A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Bit Behind

Ok, so I am a bit behind. After six months of non-stop travel, and about 80 interviews in, my body told me to slow down for a while. I hit Vietnam with a bit of a bang- of the intestinal variety. It’s all part of the travel package really, but when it comes it knocks you for socks, and shoes, and flip flops… I had to lay low for a while, take it a bit easier, and just let all experiences of the last six months try to settle as my tummy recalibrates.

I did get to see a few interesting things from my hotel room tough… just to prove that I have been to Vietnam.

But I am glad to say, I’m on the mend. I’m also on the road again. For this segment of the trip I’ve met up with my mother, Geraldine, and we are travelling through Australia and New Zealand. The plan is to see some of the sights, while meeting some people along the way.

Thanks to Harry Andrews from Barefoot Power for putting us up in Melbourne. Harry and Steward Craine are two years into a very interesting ‘social enterprise’, or a business with a social edge, rolling out solar power solutions in Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Harry told me that only 10% of PNG’s population has electricity, which gives rise to a significant business opportunity. Combining it with low cost solar energy solutions (solar power lanterns and battery chargers, for under US$5), makes for a chance to mainstream renewable energy systems into these countries.

Harry’s house was full of solar power gadgets which Barefoot Power are piloting in different regions. Hearing about their journey over the last few years was interesting. A young professional, working in the corporate sector and travelling as a tourist overseas, Harry had that nagging feeling, ‘there has to be more than this’. With a background in environmental science and project management he wanted to make better use of this skills. He teamed up with one of his colleages, Steward, who was having the same feeling. Steward background was in enginneering, and they realised during frequents chats over a few beers that a business idea was brewing. (Steward was away on business when I was in Melbourne, so I didn’t get a chance to meet him) It was either all or nothing...and so they packed in their jobs, and set up Barefoot Power, researching opportunities, seeking finance, piloting initiatives, looking for scaleable models. It is still early days for them, and Harry is aware of the steep learning curve they are on. The business model has been drawn and redrawn as they incorporate new ideas and learning into their plans.

Young, committed, eager, interested. It’s a good combination. Hard work certainly, but as Harry explained, it is worth the try.

Hip Hop Revisited

‘Tiny Toonz’. I looked at the name first and though of a kindergarten. But I was wrong, gladly. Tiny Toonz is the name of a hip hop dance group which a young guy, nickname KK, real name, unknown, who has been running in Phnom Penh. I was really impressed by KK, not only with his dance moves, but also the positive choices he is making to transform his own life, and help out others along the way. Here is a section of an email I wrote home about KK, but ultimately about making the choice to change situations.

Last night I went out to a hip hop dance practice in Phnom Penh. There was a group of about 20 kids and a young guy, KK, who was their trainer, all gathered in an upstairs room of KK’s home to work on their moves. I watched the practice for about an hour- the kids were incredible, twisting and contorting in magical ways, working hard to improve. KK had set up the group as a way to give the kids a focus, keep them off the streets. From the outset looking in, it was cool, funky, all positive, the kids looking like a bunch of innocent kids. But chatting to KK later, about his own background and about some of the challenges of working with the kids, it was not all so clear cut. The kids themselves are from mixed backgrounds. Many come from broken homes. Some are orphans. Some are HIV+. Some come from abusive settings. They are learning to dance out their frustrations on the dance floor, but they don’t necessarily leave them behind;. There have been fights, arguments, stealing equipment, not turning up for practices, letting the group down. The older kids get paid to go an teach other communities how to dance. But they don’t always show up, or they are not always motivated. KK himself has a chequered background. At 29 he looks hardened and streetwise. We didn’t go into too much detail, but when he was 6 months his family moved to California, and he grew up there, learning hip hop, and getting heavily tattooed along the way (he has an incredible tattoo of Angkor Wat on his back). But somethings happened (not sure what) and he was deported from the States three years ago- sent ‘back’ to Cambodia.

This is some silly US law, which is a strike once and you are out. Apparently there are many deportees in Cambodia now, people who veered off the so called straight path in the states, were not given a chance and were kicked out of the country. Many have landed in Cambodia with no jobs, no family, drug habits and no support.
KK landed in Phnom Penh alone and jobless. But rather than sitting around and falling further, he made a choice. To create his own life again here. To build networks, contacts, and to start dancing again. He started volunteering with a local NGO, worked for 7 months without pay, then eventually got a paid position as drugs and HIV outreach worker. When he comes home from work at 6, he starts dance practice with the kids. He has built relationships for the kids, and has become a role model for them. He has even taken 5 of them on as his own- kids who are orphans, or where home is too unsafe. They stay with him and he helps them with school fees.

