Tim’s Index Debut!

27 02 2013

Tim took a turn writing an article for my hometown paper, The Index. It was printed in this week’s edition, but you can also check it out below.

Education has no doubt been on the minds of many in Homer over the past couple months with the opening of the new Homer High School. The new environment, technology, and facilities are certainly exciting for students and teachers alike. With these changes in mind, it seems relevant to share our experience with schools here in Cambodia.

In Cambodia, the school system is still trying to bounce back from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge. After the systematic killing of educated Cambodians in the late 1970s, the reestablishment of public schools proved to be difficult. Villagers became teachers with no specialized training and often less than a high school diploma. With a storage closet full of weapons and ammunition, the teachers held classes in the mornings and defended the town from Khmer Rouge raids at night. This continued in our area until approximately 1995 when the remnants of the Khmer Rouge fled further west toward Thailand.



Eighteen years later, the Cambodian school system has improved at a breakneck pace. New high school teachers are required to have completed either a 2 year teaching program or a 4 year bachelor’s degree. Additional schools are being built regularly, school libraries are flourishing thanks to international NGO (non-governmental organization) support, and professional development for teachers is on the rise. It is truly remarkable how far the school system has come considering all the work and money needed to completely rebuild it nationwide.

This fact is often cited at the local high school where I teach 9th, 10th, and 11th grades as a Peace Corps volunteer. My job here is to teach collaboratively with the English language teachers, helping them improve their English and to better develop student-centered techniques. Cambodian culture holds authority figures such as teachers in very high regard so many classes consist of a teacher lecturing for two hours with little student input. In all classes, but especially in English, this isn’t an effective method.

Culturally, teaching in a Cambodian classroom looks very different from Homer High. Uniformed students stand up for teachers as the instructor enters the class, when they are asked questions, and when teachers leave the class. If students need to ask permission from a teacher or if they come to class late, they politely raise their hands to their chin in a praying position and ask for forgiveness. When students walk near teachers outside of class, they will lower their heads to show respect. Showing respect in these ways is hugely important and students never fail to follow these customs.



Overall, students are very motivated to learn. Many financially-able students attend private classes in addition to public school, making for a 12-13 hour school day. Students in our area also travel up to 25 miles to attend high school, since many areas still do not a school available. These students generally stay in a shared house near the school with 25 other people, all sleeping on the floor. Public school is technically free, but families must pay for uniforms, transportation, food, and monthly exams. For this reason, many students from poorer families drop out of school after 9th grade due to financial constraints. Adding that the consensus that public school is largely ineffective due to large class sizes (50:1) or absent teachers, the dropout rate is staggering. It is simply not expected for Khmer teenagers to study beyond the 9th grade in many villages.

The physical environment of the local high school can also prove challenging. There are six classroom buildings for the 1250 students between 7-12 grades. Although there are some newer classrooms with ceiling fans, and a quickly aging computer lab, there is no electricity to run these items. Each classroom is filled with wooden desks for 40-50 students and a large blackboard. The buildings themselves are relatively open in order to make studying tolerable in the Cambodian heat. The open windows and cement walls make noise a constant issue, especially with younger students. In the back of the school there is a small pond and a plot of land for the students to plant corn for their class in agriculture.

As any teacher knows, being in the classroom is both frustrating and inspirational. It has been rewarding over the past year and a half to see my co-teachers become better instructors despite the challenges facing them, and the students have been inspiring models of perseverance through their desire to learn and make a better life for themselves.


Donkao’s Success Story

26 02 2013

I was asked to submit a “success story” from my service to the Embassy newsletter. I thought I would post it here since it’s also a good update on how the second round of my nutrition project has been going. Enjoy!

Donkao is an energetic two year-old who lives with his family in a village off the national highway connecting Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Like many kids his age, Donkao loves to run outside with his friends, play with the family’s soccer ball, and climb on anything his mother will allow. Donkao’s giggles are infectious.

Unfortunately, when Donkao was weighed as part of a Peace Corps-sponsored childhood nutrition project, he was underweight for his age. Childhood malnutrition is a devastating, yet widespread, problem in Cambodia that can ultimately result in death. In Donkao’s village, more than one in four children under the age of five is underweight, with the number reaching 50 percent in villages nearby.

Donkao’s mother recognized the importance of his health and began attending community meetings as part of the Peace Corps project. For ten consecutive days, families from this village gathered to learn how to make a nutritious weaning porridge, participate in health education sessions, and counsel one another on issues related to health and parenting. At the end of each session, the children filled themselves with porridge, which was fortified with eggs, pumpkin, green vegetables, and other nutritious foods brought by the families.

