When I first met Meng, he was barely eighteen and poor, but by some stroke of luck, able to speak English. I hired him to be my interpreter. It was 1992, and I was working for the UN in Cambodia. I drove; he accompanied me. Actually, I doubt that he could drive; Cambodians didn’t have cars back then. No one could afford one.

In 2012, on one of my frequent trips back to Cambodia, I arranged for Meng, now a wealthy entrepreneur, to drive me to Kampong Thom to investigate a project sponsored by a group of American women from NE Ohio. The group, 4 Women for Women, was dedicated to promoting women’s education in Cambodia, especially rural women.

We got to Kampong Thom town about 1:00 p.m. and met Kimyon Yat, the local NGO partner for the project, for lunch. Kimyon, a pretty and intelligent 26-year-old, told me about the education project in the poorest of the poor district of Sadam.  It had a dormitory (a large one-room wooden house on stilts) with seven girls and four boys living and studying together. The students ranged from grades 8 through 12, and the project had been going on since 2008. One student had already graduated from college and had come back to be a neaq crew, teacher, in the district. Kimyon agreed with me that the kids most at risk of dropping out of school were those between grades 4 and 6,  but they had not found any donors willing to support programs for this age group. I decided that, given the hour, talking to Kimyon had satisfied my mission to investigate this project for the 4 Women for Women group in Ohio, but she said that the students were awaiting my arrival and would be disappointed if I did not come.  So, never one to  disappoint students, with Kimyon and her colleague in tow, we were off on the five-hour trek to visit the students!

When we turned off the paved road that ran through the dusty, bustling provincial town of Kampong Thom, we also left the third world behind and entered a fourth world, a world that has existed unchanged for centuries. We also left 2012 and, for at least a moment, I was transported back to 1992, the UNTAC mission, and the daily forays into the small remote villages with Meng by my side as I maneuvered my white Toyota 4X4 on the sandy, red dirt roads. Only that day, I was in the passenger seat of the big Lexus SUV, and Meng was the driver.

To either side of us were fruit orchards covered with thick red dirt. Humpbacked cows and huge water buffalo strolled in herds or by themselves, some with calves trying to suckle as they loped along. Occasionally, the bleak brown fallow rice fields would turn emerald green with a patch or hectare of dry season rice. There was one small electric line strung along the 40 kilometers to Sandam district, but no lines connected from the main line to the stilted wooden or palm-leaved hovels. The dust from the road choked the air conditioner and then chocked us; one of the two volunteers who came with us was vomiting in the back seat, car sick from the constant roll of the car as we went over or tried to avoid the ruts and holes in the long road. We passed Kampong Thom’s one claim to fame, aside from once being covered with snakes: the Pre-Ankorian Chenla Sambo Prei Kuk temple. People milled about the barnyard animals, and “herds” of small, naked or dirty-clothed children ran around or clung to an older sibling or a Yeiyei, grandmother, or Pu—old uncle. 

They greeted me scrubbed-faced, neatly dressed, and smiling shyly; five boys and seven girls. The dorm boasted one PC workstation and a phone. The large room was cool, and the girls’ sleeping mats were divided from the main area by hanging batiks. The only furniture was the workstation and a white board. The kids who lived there, just next to the high school. came from the surrounding villages and had a stipend of $10 to $15 per month for school materials and incidentals. The house was free, as were the tutors who came several nights a week to help them with schoolwork and mastering the internet. The room/house was as clean and fresh smelling as the students!  The NGO volunteers also met monthly with parents to maintain their support for the children to stay in school, but no money was given to them to buy their support. Meng translated as I told them about the donor group, asked their names and their aspirations: teachers for most of them, one reporter, one doctor, and one accountant! Not an astronaut or video game producer in the bunch! Universities likes to boast about first generation college graduates; this was the first generation to finish fourth grade! 

On the long ride back to Phnom Penh, I thought back to the children in Sadam. Just hours ago, I was back in the 10th century chatting with children who only dreamed of living in the 21st!

After that first visit to Kampong Thom, every time I went to Cambodia, I met with the college students financially supported by the Ohio group. I acted as the group’s emissary to the students, providing them with information about the Ohio group as well as whatever encouragement I could, The girls, and the occasional boy, come from Pursat, Prey Veng, Kampong Thom, and Kampong Chinang provinces—all places that have benefited little from Phnom Penh’s frenetic attempt to modernize. As recently as eight years ago, young women like these had nothing to look forward to but a life of poverty and hardship; today, however, thanks to the Ohio group and donors around the world, they are bursting with optimism and planning to return to their communities, committed to building better lives for everyone. The students I met were studying nursing, social work, community development, and accounting. Although I did encourage them to think about becoming doctors, engineers, and bosses . . .

Today there is a new organization, Harpswell, focused on energizing the most powerful force for social and economic advancement in Southeast Asia—through the education, training, and creation of a network of the next generation of women leaders. What’s different? It’s created and led by Cambodian women themselves. Sure, they have global partners and donors, but the real leadership is local and regional.

Check it out—Harpswell.org, Women Leading Change. I plan to meet with the current students this fall. My g-d daughter Sopheap, former director of GAD, is on the board and tasked with getting the word out! Hello!

Not so long ago, young girls in Cambodia dropped out of school by age ten. They had no toilets or sanitary pads, no encouragement to study from their families, and no money for school. 4 Women for Women was part of a global initiative to educate women and girls. It started small, but it has become a tidal wave. Join the tide.

Postscript: Tragically for us and for them, Afghanistan has gone in the wrong direction. We failed that country’s women and girls. Let’s not fail any others.

Published by Carole J. Garrison

I’m a conversationalist, an observer, a passionate participant in life. And now, in my later years, I’m a recorder of the lessons of my life through essays, stories, and novels. I live in the fourth moment of life, just outside the normal distribution of most people and it is from this place that I write.

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