Article for UCC Express

Building an Education and Community Centre in Rural Cambodia – http://www.scao-school.org

A lot of people in UCC do not even know this course exists, and a great majority of people do not even know what the course entails when I tell them. In fact when I tell them what I studied, I am usually met by a blank expressionless face. However since its establishment in 2005, this course has grown and developed in so many different ways. It attracts international recognition and interest from all over the world, from Asia to Africa and everywhere in-between. Graduates from this course are scattered all over the globe, in countries like Uganda, Myanmar, Cambodia and Mongolia, to name a few. It is a truly unique university course, and the first undergraduate course of its kind in Ireland.

I graduated from BSc International Development and Food Policy (IFDP) in UCC in 2012, and a passion to work overseas was something that grew within me during the four years of university. The course has a mandatory 6 month overseas work placement in a developing country in third year. My placement was in Kolkata, India. This was an amazing six months, and it is something that I will never forget. Being taken out of your comfort zone and dropped into one of the poorest cities in India is a real sink or swim moment. IFDP does not just educate you in the classroom through lectures, projects and assignments, it makes you think for yourself, develop your own ideas, plans and personally develop in ways that no other course does.

When I graduated in October 2012, I had to ask myself the same question that every other recent graduate asks, “What next?” There are a limited amount of answers to this question; do a Masters, get a job working in a shop or bar, look for a job in your field, emigrate, or go on the Dole. I on the other hand decided to look for alternatives to these options. I wanted something in my field of study and I wanted to go travelling. I found an Irish organization called SCOOP Foundation who was advertising for a volunteering position in rural Cambodia as the Development Officer for a small Cambodian NGO called SCAO. During the interview I was offered the position, and I decided to go for it, what other alternative did I have that was better than this? Looking back now, it was a life changing decision, and one of the best decisions I have ever made.

SCAO is a small organization that has only been established in the past five years. It runs two schools in rural areas just outside the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Combined the schools offer free English classes to over 500 children aged 4-22 years of age. The classes are thought by international volunteers who come from all over the world to work at SCAO. We also have computer classes in both schools with over 60 students learning how to use Word, PowerPoint, Excel, email and CV creation. Finally, our newest vocational training project is just a year old. The Hairdressing and Beautician Project already has 8 graduates, and currently 24 in partaking in the current class.

Since my arrival a year ago, we have made huge progress in community development in Som Roung village, where one of the SCAO schools are located. I designed a survey to find out what are the main struggles that face local families in the village every day. Three trends soon emerged from the survey; lack of access to clean water, lack of access to a toilet and lack of access to healthcare. So far we have implemented over 350 ceramic water filters into homes, thus giving over 1,500 men, women and children access to clean safe drinking water. We have constructed 11 toilets for some of the poorest families in the village and there are currently plans to construct more in the flood plains of the village. Finally we have developed an educational healthcare awareness program in the village that takes place every 3 months.

My next biggest project is by far the most difficult, but it is the one that will have the biggest impact. SCAO are currently funding for the construction for a new Education and Community Centre (ECC) in a rural village called Prey Ponror, located 25km northwest of Phnom Penh. This ECC will be as environmentally and financially sustainable as possible. The ECC will have solar panels on the roof to provide electricity for the school, a water harvesting system to reduce the use of water, and a school garden to provide vegetables for the school. Financially the ECC will be sustainable through the volunteers who come to stay and teach at the school.

The new ECC will run similar projects in Prey Ponror Village. In the school there will be free English classes for children of all ages and all levels of English. A computer room will be constructed and computer classes will take place on a daily basis.

The biggest obstacle to overcome in the construction of this school is the financial costs. SCAO has partner organisations that are going to be fundraising for the new ECC. However, this is just going to cover some of the costs. For the remaining costs we are looking to the international community to come together and to donate towards the construction of the school. www.scao-school.org is a website that is specially designed for the fundraising of the new ECC. On the website you can symbolically purchase items for the construction and furnishing of the ECC. People can purchase items from €2-€12,000 depending on their generosity. I would urge people to have a look at the website and to pass it on to their friends and family.

As SCAO is an organization that attracts volunteers of all ages and from all over the globe, volunteering offers an alternative summer to a J1 or inter-railing. If you are interested in volunteering for SCAO, check out www.savepoorchildreninasia.org

Don’t worry, I’m still here!

