2019 in review

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The old calendars are about to get chucked out, new shiny ones ready to be used. Youtubers, facebook walls and bloggers everywhere are reviewing their year. It’s especially essential for rubbish bloggers like me, who fail to write regularly, and my facebook posts are an eclectic mix mainly detailing my sleeping habits and the weather. So this is what 2019 looked like.

January

On January 1st, I headed off to Mondulkiri with Vitou. It was such a great time to spend with him and a great opportunity to explore more of Cambodia. It amazed me how comparatively cold it was. I bought a scarf. So, okay, it was only about 18C at night, but that was cold enough.

January was a month of mosquitoes. They were everywhere. And I don’t mean a few. I mean hundreds. Mosquitoes are not just an annoying pest. They are dangerous here. They carry dengue fever and although it usually just leads to something like severe flu, it can be fatal if complications arise. 2019 has been a particularly bad year for dengue, but so far I’ve escaped!

The first three or four months of 2019 were actually pretty hard. There were a few times when I had to have a moment’s moan.

January was also the month I melted a teapot. I actually did it again in April. But I eventually found a stove teapot with a louder whistle so you can’t forget about it.

February

February was quite intense and filled with ups and downs. The general struggles of living in Cambodia continued: mosquitoes and rising temperatures.

It was also the month when I turned 31! That was great. Vitou surprised me at 6:30 am with a birthday cake. Then, on the Saturday, we had a boat party. Read about that Saturday here. (Updates from that post- the hair cut turned out to be quite uneven around my ears; the money situation was fine; half the glow sticks spoiled in the Cambodian heat and couldn’t be used. Ah, Cambodia, you do make life interesting.)

The following week was camp week. This was a one-week residential, and I was on team middle school. Therefore, we took grades 6, 7 and 8 off to Shalom Valley, which is near Kep on the coast of Cambodia. It was a really good week. We did, however, have two hospitalisations (they weren’t life-threatening). You’d think the injury was from the dangerous looking obstacle course or the fire juggling or the mountain walk, wouldn’t you? No. One was at sustained at the butterfly farm and the other just walking from their room to dinner. It just goes to show that risk assessments never truly reflect reality.

Straight after this week was the WEC Cambodia prayer retreat. It was good to see everyone, but I was pretty out of it for a lot of the time. Also, I got (mildly) electrocuted having a shower and I then got very ill. Poor Vitou agreed to pick me up from the hotel. I didn’t tell him I was getting unwell, so he decided to take me on an errand another hour out of Phnom Penh. Then, I had to force myself to eat some of the food his aunt offered me, despite feeling ready to vomit everywhere. Finally, after an hour of waiting, I admitted I felt unwell and we went home. It turns out a few other people from my WEC team were ill as well and I probably got off quite lightly. I did have to take a few days off work.

March

The unrelenting march (see what I did there?) of difficulties continued. The temperature was soaring and power cuts were becoming a daily occurrence. My facebook posts reflected this as well as this blog post: It’s a hot mess.

However, there were great moments too. I went to Takeo a few times for the village ministry, which was always great fun.

March definitely taught me some lessons on how to be grateful despite difficulties.

April

April meant a two-week break. It was much needed. I explored the Cambodian countryside visiting various friends and family of Vitou. It was great. However, at some times it was difficult. I was the outsider and I didn’t feel as if I completely fitted in. I also ran over a dog (it was fine!). I also got to go to Khmer wedding number 7.

I bought my own motorbike! She’s called Makara and she’s my best friend.

I also had my first falling out with Vitou. Basically, someone died and I threw a tantrum because I wasn’t the first person everyone thought about. (If you’re judging me right now, please, go ahead. I am fully aware that I am a really terrible person.) Vitou was unnecessarily apologetic and I received a public facebook declaration from Vitou that he had done something terribly wrong. That was a bit of an insight into the shame-honour culture of Cambodia and how relationships exist in the public sphere rather than the being just between you and the friend. We’ve made up. Vitou still thinks it’s his fault, which clearly it isn’t. (Vitou, if you’re reading this: you’re the best!)

May

My brother visited! It was great for him to experience Cambodia, even if it was very brief. He met Vitou and the family. He also met some of my colleagues in Siem Reap. (Poor guy.) He loved it here. It did mean I had to sleep on the floor for a week.

It’s not me!

June

I finished a year a HOPE. I passed my level 5 Khmer assessment with flying colours! I put a post up about these achievements on Facebook. Obviously, I could rely on my brother to be encouraging in this situation.

