Visit to NOPAHAA
(Northeastern Orphan and People Affected with Aids/HIV Association)
My annual birthday fast approaching I made the decision to do what I now normally do, throw a party for a group of deserving and poor students. This time I was in the small town (pop. 13,000) of Stung Treng (“Stung Dray”) in north eastern Cambodia, near the Laos border. This seemed a suitable time to do my birthday thing.
I spoke to my local tour guide James, an enterprising fellow, who, after some thought and discussion, advised me that the best group to visit would be ‘across the river’, which is to say on the other side of the river from Stung Treng. At a village named ‘Thalla’. This is a school and orphanage for orphans and those children harmed by HIV. We also discussed what I should provide to the students. We settled upon a personal gift, a plastic bag containing: a writing pad, pen, pencil, rubber, a ruler, and a confectionary. For the group, for each student: a sandwich, an icecream, plus various chocolates, and a drink. There were also extra pads and pens for the teacher to use as needed.
On the 20th we set ‘sail’ on a noisy, powered ferry, across the Mekong to ‘the other side of the river’ to visit the school students. When we arrived we than had to carry several bags of stuff, get onto and off motorbikes, and do a bit of walking to reach the school. When we (myself and my guide James) arrived the students raced out to greet us. Then we all adjourned to the comfortable, relative coolness of the classroom, which was an open area beneath a raised house.
Here the students sat in there seats in the classroom, and their demeanour changed, from being happy and smiling they became quiet and reserved. It was hard to get a laugh or a smile out of the students. Anyway, with James translating, I informed the students that: my name is Ian, from Australia, it was my birthday and I want them to have a party and to be happy. And then James and myself spent the next half hour or so distributing the food and gifts to the students. There were a few smiles and laughs, and they loosened up a lot, but to me they still seemed reserved. James assured me that the students were glad to see me, and the gifts and the food—they were just shy and a little nervous.
Another thing which surprised me, and which differed from Thai school students, the students did not immediately devour their food, rather they clutched everything and sat in their seats. Apparently, they wanted to take their food home and share it with their families. However, we did have a small tub of icecream for each student, and icecream cannot be taken home. So, with a little encouragement, the children scoffed down their icecream.
After which we did the ’20 questions’ thing. I asked the students questions about their life, and they in turn asked me about mine: are you married, how many brothers and sisters, what is your job, etc. Haha. It broke the ice some more. With this our formal visit ended. The students went home and we decided to visit the actual orphanage.
Reaching the orphanage involved a 20 minute or so walk, in the hot sun, along a dusty, gravel road. It seemed longer. Along the way I saw a red landmine warning sign. That dread menace is still here, a leftover from the appalling Vietnam War. Still killing 500 Cambodians a year. We arrived. The orphanage is a wooden building, with an enclosed sleeping area and an attached, covered open area. Cooking and other such mundane activities take place in this open area. As a gesture of friendship they orphans invited me to stay for lunch. So we ate boiled rice and veggies. Then a walk back, and onto the ferry back to Stung Treng. A very happy day. Lots of fun.