The Bunong ethnic minority in Mondulkiri province have seen their quality of life improved, with the once dilapidated schools and ill-equipped medical centre in Me Mang commune having received much-needed facelifts.
“The Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects” – initiated by Japan – have removed some perennial worries.
Unlike other Japanese government-funded assistance, the grant – known as Kusanone in Japanese – engages non-profit organisations rather than the government to implement social and economic developments in rural areas.
Since its launch in 1991, Japan has implemented over 640 Kusanone projects across the Kingdom.
One key project centred on Me Mang commune in Mondulkiri province – home to many Bunong people – with the rebuilding of the Me Mang primary and secondary schools, and the Mondulkiri Health Centre, all located in the mountainous region some 400km from Phnom Penh.
The Me Mang Primary School – which was in a poor condition, lacking proper facilities and posing dangers to students – was rebuilt in December 2018.
The primary school’s weak wooden structure was replaced with a sturdy concrete building comprising three classrooms, with two toilets and a water tank to store rain water.
Classrooms have been equipped with chairs, tables and whiteboards to cater for 111 students and seven teachers.
“The concrete building makes it possible to study even during the rainy season. Normally, there are no toilets in Bunong people’s houses and none in the schools too, so they defecate in the bushes. The new toilets have improved sanitation in our area,” said Heng Douch, the school’s principal.
Teacher Pheap Sreynan said the new building had greatly improved the learning environment.
“This new school has made it much better for teachers to teach and for students to learn. We are now looking to bring in play items and sporting equipment for the students,” Sreynan said.
Nharng Nhang, the village chief of Pourn Goull where the school is located, spoke of how the project had been a relief on resources.
“The old wooden buildings had to be repaired every year using donations from villagers or from the school or commune budget. This was a financial burden on the administration, but that has reduced now,” he said.
The Me Mang Secondary School, which was in a poor condition, without a proper building and lacking basic facilities, had to rent four rooms from the nearby O Te Primary School, itself an old wooden structure.
However, students could not attend classes there regularly as its roof was prone to collapsing during rainy season, with classrooms often flooding, making it difficult for the administrators to meet the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport’s target of 32 hours of teaching per week for all pupils.
To solve the problem, Japan last December built a new school building with two toilets and donated learning materials.
The school’s principal, Toeurm Pechly, said the new building is also being used as a high school, with 10th graders attending classes since the beginning of this year.
“Students had to travel into the town to pursue their higher education, but many did not go to high school at all because it would have meant them having to live in town far away from their parents.
“We now use the new building, so students need not leave the district.”
The Me Mang Secondary School remains important in the area, with students from eight primary schools from surrounding vicinities learning there.
As of January, there were eight teachers and 287 students, many of them from the Bunong community.
The Kusanone grant also brought peace of mind to villagers after their only health centre was rebuilt and modernised in 2019 – giving rural people access to a far higher quality of medical treatment.
The Me Mang Health Center, built in 1986 and the area’s only healthcare facility, served 12 surrounding villages. The dilapidated centre with pharmacy carried out vaccinations, medical consultations and maternity care all in a single building.
Due to the shortage of rooms, pregnant mothers delivering babies and the treatment of patients with sexually transmitted infections were all housed in the same place.
The Me Mang Health Center is located around 45km away in Senmonorom, Mondulkiri provincial capital - the only public medical institution available to local residents daily.
During emergencies, ambulance services were not easily available either – putting villagers at risk.
To address such issues, the Kusanone grant was used to build an eight-room health centre, with a maternity ward, prenatal and postnatal rooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms and a waiting area for visitors.
The centre had 10 staff as of January– of whom two were doctors and five midwives. Around 100 babies are delivered every year at the new centre.
Mondulkiri Health Center director Tach Sithat said that while women had in the past preferred to deliver their babies at home, more pregnant mothers are giving birth at the centre after the new maternity ward was built.
“Previously, there were cases of infant deaths and postpartum illnesses, but in the past year there have been no deaths or illness.
“Before, patients with infectious diseases and pregnant women slept in the same room, but things have changed now that the new centre has been built,” Sithat said.
Bunong midwife Chantha Sonia said the number of Bunong women giving birth at the centre has increased because of its modern facilities.
“With the support of Japan, it is now possible for mothers to deliver their babies in a separate room, and patients are now treated with proper medical equipment. These improvements have led to a major chang+e in the mindset of the local people, most of whom are ethnic minorities, and lifted their spirits,” she said.
The Kusanone project, which largely focuses on improving the well-being of local communities, has contributed significantly to human security of the Bunong community in Me Mang – majority who are cut off from the rapid developments taking place outside their area.