Today is Victory Day in Cambodia. For the majority of young people in Cambodia, any public holiday is worth celebrating! However this public holiday holds particular significance-it commemorates the end of the Khmer Rouge reign in 1979.
Yesterday, the Project Team worked hard with members of the local community to successfully paint Prek Trop Primary School. The school is the most remote of the 15 schools supported by See Beyond Borders in the Ek Phnom district.
The basic cement building consists of four open plan classrooms. Adjacent to it sits a dilapidated wooden building, with holes in the walls and doors falling from their hinges.
When the Project Team arrived at the site, momentary confusion by the Australian volunteers about which building would be subject to their efforts lead to a jovial exclamation from Kris, regarding the wooden building, “Well this might take a little work!”
It soon become apparent that the Teams efforts would focus on sanding and repainting the exterior of the concrete school (an effort not to be discounted) However, mystery still remained regarding the wooden building.
The Australian volunteers were joined by some Khmer men from the local community, the majority with children at the school.
With the teachers from the school attending the See Beyond Borders teacher workshop nearby, there were no classes to interrupt, so the volunteers had free reign to work on the school.
A joint effort to sand the building and wooden window shutters first, concluded with the group sitting under the shade of a tree for lunch.
This undoubtedly quickly become the highlight of the day. A Khmer volunteer had been cooking a hot lunch onsite all morning. The Khmer volunteers walked the pots over from the fire to the sitting mats to share with the Australian volunteers.
A food trade generated lots of interaction between the Khmer and Australian volunteers. A delicious assortment of stirfries and broths were traded for baguettes, cheese and Oreo biscuits! (Perhaps not a fair trade)
As the group sat enjoying the shade after lunch, one of the Khmer volunteers asked how old the Australian volunteers were. In Khmer culture, older people are greeted and treated with a much higher degree of respect.
As it transpired, he was the oldest member of the whole group at 65. After this revelation, he generously began to share his secrets to longevity – don’t drink, smoke and stick to traditional medicines such as ginger and wild bee honey.
He then went onto lament that his ability to enjoy old age, really come down to surviving the Khmer Rouge’s time in power.
Very few people his age remain in Cambodia-indeed only 3% of Cambodians population are aged 65 or older.
A fascinating account of how he survived during that time ensued, and the significance of impromptu history lesson was not lost on any of the group, the younger Khmer members as well as the Australian volunteers were equally enthralled.
He spoke of how people were not allowed to talk to each other openly, how verbal expressions of love, and of disapproval of the regime were met with equal punishment-death.
He spoke of how, people were not allowed to eat separately, and all meals had to be taken in a communal meal hall. A bell was rung, and people were served a ration of rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He pointed to the wooden hall, which he told the group, had acted as the communal eating hall at the time. He recounted a story in which a member of the local community was discovered to have picked and cooked some morning glory to supplement their rice rations, and was put to death.
The most moving part of his tale was when he spoke of how, under the Khmer Rouge, he had little sense of purpose because he owned little and had nothing to take pride in. Now, having his own home and being part of the school community made him proud.
After lunch the school was painted. Several children from homes surrounding the school emerged, and quickly found a way to involve themselves in the activity! The Australian volunteers took it in turn to break and amuse the children with games and songs. Liz’s rendition of heads, shoulders, knees and toes proved extremely popular!
Once the painting was complete (or so the Australian volunteers thought) it was time to pack up and head back to the hotel. However, much to the delight of the group, one volunteer insisted on painting until all the remaining paint was used – the older Khmer gentlemen who had shared his story over lunch.
Delighted by his sense of purpose and pride, the Australian team left the remaining paint and some equipment for him to complete the task to his satisfaction.
While See Beyond Borders focuses on investing in the formal education system in Cambodia, there is arguably an equal benefit in facilitating days like yesterday in which younger members of the population are informally given the chance to interact with the the older community members, and learn more about their countries history, from their peers.
The knowledge and personal antidotes shared provide an invaluable context to the shape and nature of the world they live in today.