Learning, leaving and looking back

Someone currently living in a serene island of Koh Rong Samloem in Cambodia told me that when he left his native country, never to go back, and decided to settle in a place very different than the one he came from, learning a new language and relearning new ways to live was like being a newborn again – everything is exciting but you are also quite vulnerable. My move to Cambodia for this internship was not as drastic of a change as his, but I could definitely relate to being wide-eyed excited about learning new things every day and at times feeling completely out of place. Back home in Nepal, where things are familiar, and having given my 7 years to one cause, I felt like I knew what I was doing (most of the times) and I was in as much as control of things at work as you would think your free will allows to you have. So, what did I get done when placed in a context where I did not have much of the knowledge or familiarity, let alone control or expertise, of things as I would have liked?

The TOR with the organization (call it ABC) I was working with had listed several duties, mostly revolving around assisting in the development of their education framework for the next five years. It was already decided that they would be focusing on Life Skills Education (LSE) in Cambodia and had further narrowed down to implementation of Local Life Skills Program, which mostly covered agricultural and employability skills. It was not only the first time ABC was working on life skills education, it was also their first time implementing a curriculum or school subject based programming as they mostly worked with educational infrastructural development or promoting rights to education based interventions.

Majority of my time was hence spent researching about Life Skill Education and relaying to them what I had found. I prepared two reports on life skill education policies and best practices and existing frameworks of LSE programs in Cambodia and around the world. Trusting the policy documents and papers online was sorely inadequate though. We found out about the latest life skill policy in Cambodia through TOR enlisted in a call for a consultant by UNICEF to support the life skill curriculum and textbook development. I then set up and led several consultation meetings with other organizations who were working on life skill projects in Cambodia and this proved crucial. We were able to gather new information about policies that existed but were not publicly available, gain further leads, collect existing LS teaching and learning materials, and build connections for future collaborations and cross-learning. Towards the mid-point of my internship, I did a presentation about the findings from my research and consultation meetings. I then focused on preparing the draft of the education framework. This was a long process. Individually, I used a lot of the methods and approaches we took when we were working on log frames in the classroom while preparing the framework. It also took a lot of one on one meetings with the supervisor to narrow down what was going to most impactful and at the same time feasible. ABC was planning to hire a consultant to finalize the frameworks for all its program but they could not find anyone. They decided they would work on it internally through cross-program planning and hence followed a one-and-a-half-day process where everyone gave feedback to each other’s program framework. I incorporated the suggestions and submitted the Education framework which will now once again be reviewed along with the framework for all their programs by the senior management team. As the framework was still in the phase of final reviews, I prepared a working concept note for potential funding for their 3-year life skill programming and budget with an estimated cost.

In the process to understand the new context and the education system there, I was inquiring and learning about various details in public education I had not thought about in general. I appreciated this because it made me reflect about the education system in my own country and often times when I was looking up details about the Cambodian education system I would also read or reach out to people back home inquiring about these aspects. That was the exciting part but I also often felt quite anxious that I was not doing enough or was not able to contribute as much. The language barrier was a major challenge. For eg. when I wanted to talk to people at the ministry or local partners, I could not just call them or set an appointment to meet and get the information I wanted because of the language issue. A lot of the presentations and meetings would inadvertently switch to Khmer even though they started in English (many people here including my supervisor start learning English in grade 9 and rely on private tutoring hence many people find it limits their expression) And often times there were no English translations of the many recent policy documents I had to review. This meant I had to rely on my supervisor to talk to the government officials (sadly we never got the appointment from them) or the local partners, brief me about the meetings and to go through the reports and explain things to me when it technically should have been the other way round.

Thre, one of ABC’s guards/drivers learns English at the organization every weekend. ABC pays for these classes.

Though my reports and findings were driving the conversation around their life skill programming further, I was sad to leave without seeing the framework finalized. I think in my head I wanted to be the consultant they were looking for but of course, I did not have the expertise and even all the required skills. The process and this internship therefore I feel has been more profitable for me in terms of learning, putting to practice what we learned in class than for the organization. On the last day when they had a going away party at the office though, they were so humble they wanted to make sure that they had helped me develop and that I had a good learning experience than analyzing my contribution to the organization. I am extremely grateful for the welcoming nature of this organization and its people and the friendships I have gained here.

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Besides quite a busy last month at work, it was pretty eventful last month in Cambodia as a whole. I visited a garment factory turned into ‘art factory’ with some amazing murals from artists around the world, attended one more poetry event in Phnom where people shared poetry in Khmer, English, Arabic, and Nepali (that would be me). I also had a chance to meet people from Cambodian Living Arts who are doing amazing work to promote different art forms and also to develop the Khmer literature scene as well as the reading culture in Cambodia. I was also finally able to travel a bit this last month – to Vietnam, which was primarily because of my visa issue in Cambodia where I had to go out of the country to extend my stay, but I wasn’t complaining as I got to see Saigon, meet some really sweet people there and oh eat their delicious food. For my last trip, my partner and I took the risk despite the weather forecast of rain and occasional thunderstorm and rode the waves to visit the gorgeous Koh Rong Samloem island, where we finally swam with the glowing planktons. We got there on the full moon night so we couldn’t clearly see the planktons. I was almost heartbroken.  But the day after, dark clouds took over the sky, and the moonshine took an opportune break, so we swam into the vast dark ocean and as we splashed around, the planktons glowed between our fingers and around us, and it was magic, as promised.

I left Cambodia still in the rapture of all these wonderful experiences. Like I predicted in my first blog, Phnom Penh, and Cambodia has definitely stuck with me. And people ask me ‘Do you think you will come back to Cambodia again?’.

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