It is not by chance that the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association is one of our partners: One of us, Anna, has been a scout for more than 20 years and she held many different roles in almost all levels of the organization. Furthermore, one of the main thoughts left by Robert Baden Powell, founder of scouting, was to “leave this world a little bit better than you found it”. Isn’t it one of the definitions of changemaking? Last but not least, scouting means people. Amazing people, from all over the world, united under the same values. Scouting means friendships for life, built during overnight discussions, common actions, trips, facing challenges together. We met Dan thanks to one of those friendships. We were put into contact by Piotr, an old friend from scouting, who met Dan in Japan during the Jamboree – the world meeting of scouts, organized every four year in a different place. When he got to know we are in Cambodia he wrote shortly: contact Dan, he leads a project for teaching English to children from rural areas. So, we contacted him.
I live in Phnom Penh now but I come from Sandeck, a small village about 80 kilometers from the capital – says Dan. In May 2013 I visited home and two of my nephews asked me for help. They wanted to study English but they had no money. I decided to sponsor them, but then the next 10 kids came: uncle, uncle, we also want to learn English. I thought if I helped only my two nephews the rest had no chance to learn. How can I support those 10 kids? That was the beginning of the change. I’ve found a high school student, he knew a little bit of English and he agreed to transfer his knowledge to those kids for 15$ a month. That time it was 15-20 students all together. Then we had different challenges and problems on the way, but all in all it was growing and growing and today we have more than 200 students coming to my parents’ place where on the porch we set up a sort of classroom.
We had the chance to teach English to those 200 students – age 8 to 17 – for one week. An unforgettable experience. The first class starts at 6:00. From 7.00 till 11.00 there is a break, it’s public school time. Then there are two more groups followed by one hour break. Finally, last three groups between 15:00 and 18:00. That’s the routine from Monday till Saturday.
I remember once I went back home for the weekend and I wanted to sleep till 7 or even 8 as I do in Phnom Penh. But early in the morning the children came to my home and while waiting for the teacher they read the English book, waking me up. I started to listen: it was amazing! They could read English! I’ve never seen it before. I felt it’s a real change. A change in the children, but also in their parents. It was not just about English, but education in general. When I was young, people didn’t value education. They said I study because I’m lazy, I escape from helping my parents in the rice field. But producing rice is a very hard and badly paid job. I tried to show them how important education is and how it can change their life. But I cannot change parents, I have to change children first.
At the beginning Dan paid the fee for those who wanted to learn English. However, soon the number of students was too big for his pocket alone. Fortunately, it was not only the number of students to grow but also the awareness of parents, who started to recognize how important education is. Today 91 students are still paid by Dan, while the next 100 pay themselves, around 2$ per month. 2$... it doesn’t seem much, but for a lot of them it is more than they can afford. Sandeck is a very small village, following still the traditional way of living. People make their living from growing rice – hard, physical work. In the village there is no electricity, no running water. Daily problems come down to what to put on the table and whether there are enough clothes to wear, rather than learning English.
For most of them we were the first white people they’ve seen in their life. Many came to Dan’s parents’ house, just to observe us. In their sight there was curiosity; simple curiosity, without that expectation for us to be a source of money, quite common in SouthEast Asia. They were grateful we came there, for our help, for the possibility of meeting Barang.
A lot of villagers asked me what is English useful for. And I said: you know, if you know English, you can speak with Barang. Barang are the white people, although literally it means ”French”. A legacy of the French colonization. They remember their parents speaking about Barang, that they are tall and speak fast with some strange language.
Dan was one of those who had the chance to meet Barang and collaborate with them on a daily base. While working in the Cambodian scout office he got in touch with scouts from all over the world, he spent a few months at Kandersteg scout center in Switzerland, and he attended the mentioned Jamboree in Japan. Scouting was one of the elements that made the need of changing the world so strong in him.
I always feel like helping others. I think it’s because of my experience. I was poor myself, I know how it is. And then I also worked in different NGOs. These experiences taught me how important it is to help others. As a scout I learned how to be a leader. To be a leader you can’t go alone. You need to inspire people, go with them. If you reach your goal, it’s always WE who reached it, not just the leader. You also have to know your people, their abilities, and help them to grow.
Being a leader is definitely one of Dan’s features. He is a spark which inspires change. Our journey around the world is a quest for such people and we look forward to sharing their stories during the Jamboree 2023, which hopefully will take place in Poland. Indeed the country is a candidate to host the event with the main motto being: “Be the spark”. Dan inspires people not only by organizing the English school, but above all by showing with his own example that it’s possible and necessary to look for your own way, set the goals higher and higher, without forgetting people around yourself.
Some friends tell me that I don’t support myself enough. I share a small room with 3 other people in a pagoda, eat what is left after the monks have eaten. People say I should focus more on myself: firstly buy a house, a car; then help the others. But if I wait till I’m rich to help others… maybe it will never happen. I take what I need to survive and with the rest I want to support others. When I can help, I do it. If it is beyond my ability I will find a solution, I call the people I know to do something together, at least a little bit.
Help. Change at least a little. One of the questions we ask ourselves quite often is if what we are doing will really change something. Our week stay in Sandeck didn’t change much in the life of the children themselves. Maybe some of them got a little bit more confident with speaking English. Many of them came during the evenings, after classes, to talk more, to practice. But if we really had any impact, it is rather connected with teacher Ra, who day after day observed our classes trying to put into practice new ideas. Nobody ever showed him how to organize the English class, how to teach. As we have some knowledge and experience in the field, we could show him a little bit, pass some of our skills. This gives some hope for at least a small contribution. Leaving this world a better place is a difficult task, which requires quite a lot of awareness and thinking over what we are doing will really help somebody and how it influences the whole system. English class doesn’t just mean learning a language, it’s about a change in awareness, understanding the importance of education. It’s a small spark from which a much deeper change in society will fire up.
Dan Ven – founder and leader of the CamCEA initiative, which aims to deliver English learning opportunities to children from rural areas.
Contact thanks to Piotr Kowalski, a friend from the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association.