It was quite a tough academic year in some ways. Much of it was the bureaucratic and administrative aspect of schools. The kids are great. The colleagues are supportive. But meetings, grading, reports, admin just kills me. It makes it hard that HOPE school has bits from all across the globe so sometimes the systems seem nonsensical but do fulfil a purpose somewhere.

July

I returned to the UK for two weeks. It was a very quick trip but it felt like the right length. Any longer and I think I would have got itchy feet. It was great to catch up with friends and family and to gorge myself on British cakes and fried breakfasts.

The most significant part of that trip was meeting my little baby niece for the first time. Of course, it was great to see my older niece too and see how much she has grown. I managed to have some really nice time with family. My sister-in-law also did some amazing baking. She might have even robbed me of my status as “best baker in the family”.

Then there was the ten-day WEC Cambodia conference in Kampong Thom (a province in central Cambodia). It was nice to see another small part of Cambodia. One of the most difficult things I’ve faced over the last year was not feeling a part of the WEC team so much. There are a lot of reasons for this: most of the members I knew already are not in Phnom Penh and simply because school life can be all-absorbing. However, spending quality time with the WEC team was really helpful in reestablishing my sense of belonging in the team. That was a real blessing.

August

School started again, with some logistical difficulties (of course, it is Cambodia). This meant filling in for teachers and merging classes for a few weeks. I also started teaching drama, which was quite scary and daunting. I new the course requirements and I understood the syllabus and exams. However, translating that information into actual lessons was quite a challenge.

Rainy season started with dramatic results, and there was quite a bit of flooding across the country. Fortunately for me, Phnom Penh was not particularly affected.

The general challenges of life in another country continued too.

I also started dating someone.

September

School life seems to absorb everything, especially if you are a yes person. I was working on the school production, being proof-reader for various newsletters and things. However, I had another week off for Pchum Ben, which was an opportunity to sit and relax. I visited a zoo and got to relax on a boat, then went to visit Vitou’s family in Kandal province again.

I also started another level at G2K, this one was Christian Studies 2. It was unbelievably helpful and interesting. Over 10 weeks, I learnt about Khmer culture and barriers to the gospel, as well as learning to pray in Khmer and sing Khmer worship songs.

October

I think one of the biggest journeys I’ve been on this year is exploring my attitude towards cultures and learning more about them. I absolutely love Cambodia. I love its countryside; I love its vibrancy; I love its people. Yes, there are frustrations and difficulties. Most of the time they are funny or momentary.

I do believe missionaries have a God-given responsibility to honour the host culture they are in. They are to encourage and love the people they are interacting with. It challenged me how I can be a good guest in Cambodia.

This month introduced a new, exciting challenge into life in Cambodia: getting to school. Due to building works, bad weather, large factory trucks tearing up the surface and just construction workers dumping soil on the road, it was a daily challenge to arrive clean and in one piece. Also, at school we had to complete a lot of documentation for the Ministry of Education, which put extra pressure on all the teachers. It helped that we had a few days off dotted through the month. 

November

This month was Water Festival month. I really love Water Festival and I got to go to the riverside with Vitou’s family to celebrate. There were fireworks and a procession of lit-up barges. It’s very crowded but great fun.

It was also just busy. First, the WEC Cambodia team had visitors from WEC UK, to do some filming of the various ministries of WEC missionaries here. This meant they were also visiting the school. It was great to have them here but also, in some ways, exhausting. They only visited me for one day, but as I had to sort cover etc. for my lessons it meant that there were logistical aspects that needed organising.

Also, the school production was drawing ever closer. This meant sources, painting, repairing props and things for back stage. Most of my life was spent in Japanese two-dollar stores or Japanese secondhand stores.

It didn’t help that I started suffering from insomnia. I again had to take a few days off because I just didn’t sleep for a number of consecutive days. It’s a lot better now, but I will still have the odd night when I don’t sleep.

December

The school play, reports and the end of the G2K course all hit at once. It was a crazy week and at some points it was a struggle to get to the end. Somehow I did it and now I’m on the wind down towards the Christmas holidays. The school production was a big success and the students who took part made us all very proud! It’s amazing that such a small school could have so many intelligent, wonderful young people.

Then there was the general election in the UK. It’s always strange being on the outside of such events. You get somewhat removed from the media circus and it means that perhaps you can stand back a bit and think about it in a different way. This led to me writing a post about how democracy will never save us.

I’m also going to be moving house. This will mean packing, cleaning my current apartment, buying new furniture, cleaning the new house, then unpacking and settling in. I’m lucky to have a few weeks off as well as a holiday to Kep booked.

2020

2020 is going to see a lot of changes for me, and not everything is certain. The only thing, in fact, that is certain is that I will be making 2020-vision jokes until at least May. And of course, that God will continue to be faithful regardless of mosquitoes, power cuts, dust and other problems.

