After making the deal with the workmen for a new school, intended for Rach Dung village where Ms Dieu Lien had visited earlier, and sleeping at the house of Teacher Tu Lun (whom Ms Dieu Lien told about in her previous story), I rent a boat to come to Sa Son and haul the dilapidated school of Ms Loan over here in Kampong Luong, where there are adequate conditions (workers, bamboo, wood, other materials) for the reparation of the school. Coming to Sa Son, I learnt that Teacher Tu Lun was paralyzed, and bed-ridden for some time now, so he could no longer teach. I and Teacher Loan decided to haul the old school to Kampong Luong. The new school, when finished, would be given to Sa Son, while the newly-repaired school would be given to one of the floating villages that has teacher(s) but no school. Kha Len has Teacher Hue but no school, however Ms Hue now has got married and left. On my way to distribute rice, I dropped by to visit Teacher Tu Lun. He was in a very pitiful situation, both of his legs were paralyzed, the flesh on his ankle was rotten, and the bone underneath was exposed! He wept. He has no money at all for treatment.
The old school was too bad and about to sink. Teacher Loan said she had to risk her life staying there to teach, but in fact she was so fearful, because the school might well sink at any time! If during the night, the school sinks, so will she into the sea! In rainy nights, she does not dare to sleep, but if she ever wants to, she in fact cannot, because it is then all the same whether in or out - water flushes in strongly; the school shakes terribly as if it is going to break into pieces. In the rain and winds, she holds tightly her dogs and her two cats, waiting in fear for dawn! Teacher Loan could not believe that I would repair her dilapidated house. In tears, she said “some came and visited people around here; they promised they would ask their friends and kind-hearted donors to help repair the school for Sa Son. But I have been waiting for so long, my patience is going to exhaust, and the school is sinking, but I hear nothing back”.
She only believed when her school was tied to the hauling boat. It took the 350 horse-power engine boat more than 5 hours to haul the school from Sa Son to Kampong Luong,; that means it would take the whole day to go back and forth. I feared that this dilapidated school would be broken into pieces by strong waves on the sea! Fortunately, it could reach Kampong Luong at dark, after a stop in the middle of the sea to be tied and reinforced with ropes.
Teacher Loan was also miserable (Ms Dieu Lien once wrote about Loan’s story). She has a pain that makes one of her legs shrink, and thus she has to limp. She has no other way to cope with the pain but feel it. During the reparation of her school in Kampong Luong, I gave her a small sum of money because she had no income without classes, and advised her to go for treatment. There was no physician around, therefore she had to travel 350 kilometers back and forth to the capital for just one injection, then took the prescription and bought the medicines to take orally. By the way, healthcare in Tonle Lap is non-existent; if there is any emergency case, such as an out-of-womb birth or a heart attack, virtually one can do nothing and has to wait for the death! Big villages like Kampong Luong have medicines and their sellers, but no medical professional; the sellers know a little bit about pain relievers and anesthetics, and will sell what they are asked. Kampong Luong, Cau Ho both have healthcare stations, but both of which are closed all year round! People say that physicians only appear in injection or pill-taking programmes for kids.
When inquired of the cost for reparation, the workmen again said they only knew that their service cost 1,000 usd; and I had to pay any material needed. The school was too rotten and therefore required lots of new wood, roofing toles, two big sets of tied bamboo trees to make the school float higher on the surface and sway less in heavy rains and big waves. Because it is always exposed to water and rain, it should be painted to make the wood last longer.
Almost every thing of the school house was so bad that needed to be replaced. I was concerned that the cost for new material might exceed the planned budget. Because I myself had to pay for wood, bamboo, screws and nails, roofing tole and paint, while the workmen cared only the payment for their labour. Fortunately, everything was ok. The school after reparation could be used for 15-20 more years.
