As we traveled on brown roads littered with potholes, the driver tried to avoid the deep mud ponds but had to pause before quite a large one. A motorbike came alongside, with a man riding and an older woman on pillion. What shocked me was not that they had a child tucked in the middle. It was her makeshift intravenous feeding tube on a branch which she held in one hand while clutching a plastic bag in another. They stopped just before the same mud pond on the other side and waited patiently for our van to pass. I looked back even as the van negotiated gently on. The tenacity of these people I thought.
It was about a good few hundred meters before we entered the village and after we crossed a rather rickety bridge. There, the children were waiting for us. They were all prepped to sing for us, whilst sitting on a cement floor. Each one only has a pair of uniform for a year I was told. Some of their white over worn shirts had already turned beige. Backed up by a guitar played by one of the local teachers and with no microphone, they sang so fervently I was tearing up.
Soon, the volunteers were busy bringing out what we brought there – uniform, towels and goodies. I think I took a ton of pictures that day. As I snapped away, I noticed something in their eyes. It was haunting and it bothered me the entire time.
We returned to the village again the following day to help with the serving of lunch and to play games with the children. Before each meal, they prayed earnestly. After a few warm-up games, they were happy to just run around and have fun. The children were shy and as we didn’t know any of the local dialects, the interaction was sometimes translated by the local teachers. But it was mostly full of warm smiles and high fives where no words were needed.
Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, through generous funding by donors, has set-up a few premises including this village since 2004. We were privileged to be able to spend some time helping with HOPE – Project Khmer Kampong Speu Province. Ours was Cycling for Hope (Fellowship on Wheels), made up of Saints Alumni cyclists and other volunteers.
The most important part of the Project was clearly helping to build a sustainable community. The age of the children ranges what appeared to be like four to 17-year-olds andthey all attend English classes and the older ones are taught Hospitality Skills and Technical Training. The teachers tell me they try to inculcate Christian values as well. There are enough testimonies to show success that included the story of how a local boy made it to be a General Manager in a posh hotel. He is now creating more opportunities and working closely with the dedicated volunteers we met, who have spent years nurturing these children and teens.
While visiting some of the village folks and delivering biscuits, a black dog instinctively stood out from the pack and subtly followed us around. She even led us back to the village afterwards, all the time quietly chaperoning us from other neighboring barking dogs and even a herd of cows. When we patted her, she will look up with hopeful eyes.
That’s when it dawned on me what the look in all the children’s eyes was – it was a yearning for hope, for a chance and for love. When we were leaving, my family and I decided to name our black mascot “Hope”. As we parted, the children gathered to wave at our vans and I suddenly thought of Shakespeare, who once wrote: “Parting is such sweet sorrow”.
Jake Wong, a St Andrew’s School alumni, wrote a very good piece about his experiences during our recent PKH trip in Cambodia in his personal blog.