Visiting the Reaksmy, Cambodia OLPC XO Project

Trip Start Oct 14, 2009
Trip End Dec 31, 2016

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Flag of Cambodia  , Kâmpóng Thum,
Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I started out in Siem Reap this morning on the Mekong Express Bus. I booked the bus through the hotel reception and was picked up promptly at the appointed time, for transfer to the bus station and to the bus. The Siem Reap to Phnom Penh bus stops in Kampong thom, my destination. I did have to buy a ticket through to Phnom Penh, but it was not expensive ($11.00 US). The bus was clean and had an attendant that gave the information speech in English, French and Khmer. After nearly 3 hours through beautiful rice farming areas, where I saw some evidence of the recent rains and flooding, I arrived in Kampong Thom.

My host, Elaine met me with her driver, Vanny. I was thrilled to finally meet Elaine.
We drove about an hour to Robieng District and Reaksmy village. On the way, Elaine pointed out large tracts that have been clear cut for new industry coming in. She said that the road did not used to be paved. Chinese companies and workers have been working in the area and first paved the road to improve access. Next they began clearing the forest, destroying old forests and displacing wildlife, to make what looks to me like new "factory towns." Elaine thinks that these will be refineries of some kind. I have seen this kind of development in North Vietnam. It benefits the Chinese and their local (in this case, Cambodian) wealthy business partners. The poor rural residents rarely benefit from this type of development. Besides the loss of irreplaceable natural resources, the residents will be facing new types poisons and pollution which will add to the hardships faced by these people who are still some of the poorest in our world.

We arrived in Reaksmy which to me, did not seem near anywhere. I was staying with Elaine in the home her son Dimitri built to be a base for their work to improve education for the children here. I was touched to see the location just next door to the school. It's so close that you can hear the children and their lessons. I did not know very much about this early OLPC XO project, or the non-profit CAMBODIA~p.r.i.d.e., (providing rural innovative digital education) which supports it.

In 1998 or 1999. Nicholas Negroponte and Bernie Krisher desired to bring education to some of the world\s poorest children. Flying over rural Cambodia in a helicopter, they looked down at Robeing, far from anywhere and ten years ago, before the Chinese paved the road, a 9 hour drive from Phnom Penh. As I am told, they said, "this area looks good," and with a drop of a pin on a map, the lives of hundreds of children from this rice farming village would be forever changed.

In Cambodia, where there are public schools, children are charged tuition. They are charged for books and they are charged for uniforms. Most families cannot afford the fees and most children, and all poor children, are without formal education.

The Elaine and Nicholas Negroponte Primary School in Reaksmy was built in 1999 and all of the Reaksmy village children were welcomed there. Mr. Krisher, now the publisher of the Cambodia Daily also built a school in the same area. The Negropontes, Elaine, Nicholas and their son Dimtri supported the initial efforts and worked on site at the Reaksmy Primary School. Dimitri brought some PCs out to the school, to begin teaching computer skills. In 2005, Elaine founded the non profit organization, CAMBODIA~p.r.i.d.e. to raise funds to help sustain and expand the school programs and community project.

The initial goal was to provide education to these rural children, some of the world's poorest, and to focus upon activities and curriculum that can teach the children to think for themselves. "Give rod, not fish." In the early years, finding and keeping qualified teachers was a challenge, and often the children were coming to school when no teachers were present. It was a struggle to get books, curriculum, and learning materials. The experience at the Reaksmy school led Nicholas to the idea that became One Laptop Per Child.

Working with MIT Media Lab Professors Seymour Papert and Mitchel Resnick, Nicholas dreamed up the $100 laptop, and in 2007, introduced the first netbook/notebook computer, to the world, with hopes of improving the future the world's poorest children. In just 4 years, portable computing has changed so much, with netbooks, smart phones and tablets flooding the marketplace. The cute little green, rugged XO laptop might not seem so lightweight anymore, against its newer cousins, but for the under-developed rural environment for which it was designed, it is still a very viable option for changing children's lives. Conventional digital equipment will not last very long in hot, wet, humid, sandy environments like Reaksmy.

At first, Dimitri lived and worked in Reaksmy to get things started. I know first hand how our children's paths can change the course of our lives, and thereby the lives of so many others too. Dimitri is still involved of course, but he has a family and work in America and now, his Mom, Elaine, carries the weight of this project. Elaine spends part of every year in Phnom Penh and in Reaksmy. In addition to fundraising, she works tirelessly with the teachers, the children and community residents, to meet whatever needs arise, and those are great.

