This week I had the pleasure of beginning an ethnographic field project with Kristen at my side. The project surrounds students entering the tenth grade at Knar School outside of Siem Reap. The Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF) supports the school in various ways, one of which is providing scholarships to students to be able to afford the costs of attending the public school (such as monthly exams). PLF has afforded us the opportunity to gather the demographic and personal information of students that will be entering the program to grasp a better sense of the magnitude of need. I am especially enthused for the opportunity to dip my toes into something I’ve never pursued, with the guidance and counsel of someone like Kristen for her sagacious insight. Although it’s difficult because of the language barrier, we are incredibly lucky to have Farida (a PLF staff member) to assist us with Khmer and share her knowledge to help guide us through the process.
It is such a contradiction because I truly enjoy the work and am inspired by my interactions with the people and my growing ability to capture them, but as I sat on a straw mat behind a hopeful ninth grader’s hut, alone, as her parents live far away as farmers to afford her school costs- I am just completely lost.
The first day of interviews brought about their own mix of confused feelings but yesterday’s interview really struck me. It was early morning, and our tuk tuk bumped us down the familiar road past Knar School (which students trek long distances to reach). We eventually pulled up to a rather large plot of land with a small hut at the center of it. Within minutes of arriving the few people on the land emerged with smiles. The first thing I saw was a young woman holding her left arm vigilantly. Chenda, one of the teachers from Knar who assists with the interviews, and the family, began to speak and she quickly explained that the arm of our interviewee’s older sister had been broken by her “drunk husband.” Stating this matter-of-factly startled me but more how it was an admission of an environment where violence has been normalized and that this kind of act would be discussed causally. It was just shocking to me that the sister felt comfortable sharing such an intimate detail of her daily life, but I was forced to realize she had just come know violence as a tragic part of her reality.
The young girl pulled a hand made straw mat for all of us to sit on behind her home. As she rolled the mat down she gently smiled and exclaimed “a picnic for you.” In discussing such harsh realities her sentiment helped to remind me that ultimately she’s still growing into adulthood and was able to still marvel at such small things.
Soon we all sat facing one another, our legs crossed across our laps, and the mat over the sandy ground. The shear fear and sadness of this girl’s gaze pierced my soul, but her smile was starkly wide and persistent. It hurt me to realize that I could see her learned ability to conceal her deep pain in her staunch posture and gentle demeanor. She began to explain with bouts of pride how she never had to retake a grade, or an exam, as well as her high rank in her classes. School seemed to be the only thing she was not only proud of but enjoyed discussing– immediately showing her understanding of school as a privilege she possessed.
This too was staggering. I have always viewed education as a basic right and hearing this girl recount her schooling I was forced to grapple with the fact that this girl had done everything in her power to ensure she not only got herself to school (which means at least a 30 minute bike ride) but also that she appreciated every bit of it. Her parents live far away working on a farm so they can support her school costs, placing her in the care of her sister and her brother-in-law because their residence is close to Knar. She spoke with such clarity about the importance of school, which was incredible considering all she fights up against to attend; her sisters expressing that school is a waste of time, as they never received education, are only a few years older and already married, her parents working tirelessly to support her, and her brother-in-law telling her she’s selfish to take her parents money for school costs. Through all of this she still smiles and shares that she never allows herself to miss school, and spends her holidays farming to raise money for her family. Her resilience was contagious, her language, her demeanor forced me to transcribe a sense of hope in all I wrote about her life. Near the end of the interview we asked what she hoped for her school and her village and she answered immediately. She sensibly expressed her concerns for the amount of litter surrounding the school and the whole village, and also shared how she hoped for a market closer to her village. As it is the entire village travels about 7 or 8 kilometers to acquire their basic food needs and she not only wishes but also envisions another reality.
This allows me to express my difficulty for the work we are doing here because I felt absolutely inspired by her resilience but ultimately I would thank her and jump in the tuk tuk to bring me back to our guesthouse in Siem Reap. I felt paralyzed in this moment of trying my best to escape being another person who parachutes in and believes they change the world. I know I’ll always struggle with these contradictions but I feel honored to be able to do work with PLF, an organization whose pedagogy and aspirations I agree with unconditionally. They understand that the solution lies not in what I, or the thousands of others like me “find” or “discover” as we gather information, but in the people of Kampuchea itself. This girl only a few years younger than me sees solutions to the struggles she sees daily in her environment, whereas I could not fathom solutions so bravely for my own community. People just need to be given the space, the trust and resources to integrate their own solutions because the thought and insights are omnipresent but just waiting to be listened to, respected and appropriated.