Malin Klinski is BOOKBRIDGE fellow and will support our learning center in Chansom Senmongkul in the next months. Having graduated from high school in June, Malin is our youngest fellow so far. In this article she describes her first days after the long trip from her hometown Munich to Cambodia.
When I arrived in Phnom Penh, Sokhan, BOOKBRIDGE Cambodia Country Mananager, was waving behind the entrance doors of the airport. It was very nice to have someone waiting for you, when you arrived in a new country for the first time. I was already overwhelmed by everything I could see from the airplane window but actually driving through the streets is something entirely different. I asked Sokhan thousands of questions and we arrived in Chansom Senmongkul in no time.
The family I am going to stay with is very nice. The mother Siphen is never not busy and her house is always crowded with many people. She is looking after everyone and managing everything. I know right away, when there is a place where I will feel like home, it’s here. I went to Bookbridge Learning Center Chansom Senmongkul after lunch and I was greeted by many, many children. They say “hello teacher” and gave me high-fives. We went by bicycles, as it is not to far away. I met the whole team, Sreydieb, Ratana and Kadet and I was also warmly welcomed by them.
In my first English class, the children wanted me to sing a song with them. Of course I could not say no, when 30 children were looking at me in anticipation. I was surprised that it was a lot of fun and everyone was joining in very quick. The time was passing by and the next hours were not more than a blur of many smiling faces. Back in the homestay I was very tired because I barely slept in the last two days. I gave my guest family the gingerbread hearts and the Munich mug that I brought for them and finally went to bed.
On Saturday Sokhan showed me Ang Tasom, the center of the small town located along the road that we passed the day before. There is a market where barely moving chicken are lying in the sun, bunches of bananas are covering the streets and some children that I already saw in the learning center are running around, greeting us. Afterwards we were visiting the local Buddhist monastery compound. It is a beautiful place. One building is for the munch’s to eat, one for them to sleep. The smallest monk who was passing us is a little boy, hardly 10 years old. He was walking barefoot what is part of the traditional appearance. You can find Stupas everywhere, buildings that look like small temples. This is also where the ancestors are buried. Next we visited Preah Vihear, the main building of the Buddhist monastery. It is the place where you can go to pray and where the monks are studying Lord Buddha philosophy. The life of Buddha is painted on the walls and Sokhan told me the whole story of his enlightening. He also demonstrated me how to show respect to Buddha statues when entering and leaving the Preah Vihear. I had to sit down, put my legs to the side, my hands to my forehead and touched the floor three times.
When we went back home, we drove through the villages and stopped every five minutes to talk with somebody. The houses are simple but often colourful and next to small canals that help providing the rice fields with water. There are a lot of lilies and I enjoyed the bike trip very much, everything seems to be made of beauty and peace.
When I got back to the learning center on Monday morning, we started the day with a team meeting. Sreydieb, Ratana, Kadet, Sokhan, me and also Johannes and Stefanie (friends of the former fellow Olivier) who came to stay for a short time were joining. It was very interesting and worked quite well, considering the language barriers that exist. We talked about the planned expansion of the learning center to the second floor and the challenges that we need to face regarding that. Then we discussed the week and everyone said what he or she had planned. In the end we wrote everything down in the weekly activity schedule.
In the first class, we were teaching the children what the difference between “is not” and “isn’t” just as “have not” and “haven’t” etc. is. They learned pretty quickly. What was amazing, also, they were actually interested in everything you told them. After doing some practicing exercises, they were asking questions like “Are we friends?” and “Is this my pencil?”. The next class was learning everything about school subjects. They actually prefer math, chemistry and physics over subjects like art and history. There is a picture of “Romeo and Juliet” in the exercise book and I tried to tell them the story with drawing little doodles on the writing board. Everyone looked absolutely shocked when I said they both died because they were not allowed to love each other. In the end of the lesson a little girl came to me and asked: “Is Romeo pretty?” and I was much to surprised to find an intelligent answer. Maybe they will read Shakespeare one day. It would definitely be a dream.
In the next days I found a rhythm and did free time activities with the children in the morning and in the afternoon for around two hours. We were building towers and houses, cut out our own memory games, played volleyball and the jumping game “Heaven and Hell”, drew pictures of favourite animals, read stories, sing songs… there was always something to do.
I joined four English classes a day. In the morning there is a conversation class, where we are practising the directions. For example with a poem that I wrote the day before (it starts with “I am outside the house, see there is a little mouse, she sits right under the tree, next to her flies a bumble bee.”), or with playing tourists in a new city where they have to find their way to the temple, the hotel etc. In the course that studies the school subjects, I play eda game that helps to learn the words. One part of the class had a word on their card, the other part the matching picture. When I told them to find each other and work in groups, it was really difficult, because boys did not want to sit next to girls and the other way round. I did not expect that and I had to convince them for quite a while before it worked out.
In another class I let the children write a little story about their home, how it looks like and how many people live there. It was quite interesting, some had a room on their own and some shared it with their two cousins or their grandma. In the next week we planned to colour one of the walls in the learning center that looks really messy. The children had been painting on it with pens for quite some time and now you can hardly see anything anymore. After the wall will have a new colour, we want to put pictures of the children there.
In the time I had off, I visited the Takeo learning center with Johannes and Stefanie. There were fewer children than in Ang Tasom, where is always crowded. But it is bright and nicely decorated. I was thinking about helping there one time a week to offer free activities.
We also visited Angkor Borei, an earliest capital of Kingdom of Cambodia. It was an incredible experience. Normally there is a river that runs from Takeo to Angkor Borei but now in the rain season everything is flooded. It seems like we are in the middle of the sea or at least on a huge lake. There were fisherman everywhere, they moved their boats through the trees that looked out of the water and when we passed some houses from time to time, they are build on wooden stakes.
Not far from Angkor Borei it is Phnom Da, a historic hill site. Local children showed us the way through the jungle-like forest and we found not only one but two beautiful temples hidden behind the leaves. One of them is one of the oldest temples in Cambodia dated back to c. 7th century AD. From the hill top you can see the whole landscape that is truly amazing.
One day I was teaching the young adults in the “Hope for Happiness” school where is located nearby the home of my guest family. It is quite funny because some are my age. We talked about our dreams in life and everyone had something to say. One girl talked about her wish to become a famous musician one day. She was singing a song in front of the class and it sounded so emotional, I got goose bumps. Afterwards she was explaining, that the song tells the story of the Cambodian people who returned to Phnom Penh after the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It was a special moment; the whole class was quiet and listened to her while she talked about the meaning of the lines.
On Saturday I went to the learning center again to do some things without the children interrupting me, but this worked not as good as I had imagined. I was trying to restructure the library, as there are many books that are in the wrong shelves or not marked yet. After BOOKBRIDGE was closed I went to visit Ratana, the librarian, at her home. She lives next to the market and the streets are very narrow and crowded. She has a small classroom in her house and it seems like the whole neighbourhood is coming to study there, only half is paying and just as many are related to her in some way.
My first week at the learning center has given me a very good insight on the work there. It is full of life and I can see that the children love to visit the place. Not only to study but to play and discover new things. Also, as far as I could see in only one week time, everyone in the team is very dedicated to the project. Besides me, two Cambodian university students will be helping there halftime for the following weeks. It will definitely be an interesting time.
Everyone who wants to hear more about my work in Ang Tasom can visit my blog Captivating Cambodia.