The community meetings were led by residents of the village, who had previously attended a training event organized by the local health center and the area’s Peace Corps volunteer. Donkao’s mother and grandmother participated actively throughout these meetings, and after only ten days Donkao gained 700 grams (1.5 lbs). This propelled Donkao into the healthy weight range for his age, reducing his chances of becoming ill and increasing his ability to develop at an appropriate rate. Donkao was not alone in his weight increase. In fact, fifteen other children in his village gained weight, with six others already reaching what is considered a healthy weight for their age.

When asked why she chose to participate in the project, Donkao’s mother said that she wanted her child to grow up to be intelligent, strong and healthy. Following the initial community meetings, both his mother and grandmother showed an increase in their understanding of complimentary feeding, hygiene, and breastfeeding practices. With this knowledge, the family can help Donkao remain at an ideal weight for his age, which has implications for his future education, wellbeing and potential.

In the coming months, project volunteers will be working with Donkao’s family, and others, to ensure that their children are able to maintain a healthy weight. Monthly weighing sessions, regular health education, and periodic home visits will ensure that these families are supported in their efforts to raise healthy, happy children. To date, 87 percent of the participating families have seen sustained weight gain over the duration of the project.

Currently, more than sixty families from Siem Reap Province are participating in this project, made possible with assistance from the United States Peace Corps through USAID’s Small Project Assistance fund.


Cooking Class

19 02 2013

As part of my ongoing hospitality class, we’ve been cooking some basic meals to practice proper hygiene in the kitchen. While cooking under a house on a dirt floor without running water isn’t an ideal environment to teach about hygiene, the students are quickly picking up on the basic ideas of making good, safe food. More than that, they’re having a ton of fun cooking (and eating) some western dishes they’ve never seen before. Thanks to all who donated to this project!

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What Women Want

13 02 2013

As part of the strategic planning work I’m doing with the Women’s Resource Center in Siem Reap, we’ve recently conducted a pair of focus groups with the village chiefs in the area near the center’s location. We met with the local leaders to ask them about the issues facing women in the villages and the available support systems for those women. These villages are about 60k from where Tim and I are living, but I thought I’d share some of the results because they mirror the reality that we see here at site, as well. The next step will be doing in-depth interviews with women in these villages so we can get their opinions directly. But first, we wanted to hear about trends at the village level.

The village chiefs

The village chiefs and NGO staff

Biggest Challenge: When asked what issues women most often brought up to the village chiefs, all but one mentioned domestic violence, making it the most cited response. The village chiefs said that domestic violence was most often caused by men drinking too much, being unfaithful or getting jealous. Domestic violence was also listed as the most common reason for divorce.

Maternal Mortality: Interestingly enough, the village chiefs claimed that there had not been a single woman who had died in childbirth in their respective villages during the year 2012. This sentiment is often echoed by the village health volunteers and health center staff at our site too. They claim that there has been a lot of education on the idea of giving birth at the health center, thus eliminating maternal mortality in the area. Nationally, the statistics for maternal mortality actually show an increase in deaths between 2000-2010 so the responses from the village chiefs bring more questions than they do answers.

Girls’ education hasn’t been a priority in Cambodia

Illiteracy: Many of the chiefs said that illiteracy was a problem, particularly for older women who lived through the Pol Pot regime and weren’t able to study as children. A couple mentioned the widely-held belief that educating boys is more beneficial for a family than educating a girl. They also said that girls often had to drop out of school after a couple of years of schooling so they could help their parents make money. Now, as older women, it doesn’t seem as though the women are interested in learning to read or write. According to the village chiefs, many think it’s too late or wouldn’t be able to come to classes regularly.

Migrant Work: More than half of the village chiefs said that they had women in their communities who migrated for work, often to Thailand or Malaysia. Men often migrate to work in manual labor positions, while women are more often domestic workers. Women who travel abroad by themselves are at an increased risk for trafficking, both in terms of labor and sex work. Since these communities are so close to the Thai border – and Siem Reap, which is known as a hotspot for prostitution– this is an especially important issue to explore.

Drugs: Drug use was reported, although it was not common – especially among women. The two most commonly cited drugs were ice and marijuana. Men were said to use these drugs, as well as alcohol, more frequently than women.




Happy Chinese New Year!

11 02 2013

This weekend marked Chinese New Year, which is celebrated by some in Cambodia, although it’s not an official holiday. Usually Cambodians with Chinese ancestry will throw a small party both to ring in the new year and to pray for their deceased relatives. In the process, they offer gifts for the ancestors through burning items such as fake money, fake gold pieces, cloth, and other symbols of necessary goods for the afterlife.


