(posted by Better World Books alum, Natasha Harris)
I’m currently sitting in a Los Angeles coffee shop sipping on a rather tasty latte that cost (gulp) a whopping $3.65. That’s some perspective. Just last week I would probably have been sipping an even more delicious cup of Vietnamese coffee (probably at this very moment, as it’s 6pm here, and Vietnam is 15 hours into the future – 9am breakfast) that cost all of $.33 and came from a cup that did not have the Starbucks label on it.
Since back, I’ve sat down several times to put down a few words about my experiences in Southeast Asia for all of you. It’s been difficult to find words to express all that I experienced while there, and several times I’ve put aside my notes for other things, waiting for the words to come to me.
What struck me most from this entire experience was not the incredible temple visits that we did (see Aaron King’s January 13th blog posting entitled “Life Comes at You Fast” for an insightful and thoroughly regaling account of our trip itinerary), or the fuzzy feeling that comes from being on the other side of the world, or the inherent beauty of Southeast Asia, or the food or even the poverty (which was certainly striking) – it was that deep-rooted optimism, that trust in tomorrow that so many people displayed and felt so intrinsically. In the week I spent in Cambodia with Room to Read and the many people I interacted with while there, I saw it over and over, and the impact of it was so humbling I know I’ll never find the right words to describe it no matter how long I stare at this computer. Again, perspective.
For those of you who are unaware of what’s been happening in Cambodia over these past many decades (don’t feel bad) – here is the quickest of recaps: the Khmer Rouge was a very radical communist party that was in power in Cambodia from 1975-1979 (and thereafter, though less officially). Its main goals were to turn Cambodia into a classless agrarian society, and to that end it abolished currency, private property and religion, and forced people out of the cities and into intensive labor campus to work the fields. During this four year period, roughly 1.5 – 2 million people (about 20% of the population) died from overwork, starvation, torture and execution. Almost immediately after its rise to power, the Khmer Rouge began a program of mass executions – among the first to die were the elite, religious figures and the educated … right down to anyone who wore glasses. In a few short years, an entire populated of educated people was wiped out, setting the stage for a most dire situation in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of horror.
Not only did the Khmer Rouge implement mass-killings of the educated but it also destroyed much of the education-based infrastructure that existed throughout the country. In Siem Riep Province, where we spent our week with Room to Read, only one high school and twenty primary schools remained after the Khmer Rouge regime fall from power. Cambodia has faced an arduous uphill battle on every imaginable front to get to the point its reached today, and yes, there is still a long way to go. Today, Siem Riep boasts 56 high schools and 452 primary schools, along with 2 vocational training centers and a teacher training college. That’s quite an improvement! Ask any Cambodian and they will proudly acknowledge how far they’re come, recognizing of course how much is left to go.
As a westerner, I’m going to have to take a moment to be a realist and relay to you a few of the things we noted on our trip. For starters, resources are still so lacking that no child in a Cambodian public school attends for more than half the day. Teachers can sometimes be fairly under-educated themselves, and are always extremely underpaid (about $40 per month). The government only has $600-$800 million as its total annual budget, thus its contribution to education cannot meet demand. On a Room to Read visit to Angkor Wat High School (where Room to Read had built a beautiful library and also supplied a computer lab and language lab), the headmaster identified the school’s most immediate and pressing need as electricity – the school’s monthly electric bill is in the vicinity of $300-$350, and this cost cannot be subsidized by the government. The school lives in constant fear of not being able to keep its lights on. And then there is the issue of supplies – another school we visited (one where Room to Read is planning to build a library this year – 2008!) had 2,315 students and a current total of 200-300 books … to share … between everyone.