access to primary schooling remained difficult until the early 2000s. Roeung’s sister consequently did not go to school) in 2001 at the local primary school. Unfortunately, the death of her father five years later forced Roeung to drop school at grade 4. “My mother did not force me to quit school, but I couldn’t continue my study when everyone in my family was facing such a hug difficulty,” adds Roeung, the family’s second child.

Roeung’s rice farmer mother, Leuk Nhoy, 52 (same age as her husband), who is fighting with her heart disease, recalls her past sadly and slowly:

“I myself don’t know any alphabet. I want to see all my six children to have good future, not a poor peasant like me – very difficult, not enough to eat although we work from dawn till dusk… No one in the family knew tuberculosis until my husband died of it. He coughed with blood drops and could not work, so we sold our only one rice field for 100,000 riels [US $25] to take him to Tang Kork health center, about 30 kilometers. He died after two weeks there,” she pauses cleaning her eyes with an old red scarf on her left thigh.

She continues: “I didn’t have money to arrange a funeral for him, so his elder sister took him to his home land and organised a small funeral for him. My children and I returned home with nothing left – no rice field. I sought loans to buy rice. All my children quit school to help me with what they can. The younger, three of my sons, went to find snails, fishing and finding rattan to sell. Another one decided to go to live at the pagoda and has become a monk. My two older daughters, including Roeung, helped our fellow villagers farming their rice in exchange for rice. To just be able to open the eyes to see tomorrow was so hard. I became sick as well.”

Plan and Krousar Yoeung expanded our Family Empowering Project from 2011-2014 to improve the living of an additional [1]820 poorest and marginalised families, including Mrs. Nhoy’s (specifically for Angkor Chum district, 450 poorest families or 2,507 people – 1,018 female and of them 709 boys and 614 girls – are benefiting from the project).

The ‘magic’

After identifying individual causes behind the hardship of the selected families, Plan and Krousar Yoeung counsel them out of hopelessness and facilitate them to map their way toward improved livelihood and future plan using their available resources, knowledge and skills. Those families are financed to clear former forest land (before it was small forest with some trees and bushes. Cambodia’s land reform allows landless families to own a hectare of it each) given to them by the local authority – transforming the land into rice field. Along with proper instruction and follow up, they also receive vegetable seeds for home gardening, some poultry for raising, a set of basic household materials (such as water filters, jar, kittle, etc.) to keep themselves healthy and vocational training opportunity marketable in their community.

At the same time we pay special attention to children’s emotional, physically and mental development. “We encourage them to be confident, go back to school, keep up with their good performance, engage in different leadership, facilitation and community development roles,” shares Krousar Yoeung’s Senior Child Right Officer, Mr. Seang Sokhom.

So what?

Life has been changing gradually for Roeung and her family through the interventions of Plan in partnership with Krousar Yoeung.

The family is entitled to a hectare of former forest land. Because her mother is sick with many children, Roeung’s uncle gave his part (a hectare of former forest land) to her mother. The family has now cleared a quarter of the two-hectare plot of land and is farming rice on it. At home, their home garden and poultry are growing well – not only feeding the family but allow extra for sale.

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“I never thought we could get to this better living. I now own rice field, vegetable and chicken. And I have also engaged in village saving (she saves 5,000 riels or US $1.25 per month and she can benefit from the interests) for two months now… I in fact don’t want to be rich but I just want my children to have enough to eat and happy. Roeung used to tend pigs for her uncle, so he gave her a small piglet which is growing fast with another one I bought and our chicken and ducks, too,” says Nhoy rather smiling.

With encouragement from Plan and Krousar Yoeung, Roeung became a child club leader and attained basic facilitation, presentation and leadership skills. She tells: “First I became a member of child club of Plan organisation and decided to return to school in 2008 (academic year between Oct 2008 and Sep 2009). I enjoyed and learned a lot being part of the child club. I worked harder as I became a child club leader at the village and commune levels because of continuing advice from Bong Soran (Krousar Yoeung staff). I taught other children and community people about messages on education, health, disaster and others related to child rights. I remember mobilising them to help repair our village road damaged by floods. I worked with commune council to organise public forums on different issues and attended meeting to develop the commune investment plan as well.”

Since she became a leader, Roeung was always the top in her class straight from grades 8 to 9. She balanced her study, house work and community work so well that her teacher and village leader encouraged her to apply for the opportunity to study at Siem Reap’s best high school, known as Angkor high school at the provincial town. One commune can only nominate one student with outstanding study record and from a very poor family for the opening. Through a tough selection process, Roeung was the only one student, not only from her commune but the whole Angkor Chum district, who got selected among 21 students across Siem Reap. The opportunity is given once in three years.

“I don’t have to pay anything including the room to stay, except 12 kilogram of husked rice per month for eating myself, until I finished high school at grade 12. My mother gave me 20,000 riels [US $5] from her saving. It’s a lot of cash for us…I was so scared the first day of my grade 10 at Angkor high school. My legs were shacking as I entered the new class and dared not look at anyone. There are 68 students they chose the front seats so I had to sit at the back. Many of my classmates are students from well-off families and look smart. I’ve tried very hard and found out that I am capable to do better than many. I cannot maintain as the top in the class because other students they have money to attend extra classes. But I will try my best and I start to feel confident with my study there,” tells Roeung.