I said in my last post that I would try to write on here more often, but it has been a month since my last post, so ya, I didn’t keep that promise.

Well now I’ve been here over 11 months and there is still no end in sight. Life is good here. I have a nice apartment, two good jobs, making enough money to sustain a nice lifestyle and new prospects and projects popping up every week. If anyone reading this can give me a reason to come home, I’m listening! (And by the way I didn’t even mention the 30C weather here everyday, fresh tropical fruit and cheep beer)

So I have noticed a couple of changes here in SCAO and within Cambodia itself over the past few months. One thing that I have to get used to, and there is no way of changing this, is the constant turnover of volunteers. I have experienced this rotation of volunteers when I was in India. It is both a good and a bad thing. It is good because you get to meet a whole range of people from all over the world with all different personalities and stories behind them. You can strike up some really interesting conversations and discussions with people.However on the downside of things, with a constant change in people, it is hard to develop a strong friendship with someone who will be leaving in a couple of weeks. As I said, there is nothing I can do about this, but in SCAO at the moment we are lucky enough to have over a dozen long-term volunteers staying at the moment. This is really a great opportunity for SCAO to grow and develop internally. Our volunteer numbers have increased incredibly in the past 12 months. It really shows that SCAO is growing, which is a great reward for all the hard work we have all put in.

On the projects front:
After carrying out the Household Survey in Som Roung back in March, I found three areas that the local people struggled with on a daily basis;
1) Lack of access to clean drinking water
2) Lack of access to a toilet
3) Lack of access to healthcare
I set myself three goals and to help the people with these problems. I can look at the projects that I have implemented now and be very happy that I have made a difference through different projects. We have implemented 307 water filters into the Village and surrounding areas, giving over 1,500 people access to clean safe drinking water. We have built 11 toilets for the poorest families in the village and there are plans to implement more once the rainy season is over.

So now I have to look to the future and set myself some new goals. So here is what I have to achieve.

3rd School:
In colaboration with all of SCAO’s partner organisations we are building a 3rd SCAO school in Prey Ponror. So here is a bit of an insight into the village:

The location of SCAO’s 3rd School will be in the village of Prey Ponror located 25 kilometres northwest of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. There are 16 villages in close proximity to Prey Ponror Village, and all of these are within cycling distance to the location of the new SCAO School. Walking through the village is a pleasant experience with large coconut and palm trees lining the fields, and children playing games in the dirt road of the village.

Many of the villagers make their living from farming rice, selling goods or construction work. The houses in the village are those of your typical rural Cambodian house. A wooden structure elevated upon for poles, this design helps prevent the house from floods and it is cooler to sleep in at night. The area under the house is used as a communal area during the day, everything from cooking, eating and drinking to homework and selling goods.

We village does not have a running water system and in order for a family to get water, they need to dig a water well. From here it is a simple rope and bucket job to retrieve the water. Some of the wealthier households have their own private toilet but most of the village just use the open land.

Giving the children of the village access to free English and computer classes gives them the boost that they need to develop forward, complete High school, reach University and achieve an improved livelihood. SCAO can help Prey Ponror and the surrounding villages to develop as a community through the implementation of water filters and establishment of sanitary latrine system.

So this school will be similar to the school that we have been running in Som Roung. We will provide English and computer classes to the people of the village for free. The school itself will be very environmentally friendly with solar panels, water harvesting system, school garden and composting.

We have been setting up a website that is nearly finished, to attract donors to sponsor the school and the materials that are needed to furnish the school. People will be able to donate $5 – $12,000 through the website. I will post a separate blog post once this website is live.

Educational Tablets in Som Roung:
It had been a dream of mine for a while to get computer tablets into the New School and start a new way of educating children. Thanks to Rebekka and her uncle, this is now becoming a reality. Within the next two weeks the school in Som Roung will have internet access, one 10″ teacher’s tablet and fifteen 7″ student tablets. With this new technology in the classroom we can access more educational resources than ever before. It is a really exciting time for SCAO at the moment and once the project is up and running I will inform all of you how it is running.

Presenting to the Phnom Penh Rotary Club:
I was honoured to be asked to present SCAO to the Phnom Penh Rotary Club on the 25th October. Myself and Vibol both did the presentation in front of a group of around 20 people. I was happy with the presentation and the way that we showed the work that SCAO has done for the communities that they work in and what we are planning to do in the future in the way of the 3rd SCAO school. I was completly in shock when they presented me with a Certificate of Appreciation for talking to them. It is something that I wont forget.

