Teaching Orphans in Cambodia: A Volunteer’s Dilemma

I didn’t know that spiders could scream. But as I stand next to Arsenal while he is hurling himself at the animal in my quiet and otherwise empty room there is no doubt.

I’ve always been a little scared of spiders even though, should we ever talk about it in person, I would tell you how much better I had gotten at dealing with them. “Australia —” I would say proudly and tell you about the morning I stood in the shower, my hair foamed with shampoo, and looked up to find a boney spider above my head whose black hair pointed in various directions. I rushed but finished my shower. Later, I considered myself cured.

“What was that?” My fingers twitch involuntarily.

Arsenal turns to face me and shrugs. “Don’t worry, it’s gonna die under the bed.”

My bed, I only think. It’s gonna die under my bed. He moves around me swiftly and steps back into the bright daylight. I stay where he left me — frozen, wide-eyed and utterly sick to my stomach. Three gnarly legs lie on the linoleum flooring in between the wall and my bed.

Cambodian Rice Field

I’m at an orphanage in rural Cambodia. The closest town is Siem Reap; a tuk-tuk takes you there in twenty minutes. In front of the large gate at the entrance a bumpy road winds through lush rice fields. Here and there there’s a farm house at the roadside. Twenty-seven children live here together with a handful of volunteers and a cook referred to as Cook. The owner, whose strict eyes watch me whenever I step into the office, can only be found in a portrait on the wall. She is in America for a vacation, I am told at my arrival. Personally, I will not meet her.

Cambodian Classroom

Like many other volunteers I am here to teach the children English. Every day, three different classes are taught in the single classroom. The light blue walls are covered with various drawings of animals as well as colourful hand prints. In the back, dry coconut shells hang from the ceiling of the open window frame. They serve as pots for young bamboo plants with pink flowers.

My lesson starts at two. Around fifteen children come running from all over the compound and sit down on the wooden benches in front of me. Some boys played soccer while the girls cut vegetables with Cook; a few others played with the puppies in the shade in front of the office. The lesson begins in a familiar fashion. “Hello teacher, how are you?” the children chant, and it once again seems like a competition to make out the loudest. On most days I’m fine. Together, we repeat the names of animals and try to built sentences with them. “This is a lion. The lion is strong.” Or: “This is an octopus. The octopus is blue.”

Cambodian boy
I sit on the cool steps to the office where important information and documents are stored when Chea approaches me. A little awkwardly, he supports himself on my leg and climbs onto the step next to me.

“Teacher, look.” He pushes the fabric of his trousers aside and points at a circular wound in his leg that has about the size of a two-cent-coin. Insistently, he blinks at me through his full, black hair that sometimes looks as if he is wearing a wig. When he walks it looks like he wiggles from left to right. Chea is eleven years old but only 1,1 meters tall. When he was younger his father hit and broke his knees. He was never taken to a doctor.

I get up and grab a cotton swab and some disinfectant from the medicine cabinet in the back. It’s all I can do for the little boy who captured my attention the minute I arrived at the orphanage.

“Are you sad that the spider dies?” Chea dabs the liquid on his leg and hands me back the swab.

“No,” I shake my head and force myself to smile. “Of course not.”

Reading in a Hammock

Luka and Mariana join me while a group of children is playing Memory in front of the wide-open office door. It is rainy season, and the air is stuffy. At this time of the day, we are thankful for every moment that’s spent in the cool shade.

Luka and Mariana are from Quebec City in Canada. Like me, they will move on and leave when new volunteers arrive at the orphanage to take over our responsibilities. Today alone we get two queries through workaway, an online platform that connects hosts and volunteers. It is a system that seems to work at first glance, yet also a system that lacks consistency: a lasting transition of travellers who each arrive with fresh enthusiasm but ultimately change little.

Luka is sitting at the desk next to me and skims through the records of former volunteers who mostly reflect on positive experiences. Cheerful children, curious students, a truly loving and welcoming community, what an unforgettable experience…

“Something’s really odd, don’t you think?”