So this is someone that was kicked out of the States because he wasn’t making a positive contribution to society? KK is no puritan cookie, nor are the kids. But they try. They are making choices day by day to improve their lot. It’s people at risk working to help each other out. KK doesn’t claim to have the answers for these kids, he doesn’t claim that dance will be their redemption or their solution, but he does know that they are talented, they love to dance, and at least for the hours they are in the room, they are safe. It’s not everything but it is something better than nothing. He knows he may not be the ideal role model, but he willing to give it a try and take on the responsibility. This is something I really admire. It’s all about choice.

A Long, Productive Stop Over

(Outside Friends Cafe in Phnom Penh)

Sebastien Marot was on his way to Japan. He stopped off in Cambodia. Twelve years later he is still there. He never made it to Japan.

Some stop-over! In that time he has helped establish Friends International, got married, had a child, and is looking now at ways to replicate the Friends model in other countries. He was just back from a visit to Myanmar when I met him.

I asked Sebastian to give me an overview of Friends. One hour later he was still on the overview. It’s that comprehensive.

To summarise, Friends International look at ways of supporting street children and breaking the cycle which leads children to the streets in the first place. They run a number of projects. Their first and most established is Mith Samlanh (or ‘Friends’) in Phnom Penh, which provides vocational training, education, health and hygiene programmes, cultural activities and emotional support for street children and their families. They run a restaurant where young adults are trained in the service and catering sector. They have commercial units including a shop where goods from the training units (clothes, jewellery, bags. About 1800 children are supported each day through the programmes.

But that is not all. Friends International also running a number of other projects which aim to ‘break the cycle’. One is a child protection programme, ChildSafe, which builds networks of community support which includes taxi drivers, hotel operators, local authorities and tourists to protect children from abuse.

I could go on. I’ve been thinking about Friends considerably since meeting Sebastian. He spoke with clarity about understanding the system which results in having children on the streets. Prevention starts with family, so that’s where their programmes start. Through the shop outlet, Mith Samlanh can guarantee a decent wage to a family. But for their goods to be supplied to the shops, parents must sign a contract which states that they will send their children to school. Break the contract, no income. It’s a positive incentive for all. With an income, the families are given incentives to look after their children. More kids in school, less on the streets. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Documenting the Unspeakable

To understand contemporary Cambodia it’s vital to step back just 31 years to the start of the Cambodian Genocide. It’s a shocking, violent, traumatic history but to ignore it is to step over a huge scar in the country, one which is still healing, and (is still shaping the growth of the country.

Ignoring is something Youk Chhang is certainly not about. Youk was just one of the all too many victims of the genocide. He survived, but his father, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins did not.

Youk started the Documentation Centre of Cambodia as a means of recording the history of the genocide, showing the world what happened.

‘It’s about family’, Youk told me first off. He lost his. He craves for it. But knowing what happened is a way, and sharing those stories is a way for the world to acknowledge the depravity it can reach to, and hold a hand up high and say never again.

Youk and his team have interviewed over 6000 individuals involved in the genocide, both persecutors and victims. They set up the Genocide Museum in one of the former prisons, Tuol Sleng, also known as S21. Between 1975 and 1979 it is estimated that about 11,000 prisoners were tortured and killed at S21. Walking around Tuol Sleng, encountering hundreds of black and white pictures of prisoners and images of their abuse, simply wrenches.

The documentation centre is now acting as a resource for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (which is soon to start), providing access to witness accounts and prison records.

Youk spent his teenage years at a refugee camp in Thailand, separated from his family. But what he admits started out as a quest for revenge, is now one of justice. For himself, for his mother, for humanity.

(Youk Chhang was named by Time Magazine as one of the Asian Heroes of the last 60 years).

Youth Star in Cambodia

Youth Star Cambodia is putting volunteering on the Cambodian agenda. For Eva Mysliwiec, who started out as a peace corp volunteer, she believes that volunteering is a way of building community action, building skill and harnessing the leadership potential of a young population. With about 60% of the Cambodian population under 30, this is crucial.

Before setting up Youth Star, Eva spent a year travelling around Cambodia investigating the idea a Cambodian Volunteering Organisation. The overall result feedback was to go for it, and so that she did. Youth Star Cambodia was established in 2005 and the first cohort of volunteers sent this year. As part of the programme young Cambodians volunteer for a year in another provience of the country; working in educational and micro-enterprise projects.

To Eva, it is about giving something to the local communities while building a new generation of social leaders.