In late 2007 or early 2008, the Reaksmy project received 500+ XOs and while the keyboard has a Khmer option built in, the children use them with English keyboards in the English program. The primary school computer class was formed welcoming any child who agrees to the attendance requirement. At first the children participating received and owned their own laptop. Those children still in school are now in secondary school and still use them. Because of the finite number of XOs and the large number of children who wish to learn with the XOS, in order to reach more children, the XOs are numbered, shared among different grades and kept in school. Each child is assigned their own laptop number and uses the same laptop each day. Their are 8 classes of 20+- students a day. The students do sometimes take laptops home for out of school homework assignments, rotating by class. The sharing system seems to me to work fine. Be sure to take a look at the photos of the classroom storage station! Those are the original styro-foam packing crates that the laptops arrived in and they have held up very well.

When the children go to secondary school, it is in a school in Robeing that draws from several area primary schools.  When the Reaksmy children arrived with XO laptops that others did not have, this did create some problems. Elaine has set up in school library of XOs in the secondary school to address this. Since the graduating children from Reaksmy no longer own their own XO, perhaps the library will need more XOs. Well, that will be a good problem to have!

The XO-1's are quite old, and they are very dirty, due to the hot, dusty, and sandy environment. I was pleased to see that the breakage rate was low and that the children in the 3rd through 6th grades (forms) are quite good with the programs. Their teacher's name is Channa and he is a true gift in that community. He has been with the school for 10 years and has married and made his home in the district in which he works.

I asked if the children are especially excited to join the class with the XOs and if having them perhaps increases school attendance. Elaine explained that yes, attendance is taken seriously and the kids know they have to come in order to participate. But she said that having the XOs to use is quite a normal thing for these kids already. Those children with older siblings or neighbors in Channa's classes have seen all the kids using them and for them, using the laptop is already a very normal part of their school day.

So it is heartbreaking to think that in the secondary schools and high schools in Cambodia, it is not normal to have any exposure to computers at all. What happens to the Reaksmy kids and their computer and Internet skills, when they get to high school? Elaine has tried to address this by acquiring some used Panasonic Toughbooks. These are apparently the laptop of choice that the US Armed Services use in the dusty hot environments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for some Police and Fire Protection Officers in the US. Elaine has excellent instincts and knows what to do to help. I have learned so much from her.  She and Channa have the Toughbooks being used by the 6th graders, for Internet assignments, (when the Internet works), and also available for extra-curricular use during school hours. Anyone can come in and work on them, and I think they are available to the older non primary school students as well. They were always in use and the kids who are not on them, are looking over with interest.

What I saw is that the children love their work with the XOs and the computers. And, they are very good at using them! Be sure to read the Entry following this one where I'm writing about How the Children Use their XOs.

Visiting Reaksmy, was for me a big gift. It was a glimpse back in time to an earlier century. The school has electricity thanks to the efforts of the Negropontes. It comes from a combination of solar and generator power. Outside of the school, where a handwashing facility and protocol has been introduced, and of Elaine’s very modest home, there are few facilities for hygiene. There is very little and only sporadic electricity which is purchased from a man who makes power with a generator and has recently put some lines in, to sell the power. It is rare in the world today to see a place without a TV in every home and with no electricity, where the light of day determines daily schedules. There is no clean potable water, no refrigeration for food storage food, no education for adults about food safety, health or nutrition.

Some of the village traditions are hard to confront and heartbreaking to see. There is a traditional medicine woman (Elaine calls her a witch doctor), that ill family members are taken to first. The families cannot afford to go to the health clinic in the nearby town or city, and someone has to be nearly dying before they can be convinced to try it. Then often it is already too late.

Elaine recounts an example that she says is not unusual. Not too long ago, a woman was bitten by a cobra or other type of poisonous snake. There is a westerner nearby who stocks some but not much anti-venom. But the person/family must know which snake caused the bite. Then they must get to the clinic quickly to even have a prayer of living. The family believing that the traditional doctor can help, may be afraid of western medicine and of the expense, which they cannot afford. They brought the woman to the witch doctor, and the young woman, of course, died. The witch doctor told the family that the woman was evil and that’s why the snake bit her and she died. This is not an unusual incident and sadly, it is part of life in Reaksmy.

Everyone who knows me knows me well knows that snakes freak me out. So when I asked how many types of poisonous snakes there are around this village, we started talking about this particular problem. At the next meeting of the English teachers, Elaine brought an idea that the children need a snake identification and preparedness curriculum. She brainstormed about who could visit and teach the children snake education, and said she would speak with the local clinic to try and stock a wider array of anti-venom. I saw that Channa has the 5th and 6th grades already using the Internet in English for research projects and no doubt they can use the Internet to learn about the snakes as well. We talked about the need to educate the “witch doctor’ that people’s lives can be saved.  She needs to be encouraged (perhaps paid) to refer the patients to the clinic where they might have a chance to survive a poisonous bite. Education, computers, the Internet: Out here it can make a difference between life and death.

It might take some years to see the effects of their computer classes outside of school, but as the children learn more about the world outside of Reaksmy and Robeing, the hope is that they can improve their own futures if not that of their families. If one child could become a teacher, and one could become a nurse, or doctor, and come back and inspire younger siblings and friends, change, while slow, could come from within.

