learning experience that was real, transformational, practical, earthy, difficult

Thirteen students went on the Cambodia Service Learning experience this year and, although this was their first time in country and everything was new, it was the third year that Tatachilla has been connecting with and forming relationships with Krus Village and a variety of other NGOs that are helping to rebuild a country once decimated by the Khmer Rouge Regime.

We spent close to 12-months leading up to this experience with the students, which included hosting a variety of fundraisers for Krus Village as well as engaging with a number of education seminars. These seminars helped us to begin to understand the historical powerplay of the Chinese and the United States influence in the Vietnam war which ultimately led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. We also learnt about how to provide ethical aid in the face of one of Cambodia’s most corrupt aid projects – orphanage tourism. This highly unethical practice promoted and supported by well meaning Westerners has actually reinforced a cycle of poverty and family separation that is preventing Cambodia from standing on its own two feet. Children in Families are one organisation that we visited both in Australia and in country. They are actively working with Khmer locals and politicians to establish a family-based care model that sees children reunited with their parents or at least a close blood relative, redistributing funds to support families in their need that would have otherwise been sent to an orphanage.

Even prior to arriving in Cambodia the students were well-equipped, having become highly critical and ethical thinkers. They landed in Phnom Penh with an eye that was looking for best-practice and a focus on harm-minimisation strategies so as to ensure their travel was not only of benefit to them, but supported local Khmer people. That said, nothing quite prepared the students for the culture shock that occured in the first week. Visiting Tang Krang, an outreach village of the Lutheran Church in Cambodia (LCC), saw our students grapple with poverty and privilege in its rawest form. Students said: ‘I felt like I was in a zoo and they were the animals and we were the ‘rich white people’.. I felt uncomfortable, like I was invading their space’ or ‘seeing children in the slums with disabilities and malnourishment… you couldn’t turn a blind eye to that’. These powerful experiences, although very confronting for our students, is placed within the context of a wider relationship the College has built with the LCC. For our students, this was their first time in country and so their responses were expected, normal, accurate and insightful. We were the rich white people and we were being forced to confront the realities of many people’s existence. But, as we would learn later in this immersive experience, this culture shock became a part of our own story and we become a keeper of memory, as coined by the audio tour of the Toul Slang (s21) Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields. To be a keeper of memory was recorded by one student as learning from the historical and current issues facing our planet and becoming more cautious of the footprint they leave on this planet. For another it was taking the form of action by donating through kiva, that has seen them donate no-interest loans to people in Cambodia so they can start up small business.

As our students moved into the middle part of the experience we spent four days in Krus Village, also affiliated with the LCC. It was here that we were exposed to similar experiences as mentioned above, but this time the students had the time to develop deep bonds with the staff and volunteers of Krus Village’s life centre. Helping to build this relationship we worked in one step of the process of  mushroom farming, later visiting the family for whom mushrooms continually generate a modest income. We helped fund and provided the muscle and grunt to repair the main dirt road into the village. It was here that we saw many villagers come out, unprompted, to help us when we were repairing out the front of their homes. In all, it was Krus that put the whole country into a picture of hope, not despair. Sure, we saw low economical wealth, but we didn’t see poverty. There was a financial need, but as a community they were thriving, underpinned by a deep connection to something beyond their existence, whether that be through Buddhism or Christianity. By visiting Krus village, a place the College has developed a strong relationship with and made a commitment to support in the long-term, our students emerged in new ways. One student reflected on their time in Krus with the following words: ‘Although the language barrier was so prevalent, just trying to connect through body language felt like human intimacy at its best.’ This single line proves that this learning experience was real, transformational, practical, earthy, difficult and exactly what we aimed to achieve.

But, as with any international trip in a group situation there are the in-stories that only we will ever understand, like Josh on Tour or the use of tongs and hair dryers as a part of our toileting routine. Or maybe it’s the feelings that cannot be described as well to someone outside the group, like the human pyramid and impromptu games outside the Royal Palace or bike riding through the ancient Angkor Ruins at sunrise with elephants and monkeys passing us by.

My hope and prayer is that, for the students, Lily, Joseph, Emily, Phemie, Alyssa Jasmin, Will, Jamie, Finn, Ashley, Charley, Joshua, Jacinta and staff, Meredy and Cassandra, the experiences and lessons we’ve learned from the 2018 Cambodia Service Learning Trip become so intertwined with who we are that our future direction is altered with a more compassionate, intelligent, critical and creative approach to the needs of our world!

If your school would like to know more about how they can connect to the mission of God through a LCA International Mission service-learning and ministry partnership, you are invited to phone Erin on (08) 8267 7300 or email erin.kerber@lca.org.au. For more information, go to www.lcamission.org.au/join-gods-mission/service-learning/

Read more stories about school partnerships and school service-learning at www.lcamission.org.au/category/stories/local-partners/schools/