A Phnom Penh Ngo That’s Changing the Face of Cambodian Creativity - Part One

Martina runs an NGO in Phnom Penh that she started about 14 years ago. Italian born, she has lived in Cambodia for many years now, with her husband and child. It was on one of her parent's visits to her in Cambodia that the idea for their project was born, and today along with input from her parents, they run a school providing important skills training to locals and support other community projects.

Both of her parents come from a design background – one is an architect and the other is an interior designer. The three of them discussed ways to create work in the local community and agreed skill building was an important first step. With time spent finding students and learning about traditional tools and resources, all they needed now was teachers! With their backgrounds in design, of course they had plenty of skilled friends to help. Numerous silver smiths and jewellery designers donated their time to come to Phnom Penh to provide some training and before long they had developed a course and enrolled their first group of students.

One of the main challenges of the school has been where to recruit the students from. As an NGO, obviously they have limited capacity, and the area where the school is located is near a swampy area, where subsistence farming is the way of life. Everyone in the family farms and contributes income so it doesn’t make sense to send children away to be educated, as their absence will mean more work for everyone else and less income for the family.

Once at the school, the structured learning environment also presents issues for some students. Many of them have never sat through a full day of anything, much less a whole week of being confined to a classroom and focussed learning. This strange experience, along with the diversity of education and literacy amongst the students affects the way they individually learn. Many of the students that come to study with them are either illiterate or not educated beyond maybe Grade 1 or Grade 2 level schooling. Some may have completed much of their education but not been able to graduate because of costs involved. Because they are an NGO the school has limited capacity, with around 20 students in first year and 20 students in the second year. However, the range of education and skills they come with is diverse so there can be massive gaps between students, in terms of literacy, numeracy and experience. This in itself presents a challenge not only to the teacher but to the students themselves – many of whom have already faced any number of struggles just to be able to attend.

Martina and the teachers have had to find ways around these issues, such as not allowing students to use iPods in class, listen to music or chitter-chatter. The school’s focus is on developing teamwork and camaraderie, whilst paying attention to the new skills being taught. When all the students have done is farming work, which is outdoors and quite active, concentrating and focusing their brains on any one task can be quite a challenge.

Because of this, Martina has to work really hard to convince the families to let their older children come and study this skill and as a result, has set up a system where the family get paid a certain amount of money per day while the child is away, replacing the money that they would have contributed. The student also gets paid, to cover incidental expenses such as food and transport. Accommodation is usually provided by local NGOs or the church.

Basically, this school is not only providing the training but is also providing external support to the people going through the course and their families.

The silver smithing course has been tweaked over the past few years but it is now a 2-year government recognised course that gives students a formal qualification. They’ve had a couple of rounds of students graduate so far and several of them are now the head teachers or in sought after jobs. New students today and in the future, are no longer taught only by foreigners, but by their peers, in their own language.

There has also been another shorter course added due to demand for more skills training. The new creative industries in Cambodia are trying to rebuild and promote the industries around traditional crafts, whilst dealing with traditional stereotypes about working women. To address this, the school has embraced the Cambodian culture that women should do jobs that involve intricate and detailed handiwork and offered a second course that focuses more on skills that were traditionally for women.

It is difficult to recruit women to training though, as education for them is not valued, so they are more likely to fall into the traditional roles of staying home and doing low paid work. Designing a shorter course with women in mind has been attractive to new students. Skills such as sewing, needlework and embroidery are taught in the shorter course (it runs for about eight months). For example, they create knitted bags with rope, while some of their pieces incorporated sterling silver components, such as handles for the bags. This has been a clever and creative way to engage women to learn skills that will lead them to earn better incomes. The school is hoping to congratulate their first round of graduates this year.

The NGO has a significant role in the local community. To learn more, stay tuned for part 2 of this inspiring story in next week’s blog post.

Check out the MyPower collection made by the artisans featured in this article.

Until next week,


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