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Asked what she dreams to be, Roeung replied unhesitantly and confidently: “I want to be a leader or a teacher in my commune. How well educated I will be, I won’t leave my commune. I love the children here. Many don’t go to school. We lack of knowledgeable people. That’s why we are so poor. Life is like a fearing frog in the well. Though we are such deprived, I have so many good memories with the children’s club and our villagers.”

It was so hot the day, 39 degree Celsius at around 10 a.m. As soon as the conversation is over, Roeung rushed to fetch water from what she called drinking water well (the clean water well constructed by Plan) about 25 meters away from her home to fill up a lorry-tyre sized jar next to the kitchen. She then pulled up contaminated water from an old ring well right in front of her house soaking an area on the ground to cool it down for her two pigs to sleep, before watering her home garden with her mother and youngest 12-year-old brother who just returned from school.

Her mother took off her old green flip-flop climbing up the five-step wooden ladder into the family’s safest area (thatch-roofed, one-room wooden cottage as bedroom for herself, Roeung and the youngest brother and place to store the family’s most valuable belongings, including sacks of rice, money, clothes, etc.) to bring out the 12 kilograms of husked rice to clean and pack for Roeung, who is supposed to leave in less than one hour.

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Without knowing when she will be able to visit home again, Roeung helped to share daily burden of her mother as much as she can until her friend’s motorbike arrive to bring her back to Siem Reap town.

Gradual, firm and meaningful changes in the family’s basic livelihood has untrapped their hope and paved their destiny, especially of Roeung as well as her siblings. Like in her case, many marginalised families and children need just constant encouragement and practical ideas to live lives in order to be back on track and ready to gear up for their fullest potential. And it’s obvious that securing household’s hopes and sack of rice can make a difference.

That’s not all, just yet

Twenty minutes ride or seven kilometers from Roeung’s house, in Slart village of the same commune and district Chandy, 15, is putting together pieces of her broken heart and soul after the loss of her beloved ones – thanks to Plan and Krousar Yoeung. “Because of the fighting [civil war] and no one teaching, none of my six brothers and sisters had attended school. Now they all got married and are living with their families. They are as poor as my parents when they are alive,” Chandy tells her story on the wooden floor of her oldest sister’s place she now calls home.

She continues: “I started my first grade in 2007 and when I was doing my grade 6, my father passed away because of tuberculosis. And last year in September, my mother passed away due to the same disease…. I was so hopeless and did not want to do anything. I quit school and was missing my parents so badly. Neak Kru and Lok Kru [respected title meaning teacher, but not necessarily those teaching] from Krousar Youeng who used to help my mother came to talk to me. They explained me that I should return to school. They taught me many things so that I am more active in the child club. They encouraged my sister and her husband to allow me to go to school. I now am doing better with my grade-9 study and I will not quit school again. I am getting used to living with my sister and her husband. Going to school, doing activities with the child club and helping my sister taking care of my two small nieces and doing housework reduce my misses of my parents. I hope I can finish my study and become a teacher or staff of organisation [NGOs] like Neak Kru and Lok Kru.”    

At least another one hour ride on 26 kilometers to Pnov village in another commune called Ta Som of the same district, 20-year-old Savin has been playing the roles as the head of household, student and leader of child club at the same time, since the death of his step father seven years ago. Without interventions from Plan and Krousar Yoeung, she would have dropped school and engaged in risky migration to the neighboring country like many of her age.

She tells her story: “My mother keeps asking me to quit school and take care of the house as she is not around. Some friends encourage me to go to sell labors in Thailand with them. I don’t think I would take either of the choices, but continuing to go to school…I have one older brother, my blood brother who has now got married and left us. My blood father passed away when I was 3 months old. My mother re-married to my step father. They have two sons living with me now. My step father passed away due to tuberculosis eight years ago. Since then my mother spends most of her time at the pagoda, as a nun. Mostly I am all alone with my small brothers. I do what I can to survive. I know Plan and Krousar Yoeung who support me so far. Without their encouragement I would not have known what to do for my life.

Savin could start her first grade as she reached ten years old. While going to primary school would take her less than 5 minutes, starting Angkor Chum secondary school was really a big located seven kilometers from her house was really a big challenge for her to stay at school. Plan’s girl scholarship means so much to student like Savin who is still depending on the given bicycle, school uniform and study materials for her current grade ten. Because of dusty road between home and school, Savin has to wash her only one school uniform every evening of schooling days so that it does not look too dirty for tomorrow.

A conversation with her mother, Kong Kay, 43, as she visited makes us think of the case for days: “I got married at my early 17 to an older husband, a former solder. He wanted me to do whatever he wished to. He oftentimes hit me. He became very jealous if I went to visit our neighbors. As I returned home one day, he scolded and hit me. He hit me with an axe on my head. So much blood covering me and I got unconscious. He thought I had died, so he shot himself and died. I survived that. Later on, I got married to another husband who again was violent though not as much as my first husband. As he died, I decided to scarify my life to Buddha by becoming a nun. So I stay most at the pagoda.”

Through all the family hardship and tough childhood, Savin became very quiet and sky to be with others, plus she looks older than her age. Socialising her in the child club and promoting her to be a leader has changed her behavior and belief and created her confidence and hope. Though she may not be as bright as she should be, she is doing her best and Plan and Krousar Yeoung are there for her. Changing a behavior and enabling a hope is not as easy as changing the color of a latrine and does take time.

[1] According to Krousar Yoeung’s Senior Child Right Officer Seang Sokhom

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