Hammock Smiles

This doubt doesn’t feel good. We’ve all come here to take a break from the constant consumerism our travels inevitably nourish. We’ve come here to interact with the people and their culture more consciously — to learn from them and to maybe return the favour; to help where help is needed. Still, we’ve heard and read about the stories: of orphans who are not really orphans; of children who are sold to live in orphanages to make money from benevolent tourists. Since 1995, the number of supposed orphanages in Cambodia has increased by 65 percent.

We, too, are told that only two out of the twenty-seven children are real orphans. The other parents didn’t have enough money to care for their children. Some children suffered from domestic violence. At the orphanage they learned to speak English. Together with the other children from the village they went to school. Here, they were better off than they were at home with their families. We agreed with that, didn’t we?

Cambodian children

Whenever new volunteers arrive at the orphanage they are asked to write their passport numbers in a list along with the others — for the sake of the children’s safety, they say but no one ever cares to check. Rigorous attention, however, is paid to our daily payments: for five dollars a day Cook buys food for us and the children. At night we sleep in one of the volunteer dorms. Five dollars don’t seem like a lot compared to Western standards. In the beginning, I don’t worry about it too much but look at it as my contribution to the children’s daily life.

“Do you think we’re doing any good?” Mariana frowns.

Cambodia is still one of the least developed countries in the world. In the Human Development Report of 2015 it ranked No. 143. While tourism increases steadily, Cambodia still deals with one of the largest corruption rates in the world. Have we been blinded? By the positive feedback of previous volunteers and our own desire to make the world a little better? Answers we won’t find. Only new questions, new doubts, new distrust.

Cambodian boy

Suddenly there’s a lot of noise. There was a road accident in front of the orphanage. We run into the street with a glass of water and some bandages from the first aid kit. A crowd of people has already gathered when we get there. A young woman lies on the ground next to her motorbike. A man has collided with her, the children say. Collided and driven away. Vi points down the road which seems to disappear in between two rice fields.

Screaming and panting, the woman lies on the sandy ground, a few centimetres off the dirty road. Her eyeballs continue to roll into the inside of her skull while several men and women are consulting each other and trying to soothe her at the same time.

The bandages in our hands are useless. Limply, the woman’s foot rests on the ground. The angle seems strange and unnatural.

Several heads turn simultaneously as another motorcycle comes speeding down the road. The engine roars angrily until the bike comes to a sudden stop next to us. Another woman jumps from the backseat while the driver pushes the bike on its footrest. A piercing cry cuts through the air as her eyes take in the bleeding woman on the ground. Frantically, she drops to her knees while her hands are reaching out for the arms of the injured. Tears stream down her face. More screams as the injured woman’s eyes widen in pain. Two men grab the shoulders of the second one and pull her back.

I cannot look at them any longer. Mariana turns away at the same time. The water glass in Luka’s hand looks out of place. Our eyes meet briefly and he shrugs. There’s nothing we can do. Instead of gaping, we walk back to the orphanage. The brittle asphalt stings into the soles of my bare feet as the sun glares down at us. I squint my eyes while the agitated voices slowly blur into diffuse noises in the background.

At the gate I turn around again. I watch how two men lift the injured woman off the ground and onto the motorbike. The engine howls once more. Then it is quiet. A moment later, an ambulance arrives at the scene of the accident, but the woman is gone.

At this moment, my mind doesn’t understand what my eyes see. Later, I will learn that only one out of five Cambodians is insured, and I will begin to understand the woman’s terrible cry.

Cambodian farm house

Before I fall asleep that night my mind is reeling. Images and voices break down on me like waves that pull me deeper and deeper into the darkness while I struggle with my consciousness. I think of the owner and her vacation in America; of Chea’s wound; of the little girl who’s been lying on the cool floor of the girls’ dormitory for the past two days, waiting bravely for her dengue fever to pass. I think of the stertorous breathing of the pig that was slaughtered on the old wooden bed frame in the backyard two nights ago and of the fourteen-year-old boy who stabbed its throat in order to provide himself and the rest of the children with food for the following month. I think of the woman who might never be able to walk again…

At last, my thoughts return to the spider under my bed. If only I had left it alone. If only I had never asked Arsenal to take it out of my room. But the spider is dying. And there is nothing I can do to make it stop.

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