While we’ll stop well short of calling it “the other side”, life is slowly returning to a new kind of normal in Taksenkangbloung Village, and Cambodia as a whole. The country has officially recorded just 277 cases of Covid-19, with Siem Reap province contributing just eight cases to this tally.
While these relatively low numbers are a public health victory in a country without a robust healthcare system, the economy has taken a battering. The tourism sector, which is the backbone of Siem Reap, has virtually ground to a halt. International tourist visits to Angkor Wat in September, for example, were down almost 98% on the previous year. Many families no longer had an income to rely upon and organisations such as the World Bank have expressed grave concerns that gains made in the alleviation of poverty in Cambodia in recent years are fast being eroded away.
As was reported in the previous newsletter, schools were boarded shut throughout Cambodia in early March. While some private schools catering to a more affluent cohort of students offered online tuition, the students of Taksenkangbloung Village didn’t have this as an option. Students simply stayed at home and helped their parents where they could.
As part of the crisis support model adopted by Taksen in late March, food and hygiene aid became the main focus of the organisation. The number of families asking for this type of support rose sharply from an initial 12 families that received rice packages in the initial distribution in April. By June, the centre was helping nearly 40 families, and in July this number had risen again to 75 families. This food support was handed out monthly and we estimate that in the seven months since distribution started, this rice and soap has reached about 400 people (most of the village).Providing food support to 400 people a month is a costly undertaking and it has been impossible to organise fundraising events during these “Covid times”. The food and hygiene distribution program was only made possible by generous donations from the centre’s sponsors and donors, who despite tough times in their own countries, dug deep. When so many other charities and businesses sadly folded in Cambodia, and across the world for that matter, our generous supporter base really came to the party. We are still in the process of fundraising to make sure we keep this initiative going, if you can help please click here.
We’re pleased to report that Mookneak Primary School, which is attended by the majority of the students involved in our programs, resumed classes on 7 September. With effectively missing six months of the academic year, a more intensive delivery model has been developed by the school to try to catch students up as best as possible so as they can hopefully proceed to the next year level at year’s end. Each class has been divided up into three groups, with each group attending school for two days per week. Because class numbers are so much smaller than the usual up-to 50 students in each classroom, it is hoped students will have more support while they are at school to bridge the learning gap required to start in a new year level by the end of December.
Our older students mostly attend Hun Sen Secondary School, which is across the road to Mookneak Primary School. Years 9-12 only have resumed at this school, with exams to take place soon. We wish our students the best of luck at this important time.
Plans are in full swing to re-launch the centre’s educational programs from the start of November. As in pre-Covid times, free English lessons will be offered on site, on a daily basis, to every child in the village. The very popular kindergarten program, with Reay at the helm, will also be relaunched. The internet has been reconnected this month and students will be encouraged to use the centre’s computers and resources again (this previously wasn’t permitted under Covid restrictions).
A difficult decision was made last month to inform families that the centre was moving away from its crisis support model to enable it to once again focus on its primary aim of facilitating education. As such, October’s village-wide rice distribution was the last. It is hoped most families have found alternative ways to support themselves and director Sothea will keep an eye on individual families as needed.
We’ll continue providing soap to residents of the village, thanks largely to a new relationship we’ve formed with Eco-Soap Bank. This impressive humanitarian and environmental non-profit organisation works to save, sanitize, and supply recycled hotel soap for the developing world. Since 2014, Eco-Soap Bank has sustainably supplied more than 650,000 people with soap and hygiene education and we’re pleased to say the residents of Taksen now make up part of this number. Soap was always something we asked volunteers to carry from their home countries, given its disproportionate cost in Cambodia. Given volunteers can not travel to Cambodia for the foreseeable future, this relationship could not have come at a more crucial time.
We are also in the early stages of planning a new program in which vegetable seeds are provided to families interested in growing their own. We’re hopeful in the dry season families can have some success in this area, as Sothea and Reay had before the monsoon hit growing various types of fruit and vegetables at the centre (some of which were distributed as part of the aid program).
Centre director Sothea is practically a chameleon, the amount of times he has changed and adapted in his role at the centre. For the past six months, he has worked tirelessly to gather and distribute the food packages offered through the centre. Every month, this involved several trips to the market, documentation and liaising with beneficiaries. He was able to start collecting more detailed data on families in the village through this process, although this will be expanded upon in the coming months. Sothea also became involved in a community-run forum which has met twice in recent months to gather data on how organisations such as ours have assisted people during the pandemic. He has reported that meeting with other organisations in this capacity was beneficial in terms of the support and insights they were able to offer one another, as well as sharing important information.
Throughout all of this, Sothea has also recently completed his first semester of an undergraduate information technology degree via the University of South East Asia in Siem Reap (mainly via remote learning).
In other news, we are delighted to share that Sheree Duncan has joined our operational management team. Sheree visited Siem Reap for the first time in February 2020 and her deep connection with the Taksenkangbloung community was immediately clear. Since taking on a more formal role in helping with day-to-day operations from Australia, she has added so much vibrance and energy to Taksen through her compassion, empathy, sensitivity and experience in the aid sector. Read an interview with Sheree below. Welcome to the Taksen Crew, Sheree!
One of our English teachers, Dara, welcomed a precious new baby:
Who knows what news our next installment will bring – these are interesting times indeed. Stay safe and thanks again for your interest in and support of our organisation.
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The Taksen Team
Read full article (with images) here: