On the first real day of work during our GROW trip, probably two and a half weeks ago at this point, we were fortunate enough to meet Eang (pronounced similarly to Ian but throw a “g” sound on the end, because that’s what he is.) During our correspondence with Thida over the past year we had heard many things about the peer educators, and I for one was excited to meet one in person. Eang did not disappoint. He shuffled through the door timidly and greeted all of us, in his highly accented English, with hellos. Initially he was timid with his language skills and Thida mostly played translator during our interaction, but that did not stop Eang from impressing us with his ability to answer our questions about his duties as a peer educator and the needs of his village.
Fast forward to the next day; Eang has made the long trip back to his village, about 3 hours on the back of a motor scooter, spanning long distances on potholed dirt roads. We are interested in Eang and ask Thida to tell us more about his story. She tells us that Eang has been a peer educator for three years (he is now 20 years old), and that when she first met him she was nervous that he would be too timid. Being a peer educator requires courage, these are young people who are running education programs for their whole communities; they are essentially telling elders in the community ways in which they need to change, no easy task. She tells us that today Eang is the leader of all of the peer educators in the Prey Veng province, and then she tells us something incredible: the story of how Eang learned English.
Day after day Eang would walk to the school in his community and stand with his ear to the window listening to the English lessons. He could not afford to pay for school, but he would not let that deter him. Everyday, in blisteringly hot sun or in monsoon rains, Eang would stand with his ear to the window and try to learn English. Eventually the teacher became wise to Eang’s snooping, but luckily did not mind and allowed Eang to take the English class. After the harvest season when Eang’s family had money he would pay the school fees but the rest of the year he was there because of the generosity of the teacher. Today Eang’s English is not perfect but it is good. He tells us that he struggles with our accents because we are the only native speakers he has ever heard. His commitment to improving his language skills is laudable. Even when in casual conversations you can see him hanging on every word. When we approached him with the idea of a pen pal-ship to work on his language skills he lit up like it was Christmas morning.
A week or so later we were lucky enough to meet all of the peer educators from the Prey Veng province and sat in on a training session. The timid, slight, mousy boy was gone. This was Eang’s arena. It was incredible to see him make this shift; he acted seamlessly as an extension of Thida’s authority, calmly directing the rest of the peer educators. Towards the end of the meeting we were able to ask the peer educator questions. Naturally we were interested in what things the peer educators felt they needed to improve their programs. Most of the peer educators asked for more training. Earlier they had been all smiles and jokes, but this seemed like pleading for help. There was a fear of inadequacy on their faces. Of course, this was an understandable reaction, running education systems in your village is a daunting task.
This was not the case with Eang who remained poised, and addressed the lack of clean water in his village. I was amazed to witness his confidence in this situation and hopefully it will be contagious to the rest of the peer educators. We have a great deal of confidence in these young people’s abilities to successfully lead programs in their community, and we all were sure to communicate that to them, but more than anything else I believe in Eang. Next July he will graduate from high school (it is common for children to finish school late in Cambodia) and take his exit exams. If he scores high enough Eang hopes to go to university.
We certainly all hope he goes to a university.