By Kate Murphy
For the past six months Minerva Fellow Kate Murphy has been living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, working with an NGO called The Global Child. TGC is primarily a school, educating former street-working children who are bright and motivated. The school is unique in that it pays the students a dollar a day to continue their education. Apart from teaching English, art and soccer, Murphy has also spent a great deal of time on a social entrepreneurial project designed to support the school’s Joe to Go Café. 100% of the profits from the restaurant and boutique go to support the school.
In the late 1970’s between 1.5 and 2 million Cambodian men, women, and children died as a result of the Khmer Rouge. In a failed effort to create an ideal society, a corrupt government put in place measures that would, over several years, cause mass starvation, unchecked violence and immeasurable psychological and physical damage to the Khmer people. The government sought out and executed the educated class of Cambodians, including doctors, teachers and artists—crippling the country for decades.
Today it is easy to see the scars of genocide. Yet it is not the resulting poverty or corruption that is most disturbing; such situations exist in other countries that have endured far less. Rather, it is the impact that genocide has had on education. I was fairly certain before I left, and am now absolutely positive, that I do not want to be a teacher. However, I am firmly committed to the philosophy that education is the silver bullet. A proper system of education can lower crime, boost an economy, level the playing field for men and women, and ultimately raise a society to a higher level.
But when all of the educated, creative and artistic members of a society are systematically executed, what happens to that next generation of children?
Today, the culture of apathy and disinterest in Cambodian schools is astounding. The theory is that continuing to study after you have amassed enough knowledge to secure a job is a waste of time and energy. The arts too have suffered. The markets are flooded with the same generic images of temples, plastered with glitter, set on canvas, and easy for the tackiest of tourists to bring home. Creativity, individuality and problem solving are skills that are neither taught nor encouraged when they do appear.
However all hope is not lost. A burgeoning art scene and a few brilliant students have given me faith that while the situation may be dire now, a new generation of intellectuals is not too far off in Cambodia’s future.
Be thankful for your educators. Be thankful that you attend a school where education is valued, in a society where creative thinking, originality and the arts are encouraged and rewarded. Appreciate the wisdom of your elders and the freedoms you enjoy. For there are far worse things to go without in life than hot water and buffalo chicken wraps.
For other stories, photos and thoughts, visit my blog: minervafellowsmurphy.tumblr.com.