On my way to distribute rice, I wanted to find the right village to be given the repaired school. I found that Rach Lo Quyt village did not have any school, but had a teacher - Ms Nguyen Thi Kieu. She was very young, only 19, once studied in Phnom Penh, and could use both Vietnamese and Cambodian languages. This village had not had any school for many generations now, and neither did anyone ever teach the kids here. 69 families live here, with about 150 kids aged 6-15. As there was no school, even people in their twenties were illiterate. Ms Kieu used to live in Phnom Penh with her relatives and was sent to school until the last grade of junior secondary education. When she came back to her family here, she felt pity for the illiterate kids and thus opened a compassion class (class for free) at home. With such reasons, I found it most suitable to donate the repaired school to Rach Lo Quyt village.
Whether teaching at home or in a separate school, all teachers in Tonle Sap love their pupils a lot. If the kids have money, they can pay 200-300 riel (equivalent to 1,000 VND or 5 cents of a US dollar) a day; if they don’t have money, the schooling is for free. No teacher was ever trained to be a teacher; they simply are literate, love the kids and wish to transfer all of what they know to them. At present, only major villages with big population and easy transportation have schools, the rest do not.
When a school is donated, there should be full presence of all villagers, the Association of Vietnamese Nationals of the commune, and representative(s) of the authority of the group of villages, so that it is informed publicly to everybody that the school is a public asset of the village, which must not be sold or hauled to any other place. Everyone has both rights and responsibilities to protect it for sustainable use. After 5 years, it may require some minor reparation. Therefore the teacher will have to set aside a small sum of money every month for that purpose; and if any family needs the school house for funeral or wedding, they will contribute 50,000-100,000 riel to the so-called reparation fund. When being consulted, everybody agreed so and believed it to be the best arrangement for the donated school. Once it is a public asset, no body is allowed to occupy, possess, buy, sell or haul to another place. Everybody desires a school, thus they treasure it very much.
Now every village earnestly longs for a community house, about 120 square meter large, and a smaller floating house to be a maternity place, about 12-20 square meter large. Because no village in Tonle Sap has any maternity house, any woman who begins labour will invite a mid-wife in. Their “houses” are too small, some times only 6 square meters large, 1.2 meters high, roofed by water coco leaves, in which people can only creep instead of walking. Such narrow and unhygienic places could not be safe at all for women to give birth. It costs about 6,000 – 8,000 riel to build a maternity house. Community houses are for such events as village meetings, weddings and funerals. At present, whenever need arises, people have to rent such place at the price of 1.5 million riels (about 370 usd) for a wedding, or of 600,000 riels (240 usd) for a funeral. An average family can afford this, but over 50% of families are too poor to afford the rent for a funeral. Kampong Luong has such a big population but still has no community house. Once they have community house, people only have to contribute to the reparation fund 200,000 riels for a wedding, or 100,000 riels for a funeral, so as to use it effectively and for a long time.
Though our compatriots in Tonle Sap are poor and have to work too hard for a living, but most importantly, they always assist others in need, sharing others’ hardship and difficulties. Though the children are illiterate, most of them are very nice and well-behaving.
These are things I wish to tell after one month living, eating with and working with our compatriots in Tonle Sap, so that anyone who wishes to help them may have some sense of what we are doing in Tonle Sap in a hope to bring benefits and happiness to our poor compatriots living away from the home country.
I left Tonle Sap at 4 a.m. for Vietnam. A few more days and there will come Chum, the most joyous festival in Tonle Sap that celebrates the highest water. Deeply carved in my mind were the images of helpless elderly taking porridge in badly torn, small boats, with the lower part wrapped by nylon, shaking terribly in strong winds and high waves; large families living on tiny rafts placed on a few tanks; lonely women rowing around to catch fish to raise their children, they had lost their husband to the hand of Pol Pot, or sea storms; illiterate kids with weathered-burned, hard faces who row around every day to sell goods, dumplings, coffee or a few little fish for some little money to make ends meet. When I return to Sai gon, these ill fates were still vivid in my mind. And, I also recall the bright smiles of teacher Loan, teacher Kieu and the pupils on the two schools. What will happen to them tomorrow and the days after? The harder their life is, the more they desire to change their fate! May the lives of our compatriots in Tonle Sap get better and their hardship are shouldered and shared by many kind-hearted people. May their desire to change their fate will soon be a reality.