On my way to Cambodia, I read a book called Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Despite her frustrating methods of story-telling (I don’t have the patience for slow-forming story lines), it had a very profound question: how does one destroy a society and its culture? The answer: eliminate an entire generation.
When the Khmer Rouge killed 2-3 million people, that’s exactly what they did. They broke up family units and went after intellectuals and artists who preserved Khmer traditions. Now, Cambodia is one of the youngest countries in the world with a median age of just 23. Who is teaching these young people and, more importantly, what are they teaching them?
The answer, really, is no one and nothing. To put it bluntly, all of the locals who were qualified to teach today’s teachers were murdered. Unless someone’s parents were able to flee the country (like my mom), his or her education is either rudimentary or nonexistent. Basic problem solving skills are lacking, which means a lot of employees are like wind-up toys that go in a straight line until someone steps in to change their direction. Yes, they’ll follow order, but they’ll never take initiative or dream of a life outside of those orders.
The most ignorant, selfish statement I’ve heard since coming here (which is saying a lot) was from a westerner who wanted to volunteer with us. I asked to help us with staff development: “I’m not going to ride 12 hours on a bus to teach teachers.” Then what’s the point? What lasting impact are you trying to make?
Let Us Create has been lucky to have teachers who want to learn and are enthusiastic to try new things. In fact, my eyes welled up when our facilities manager solved an office space problem that went completely over all of our heads.
The fact is, Cambodia had to start from scratch back in 1980. The Khmer Rouge’s goal was to begin at year zero and they very much accomplished it, albeit not in the way they intended. There’s a lot of outside support to help with the turbulent political environment and atrocious educational systems, but most westerners have expiry dates and will move on or go home. If we don’t spend our time teaching teachers, everyone will just go in a straight line into who knows where or for how long.