Certificate of Appreciation from the Phnom Penh Rotary Club

Certificate of Appreciation from the Phnom Penh Rotary Club

UPDATE – Its been too long!!

It’s been around two months now since I’ve updated this blog! I’ve been pretty busy so I just haven’t had the time to sit down and type something up. As I said I’ve been really busy, so this is what has been happening.

I’ve made the move from Som Roung into Phnom Penh. It is a lot different to the village but it is a nice change and it is certainly different. I’m living in a pretty central location in a 2 bedroom apartment with a nice balcony where I have set up my hammock!

View from the balcony

View from the balcony

Living room

Living room

Bedroom

Bedroom

The reason for this move is for financial reasons. If I want to stay in Cambodia and work with SCAO I need to start making some money. So as most Westerners in Cambodia I have taken up a position as a teacher. I am now working in CIA FIRST International School. I am teaching Grade 2 part-time, all the kids are between 6-10 years old. Their English is very good and the school is totally different to the school in Som Roung. The children in CIA all have iPad’s, iPhones and other gadgets that I could never afford. So I work from 8am until 11.30am so it is not too bad, the only bad thing is getting up early every morning. When I finish in CIA I usually go to Som Roung in the afternoon, this change is crazy. Going from CIA to Som Roung is something that I can’t really describe; you are going from rich kids in CIA to the poor children in Som Roung. There is one thing that I always say to people when they ask me about this difference, ‘Children are children, no matter how much money their families have’. Children are going to act like children all the time, and that’s the bottom line. I am not going to pass judgement on children because they come from a wealthy family.

So ya, since I’ve started working in CIA I have been up the walls. I have to adapt to this new job that I have never done before, lesson plans, and meeting curriculum standards. CIA is a great school with resources that are just amazing, 2 swimming pools, 3 computer labs, 2 basketball courts, fitness room and a great staff to work with. In the classroom we have a computer projector so this helps a lot when I am teaching.

After I finish teaching in CIA I usually head home, have some food and then nap for an hour. Having a nap is awesome! I really need it some days. After nap time I head out to SCAO to make sure that everything is running the way it should be. SCAO has been a very busy organisation in the past few weeks. We said goodbye to Julius, Lukas and Leyla who had been here for a year. They were very important in the running of SCAO and the two schools.

SCAO, has a huge project coming up in the future, and this is something that may see me staying here for another year or even more. A 3rd school!! This is huge for SCAO as well as myself. I am helping head the project, this includes putting together a project proposal, source funding, solar panels, design of the school, financial running of the school and finding local teachers to work in the school. So this is a major project for me to undertake and it is something that I really want to step up to and implement as best as I can!

Local House

Local House

Entrance to the Pagoda

Entrance to the Pagoda

Area around the village

Area around the village

3rd School Land

3rd School Land

3rd School Land

3rd School Land

Area around the village

Area around the village

Local House

Local House

Entrance to the Pagoda

Entrance to the Pagoda

There has also been some political violence here over the elections. This hasn’t affected me, luckily! But it is always something that we have to be vigilant about, and I have to keep an eye on the volunteers and ensure their safety!

I wanted to keep this post short and sweet but I want to try and put some more detailed posts up in the near future!

Depending on how busy I am!!

Back to the lesson plans for school in the morning!!

Healthcare Month at SCAO-July

Healthcare month at SCAO was not something that was planned but it was something that just fell into place and ran very smoothly. It was the combination of Chris from Pacha Youth (USA) coming over for a two month period to help implement a healthcare project in Som Roung Village, and Ali and Ana from Estrellas-de-Camboya (Spain) who arrived with 200 toothbrushes and the skill to carry out eye-sight examinations. This combined with other projects that have been in the pipe-line, the month just fell together and every week there were two projects taking place.

