Visiting our School in Cambodia for the Official Opening
After eighteen months of planning and fundraising the day we’d all been eagerly waiting for is finally here–the official opening of our school in Cambodia!
While I no longer believe it’s usually appropriate for tourists to visit schools, the local community invited us to an incredible official opening celebration to thank us for our contribution to raising funds to build their school. We attended as guests, alongside religious leaders, local politicians, and community leaders, playing a part only in ways we were asked to do so. It was an emotional day of honouring their traditions, connecting, laughing, and dancing. Without a doubt, one of the best days of my life, a thought mirrored by everyone on the team.
The purpose of this blog post is to give you a flavour of what we experienced that day. If want to know more about the school itself and our fundraising project read more here.
Our fundraising team above was joined by our partners Duncan Ward, founder of Classroom of Hope (our main charity partner), Justin Canva-Jones, founder of The Acts of Kindness Collective (our funding partner) and Marc Jenni, co-founder of Child’s Dream (responsible for analysing needs and overseeing the building of the school).
Our journey to the school
From the moment I woke up that morning I could feel the sides of my mouth tingling with excitement. Everyone in the group was excited about the day ahead and also uncertain of how it would unfold. Duncan and Marc had given us a brief overview the evening before, but nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced.
We started out early to travel two and a half hours north by minibus from Siem Reap, to just south of the border with Thailand. We’d been told to expect dirt track roads and so were relieved to find a new tarmac road took us most of the way to the school. It was lovely to be out of the city and to see another rural part of Cambodia. More hilly and arable than what we’d seen further south.
I’ll never forget my first glimpse of the school.
Ahead of us, a cluster of cars was glistening in the sunlight by the side of the road. As the dust around us cleared my brain began to register we were almost at the school. The image we’d been looking at for months came alive as we stepped out of our minibusses and into the reality of what we’d co-created.
Tears immediately welled in my eyes as we were greeted by crowds of people at the gate and I glimpsed two rows of clapping smiling children lining the driveway to the school–standing proudly in their school uniforms.
I was barely able to take in introductions to teachers, government officials and community leaders before we were ushered along in a procession, clapping our way towards the school.
It was overwhelming, especially when I fleetingly remembered this was only happening because I’d decided to build the school. It felt surreal, as though we were gate-crashing someone else’s event.
Meeting the children
Some of my most precious memories are the special moments I had with some of the children along the way: acknowledging each other by looking into each other’s eyes and smiling. We may not have spoken the same language, but I’d like to think they too felt a connection between us.
As we approached two marquees, we are met by a woman dressed in a bright blue outfit who encouraged us to dance our final few steps towards a stage. It would have been rude not to!
A monks blessing
Ahead of us four monks sit on the stage waiting to give us a blessing.
What a privilege. In Cambodia, monks are highly respected and while I couldn’t understand what was being said, I could feel the energy of gratitude, peace, and hope that radiated from their words. Women should never touch monks or give anything to them. However, I was given a wrapped gift to give to one of the monks, accompanied by the words ‘don’t touch him’ being whispered in my ear.
A community celebration
There was then a re-shuffle as the monks leave the stage and our group is invited to join some of the local dignitaries on the stage.
It was only as I turned to do this that I saw a sea of curious young faces watching us, laughing and mucking around as young children do. They were a joy to watch.
Now facing the children and community we get a few moments to stop and take in the scene around us including the school building to the left of us.
The official ceremony
The official ceremony starts with the pupils standing up and singing the Cambodian national anthem with great pride and vigour.
This was followed by several local officials giving long speeches in Khmer from behind a podium. Thankfully between speeches, there was also a passionate speech delivered by one of the older pupils expressing the pupils’ commitment to the school.
Some local teenagers also entertained us with a Cambodian dance.
It was then my turn to say something. I step on to the carpet in front of the stage and acknowledged the district leader before introducing myself to the community.
I started with ‘suasdey’ and ‘arkun’ (hello and thank you in Khmer).
Thereafter I spoke with the aid of a translator. Thankfully I’ve had plenty of practice doing this from all the humanitarian work I’ve done in Rwanda!
The main messages I hoped to get across were thanking the community for the opportunity to partner with them in building the school and inspiring the children to make the most of the school and follow their dreams. I think it went well, there were certainly cheers and claps. You can watch my talk here – it’s only a few minutes.
Receiving gifts and medals
It was then time for everyone in the team to be presented with a Cambodian scarf and for me to receive a medal from the government. A proud moment for us all.
Gifts from Scotland
The only time we interrupted the communities well-organised agenda was to share our gifts for the school from Scotland: a quaich (a silver friendship cup often used to share a tipple of whiskey), postcards the team had written to pupils and a photo book of Scotland.