Burning money

We spent the day with my coteacher’s family for the second year in a row. Chanthou and his wife, Kunthea, are always so welcoming and Saturday was no different. We had a great time talking with Kunthea’s father who loves to tell us stories from the 1940s and 50s. They are always well thought out stories blending history with mysticism. For example, when the Khmer militia was fighting Thai forces in our area, he saw many forest people who were born without elbows and knees. It’s great to learn about a time other than the Khmer Rouge and it’s great Khmer language practice for us to listen intently to stories that seamlessly mesh Khmer history and politics with mermaids and dragons.

The great storyteller

The great storyteller

With Chinese New Year over, we only have one more New Year to celebrate before ending our Peace Corps service. Our sixth and final new year in Cambodia will be Khmer New Year in April. With three weeks off from school, parties at the wat, and a huge migration of people from the cities to their hometowns, Khmer New Year is the biggest and most important holiday in Cambodia.  (More on that later.)


A Cruise, A Cremated King and a Couple of Projects

9 02 2013

After more than two weeks of lying in bed nearly all day due to dengue, Tim and I were back at it this week. We’ve got a lot of small updates, none of which seemed to warrant their own post, but collectively seem worth sharing now.

First of all, not too long ago the Acting Director of Peace Corps – the person who manages the program across 68 countries – came to visit Cambodia. Tim and I got to meet her on a sunset cruise in Phnom Penh, which was a wonderful time. We even found out that she briefly attended Central Michigan, which is where Tim and I met. The morning following the cruise, another volunteer and I were invited to take her and her staff shopping for souvenirs. It was such a great opportunity to get to meet such inspiring and down to earth women – not to mention that marveling at beautiful clothes and jewelry is always a good way to spend a Sunday morning.

Tim and another PCV on their way to meet the Acting Director

Tim and another PCV on their way to meet the Acting Director

Shortly after the staff from DC got on a plane to head to their next stop, the former king of Cambodia, who passed away in October, was cremated. There was a procession in Phnom Penh that was attended by tens of thousands of people. The flags were at half-staff, many Cambodians wore black ribbons, and there was a 2-day holiday marking the occasion. Luckily for us, the holidays created a four day weekend that gave us some extra time to rest up before diving back into work.

It was quite a transition too since this week was a busy one. After having Monday off, I helped facilitate a 4-day training session for PD Hearth. Since the project results in the first two villages were promising and I still had money in my budget, I decided to involve two more villages. So another PCV, who did the majority of the training, and I spent four days teaching about childhood nutrition, how to properly determine the nutritional status of a child, how to support mothers with malnourished children, and how to make a healthy weaning porridge. During the training, we spent two mornings in the villages doing field work. On the first trip, we weighed more than 150 children under the age of five. On the second, we interviewed eight families who have limited resources but whose children are still healthy and at an appropriate weight. All in all, the training was a big success. The volunteers for the project are enthusiastic, willing to learn, and happy to help. I’m really excited to start the feeding sessions in these villages next week.

Feeding Session in Poom Trach

Weighing Session in Poom Trach

In addition to the PD Hearth training, I was also busy this week with my regular classes and planning for my upcoming domestic violence project. A huge thank you to everyone who has donated so far. For those who haven’t, please go here and consider contributing. I still need about $750 to make this project a reality. If it doesn’t get fully funded in the next few weeks, I’m not sure if I’ll have time to carry it out…

…and that’s because we have less than five more months in Cambodia! We recently found out that our last day as PCVs will be July 5th. Knowing that we don’t have much more time here definitely has me feeling extra motivated to make the most of this experience. It will be over faster than we realize.


Serving in the Peace Corps as a Married Couple: Togetherness

1 02 2013

Since joining Peace Corps, Tim and I do everything together. We eat all three meals together. We lesson plan together. We work on projects together. We socialize together. We travel together. And, apparently, we get sick together.

Two weeks ago, Tim and I woke up with what turned out to be dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness that’s pretty widespread in these parts. We had muscle aches, sore eyes, nausea and neither of us could stay awake more than a few hours at a time. Although I’m not happy that Tim was sick too, the old saying rings true: misery loves company. We spent the better part of two weeks laid out in bed, groaning together, popping pills together, and feeling sorry for ourselves together. We eventually went into Phnom Penh on medical leave, and at that point, our routine changed just slightly, with us also watching bad TV together and ordering American food to our hotel room together. In fact, I think we may have broken a record for the most sub sandwiches eaten in a 6-day span.

The mosquitoes beat us despite our best defenses

The mosquitoes beat us despite our best defenses

We got cleared to go back to site and are definitely on the up-and-up, so no worries about us. I’m just happy I had someone to be sick with. Our lives have certainly never been as entangled as they are here in Cambodia. Now, Tim and I just need to make the transition back to productivity together. Good thing this weekend is a four-day weekend – the transition will be a slow one.