Since elephants can’t read, why are we building a library in the elephant lands of rural Cambodia?
When you want to help elephants have a better life, particularly in countries that have known tremendous hardship and suffering, lending hand and heart to the primary school that resides in dwindling elephant habitat is a sound way to shift a past filled with conflict toward a future of coexistence. Although people from around the world help change the future for wild and captive elephants, in the end it will be up to the people who live among them to chart their future, and as anywhere, education is key.
The story of Putrom 2 Primary School
In rural Cambodia, most people still grow up without access to ongoing education. Those who can afford to go to school attend only for a few hours in the morning, in classrooms that usually have very few resources. As we began our support of Mondulkiri’s Elephant Valley Project (equipment for removing snares from sanctuary land and the surrounding forest), we met the local ethnic minority population of the Bunong, longtime “elephant people” of eastern Cambodia, living in the forests less than 30km from the border of Vietnam.
We spent time with the impoverished children from the area, quickly recognizing that immediate, and sustainable, action was imperative for shifting their future, and thus the future of Mondulkiri’s elephants. Putrom 2 is severely lacking even the most basic supplies and support, and yet the Bunong children who attend are the ones who will one day either deplete or conserve the last remaining forests comprising Cambodia’s elephant habitat. Helping the children of Putrom 2 is a direct link to saving the last of the region’s wild elephants, while also helping the Bunong climb out of the crippling poverty that has trapped them for years.
Phase one, completed in November 2017: we supplied all 127 children and their teachers with satchels filled with school necessities: pencils, sharpeners, rubbers, notebooks, rulers, and writing paper. We added other items as well: our original “Elephant Love” game went into each bag as well as a small plastic-free art/craft, and in hopes of stemming the mounting rubbish of plastic water bottles, each child also received a refillable water bottle.
Finally, each satchel contained an age-appropriate story book, and THAT is when our originally smallish project turned into a very large project! The wonder and awe we witnessed as the children opened their very own books (for almost all of them, it was the first story book of their own they ever had) inspired us to go right back to the Fundraising Drawing Board and create a proper space for MANY books, and the very first Lending Library of its kind in the entire commune.
Next came the buildout: take a falling-down room filled with rubbish littering the dirt floor and topped with half a leaking roof and get started creating an Inspiration Station! We began by removing all the rubbish (with the old tires becoming playground equipment), then shored up the walls, installed a brand new roof, and laid a clean cement floor with a surrounding sidewalk.
Putrom 2 has no electricity, (nor do the homes of the children), and when we first stood inside the built-out walls, we had to giggle as the builders gave us no windows. How to learn to READ the books if you could not SEE the books? The Bunong follow the Animist belief system, and sometimes unwelcome Spirits might climb through windows, but nonetheless the Library finally received 3 windows (no glass of course, but cut-out spaces bringing in brightness and air), offering light to read by. Next came sunny yellow paint, new tables, shelves and 2 locking glass bookcases to keep the new supplies safe from rats, rain, and theft.
Then several bright coats of paint inside and out, with many volunteers from EVP lending their hands and hearts. When we’re ready to officially open the library, all of the children will get to place their painted handprints on “The Giving Tree”, instilling creative ownership and pride for this one-of-a-kind Inspiration Station in far-flung eastern Cambodia.
Sourcing interesting and stimulating books was actually more challenging then expected, as not so very long ago in the scheme of things, anyone who could read, as well as the books they possessed, were eradicated, along with printing presses and publishers. After several trips to visit publishers in Phnom Penh though, we were set, with over 300 new books for all ages! The Putrom 2 Library inhabits a small space, but it quickly turned into a very big project!
Any sustainable project in rural Cambodia is fraught with unforeseen challenges, but what drove us forward were the unforeseen miracles! And here’s one—Meet Savoun:
Savoun was a teacher in Putrom for 7 years before falling out of a tree harvesting honey and breaking his back in 2015. Thanks to the consistent and steadfast support of ELIE, Savoun was able to receive the surgery and health care that saved his life. And now, Heart of Ganesh is preparing to get Savoun back in the classroom again, teaching in the new wheelchair-accessible library, the only one of its kind in the entire commune! Savoun’s life, and that of his family as well as the the lives of all the students at Putrom 2, are set to change for the good in ways that were unfathomable a few short months ago.
Then Ngok joined the team! Translators who speak Bunong, Khmai, English and with a solid background in education are not around every corner! We’re thrilled that Ngok will enable us to ensure Savoun has the supplies and support he needs to run a sound library, as well as implement plans and projects for fellow teachers and excited students to get the most out of hundreds of new books and dozens of art supplies.
A few more hurdles remain for HG before opening day (March 22!), with the greatest being the funding of either an electric/all terrain wheelchair, or the building of a very long path! Without a vehicle capable of getting Savoun to school and the months of intense rainy season making pushing his outdated chair an impossibility, the building of a cement path or finding a wheelchair he can navigate is in the works. From his home, through the easement of 2 farms, across the broad school field and ending at the door of his classroom and library, this is no small feat. But the only way forward is through, so through we will go!
Bringing books and art into the school and the homes of rural teachers and their students will stretch open the close-in walls of village life, slowly creating additional options and choices for the future. At the same time, there is so much worthy of conservation here—from the surrounding dwindling forest and its elephant habitat, to the ways of ancient Bunong life that might be held in story and art as times quickly change. It will take creative minds to conserve what is so easily lost while claiming what is waiting to be found, and the new Putrom 2 Primary School Library is almost ready for 127 children to do just that! Stay tuned, more good news from the Heart coming soon!