Eva, originally French, has been living in Cambodia since 1993. There has been huge change in that time, but the education system has been slow to adapt and she believes it is not equipping young people with the skills and confidence for civic engagement and social change. Youth Star hopes to fill those gaps, and given the postitive reports from the volunteers this year, it seems those hopes are being fulfilled.

An Arts Agenda- Cambodia Style

I was on a bit of trail in Cambodia, an artistic one, which took me up the country and into some very creative spaces and offered some interesting historical insights.

After the Khmer Rouge genocide in the late 70s, most of the intellectual community, artists, musicians and writers were killed. The art school was closed and physical survival became priority, not artistic creation. As a result much of the country's cultural heritage was damaged. In the years that followed, preserving some of that heritage became crucial to maintaining cultural history. Today, that task remains, but so too does creating a contemporary arts scene which reflects and respects the recent history of the country, while healing Cambodia into the 21st Century. It is a task which Dana Langlois, Sasha Constable, John Weeks, and Srey Bandole (a few of the people I met while in Cambodia) have taken on, and who are helping to create a new artistic life in the country.

Dana Langlois, the founder of Java Arts Cambodia, started off opening a coffee shop in Phnom Penh, with a small gallery attached. The café became increaslingly popular, and as it grew, more and more people were coming in contact with contemporary artists through the gallery. From her experience with the exhibiting artists, Dana recognised the need for a forum to promote Cambodian arts. So emerged the Cambodian Arts Network, a forum to support indigenous artists and try to generate enough income and support for the artistic scene to flourish. Dana has just opened a new gallery in Phnom Penh to contribute to doing just that.


Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor are a must on any travel itinerary to Cambodia. I spent a few days in Siem Reap marvelling at the temples, where art and nature now are intertwined; tree trunks and architraves enmeshed. The temples blew me away and as I contemplated the cultural legacy of the Angkor era, I was also thinking about the genetic artistic linage that such a cultural could create, asking myself 'Is art in their blood'?

Sasha Constanble who runs the Art House, a gallery in Siem Reap, would answer 'Yes'. She told me she she sees it through her work both teaching sculptor and as a curator, and spoke of a rich Cambodian talent which due to a lack of opportunity for artists is undeveloped. Like Java Arts, Sasha hopes that The Art House will become a place to support emergent talent. Srey Bandole, one of artists exhibited in The Art House is just one of those talents.

(on my way to Battambang)

I met up with Srey Bandole in a city called Battambang, a six hour boat trip from Siem Reap. Chatting with him, I realised that his own work goes well beyond creation of individual art pieces to creating a culture and community which supports artistic expression, one in which artists can earn a living through their work. Bandole founded the Phare Arts School to achieve those ends.

A visit to the school was an impressive and entertaining affair. Phare is one of two arts schools in the country, with fine arts, music and circus training as options. Today over 1000 people attend, from primary to college level. Regular classes (Maths, English, Khmer etc) take place in the morning, and in the afternoons, children are given the choice as to what stream they want. It makes for a colourful backdrop.

(Some of the pulips at Phare primary school)

In addition, through the sale of work and circus performances the school can fund social workers for the community, and can provide some education scholarships to pupils.

I went along to an incredible circus performance one of the evenings I was there, cheering and screaming along with about 50 local kids, as fire throwers, acrobats, jugglers and gymnasts had us on the edge of our seats. This in Cambodia? Now, that was something I would not have expected.

Back in Phnom Penh, I continued to follow the Arts Theme, meeting up with Delfine Kassam, founder of Sovannah Phum, an arts association which brings dancers and musicians together. Weekly shows give performers a source of income, while helping to keep the traditional arts alive- including Khmer Shadow Puppetry. Performances portray social messages, and Sovanna have prepared shows on HIV/ Aids prevention and environmental protection. A troupe is currently preparing for a tour about the bird flu! Delfine herself used to be a circus performer and gained the money to travel by busking and selling juggling equipment en route.


A reading population is a learning one. But literacy is not widespread in Cambodia and the country does not have a reading culture. But for John Weeks and his dedicated team at Our Books, they believe it can and should be. They also have a passion for comics and see the creation of a comic books a means to get people reading.
John and his team were busy distributing their first comic book on the theme of anti-corruption, to schools across Cambodia when I was there. The Khmer version was hot off the press and an English version was just being proof read. Alongside that, they are archiving old Khmer comics, creating digital copies as another means to record a piece of Khmer history which otherwise would be lost.

‘If we did not do it’, John explained, ‘nobody would’.


(A huge huge thanks to John Weeks for this help during my time in Cambodia- for all the contacts, lending me a phone, and the general ‘heads-up’ on happenings).