Where children had forgotten how to read

The walls of the "classroom" in Svay Rieng, a small town in eastern Cambodia, are made of corrugated iron. Around us, the children sit on the roughly leveled ground. It is dark and somewhat stifling, although one ray of sunshine peeks through the uneven planks that serve as a roof. It throws a streak of light on the blackboard, one of the only pieces of school equipment that the crude classroom can boast.

"We are short of everything," says Tak Chau, the teacher accompanying us. "We open schools without benches, without paper, without enough teachers, and to top it all, without school buildings in many cases."

Mr. Chau is one of the comparatively few teachers left in Cambodia. He is in charge of education for this province of the country, trying energetically to get the school system back on its feet after years of abandonment, with very few resources.

"Our schools were closed for four years. Not a single 10-year-old knows how to read or write. The 14-year-olds have forgotten. The previous rulers wanted to bring up a generation of ignoramuses -- easy to do, and difficult to undo." Not only do the schools have to provide for the hundreds of thousands of primary-school children who are of age, but they have to catch up on the losses of the years when studies were banished. "If we don't manage, we will feel the consequences in two years' time, when no one will be ready for university and there will be an 'ignorance gap.'"

Throughout our travels in the Cambodian countryside, wherever there are schools or schools in the making, the picture is the same. Children learn among ruins. They are short of all essentials.

Despite the difficulties, however, some 700,000 Cambodian children are estimated to be back in "school," such is the demand for learning and education.

A few international aid donors are coming to the rescue. Exercise books have been provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Vietnam, and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). "The trouble is," Mr. Chau says, "that we consume paper the way we consume rice. We have some for today, but we need more tomorrow."

More critical than the shortage of school equipment is the shortage of teachers. "Most of our previous teachers were killed or put to work in fields. But those who are still alive have emerged voluntarily to teach our children," Mr. Chau continues. "They earn very little: 13 kilos of rice a month, of which they donate one kilo to needy pupils. And they are very overworked, teaching several classes at one time."

The teaching difficulties are only part of the story. "Our problems are more to do with health than with education," says the headmistress of the largest school in Phnom Penh. "We have an infirmary which is operating at full capacity , taking care of the health of 2,000 children."

Out in the countryside, most of the children seem to be in fair health. But here in Phnom Penh, many schoolchildren are in poor shape. And their illnesses are compounded by undernourishment -- a widespread problem in a country where farming has suffered years of damage from war and upheaval, and that is receiving substantial amounts of food aid as a result. Children who are underfed have poor concentration.

Some of the children at the girls' school in Phnom Penh are at a special disadvantage. "Here we take in children from the orphanage," the headmistress says. "Physically their condition is worse than those living with their parents. They get one meal a day and no other food."

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