Sunday, February 7, 2010

‘Banyan Learning Tree’ - Free Rural Literacy Education in Kep Province, Cambodia
Located 176 km from Phnom Penh, the province of Kep had a population of 34,000
- 4,000 of which are children. Very few organizations are at work in this remote corner of Cambodia, near the border of Viet Nam. My friend, Pauline Johns from Australia, and I have been drawn to this area because of this lack.

The need for more teachers and educational facilities in rural Cambodia is great. Poverty is the biggest obstacle to education for the children and adults in the rural areas. Many children don’t attend school for various reasons. It’s either too far to get there and they lack the transportation, and in many instances, children are needed at home to do the chores, or they are in the work field earning money to help the family survive.

Education has been difficult to attain for adults also. During the Khmer Rouge years, all education had been eradicated. As a result, the rural adult population remains highly illiterate. Only 55.6% of the women and 65.9% of the men are somewhat literate in the countryside. 82% of these people have not gone past the primary school level.

Pauline and I wanted to provide a lasting source of education for both the eager young students and the adult rural population that want to attain literacy.

Last year Pauline and I had both volunteered for a few months at the ‘Voluntary Development Poverty Children’s School’ (VDPCS) in Siem Reap. That model ‘free education’ school provided English education to all ages five days a week. Hundreds of children attend faithfully and are provided with free workbooks, notebooks and pencils. There is a small lending library there also. It is a registered organization in Cambodia and is sponsored by various organizations from around the world.

For the people here in Kep province, we also wanted to address the prevalent problem of adult illiteracy. While volunteering at ‘Cambodia World Family-Krong Kep School’, we saw the many families who came to their outreach Khmer literacy classes, where adults learn to read, write and some basic mathematics. That inspired our decision to also provide this at a school.

Our next step was to figure out how we could put a school in a lacking rural area without the high cost of a ‘school-building project’. We went back to that role model of VDPCS, and after some investigating, found out that it was very cheap to rent an empty house here. We found the perfect house in a rural area lacking this valuable education. The rent is only $100/month!

Pauline and I did not do this all alone, and we still have some steps to go before out little new school, ’Banyan Learning Tree’ is fully operational.

Lots of credit and thanks go to Om Chamnap, who will be the director and teacher of this new ’free education’ school. Mr. Om comes with a background of ngo experience attained during his years is Phnom Penh. He is also a registered teacher. Mr. Nob Sokhom will be the second teacher at ’Banyan Learning Tree’.

Mr. Om is now going through the necessary procedures to register the school as an organization with the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) here in Cambodia. Approval has to be granted by village, commune and district levels before the application can even proceed to the MOI. ‘Banyan Learning Tree’ will be registered with the MOI in March.

Why go through all this work with registering here with the MOI? We found out the important reason ‘why’. If it isn’t registered as an organization with the MOI, then Cambodian law considers it a business, and we are bound by law to charge the students for their education. In other words - it’s considered a business.

In the meantime, while we wait for the registration process to go through, there’s lots to do to get the school ready to go the moment it receives its official papers. Some mats and chairs, a couple of tables and all the school supplies have to be purchased. There is a small room for an office. Our start-up budget is small, but thanks to Pauline’s generous support, we have enough funds to get it off and running.

The monthly operational budget including teacher’s salaries, rent, and other necessary expenses amount to about US$430/month.

It’s a new experience for both Pauline and I, but one which will provide much-needed free education for the people in rural Kep Province. We have visited the school site twice (about 6-7km away from Kep town), and already many area children and adults are getting excited about the opening of this new free education school - Bayan Learning Tree!

The name for this school was chosen from a story contained in the children’s book ‘Vanna’s Dance’, written by author and founder of ‘A Mine Free World Foundation‘. You can read the story (book excerpt) of the Banyan Tree at this link - you’ll understand why we chose this special name for the school: Mine Free World Foundation in Canada will be raising funds to support this school.

Used laptops and educational CD-ROMS are also needed, which I can bring back to the school next October. Any donations, big or small, will help this new school continue to reach the illiterate and education-hungry of Kep province:

US and Canadian donations can be mailed to:

A Mine Free World Foundation
906 Fung Place
Kitchener, ON, Canada, N2A 4M3

Please write: 'Banyan School' on the memo field of your cheque.

I'm still in Cambodia a while yet, and ready to give out more bicycles to anyone wanting to sponsor a child's education for transportation!