Oral Health Education Classes- 1st – 5th July
These classes were carried out by Ali and Ana in the New School in Som Roung Village. They had brought over 200 toothbrushes and toothpaste from Dentaid from Spain. It is a common problem in Som Roung and all over Cambodia that children are eating too much junk food(crisps and sugar candy) and soft drinks loaded with sugar and chemicals (Samuri) It was agreed that Ali and Ana would give presentations to the older students and then work down to the younger students. The presentations were not given to the younger students because they would not be mature enough to grasp the concept of brushing your teeth three times a day.
The classes were carried out with the help of Vibol to ensure that all the students understood everything that was being explained to them. The main areas that were covered were.
1) Importance of brushing your teeth.
2) Basics of brushing your teeth and key points.
3) Theory of brushing your teeth.
The idea behind this project was to get the children into the habit of brushing their teeth on a daily basis.
There were 30 toothbrushes left over and these were distributed to people in the village.

Blood Samples- 8th July
As part of Chris’ research into the needs of the community he contacted 4 doctors in Phnom Penh to see if they could come out to Som Roung and take blood samples from 14 children. This was to test for various health related issues such as Vitamin A deficiency, diabetes, worms and protein deficiency. The project took three hours to complete and the blood samples were sent back to a lab in Phnom Penh to be analysed. The test results came back and indicated no immediate worries for the children, although some of the protein levels were below the level that they should have been.

Eye-sight Examinations- 9th July
It isn’t very common to see Cambodian people with glasses, and it is mainly down to a couple of factors. Firstly, people can not afford the glasses if they need them. Secondly, people may not know that something is wrong with them. Lastly, people may not know that there is a way of improving their eyesight.
Again Ali and Ana were heading this project with equipment and 60 eye glasses that were donated by Opti-Kas from Spain. The objective behind this project was to provide glasses to the children in the Centre that needed glasses, this would in turn help the children to read better in class and not fall behind because of their ability to see the board. All in all there were three children in the Centre that needed glasses. With 57 pairs of glasses remaining, Mr.Sameth spread the word around the community that surrounds the Centre. Soon there were a lot of older members of the community coming to get tested. Some were watchmakers, tailors, cooks, butchers or just interested in reading.
After finishing with the Centre and the neighbours, they took the glasses to Som Roung village where they continued with the eye examinations to the elder villagers, until they ran out of glasses.

Dental Visit to Cambodian World Family – 15th July
Through collaboration with Cambodian World Family, SCAO was able to organise a day for the Centre kids to travel out to their dental clinic and be seen by professional dentists. Here they received a general check up to see if there were any complications. Everything went well and none of the children had any problems. We are now in the process of bringing students from the Old School to CWF.

AIESEC Healthcare and Nutrition Workshops at the Old School – 17th July
AIESEC has always been working closely with SCAO by sending over volunteers to help out in English classes or in special projects. Here AIESEC sent several volunteers who are also medical students to the Old School to carry out workshops in the areas of healthcare and nutrition. There were some volunteers from China and Australia, but the majority of them were from Cambodia and studying in Phnom Penh. The workshops were carried out in Khmer to ensure that the workshops had the full impact that is needed.

 

My Top 5 Blog Posts…..so far

I’ve been writing my blog about living and working in Cambodia now for about 6 months. It is something that I really enjoy doing and I like hearing about people reading it back home. So far I have over 5,000 views and its steadily increasing. People from Iraq, Guadeloupe, Ecuador, Guam, Azerbaijan and Egypt have all clicked onto my blog along with the regulars from Ireland, Germany, Australia, Spain, USA and of course Cambodia.

So here are my Top 5 Blog Posts:

  1. https://peterjamesdowney.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/clean-drinking-water-in-som-roung-village/
  2. https://peterjamesdowney.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/5-reasons-why-cambodia-is-better-than-ireland/
  3. https://peterjamesdowney.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/to-volunteer-or-not-to-volunteer/
  4. https://peterjamesdowney.wordpress.com/2013/05/31/article-for-bishopstown-news/
  5. https://peterjamesdowney.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/volunteering-in-the-new-school-scoop-school-som-roung-village-cambodia/

I would like to take this opporunity to thank everyone who has been following my blog. Please share it with others!!

Handing out water filters

Handing out water filters

Volunteering at the SCAO New School in Som Roung Village, Cambodia

Living in a rural Cambodian village is a great experience; it is something that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Every volunteer that I have seen pass through the SCAO New School was loved living in the village. Even the people that would come out and visit the school for a few hours would fall in love with the people, the atmosphere and the all-round welcoming that is there.

