Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Red, White and Bamboo

By ALAN LIGHTMAN
Published: July 5, 2005
Phnom Penh

THE chief of Tramung Chrum is a small, white-haired man of about 60 with a crinkled face and a quiet dignity. When my family and I arrived at his remote village last week for the inauguration of its first brick-and-mortar school, he broke out in a huge grin and said (in Khmer through an interpreter), "I feel like a hunter who has just captured an elephant."

Tramung Chrum (pronounced Truh-mung Chah-rum) is a Cambodian village of about 500 people, 40 miles from Phnom Penh. Because the village is far from a good road and made up of Muslim Chams in a largely Buddhist country, the Cambodian government has never built a school there. Generations have passed without reading and writing. The history of the village extends back at least as far as the mid-19th century, during the beginnings of the French occupation.

Four years ago, a former resident of the village rode his moped to the United Nations office in Phnom Penh and announced that the villagers wanted a school. They had built a roof of palm leaves and were requesting a building to hold the roof up. A Cambodian United Nations worker named Veasna Chea eventually relayed the villager's plea to a visitor from Maine named Frederick Lipp. Mr. Lipp in turn financed the construction of a temporary school made of sticks and palm leaves. Teachers were trained and the first classes began.

But the school of sticks and leaves leaked during the monsoons and blew down entirely in heavy winds. Two years ago, Mr. Lipp told me of his work. I began making trips to the village. Then, with the contributions of other friends, we built the new school for Tramung Chrum.

Cambodia desperately depends on such help to survive. One of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with an average annual income of only $300 per person, Cambodia still has not recovered from the devastation of the 1970's. In the early part of that decade, the United States dropped 500,000 pounds of bombs on Cambodia, the finale of the Vietnam War, and propped up the corrupt dictatorship of Gen. Lon Nol.

Then came the Khmer Rouge regime, which sent two million people to their deaths. Among other brutalities, the Khmer Rouge annihilated Cambodia's educated class. Today, 30 percent of the country remains illiterate.

Tramung Chrum, like many villages in Cambodia, lives on subsistence farming and menial labor. There is no electricity or running water. The men, women and children live in huts made of palm leaves and sticks and own little more than the clothes on their backs. They live a stripped down existence. Yet they crave education. Education ranks alongside food and water as a necessity of life.

The school at Tramung Chrum, with its three classrooms and library, took four months to build with a 20-man crew from Phnom Penh. A camera recorded the excitement of the villagers as they watched this wonder of concrete and steel girders and tiles rising bit by bit from the dirt.

On inauguration day, I was greeted by a gathering of the entire village and a large assortment of officials, including the vice governor of the province, the district chief of police (with his uniformed entourage) and a representative from the national ministry of education. Colored pennants had been hung from tall sticks and a ceremonial platform built out of bamboo and twine. All of the children of the village, about 150 boys and girls, stood on both sides of the dusty path leading to the platform, waving American and Cambodian flags. In the distance gleamed the new school, its pale yellow walls and red roof shimmering in the fierce heat.

On the ceremonial platform, I found myself seated beside several Muslim Cham clerics, wearing their white robes, and several Buddhist monks in their saffron robes. The monks chanted and tossed a gentle rain of white flower petals onto the heads of the dignitaries.

Then, the speeches began. As I sweated heavily in my chair, I recalled that my nation's Independence Day was only a week away. I thought of all that has happened in recent years to tarnish the meaning and honor of that day around the world.

Then I looked out at the new school, 50 yards away. I looked at the new flagpole, made of bamboo. I looked at the meandering cows, the principal source of income for the village. I looked at the dirt road leading to Phnom Penh, the scattered groups of fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, the 150 children squatting in front of the platform, miraculously holding still in the heat, listening to the long speeches. And I looked again at the American and Cambodian flags. I felt proud to be an American.

Alan Lightman, who teaches writing at M.I.T., is the author of the forthcoming book"The Discoveries."

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