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Ethnic students swap the jungle for school

Ethnic students swap the jungle for school

For these young ethnic Bunong students, just getting to school was a battle.

Students relax during a break in their studies at their boarding school in Mondulkiri.

For many children in Cambodia the road to school is a lengthy one. When Noeun Kan first entered secondary school, he walked 47 kilometres from his home village of Memong to the provincial capital of Sen Monorom.

“I came with my friend,” he says. “It took us 11 hours.”

Like many ethnic Bunong, Noeun Kan’s parents opposed his education from the outset.

“When I was young my parents didn’t let me go to school,” he says. “I was 10 when I started school because I knew it was important. I followed my friends. Then my parents let me.”

Now, Noeun Kan combines working as a tour guide for the Bunong Centre in Sen Monorom with his studies. He can earn up to $20 per day taking tourists to villages, although he has to pay for a motorbike from this money.

The opposition Noeun Kan encountered as a child is typical of many Bunong children, according to Bun Ly, who also works as a tour guide at the centre.

“If you try to explain to parents to send their children to school, they just fight back,” he says. “It’s not important to them. Their school is the jungle. You go hunting, to collect something from the jungle, to climb the tree, to collect honey. That is the school for them.”

One of 135 students supported by the Bunong Centre, Noeun Kan shares a small dormitory with 12 other students. He sleeps on a narrow shelf with two friends. It can be no more than two metres long and one metre wide.    

Noeun Kan has to pay for his books and stationery, but all meals (except breakfast) and tuition are provided for free. The government contributes 1,000 riel per day for each Bunong student attending the school, with the centre bridging the gap between this figure and what the students need. According to Bun Ly, this amounts to about $2,500 each month.

“They just want to study,” he says. “They have no friends or relatives in town and they have no money, so they can not stay in town. We provide them with a place to stay to go to high school.” In addition the centre sponsors two students each year to study at university in Phnom Penh. There are now 40 graduates of the Bunong boarding school studying in the capital, although most of them fund their own studies.

Opened three years ago, with support from Village Focus Cambodia (VFC), the Bunong Centre works with 30 families from four villages in the province, selling ethnic handicrafts from its two shops in Sen Monorom.

“VFC saw that the Bunong people had no jobs, so they set up this shop to sell goods to tourists,” says Bun Ly. “We provide a market for them. In the high tourist season we make $300 per month.”
The centre also arranges tours to Bunong villages, something which Bun Ly admits is impacting upon traditional Bunong culture.

“Their life is changing because of the tourists,” he says. “When the tourists come to the waterfall they just throw the trash. Bou Sra Waterfall is a very spiritual place. Now it’s not any more because a lot of people are coming there. The people say the gods will not live there anymore.”


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