Cutting the ribbon
It’s then time to officially open the school with the cutting of a ribbon.
It was a huge ribbon and we’d been warned to only make a tiny snip each as it was the role of district leader to cut the ribbon in two. Thankfully we all performed our duties perfectly!
Handing the school over to the community
We’d done our bit and now it was time to officially hand the legal responsibility for the school over to the community.
They also received a formal plaque that was mounted on one of their walls.
Giving backpacks out to the pupils
Throughout our project, we were keen to avoid falling into the trap of becoming white saviours rescuing those in need. At the heart of our activities was the desire to respect local knowledge, wisdom, resources and to nurture local responsibility for the school in ways that would be empowering and sustainable.
While most of the team initially wanted to give more and do more, through pre-trip training everyone learned how many well-intentioned westerners often do more damage than good. We took the lead from our charity partners and the local community on our roles that day.
It was agreed the only items we’d supply to the school as part of our project were locally sourced stationery provisions and backpacks for registered pupils.
The children had patiently sat through what to them I’m sure was a fairly boring couple of hours. They were eager to get out and play although did seem happy to spend a few extra minutes huddled classrooms waiting to receive backpacks.
For us, it was a few minutes when we were able to connect with the children again before they ran off to be with their parents or to play outside. It was fascinating to see a mix of responses. Some children were eager to get their backpack while others seemed nervous about accepting anything. That said the excitement grew as they opened their backpacks and found rulers, pads and other stationery supplies inside.
Time for lunch
With the official elements of the ceremony over it was lovely to sit down to huge of local dishes lunch that had been prepared by a crew of women from the community.
I’m always cautious about eating food overseas but also didn’t want to offend and so I grazed on a few mouthfuls of most dishes to be polite.
Let the partying begin
Most of the children had disappeared home while we were having lunch. That was a shame as most of us would have loved to have spent more time with them. However, we also recognised our desire to connect with the children was all about us getting our needs met rather than what was in their best interests. They’d already had a long day and of course, it was time for them to return to being kids in whatever they do in a rural Cambodian village.
After lunch, more and more adults started to arrive and join in what we discovered was the start of a two-day community celebration–with a feast of food, drinks, sitting around chatting, singing, and dancing.
Despite only a few locals being able to speak English, it was lovely to connect by dancing with them. They had us copying Cambodian dance moves. Being Scottish we also had fun teaching them one of our most famous national dances–the Gay Gordons.
Then it was over
All too soon the time came to leave. It had been an incredible ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. One none of us will ever forget and didn’t want to end. But we were also all exhausted and it felt right to step back and allow the community to continue with their celebrations.
It’s taken quite a couple of weeks for all we achieved and experienced to sink in. I’ve been reflecting and consolidating both my personal experience together with what I witnessed and heard others say about the impact the day had on them. You can watch a short film about my reflections here.
I’m in awe of everyone in my team and our partners who each kindly played a huge part in turning my dream to build a school into reality.
I’m also full of gratitude to all our supporters and to the local community who committed to the ongoing resourcing and support of the school. Together we co-created a wonderful legacy that will benefit a rural Cambodian village for generations.
Thank you to you all!
The school in Cambodia will continue to be monitored for the next few years by our partner Child’s Dream to ensure the community and district are delivering their commitment to the school.
There are no plans for the team to visit the school again as we trust the processes that have been put in place. I feel westerners visiting schools other than in exceptional circumstances does more damage than good–to me the needs and protection of children are what’s most important. While many westerners want to visit schools, children are not tourist attractions nor pawns to be used to satisfy our needs. To me, we should treat children and schools overseas in the same way we do at home–as private educational centres that don’t invite tourists in.
Personally, I intend to build more schools with the help of more fundraising teams. My next project will be to replace schools damaged by the 2018 earthquake in Lombok (the island next to Bali in Indonesia) with earthquake-resistant schools made with recycled plastic bricks. The lucky women who will be joining my next team will get the opportunity to visit the school before enjoying a few days with me in Bali.
If you’re a successful heart-centered woman who’d would be interested in joining future school building projects, I invite you to register your interest here.
P.S. Check out my TEDx Talk Isn’t Business an Opportunity to be Kind HERE.
Often described as one of the most authentic and inspiring souls you can meet, Alisoun is on a mission to improve the lives of 100,000 people–by making it easy for successful women to have more impact in the world.
Alisoun’s keynote talks, training, mentoring, and best-selling books Give-to-Profit: How to Grow Your Business by Supporting Charities and Social Causes and Heartatude: The 9 Principles of Heart-Centered Success have favorably changed the good fortune of thousands of people worldwide. She loves doing humanitarian work, fundraising and living by the beach in Scotland.
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