Village teaching

Once a month (okay, it’s been twice in two months), I’ve been going with some Khmer friends to teach English in two villages in rural Cambodia. My friends visit most Saturdays in the month, providing various programmes from youth fellowship evenings to hygiene information for young girls. They often teach English themselves but they asked me to go along to provide some supplementary teaching as an actual qualified teacher and fluent English speaker.

The settings in the various villages are interesting to say the least. First, we are not actually in a classroom. The first ‘classroom’ is the area underneath the typical stilted house you find in the countryside here. There is very little headroom as you can see by the picture below. There are rows of desks crammed together, where the children gather to learn. The second site is outside a larger, more modern house, which is far more roomy, but there are no desks.

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So there are some obvious challenges:

  • It’s really hot. I sweat to a disgusting extent (as well as learning which shirts are breathable and which are not);
  • Banging my head/ cobwebs in my hair;
  • Slipping in the muddy patch just by the whiteboard;
  • Lack of time (20 to 45 minutes);
  • Pressure to finish the class (the first class usually has more time than the second, so often I end up only teaching half the stuff I do in the first village for the second village);
  • Lack of frequency (once a month);
  • Lack of resources (when you google how to teach with a lack of resources, there is still an assumption that there are exercise books and desks);
  • Lack of preparation time;
  • Large classes (27-50 small people crammed into that space);
  • A range of abilities and ages (probably 4-18 year olds, although I think the youngest ones are just there to be babysat);
  • Over dependence on Khmer translation (the lack of time means that I haven’t built certain routines and taught teaching commands, also I need to plan and communicate better what I want translated and what I don’t).

So, it has got me asking a few questions:

  • Is there any point? I can teach very little, I can’t really follow it up and are they actually benefiting from me being there? Are they just listening to the Khmer?
  • What should I teach? How do I create fun, meaningful lessons with so few resources and in such strange conditions?
  • How do I do it in the best way possible?

First, I set out to create a mobile classroom kit.

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Now, none of this is particularly revolutionary. I’m no pedagogical hero. But this what my classroom-in-a-bag consists of:

  • plastic display sleeves- these are great. My lessons basically consist of me showing vocabulary cue cards and saying it or getting them to do something with it. Paper and card would be too flimsy (have I mentioned, I don’t have a classroom), so slipping the sheets in these really helps. If you just have white paper inside, it makes a great whiteboard. I still write some of the key ideas down, because the words can get rubbed of easily.
  • paddle whiteboards– I’m not sure if they are worth the expense (they aren’t particularly costly, mind). If you just wanted to buy the plastic sleeves and slip paper inside that would probably do. However, they add an element of whimsy that the students seem to appreciate. Furthermore, they are just slightly more robust. The sets I bought came with a pen and a rubber lid, which makes things helpful too.

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Advert or protest? Who can tell?

  • soft balls– they are good for call and response games or things in a sequence, like numbers, the alphabet, days of the week, etc.
  • Kroma/scarves– these are useful as blindfolds or for other games. I haven’t used it yet, and probably won’t in the first setting, but in the second setting I probably will sometime.
  • plastic fruit and flash cards– only buy them if you are actually teaching that topic (or colours, or likes or dislikes, etc). I feel a bit ridiculous being a 30 year old man with toy fruit and vegetables in my house. I intentionally keep them very much with the rest of the supplies, so that it somehow validates the purchase choice.

Of course, my little mobile teaching kit is a work in progress. But I have been amazed at what is able to be accomplished and how much time I am able to take up (because that is the aim, isn’t it), with so few resources. I will write another post where I delve a little further into what I actually do with these resources, what I’ve been teaching, what benefits I have seen from me coming and what I would like to improve in how I do things.

Also, if you have any great ideas or tools or tips, let me know. I’m desperate.

What are you doing out there?


Whilst I am in Siem Reap, I’ll be working in a school called Bridge of Hope. This is how they define themselves on their website:

We are a family outreach project in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our vision is to see vulnerable and exploited children, and their families, overcome their hopelessness and find true peace and hope.

They work with local families and children who are working on the streets, as servants or are at risk of being used in the sex trade. They will have missed out on schooling and they need help with literacy skills in order to integrate back into government schools.

The school also works with families, running education projects and food programs.

I’ll be working in the school, getting involved with these. I’m also sure I’ll help with some of the English classes. Also, they hope that my experience of teaching in the UK will enable me to have some input in their teaching practices (although I’m uncertain as to what help I can be!). Then there will just be general admin and checking the English of any communications that go out.

So it’s all very exciting and I’ll see what happens.