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Pathfinders Project is a yearlong international service trip sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief. As they carry out their service work, the Pathfinders send us occasional reports about the projects, the places, and the people they meet along the way. Wendy Webber shared this story about the challenges that face students who live in the floating village of Kampong Klein.
Kampong Klein—about 40 miles from Siem Reap—is a floating village. The homes are on stilts so that they are not flooded when the wet season comes and the river swells. During the wet season most homes are only accessible by boat. Even though we entered the school we visited from dry land we could see the water lapping against the shore through the slats between the floorboards as we ate lunch cross-legged on the floor. Women collect water from the main floor of their home by dropping a bucket connected to a rope. Children swim in the water around their home like some children play on the grass of their front yards. To get gas we pulled our boat up to a house boat—a true house boat—and handed the woman inside an empty soda bottle that she filled with gas, which we poured into our engine. Almost everyone has one job—fishing. Closer to Siem Reap the residents of floating villages can also farm in the dry season, but not in Kampong Klein. Fish and shrimp make up most people's livelihood. Some people also raise pigs in floating pens that rise and fall with every wave, but that is rare.
Some houses in Kampong Klein and the other nearby floating villages are rather nice homes. Just because a family lives in a floating village does not mean they are living in abject poverty. But there are things we who live on dry land take for granted. Kids from Kampong Klein have a thirty minute boat ride to get to school. That's just to the edge of the water. Then they have to walk to school. And that's only if they have a motor on their boat—most kids row themselves. These are not kids who take their education for granted.
These are also kids whose family can afford to send their kids to school. These are the kids who live in brightly painted homes with tin roofs and satellite dishes. Many kids in the floating villages do not have access to a boat to go to school—so they don't go to school. But it's not just access to a boat that hampers poor children's education. The Cambodian school system is a bribery system. Students often have to bribe the teacher each morning in order to be taught at all. They have to bribe the teacher to have a test graded. Teachers sometimes sell the answer key to their own final exams to their students. Students who don't bribe their teachers will simply get bad grades as a result. I can't entirely fault the teachers for engaging in this practice though. Most teachers make only $50 (USD) a month, which is simply not a living wage. This is a systemic problem. Teachers have to bribe their principals and principals have to bribe the local Education Ministry office. Students learn how to bribe as they learn how to read.
Kampong Klein, however, offers a free school for the poor kids of the village, which is only possible because of Bridge of Life School. This school is why we were in Kampong Klein this weekend. The school is a Khmer language school so we were not there to teach. We were there to observe and we gave the kids toothbrushes and a lesson—through a translator—on oral hygiene. We listened to the kids learning to count and they sang an alphabet song. The song we heard was only the consonants—Khmer has 33 consonants—and it was much longer then our English alphabet song. When the lesson was over the teacher released the students row by row. When dismissed each student bowed and thanked the teacher. After all the students were dismissed many approached the teacher to thank him personally. These are not kids who take their education for granted.