Students participate in a science class assisted by Irish teacher Aoife Jenkins
The simplicity and warmth of rural Cambodian life moves Aoife Jenkins, who would like to see an end to families being forced apart because of poverty, lack of education and parents who are forced to move abroad to find employment.
Cambodia and South East Asia was an unfamiliar part of the world before I left Ireland for Sisophon, in the north west of Cambodia two years ago. It is in this poor region of Banteay Meanchey Province that Xavier Jesuit School where I teach is located.
Family Life in Phnom Bak Village
Taking a walk through the villages that our school is nestled in gives an insight into the varied family units in our community. Many of our students here in Phnom Bak village are in the care of their elderly grandparents, aunts or uncles as their parents have had to make the decision to move to neighbouring Thailand to find employment so that they can support their children’s education and their extended family.
Parents from the area understand that the opportunity of an education for their children can mean making the difficult decision to leave to find jobs in Thailand where the wages are higher, as the money will ultimately go towards supporting the family. This is where the role of Xavier Jesuit School for the future of this community is of vital importance.
On my journey to and from school, my favourite sight is that of the children in the village playing together joyfully. I smile every time I see it because I know I am lucky to witness this simple and natural sight. A simple plastic bag, two sticks and some string makes a lively kite while a spinning top fashioned from the leg of an old wooden chair serves the fun-loving children with another modest delight. The toys and games are simple but made with the skill and dexterity that Cambodian children develop from a young age.
Xavier Jesuit School Dreams of Future
The great work of the education team from the Jesuit Mission in Cambodia led by Fr. Ashley Evans SJ meant that the people in the villages here were thrilled to have the school opening in their community. The message of hope is made very clear in the school motto ‘Dare to Dream of a Brighter Future’, a dream that the school works hard to help the children fulfil. The opportunities the school offers to the children is a good education which will give them the skills to find employment at home, enabling the next generation of families the chance to stay together instead of being forced to leave for Thailand.
Our school timetable includes subjects such as art, agriculture, English, music, home economics and computer studies as well as the usual academic subjects. We offer these subjects to teach the children practical skills to help for their future. Having a good command of the English language opens many doors for students here in Cambodia where tourism to the magnificent Angkor Wat temples provides many people with employment, from tour guides to jobs in the hospitality services.
Kindergarten students enjoy learning through play at Xavier Jesuit School in Sisophon, Cambodia
Mutual Care of Cambodian Families
In Cambodia, children are expected to be independent and bear responsibility from a young age. They can be responsible for maintaining the household, taking care of the family run shop, selling food in the market after school or taking care of their younger family members. The Cambodian word for siblings is ‘bong pah own’ however it is often used to include cousins, brothers and sisters collectively, an indication of how close one family unit is. The distinction between cousin and sibling here is not so important, every child in their family community is seen as their brother or sister.
In a regular Cambodian village, families have very few modern appliances to make life easier such as the washing machine. Clothes are washed by hand daily.
No refrigerators means early morning trips to the market or to the river for fresh food and prepared on a fire bucket at home. From the neck down to the chicken’s feet, almost every part of the animal is used in the meal, this also requires time and preparation.
Having been being lucky enough to be warmly welcomed into this society, I found this time-consuming and laborious routine involving every member of the household, fosters the good-humoured spirit of a community working towards a common goal.
There is a special sense of unity as everyone does their bit towards the making of the meal. During this time, laughter and stories are shared, cooking skills are passed on from the old to the young and the sense of purpose throughout the preparations as well as the sense of achievement at the end, shows the strength that these families have, in spite of these hardships.
Author: Aoife Jenkins began her time in Xavier Jesuit School as the secondary school teacher trainer and English teacher. She is currently the principal of the secondary school.