To me, this is the real story of the Reaksmy XO Laptop project. It is about how the children’s computers, their classes and the Internet have and can affect the entire community. My visit was short, only a few days. Here are some examples of what I saw:

1. The Reaksmy school children are privileged to have school for 8 hours a day. School starts at 7:00AM and goes until 11:00AM. After a long lunch break during the hottest part of the day, the children return from 1:00PM until 5:00PM. The school is safe and welcoming and has toilets and hand-washing facilities (unusual here) that the children and teachers are supposed to help maintain. The children appear happy to be there. But except for the English language and Computer classes who with their dedicated teachers, Virak and Channa, the teacher situation is not great. Often the teachers do not hold class and the children are just outside playing. The Toughbook computers and the Internet, when working are available to the older kids during these times.

2. The first evening, two young men from 11th grade at the high school dropped by Elaine’s house. In order to stay in school, they are living in the Temple Pagoda in the village. They came to ask if Elaine knew a teacher who could tutor them for the high school exam. They know that most students from the area who manage to say in school and take the test don’t pass it. The math and science and language education suffers sorely in this district and in recent years only one student has passed the national test to graduate. They can’t afford to pay a tutor but Elaine will try and arrange something for them.

3. During school a woman came to the class and shyly asked Elaine if she might know why the woman used to be able to read, but now she cannot see well enough. Elaine says that she recently had given another woman some reading glasses and this woman too thought she might be given a pair also. Elaine brought out a handful of drugstore reading glasses to try. They didn’t find the right ones, but you can see the difference that a generous westerner’s presence in town can make.

4. Elaine has a refrigerator (not plugged in) filled with first aid supplies and medicine. Rather than use precious electricity and use the refrigerator for cold storage, Elaine buys ice daily from sweet Mrs. Lang in town. She says if she did not buy ice then Mrs. Lang might not have enough customers to be able to continue to sell it. And then village vendors won’t have an ice source and residents can get sick more often from improper food storage.

5. I met a lovely girl in class whose parents and sister all have AIDS. Her father left the village to go work elsewhere, as is not uncommon. And must have gotten AIDS and brought it home. There is no money for treatment or travel to get it.

6.  I met a lovely 16 year old boy named Chua that Elaine has known since he was a child. Chua has a severe and unusual kidney problem that stunted his growth. Elaine has taken him to the Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap for care and has had tele-computer consultation with doctors
in Boston to try and help. The obstacles are so great as Chua’s mother can’t afford to travel or stay with Chua for medical care and she does not ever leave him. At the last visit they learned that sadly, all that could be done at this late stage has been done and I hope that sweet Chua has an easy time when he goes. I received this sad update on Chua from Elaine, December 20, 2011. "Extremely sad news about Chua -- on Saturday he departed for what I hopeis a far better place and one without pain.  He was cremated behind the school -- we flew the flag at half mast and the entire primary and JHS went to say goodbye.  I have always said that he is the heart and soul of our operation -- not to see him again is very painful for all of us.  Renal failure is not a disease to have in a poor country. Not a disease to have anywhere; when dialysis or a kidney transplant is the only option." I am sad for Chua, his mother and the entire community. May his memory be a blessing.

These relationships that Elaine and other westerners working with CAMBODIA~p.r.i.d.e. develop with the local residents are necessary to the success of the project. While working in a remote area in Vietnam, I could not have acquired the solar panels needed to install in the school there, without building relationships in the local community. Today, when Elaine stopped at the Lang's to buy ice, she was speaking with Mr. Lang about when she could take him to Phnom Penh (and presumably pay him) to help her buy a new generator for the Junior High (secondary) School.

Elaine & I spoke about family & cultural obstacles. She is distressed about the widespread ineffective teaching in this District that lessen the chance that more than a few kids will complete high school. The first children who received XO laptops 5 years ago are approaching high school graduation. Unlike others who complete the high school classes in rural Cambodia, these students are computer literate. They know how to use the Internet to learn. I am so impressed to see what even the youngest children are doing with their XOs already. (See my next Entry in this blog). Even if the children here will become rice farmers, they need to learn about the greater world they live in. With their computer skills and access they can learn farm (agricultural) science, about better nutrition and about general, maternal and child health.

The results of Elaine Negroponte's dedication to this community and to this project, are visible already. Through her work, and that of CAMBODIA~p.r.i.d.e., OLPC and the XO project, hopefully even those children that don’t complete their high school exams, will have learned to think and learn. They will have the tools they need to become more successful adults and parents and farmers, run better micro-businesses, and improve their future and that of their families.

Watching the Reaksmy Primary School kids use their XOs, I can hardly believe how much of an impact this earliest XO project has had, and what has been accomplished in one of the poorest and remote locations. How fortunate I feel to have had the opportunity to visit Reaksmy. Thank you Elaine for inviting me and for being a wonderful host!

To learn more or to help the Reaksmy children, go to:
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