Tuesday, January 22, 2008

First Visit to the 'Muskoka School' Site!

First Visit to the 'Muskoka School' Site – January 19, 2008..

On the way to Anlong Veng, in the dirt-poor province of Oddar Meanchey, is the rural village of Onndong bei.3 well. Forget trying to find it on the Internet, as there are hundreds of these small villages in this province. It is just off the NH67 road to the northern border of Thailand. Oddar Meanchey is unfortunately one of the most heavily mined provinces in the country and most of the mines were laid in the past 15 years. In Cambodia one in 275 people is an amputee.

Sadly, en route to this area, we reached a road block where 3 days ago three road workers were killed when their truck was blown up by an anti-tank mine. A horrific price to pay to achieve progress. There are no sealed roads. They are being worked on, but they are a mess. In the rainy season getting around this province is tough. Living in this province is tough. And it's tough seeing the people of these areas eke out a daily existence. Khmer people have no governmental social or medical assistance. Snake bites, malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, HIV/Aids are all killers in this country. There are no ambulances or fire departments in the rural areas.

Hope is slowly being realized by the people of this province through the help brought by numerous NGOs and World Relief Organizations. Irrigation and well projects, food and medical supplies, some demining, and schools are being built. It's really tough to know where to begin, because to get this much needed aid to the people who need them, you really need to demine first. In rural Cambodia you don't dare take a step off the side of a road or well-trod path.

Traveling with Akira, a class 3 certified deminer, certainly gave our convoy of 3 vehicles some reassurance as we took the two hour trip north of Siem Reap to Onndong bei. 3 well. Along for the journey were good friends Eugene and Mary Gallagher of Australia. They were coming to see the newly built wood school they fund raised for in a village en route. Richard Fitoussi, of the new Land Mine Museum and Relief Facility, and Bill Morse of the Landmine Relief Fund came along, as well as Phil Parry who built the wonderful new cement school near Pailin last year.

Building a school in Cambodia is a wonderful and rewarding project. The children and young adults here revere education, and devote their every waking moment to it. Parents will sell their only cow, to give their son a semester of university education. A semester here only costs $300. I have had countless students tell me their aspirations for university education, but their parents are too poor to afford the cost. As it is, children in primary and secondary school have to pay a small fee to go to school every day. This is a form of corruption, but corruption is the norm for many aspects of Cambodian life. You have to pay for what you need, but many of the everyday things that one needs, are not available, or so costly, that you buy them in the underground markets.

Schools are badly needed in the rural areas. Many well-meaning philanthropists and NGO's have started to help out in this capacity. Many have come into a rural area, and with the best of intentions, have given money to have a dilapidated school replaced, or have erected a school where one has not existed before. This does fulfill the present need, but so much more has to be considered to make the project a worthwhile and lasting project.

Onndong bei. 3 well is a larger village with an astronomical amount of 170 children attending the school there. The two buildings on the school site are built of wood, bamboo, and leaves. The wood is infested with termites. The roof and walls have large sections missing. During the rainy season, the children are drenched, and there are insects (English name yet to be determined) which fall from the roof that burrow into the children's ears. Three to four children are crammed into each school bench. The children love school and were very proud to show me the work that they do. There was only one blackboard, no books, only some exercise books for the students. Most students had the mandatory blue and white uniform. The school badly needs supplies. I am having a meeting with an NGO tomorrow morning that will hopefully get some school supplies up there soon. Many of the children who ride bicycles or walk for miles to attend school, arrive there never having had a morning meal. How can a child learn on an empty stomach? I am presently pursuing other NGO's to get information on how we can get a morning meal provided at the school site. This might have to be done on a local level. Many schools here also have medical supplies on their wish list, so they can deal with all the minor ailments of the children including head lice(big problem), cuts and abrasions, and fevers.

There were three government funded teachers, one of which was the director. Grades one and two are taught in one building, three and four in the other. Half of the 170 attend in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. I was glad to hear that the teachers were government funded, mainly because grade completion certificates issued by government funded teachers will be recognized for future enrollment, otherwise the students have to 'buy' their way into future education. Government funded teachers are also teachers with the proper credentials and education to teach.

Using Akira as my interpreter, I spoke to the village chief to ask that a letter be drawn up to state in writing that they want the school replaced, that the school is in fact on village land (not private, which could have devastating results), and that we have permission from the Chief, the commune, and the province, that the school can be replaced. Yesterday I found out that it is the responsibility of the school director to get special forms and building specifications from the province. So when I go back up to the school site in March with Akira, I'll make sure that is being dealt with. Another question I am pursuing is whether a government contractor has to be used. I don't thinks so, but I have to check this out.

The chief, teachers and villagers were elated at the prospects of a new school building. It will also make work for some of the local village men.

One reason this is such an ideal site for the 'Muskoka School' is because somebody, or some organization, put in a large well and toilets only meters away from the school! It would have cost about $1500 for this project. When I go back up in March, I will find out from the chief who implemented that project.

It would be quite easy to just erect a solid wood school for $3500 on this site and walk away quite pleased. But, in Cambodia it is illegal to build with wood. It has to be bought in the underground market. Thirty years ago Cambodia had 75% forest land, now it only has 3%. One of the environmental horrors of war.

So the one-room school building will be built out of brick and cement. It will cost approximately $5000 - $10,000, but it will be built to government specifications, it will last, and it will be safe for the children and the environment. The cost is more than first realized because of the remote area in which it is located. But this is a village where 170 children come from miles around to attend school in two buildings that are falling apart. Careful planning will have to be taken into consideration so that down the road the second school building on the site can be replaced. Something else I m looking into. Doing it any other way would be a waste of time, money and effort. The 'Muskoka School' will be a prototype, and a learning experience for me, on how a government approved school building project is implemented. No easy feat in Cambodia, but it can be done. It is my vision to build a school building every year.

Building the school cannot commence until the rainy season starts in June. Lots of water is needed to mix the cement. It never rains in the dry season.

Presently $3700 has been raised by the generous citizens of Muskoka. That money will go a long way towards the building supplies. Upon my return the beginning of April, I will be holding a couple of fund raising events to raise the rest by the beginning of June. In the meantime, anyone wishing to contribute towards this project can email me at mccoy@vianet.ca or telephone my husband Carl at 705-687-8538. Upon my return in April, I will also be available for speaking engagements, accompanied by a Powerpoint presentation.

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