Sometimes we smile to hide the sad, by Elizabeth Rose Murray

Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh

It was 5am and dark and the air was cool and still. Outside the groundsmen were chopping bamboo, trying to tame the wild hedging at the school’s borders. Once again, I’d overslept by local standards. I heard the sound of something dropping from the wall onto the floor and peered out from my mosquito net, hoping it was a giant gecko, not a gargantuan spider.

When I arranged to volunteer at Singing Kites in Cambodia, I had visions of red skies and dusty roads, smiling faces and long, humid days spent teaching. I knew about the toilet system – you have to burn your toilet paper each night – and I was also aware that showers consisted of collected rainwater and a small bucket. I read up on recent history, learned about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, and poured over lists of do’s and don’ts. It was going to be an adventure, an exciting start to 2015.

The drive from Phnom Penh to Tanop, Takeo province, took two hours. Along the way I saw beautiful temples and vibrant markets, but I also witnessed heartbreaking sights. Young children carried feather dusters into the midst of oncoming traffic, trying to make a living. A starving man, his stomach distended, shoved garbage from the fly-riddled dump into his mouth, not stopping to check what it might be. I wondered what was in store for me.

Nearing the school, I grew mesmerized by the flat and arid landscape. The rainy season had passed, the rice was harvested, and there would be no more rain for at least eight months. We drove past cart-tethered cows, men herding ducks in stagnant ponds, and motorbikes stacked with entire families, food shopping dangling from their arms as they balanced precariously. Everywhere, inquisitive faces smiled our way.

When we pulled into the school, I was amazed at the lush grounds, brightly painted walls and rows of young mango trees. Stepping out of the car, I was greeted by hundreds of young voices shouting hello. Children were arriving by bicycle, and as each noticed me, the chorus magnified. It was an overwhelming welcome, and I waved timidly, caught off guard by this unexpected show of openness and generosity.

the school bus

Heading straight to the classrooms. I discovered that Khmer (Cambodian) learning is by rote, completely different to any of the teaching practice I know; a typical lesson is to copy long passages on the board for the children to repeat. I also learned that it’s impossible to guess a child’s ability from their age. The younger ones are often inquisitive and confident, while the older pupils may be more able but shy.

When visiting another culture, it’s important to respect the local ways – but I was here to incorporate as much interactive learning as possible and to provide new experiences. Everyone involved with Singing Kites seeks positive change and improvement, so finding a receptive audience was easy. You should have heard the laughter when I produced a carrot and packets of noodles from my bag for the lesson on food!

The children found this new approach difficult and exhausting, but their enthusiasm helped them through it. I’ve since seen children re-enacting games and teachers adopting flashcards, so it’s apparent that everyone is open to alternatives. The highlight was earning a hug from a child because he was so excited about remembering the word ‘pineapple’ in our second group session.

One of my favourite spots in the school was the library, a colourful, welcoming building, and well stocked. But I was surprised to find tales of adventure and excitement sitting unloved on the shelves while dull and dated English comprehension texts were well-thumbed. I asked the children what they liked to read and why, and the answer was always the same: they read to improve their English.

The desire to succeed, to be educated to a standard that can raise you out of your current situation was the number one priority. These children were fighting as a collective, to beat poverty, social pressures and low social expectations. Most were up at 4-5am, for housework and farming, before attending Khmer school all day and studying at Singing Kites until 7.30pm. Evenings and weekends were for further work and extra study.

It’s no surprise, then, that reading books for fun has little bearing on their lives. But I still believed in a place for creativity and reading for enjoyment if you could find a way to make these things relevant. I started some focused group work and once again, the children were open to trying. With support and encouragement, their ideas spilled out with incredible results.

Outside of teaching, teenage girls helped me shop for food. The groundsmen invited me to share roasted duck and songs. One girl showed me the ruins of a former home – destroyed by bomb damage during the Khmer Rouge reign, and told horrific stories about how her parents survived. I met her parents, and was left wondering how they remained so kind and generous. Remarkably, There was no sign of anger or bitterness; they emanated gentleness and warmth.

This was more than an adventure; it was about working collectively to improve the lives of everyone involved, including my own. Each villager had a story of hardship, but nobody complained. Instead, they opened their hearts and their homes, welcoming me and appreciating my contribution, however small. To feel safe, loved, and included, is such a gift – especially when you’re surrounded by people you’ve just met. People you can call friends in a very short space of time.

I saw many Cambodian people wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Sometimes we smile to hide the sad.’ This spoke volumes to me. I’d only begun to scratch the surface, but what I witnessed showed that Cambodia is more than a land of smiles; it is a land of growth, tolerance and dreams, striving to succeed. It is a country that is rich with its people, and I’m thankful to everyone I’ve met for showing me how, despite adversity, generosity of spirit can still conquer. To me, these people are a shining example of what it means to be human.

This group poem, written by six girls, is their first poem written in English.

My Great and Beautiful Village

My village sounds like…
Motorbikes beeping fast and loud,
People talking happily,
Bird cries all day,
Singers singing Khmer songs,
Children crying because they’re hungry,
Traditional music for weddings and festivals,
At night, the dogs bark and scare us.
My village feels…
Like a golden rice harvest,
Beautiful like a sunflower,
Friendly like the ants like sugar
Comfortable and warm like our wooden houses,
My village smells…
Of fresh water when it rains,
Like the white malis flowers in the gardens,
Tasty like fried fish, garlic and cauliflower,
Strong like durian and sweet like jackfruit.
When I think of my village,
I feel very happy and proud
I want to develop the roads, schools and hospitals,
And I want to live there
By Lida, Sreynoch, Chanleap, Sothea, Seavmey and Danth,
Year 10-12, Singing Kites, Cambodia

singing kites school selfie

Elizabeth Rose Murray lives in West Cork, where she fishes, grows her own vegetables and enjoys plenty of adventures. The Book of Learning (Mercier Press), the first book in her middle grade Nine Lives Trilogy, will be published September 2nd 2015. Her young adult debut, Caramel Hearts (Alma Books) will be published in Spring 2016. Elizabeth has had poetry and short fiction published in journals across the UK and Ireland, and has been shortlisted in several competitions including Francis McManus Short Story and Aesthetica Creative Works. You can find out more about Elizabeth on her website or on twitter @ERMurray.