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Learning in the dust


May 2015

It’s late when we arrive in Dangkot. The literacy class we’re visiting has been over for an hour. But the children have waited for us, eager to meet the (late) visitors from Australia. One of those children is Kon Kea. At 13, she’s one of the oldest in the class. She looks serious, too serious for her years. But her eyes are kind.

Dangkot village is in Rotanak Mondol District, Battambang Province in north-western Cambodia. By road, it’s about six hours from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. It’s dry season when we visit. The earth is red and dusty and the roads to visit Kon Kea’s literacy class are full of potholes. It takes us a lot longer than we hoped to arrive.

As we get out of the car, the children rush to their desks. A makeshift school has been created beneath a stilt house. The open area beneath the one-roomed house has fold-up tables and bright plastic red and blue chairs for the children. Towards the back of the space hang hammocks where the residents of the house – including the literacy facilitator – sleep in the dry season. The open space beneath the house also serves as a shelter for livestock, part of the family’s kitchen and a workshop for the family’s motorbike, when it’s not being used for literacy classes.

The children are eager to show us what they’re learning. The literacy facilitator switches on the MP3 audio device that plays the lessons and the children start to read. Kon Kea, too, follows along in her literacy booklet, repeating out loud the sounds of the Khmer alphabet.


Kon Kea and her Bible Society class materials.

Children in Dangkot, as in most places in Cambodia, only go to school for three hours a day – either a morning or afternoon session. How long a child can stay in school depends on the family’s situation. With 20 per cent of Cambodians living below the poverty line ($US2 a day) and millions more living only just above it ($US2.30 a day), children are regularly pulled out of school to help their families in their work. In rural Cambodia, most families are subsistence farmers – growing only enough food to feed themselves. The more hands, the better.

Kon Kea’s family are a farming family. She has two brothers and four sisters. She’s living with an older sister right now. Her mother is an alcoholic – a victim of a culture where alcoholism is increasingly common – and can’t take care of her.

Kon Kea likes spending time with her friends and tells me that it’s one of her favourite things about coming to the Bible Society’s literacy class – an extra hour where she can read and learn with her friends.

The literacy class we’re visiting today is just one of over 90 literacy classes throughout rural Cambodia run by Bible Society. The classes, run by volunteer facilitators, go for about an hour, and run through a recorded programme on an MP3 device. The classes are Bible-based, telling stories from the Bible while teaching how to read and write.

Kon Kea says her favourite Bible story is the story of David.

“I liked hearing about his faith in God,” she says.

Learning about Jesus, says Kon Kea, is the other reason she loves the literacy classes.

Keo Chantho is the literacy facilitator in the class we’re visiting. She says the children in her class learn more in one hour with Bible Society’s lessons than they do at school. The Cambodian education system is struggling to employ trained teachers in public schools, and class sizes are so large that even those who complete a primary education have limited literacy skills when they graduate.

“I want the children in my class to have faith in God, and I want them to study. At school, they don’t learn much,” says Keo Chantho.

Kon Kea, she says, is a wonderful student – eager to learn to read and inquisitive about who God is and what he’s done for her. Kon Kea’s family, like many in her village, aren’t Christian.

But Keo Chantho is praying that the families of children in her class will see a difference in their lives as they learn about the gospel through the Bible Society materials.

“This is the first time most of these children will have heard the Bible stories. I want their parents to see the change that comes in their children from knowing Jesus.”

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