Ana and Ali playing with some of the younger kids in front of the sch

Ana, Ali and Katie playing with some of the younger kids in front of the school

To say that the village is friendly is an understatement. Once you arrive into the village everyone is smiling, waving and the children are shouting ‘HELLO’ as you pass by. Even just meaningless errands like going to the shop put a smile on your face. It maybe the drunk neighbours inviting you for a few shots of rice wine or whisky, the child that never wears clothes doing the Gangnam Style dance or seeing a new litter of puppies in the house around the corner. The village is always buzzing with something going on, be it a wedding or just a regular party. Music is blasted from speakers for hours at a time and sometimes it begins at 4am.

Lunch with all the volunteers!

Lunch with all the volunteers!

Lunch is served up by Da at 11am and this is usually when everyone gathers around the table. Before this the volunteers are free to do what they like; go for real Khmer coffee, lots of ice and lots of sugar, do their washing or as Lukas likes to do, just sleep! The volunteers who stay at the New School don’t begin classes until 12pm, so it is different to life at the Old School where the computer class begins at 7.30am. Teachers and their classes are always organised before each week or whenever a new volunteer arrives, this ensures the smooth running of the school and makes sure that each volunteer has enough classes to keep them busy for the day. Each volunteer has an average of 2-3 hours teaching a day, this may not seem like a lot of work for one day, but if you add in the +35°C heat every day and dozens of screaming children you have a very tired teacher at the end of the day.

The classes run from 12.00-8.30pm from Monday to Wednesday and 12.00-6.30pm Thursday to Friday. Whenever volunteers don’t have class they are free to do what they like. Every volunteer is different, some volunteers like to stay in their room and read or go on the internet, others like to go explore the village and play with the children. Everyone has their own way of relaxing!

For me personally I like to chill out the front of the school and talk with Sovanred and Da. It is here that I really get the chance to bond with them, and try to get Visal to say my name! (He still hasn’t said it) I like this ‘down time’ away from work because it is real, I really get to know Sovanred and Da, things they like and don’t like, their opinions on politics, and what they would do to run things smoother. They are a great insight into the life of a Cambodian family. Well to be perfectly honest they are my Cambodian Family! Not so much as parental figures (because they are around my age) but more of an adopted brother and sister. I was nervous about telling Sovanred that I was to move out to Phnom Penh because I was getting a teaching job to finance my stay at SCAO. He understood my reasoning behind the job and the move to the city, but I could still sense that he was upset that I was leaving. I have made it my duty to make it back to the village see them as much as I can and to continue my community development work.

Visal, Sovanred and Da

Visal, Sovanred and Da

Some of the best times that volunteers have at the school does not take place in the classroom, it happens outside in the village during times that you wouldn’t expect. These are the times in a volunteers stay that the memories are made and the times that you don’t experience in these ‘package volunteer holidays’. It’s the times that you have with your students outside the classroom where you can act and play like a child too. It was only last week when there was an extremely heavy downpour that some of the kids ran past the gates shouting and trying to get out to play. As the start I didn’t even think about going into the rain, then I thought, Why the hell not??? So I emptied my pockets and joined them outside for a game of football and general horseplay in the rain.

Sometimes it is fun to act like a child again, and if you think about it, that’s the whole point of being a child, to have fun!

Whenever you get the opportunity to act like a child again, take it! You never know how often it will come around.

World Health Organisation visit

On the 4th of July myself and Chirs Westgard, from Pacha Youth, visited the World Health Organisation (WHO) for two separate meetings with their staff. Chris had arranged these meetings with the WHO and other organisations while he was still in the USA. He did this to ensure that he hit the ground running once he arrived for his 2 month stay at SCAO.

Our first meeting was with Tiffany Tsang, Health Policy, Planning and Finance, and Alex Ph Bartonoli, Harmonized Community Based Care. This was a meeting to gather information of what services healthcare services are already available in Cambodia and ways that we can access and utilise them. We informed them of our ideas and plans to bring in health professionals to provide healthcare education seminars to groups of families, involving healthy living habits, health eating, sanitation, oral hygiene, disease prevention and treatment, etc. They told us that The Ministry of Interior had in 2003 put together groups of 1-3 people (volunteers who are literate and respected) in every community in Cambodia that would be trained in basic health assessment and treatment. This group of volunteers would make up the Village Help Support Group (VHSG) and would act as the main contact between the community and nearest health centre. The VHSG are then able to obtain medical supplies from the health centres, such as condom, birth control, and oral rehydration sachets and then distribute them to the community. We are now looking into whether there is a VHSG present in Som Roung Village and if they are active. We were told that they may be established but just not active because there is no one there putting pressure on them to work. So we may have to be that pressure and support them in the services that should be provided in the community. The local health centre is supposed to have provided free vaccinations to everyone but when I went around carrying out the household survey some of the people said that their children didn’t receive any vaccinations. So this brings us to a point where we need to check if every individual child has received the necessary vaccination. From here we can see if there is a need for a mass vaccination day where we can get doctors out and vaccinations for all the children who need them.

Our second meeting was with Giorgia Paiella, Nutrition Specialist, World Health Organization. She stressed the importance of breaking the malnutrition problem that occurs with under-nourished mothers giving birth to babies that then develop health problems that are a direct result from being under nourished. He told us about a program that she worked on with the UN that targets the nutrition of the child from the very beginning, when it is first conceived. They say that the first 1000days (from when it is conceived) are the most important in the development of a child. This means targeting pregnant mothers through adding nutritional supplements to their diets, breast feeding properly, eating more healthy foods, and cooking proper meals. Something that she mentioned was cooking demonstrations, at these the community will learn how to cook proper meals with the right amount of vegetables and nutrients. This is an idea that has stuck in my mind and it is something that could be very easy to set up and implement. Proper breast feeding of a child is something that she stresses the importance of, she said that a lot of mothers only breast feed for 2 months after giving birth and then return to work usually in a garment factory. This means that the child cannot be breast fed and it is usually substituted for water or diluted formula.

Visiting the WHO was a great opportunity for me, and I am so happy that I got the chance to do it. Development work is something that I want to pursue as a career for the future. Image

Clean Drinking Water in Som Roung Village

After conducting the household survey for SCAO it was time to read through the information I had gathered and see what could be done. Some of the information that I was really shocking and sometimes very upsetting.

Household Survey with a young mother

Household Survey with a young mother

Some of the heads of households were only 22 years old, had 2 children under the age of 5, and was living on just over $60 a month. While reading this particular survey from this young mother, I can still remember carrying out the questions on a wooden table that was the family bed. This young family live in a wooden hut that some people in a Western society wouldn’t even store their lawn mower, but yet it, and many other huts like it, house families of over 5 people.

These families have no access to a toilet, thus resorting to using open land to defecate, and unable to wash their hands. This can then lead onto various different health problems and complications, resulting in the person unable to work or attend school, causing a financial loss to the family.

A poor family living in Som Roung with their house behind them

A poor family living in Som Roung with their house behind them

Access to basic healthcare was also a main point that the people in Som Roung Village wanted to see improved. If someone in the village gets sick, no matter what illness it is, (stomach ache, cough or a broken bone) they will go to see the local village ‘doctor’. This doctor has no medical experience but she is trusted within the community to heal people and make them feel better. (This is usually done in the form of various different painkillers) It is worth it to point out that this ‘doctor’ is also one of our students in the Hair Dressing project.

Access to clean safe drinking water is something that we all in Western society take for granted. Just imagine for one second that the tap that you have in your home provided you with water that may ultimately cause you to become very sick. With this water you would have to boil it, but imagine now you didn’t have a kettle, or even electricity. What now?? You have to build a fire, boil the water in order to kill all the bacteria and viruses, and then wait for it to cool down before you can drink it. Oh, by the way, its 38°C. This is what the people of Som Roung have to do several times a day, or well it was what they had to do! I provided an alternative!

The Facts: Cambodia

  • 19% of Cambodians still subsist on less than 1USD per day.
  • An estimated 39% of the rural population of the country uses unimproved drinking water sources.
  • Cambodia has an infant mortality rate of 82 per 1000 live births.
  • Diarrheal disease is the number one cause of death in children under 5 years of age in Cambodia.
    Source: UNICEF. (2006). Cambodia Statistics. Accessed 14 December 19, 2009

Water is a fundamental human need. It is estimated that one person needs 10-40 litres of clean, safe water a day for drinking, cooking, washing, and personal hygiene. Access to clean water is a step towards improving living standards. Education suffers when sick children miss school. Economic opportunities are routinely lost to the impacts of rampant illness and the time-consuming processes of acquiring water where it is not readily available. Children and women bear the brunt of these burdens.

