Whilst in Cambodia, you can’t help but notice how many children there are. With over thirty per cent of Cambodians under the age of twenty, Cambodia is by definition a young country with an ancient history. Children are on motos, working or sleeping in the markets in their parents’ stalls, on cycles on their way to school, selling on the street to tourists, doing the washing up on the side of the road. Seeing these children in these remarkable and unremarkable contexts you can’t help but reflect on childhood in general, childhood in Australia, and of course our own childhood.
As is the nature of poverty, every person in a Cambodian family is required to contribute in some way. Many of us saw children as young as three doing the washing up after a meal for example. Children contributing to every day family life is wonderful, but in Cambodia at times it can come at the cost of other developmentally important aspects of childhood. If a family can afford for their children to attend school, chances are when they get home they are either working at home to allow their parents to go out and earn an income, or they themselves are working in the family business. This means there isn’t a lot of time for drawing, painting, and developing an artistic skill, creativity, and aesthetic – assuming the family can afford paper and crayons.
The art program run by SeeBeyondBorders gives these children the opportunity to simply draw – something that here in Australia we wouldn’t consider a luxury. The very youngest children in class one right through to upper elementary are given paper, lead pencils and oil pastels. Some children were so thrilled to have access to paper and pastels they immediately began spontaneously drawing without us yet having a chance to give any instruction – which was fabulous! It was wonderful to see the joy and concentration these children had. Just giving these children access to these materials and allowing them to create was tapping in to their creative intellect and fulfilling a very real internal need.
For those that needed some direction there were varying degrees of skill. In a hand tracing activity, some children held the pastel so gently and accurately, whilst others struggled to keep it held next to their hand. When asked if they wanted to decorate their hand tracing, most simply copied my decoration from the board, indicating that they are not used to expressing themselves creatively. I picked a variety of flowers from the school garden and asked the class one children to draw their flower – an exercise not only in creative drawing but also in observation. We had a beautiful array of flowers by the end of the lesson.
Megan asked a class of students to draw their homes. After demonstrating on the board many children decided to take out their rulers to ensure they had perfectly straight edges. The children didn’t simply copy what was on the board, they interpreted it their own context, adding stilts to their homes. The concentration demonstrated by these children was inspiring.
While Megan and I were working with children in the art program, Byron, Phill, Dave and Chris were conducting the sport program we had practised the day prior. This is a major draw card in getting children to come to school – they simply love it. Games of “What’s the time, Mr. Tiger?” became increasingly animated – what child doesn’t love an opportunity to run away screaming in mock horror from a bunch of big scary adults?! I wasn’t sure who was having more fun – the kids or the big kids! A few of the children in our art classes were drawn by the shrill excited sounds outside, almost hanging out the windows to catch their schoolmates in action. Despite Cambodian children’s circumstance, their joy is not diminished. Fun is fun in any language!
The experiences really brought it home how children all over the world are at their core made of the same stuff. We may live in dramatically different contexts which shapes who we are and how we think, but our essence, our being, our core is really the same no matter where in the world we happen to be born.
Which means we’re really all the same in the end.
This is why education is so important – every child has the birth right to reach their potential, and unfortunately too many times this right is denied by way of poverty and personal circumstance. Education is part of the way we are enabled to reach that potential, and of course not everybody has access to education let alone quality education. Currently 73.6% of people over the age of 15 in Cambodia are considered literate, a definition which means they can read and write a short simple statement on their everyday life with understanding, a definition in and of itself telling.
It’s not fair, but it can be changed.