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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Aquatic library sets children's minds afloat

Aquatic library sets children's minds afloat


Children at the floating classroom, left, and library in Anlong Taour.


n the north-west of the Tonle Sap, in an abundance of hyacinth weeds which are so

thick that children can even walk on them, is a floating community called Anlong


The local children are rushing to a newly-constructed floating library every spare

minute they have. Between classes, during lunch and after school, they come running

in, laughing and chatting, to pull out magazines, books, toys and games.

The library is a large wooden building with a peaked roof. Its shutters and doorframe

are painted in bright primary colors. Inside, it is a vividly-colored room with high

ceilings painted denim blue.

Wooden bird mobiles tilt and dip in the breeze. The birds are a reminder of the nearby

Prek Toal bird sanctuary. The library has a special section on environmental issues,

and most of the children, says Michael Sheppard, a Floating Schools education advisor

with UNICEF, are "very environmentally aware".

UNICEF paid for the library, which was established on May 19 at a cost of just $700.

The library's walls are covered in hanging book and magazine racks; the floor strewn

with cuddly toys, plastic animals and buckets of games. Board games such as Connect

Four are out on the tables and children sit crayoning or drawing.

The 'Library and Activity Center'-the first of its kind in Cambodia-is attached to

a floating steel base and secured to the riverbank by ten ropes. A few weeks ago

during a storm it set off under the lightning. As it headed towards a tiny house

on the opposite side of the river, Sheppard, whose house adjoins the library, described

it as "like being the iceberg" in Titanic. Four anchors are now on their

way in from Phnom Penh to ensure it stays put.

The library has given the children not just a place to read and learn but also a

social center. It was a collaborative idea supported by the commune council, teachers,

community representatives, the pagodas and local women.

"When you invite committee members you end up with a lot of old men or something,"

says Sheppard. "We specifically wanted women to be involved because they know

what they want for their children."

Before it opened, the children had to go to the library at Prek Toal, a neighboring

school one kilometer away. But even though they had access to that school's library,

it was a different environment to this one.

"A library in a lot of Cambodian schools is a locked cupboard with books in

it," says Sheppard. More importantly, he says, children don't get to play much

in school-they are taught to memorize and repeat after the teacher. Even the approach

to education is one based on practicalities.

"[Adults] tell me they want to learn to read and write so that they won't get

cheated at the market when they are buying their fish," Sheppard says. "Some

of them say they want to learn so that they can write a love letter. That's a popular

one too. But there's a very practical, functional approach to their learning."

Sheppard stresses that the library and activity center is important as it gives the

children an official setting for playtime. Play is crucial in developing creativity

and intelligence.

He put together five games, deliberately made so there is no 'correct' solution.

Instead they are meant to develop experimentation and innovation. One is simply a

bucket of wooden blocks, another a bucket of beads, some odd bits of string and bamboo


A bucket with lengths of piping that can be attached with nuts and bolts was intended

to encourage engineering play, although he says the boys usually make guns of it.

"But another time, I heard someone playing a flute. I came into the library

to have a look and it was a little boy, holding his fingers over the cracks and playing

the plastic piping as an instrument. It was one of the most imaginative [approaches]

that I had seen."

The children are proud and protective of their library-35 of them work there as volunteers.

They call themselves 'guards', which is really a bungled translation that derives

from their schoolteachers.

"I like the library very much. It's very important that (kids) don't come here

and steal the materials and take them home," says ten-year-old Mun Tol La.

The library is not a lending library. The children come to it, and in the coming

weeks, reference books will be put on the shelves. There are also plans to offer

night classes and reading nights.

Tol La points to a low table with a recently cracked glass cover.

"I know who it was that broke the glass table. I know his face and I know his

name," he says solemnly.

It is apparent that the glass was broken by accident or he would have reported it.

Although he says he would turn in anyone stealing, he has no knowledge that any student

has done so.

The library has brought out an independent and justice-seeking streak in him. He

explains how he broke up a fight between two boys, "because one was wearing

a Sam Rainsy hat and the other didn't like it".

His protectiveness of the library is not unusual. All of the children there say the

library is valuable to them, and several say they work as guards too for the same

reasons as Tol La.

The library has been a success with adults too. It has given them a place to congregate,

socialize and be with their children outside of home, says Suy Heav, 37, a former

teacher and a volunteer librarian.

"When I come here to work in the morning, my son also comes along to read before

school," he says. "It's a place to have meetings in the community. There's

no other place in the community where people can come together, except the pagoda.

But this is nicer than the pagoda."

Parents are encouraged to spend time in the library. There is a special section on

family health, STDs, hygiene, nutrition and infant care. Sheppard has seen mothers

come in with their babies too, which he feels demonstrates the project's success,

as well as a measure of how welcome people feel.

For a community as poor as Anlong Taour, a space in which to socialize is a luxury.

All of the community's homes are built on the water. Most are basic huts made of

reeds and straw, woven into thatched walls and leaf-shingled roofs. To the outside

eye they may look charming, but the straw, although cool, is riddled with insects

and grows moldy. The less poor families have wooden houses, while the poorest have

just boats.

Once the rainy season really takes hold, Sheppard intends to take the library to

the rest of the commune.

"The library will always be based at this school, but I do want to take it during

the holidays to the other villages for a week at a time," he says. "People

think I'm mad, but we're going to do it anyway."



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