One shirt between two

By Lois Whittall

When my husband Roger and I were in Preah Vihear, Northern Cambodia, a woman came to the World Vision office seeking help. Her two young grandsons lived with her because their mother had died. They only had one shirt between them, so they took it in turns to go to school because you need to […]

When my husband Roger and I were in Preah Vihear, Northern Cambodia, a woman came to the World Vision office seeking help. Her two young grandsons lived with her because their mother had died. They only had one shirt between them, so they took it in turns to go to school because you need to wear a uniform to go to school. A shirt costs $7. We didn’t ask, but they probably share the trousers too.

There are many ‘one shirt between two’ stories in Cambodia. It’s a poor country – the average daily wage is around US$1.50. But education is important; evidence shows that it has the biggest single impact on individual and community development.

We first went to Cambodia in 2005. At that time for us it was a holiday with a bit of a difference: we were going to meet the locals. Reinhard Tietze from Gympie in Queensland worked for World Vision (WV) in a remote northern province called Preah Vihear. We were part of an initiative which raised $30,000 to buy a community centre. While we were there we met Vireak, who was to become our Cambodian ‘son.’ He told us how when he was three his father was taken by the Khmer Rouge and was not seen again; how his mother was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge soldier; how he was put into a child labour camp. He also told us about the hunger of the next six years and about the atrocities etched deep in his memory. He told us about his fear even after the Khmer Rouge was overthrown but also about his determination to get an education. He walked 300 kilometres to Phnom Penh, found a distant relative, slept under her house, did odd jobs to get money, went to school, and learnt English by listening at the window of an English school.

He graduated from high school, got a scholarship to go to Vietnam to learn accounting, worked for the government for a while and then found himself working at World Vision. Vireak is a remarkable young man. He’s determined to work with his people, and when they are sceptical he tells his story. He says that knowing the love of Jesus gets him through inevitable nightmares. His emphatic message to the people he works with is the importance of education. He encourages everyone to take the opportunities that are becoming more available, especially people in rural villages who are in danger of missing out on the economic development which is coming to the country. So when on my second visit to Preah Vihear in 2005 Vireak suggested that the community centre wasn’t being utilised and that a great use for it would be to provide accommodation for students who could not finish high school, I was hooked.

He explained that in many villages bright young people had to give up their education after Year 9 because of a shortage of teachers. (There are bricks and mortar in many places in rural Cambodia but not enough teachers.) From those conversations Plas Prai was born. Plas Prai means ‘Transformation’ in Khmer. Today the Plas Prai Centre buzzes with the sounds of young women going about their daily lives. We raised the money to build a Khmer-style dormitory which houses 21 students aged between 17 and 22. They are in Years 11 and 12 from October 2008, and we will recruit another 12 girls who are starting Year 10. Our houseparent, her husband and new baby girl live in a separate dwelling, and we are currently raising the money to build a second dormitory which will be the final development on the site. We will accommodate students from Years 9 to 12, but also those who want and are able to go on to further education (we currently have one student doing teacher training).

We choose girls because they are often disadvantaged compared with boys in Cambodian society. Students are each supported by a sponsor, who not only provides financial support but also commits to writing regularly and praying for the student and her family. Each student receives US$1 a day and with that buys everything she needs, including clothes and food. She receives a bike, schoolbooks and two school uniforms a year. We organise extra lessons in subjects where we find a number of students are weak (science and maths generally) and English lessons, as well as opportunities for Bible study. Sponsors contribute $600 a year and this is enough for the material needs of a student in Preah Vihear. (Compare that with how much we spend on our children’s toys and games.) A typical student day is long. Our Year 11 girls are up with the roosters at around 5.30am, off to school at around 7 (lessons are staggered – not everyone goes at the same time), back around 11 to prepare lunch and rest a little in the heat of the day, back to school from 2 to 4, maths and science from 5 to 7 and English from 7 to 8. They have Saturday school as well, so Sunday provides some respite. We are very privileged to be part of this community.

My job as a university lecturer takes me to Singapore every 6-8 weeks, so I’m able to visit Plas Prai often and also to do voluntary work with WV and Lutheran World Service. I’ve had the pleasure of watching ‘our girls’ grow and develop over the last couple of years. We speak a little more in English each time and share hopes and dreams, which are not so different to those of my children at home.

Twice a year in January and July Roger and I take groups from the LCA to visit Plas Prai and to share worship and Bible study with the local Christian community there. We hear about many wonderful mission initiatives through Border Crossings, The Lutheran and other publications, and it is very encouraging that so many people are getting directly involved in mission.

God is truly working through his people. To start a Christian high school with class sizes below the local average of 65 is one dream. Isn’t it good that God has given us the capacity to dream!


This story was also published in the October 2008 edition of Border Crossings, the magazine of LCA International Mission.

If you would like to consider the opportunity to serve as a volunteer in mission, serving in practical ways, teaching English, teaching in the seminaries and institutions of our partner churches, or in local churches, you are invited to phone Nevin on (08) 8267 7300 or email nevin.nitschke@lca.org.au. For more information, go to http://www.lcamission.org.au/join-gods-mission/volunteer/

Read more stories about volunteering at http://www.lcamission.org.au/category/join-gods-mission/volunteers/

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