While researching what my options were to improve the quality of water that the people of Som Roung are drinking I came across RDI Cambodia. RDI are a local Cambodian organisation that employ around 80 local staff, RDI are specialists in water treatment and have been in operation in Cambodia since 2003. As RDI were experienced in the area of water treatment, they were the perfect organisation to help us facilitate the project. After communicating with RDI several days we set in place a plan to attend training, a demonstration of the Ceramic Water Filters to the people of Som Roung and distribution of the water filters.

So how does the Ceramic Water Filter work??
Two processes are at work. Because the mixture of rice and clay produce small micro pores, parasites, amoebas, and large bacteria cannot flow through due to mechanical processes. Simply put, water can fit through the pores, most disease causing organisms cannot.  The coating of colloidal silver adds a chemical process to stop other bacteria. Together, this system eliminates 98% of the harmful diseases present in surface water.

The first part of this project was a visit to RDI Cambodia’s factory south of Phnom Penh. This was an all day visit from 9am until 4pm. Here we were given an extensive tour of the factory, and viewing the entire process that goes into the making of these ceramic water filters. After lunch RDI trained us on how to use, clean and maintain the filters correctly in order to ensure their lifespan. With this we were then able to return to the village and present this ceramic water filter to the people of the village.

When giving out the water filters to the people of the village, the most important thing to keep in mind is that if you give these filters out to people for free, they will not take care of it. Giving something to someone is charity, while charity is a good thing, it is not development. If people receive something for free they will not maintain it as well as they would if it was their own. However, if people pay a contribution towards something they will have a sense of ownership over the item, and they will treat it with respect and care for it. With this water filter project we asked for a contribution of $2 towards the $10 cost of the filter, with the remaining $8 being funded by our partner organisation, Pacha Youth Foundation in the US.

With a huge amount of help from the community board of Som Roung, we collected $2 off of 70 families who wanted to get water filters. For all of you that have never been to Cambodia, it has two currencies, Riel & US Dollar (4000 Riel = $1USD). Most of the villagers deal in Riel so by the end of collecting the money I had 560,000 Riel to count and organise. This money was literally a wad of money around 7 inches tall. None the less we had all the money collected and ready for the delivery of the filters.

Storing 70 water filters in the school was a tough job, but with the help of all the volunteers it was easily done. The next part of the project was distributing the filters to the people in the community that have ordered the filters. We organised that the people would come to the school on Saturday the 8th of June at 2pm. Here we would talk to them again about how to use, clean and maintain the water filters. This is the most important step in the project; if the people do not know how to do this correctly they will damage or break the filter, rendering the project a failure. There is one DVD that we use to show the people how to clean the filter properly; this DVD comes in the form of a green frog character with a high pitched voice. This is something that got the villagers attention and they learned through it too.

After Vibol carried out the presentation of the water filters it came time to hand them over to the people. After a month of hard work and organisation I would finally see these water filters being placed into the hands of the people in Som Roung, a village that I have fallen in love with. The smile on the faces of the people as they carried the filters out of the school is something that will stick with me forever. With 70 households now possessing a water filter and each family averaging 5 members per household, approximately 350 people in Som Roung now have access to clean safe drinking water.

This was my first project that I implemented from start to finish, and my achievement only dawned on me as I was driving out of the village back to Phnom Penh. I turned the corner by the Pagoda and hear a happy cheer from a stall at the side of the road. Three of the community board members saluting me with cold beers after a job well done.

This is not the end of the water filters project however. We are carrying out follow-ups of the families who received the water filters to ensure their correct use. We can also use this time with the families to get feedback on the filters and see if they have made any difference to their daily routine. We are also in the process of gathering more families to receive more filters, so it is hoped by the start of July we will have 50 more water filters in 50 more households.

Hopefully safe drinking water is the first of many steps in the development of Som Roung as a community. For me it was the first big achievement of the goals that I have set out for myself. The successful implementation if this project has propelled me forward to try to achieve more and help develop the village as best I can in the time I am here.

Still more work to be done

Still more work to be done

The success of this project would not have been achieved without the great help of Vibol, Mr. Sameth, the community board members of Som Roung, RDI Cambodia, and Pacha Youth Foundation. It just show that when you work together, you have no limits to what you can achieve!

5 Reasons Why Cambodia Is Better Than Ireland

I’ve been in Cambodia for just over 6 months now and to be perfectly honest it’s awesome. There have been a few bad times of course, but these are majorly outnumbered by the great times. Cambodia is a lot different to Home (Ireland), and each place has its positives and negatives, but here are a few reasons why I think Cambodia is better than Ireland.

1)The Weather – This is an easy one, I didn’t even have to try for that one. There are two seasons in Cambodia, dry season and rainy season. Simple! The dry season takes place from around November to May, and the May to October is rainy season. The rainy season isn’t even that rainy, about every day it rains for about 30 minutes to an hour. Thunder storms are regular but don’t cause too much disruption, and the temperature stays in the 30°C range and higher. A blue sky is almost guaranteed every day, and there is no need for any fake tan or sun beds! Back in Ireland you don’t know what the weather is going to be like in 20 minutes time!

Blue Sky in Som Roung

Blue Sky in Som Roung

2) Street food – This is something that Ireland is seriously lacking! And I don’t mean food that is available late at night for drunk people to munch on after the club. I mean readily available fresh street food that you can pick up for a couple of dollars. In Cambodia and most of Asia these street vendors are found everywhere, and they all offer different types of dishes. Some of the vendors even have small tables and chairs where you can sit and enjoy meal. Some of these dishes range from fried rice, fired noodles, noodle soup, fried meat, vegetables, and my personal favourite, pate. This pate is a fresh French baguette with sauce, dill, chives, papaya salad, chili and meat. Now I am not too sure what type of meat it is (possibly pork) but I know that it tastes amazing! Quick, fresh, simple tasty food readily available on the side of the street, served with a smile! None of this McDonalds, KFC or Burger King bullshit!

3)The People – Cambodia was voted the most friendly country in the world by Rough Guides http://www.roughguides.com/gallery/the-friendliest-countries-in-the-world-as-chosen-by-you/#/10 and to be honest I can see why. The people here always have a smile on their face, and they are more than happy to help anyone who has a problem. I have heard these stories from tourists who have had problems with losing passports and bags. The Khmer people will go out of their way to help tourists in their country, but there are of course some people looking to take advantage of foreigners, but the majority are nice. I have seen this helpful nature first hand in the village of Som Roung. Families here will help their elderly neighbours with food, water, clothing and shelter. There is a great sense of community and the genuine want to help others.

Having a boogie with the guards

Having a boogie with the guards

4) The Police – First things first, and it is good for you to know this, the police in Cambodia sleep at night. What I mean by that is, they do not work at night! Yup they don’t work at night. So if you are going to have a problem try to make sure it happens during the day, but not between 12-3pm because it is very hot then, the police don’t like that either. The other times they are probably drunk. You can usually find the traffic police sitting on their motos under a tree by the side of the street. If you make a wrong turn or run a red light they will jump off the moto and start to wave you to the side of the street. Okay there are a few options you have now:

Drinking with the Police

Drinking with the Police

  • You can stop and they will probably issue you with a fine from anything from a dollar to $5, depending on their mood and how much they think they can get out of you. This will lead to some bargaining on the price of the fine, and sometimes they will accept a can of Coke as payment on a hot day.
  • Drive, just drive, if the police man has been a bit slow to his feet and you have a gap ahead of you in the traffic, take it! The police are not going to get on their motos and chase you; they are just far too lazy to do that. Then you are home and free, with no fine to pay!

Now don’t take all this advice from me, some people and police men might react differently, don’t hold me responsible for what happens. But could you imagine doing this in Ireland, or even the Gardaí acting in this way, could be interesting!

5) Drinking culture and Nightlife – There is none of this no buying alcohol after 10pm nonsense! Everyone know that all the fun happens after 10pm and you want more booze!! Some bars stay open here 24hours, and a can of Angkor is never too far away! But it is just the small little things that make it better here, you can sit on the Riverside and people come around with little ice boxes selling beer and other minerals. It is just generally accepted here for people to enjoy a beer in public, and what’s wrong with that. If you do that back in Ireland you are seen as a degenerate low life and will probably get fined for drinking in public!

Ireland might be nice and easy to live in, but it gets boring and monotonous with easy day that passes. Cambodia on the other hand, each day is an adventure and experience in itself.

You never know what lies beyond the door unless you open it!