In Cambodia, a literacy project aims to promote peace and empowerment

In Brief: 

The Hope for the Heart project seeks to provide not only a much needed social service - literacy training - but also the foundations for a general rebuilding of society, emphasizing the teaching of virtues along with reading and writing.

The “Hope for the Heart” project seeks not only to improve reading and writing skills but also to instill the values needed to create a nonviolent culture.

KANDAL KOHTOUCH, Cambodia - Un Sokhem and Chhear Sem are like eighteen-year-old girls almost anywhere in the world: they are somewhat shy, refusing at first to meet a stranger's gaze - but they also laugh easily, giggling between themselves over the simplest question or comment.

Their happy spirit is nevertheless tempered by a powerful sense of responsibility. In this picturesque but poor rice farming community some 40 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh, they have many duties toward their homes and families, duties that often preclude regular attendance at school.

"Of course I know how to read and write, but not very well," said Ms. Un. "Because I have lots of work to do and little time for school. In our family, food is scarce, so I have to help with the farming most of the time."

Both young women, however, have recently attended special supplemental literacy classes offered in their village by the Bahá'í community of Cambodia. And both say that the classes have helped them greatly to improve their reading and writing - as well as to learn more about important moral principles.

"I feel I can read much better than before," said Ms. Chhear said. "And the class has helped me in my life in other ways, too." She said, for example, that because the classes also teach spiritual virtues, such as the importance of balancing harmony in the family with the principle of equality between women and men, she has been able to improve her relationship with her husband.

"One thing is I know how to think more clearly," she added, explaining how the emphasis on virtues training has made her feel more empowered. "I am thinking to do my work in the right way."

From an international perspective, the project here is instructive because of the degree it has flourished without large amounts of foreign aid and without overseas workers. Instead, the project relies principally on Cambodian volunteers, working in and around their home villages. Indeed, the bulk of the project's front-line workers are teenage high school students who, after an intensive training course, offer literacy courses in their own communities.

The literacy project here is also distinctive because of the way concepts of moral education are woven into its curriculum. The goal is to go beyond the simple promotion of reading and writing to help inspire and revitalize project participants, giving them new "Hope for the Heart," as the project is called.

Toward a Peaceful Future

In this way, Hope for the Heart seeks to provide not only a much needed social service - literacy training - but also to help provide the foundations for a general rebuilding of society. Although it presently operates on a small scale, serving a dozen or so villages in the Sa'ang District to the southwest of Phnom Penh, members of the Cambodia Bahá'í community who oversee the project are hopeful that its emphasis on teaching virtues along with reading and writing can help the citizens of this country enjoy a more peaceful future.

"I am involved in this project because I want to help people," said 23-year old San Ngeth, a member of the national Bahá'í literacy committee. "Sometimes just a small problem gets magnified. And if people are angry, they are quickly ready to fight," said Mr. San.

What is needed, Mr. San said, is a moral and spiritual transformation. "When we teach people to think more deeply, and not to have prejudice, or not to backbite, they can change," he said.

The project operates in accordance with the strictly non-political nature of the Bahá'í teachings, seeking to make its contribution on a level that combines practical effort with spiritual principle. It does so by teaching both literacy and moral development using specially prepared workbooks that discuss virtues in the form of short stories and parables, written at appropriate levels of reading and writing.

The first level uses a book called "Flowers of One Garden." Its overall theme is that people are one interdependent race and, as such, in need of virtues. The second level works from a text called "Path to Freedom." In this level, the texts are accompanied by discussion questions.

"The questions move from mere comprehension to questions on the participant's thoughts, culture, habits, attitudes, and what they would like to see changed in their personal and community lives," said Sammi Smith, a Bangkok-based consultant to the project. "Then the question is raised that if they want changes, how are they are going to go about it. So it all moves away from 'we should' do this or that to 'I am responsible' and 'I will do this.' It is not so much human resource development as the raising of human awareness.

"The real focus of the project has to do with empowerment, with encouraging people to express deeper thoughts and feelings, and being able to bring some analysis into their thinking skills."

- Sammi Smith, project consultant 

"In some ways, it is probably better to call this a post-literacy course, as most participants know how to read and write a little," said Ms. Smith. "The real focus of the project has to do with empowerment, with encouraging people to express deeper thoughts and feelings, and being able to bring some analysis into their thinking skills."

In addition to its innovative curriculum, the project is remarkable for the way in which it makes use of Cambodian volunteers instead of paid workers. In the project's first phase, for example, some 13 Cambodian youth in the Sa'ang District of Kandal Province received training as literacy facilitators. Those youths - of whom 12 were young women - then held daily hour-long classes in their villages for three months in early 1996. In all, some five classes were assembled, each drawing about 15 participants.

Nineteen-year-old Chheamg Makara is a typical project volunteer. A high school student in Prek Touch village in the Sa'ang District, Mr. Chheamg took a literacy facilitator's course last April and plans to lead a village level class in the project's second phase, which was to have begun in the summer but has been rescheduled for this fall.

"In our country, most of the young people don't have a chance to study," said Mr. Chheamg. "Since I have a little bit of knowledge I want to share it. It is part of serving the community."

"Most people do not know how to read or write. I believe if they know how to read and write, they will think and reflect and then conflict will be reduced and it will bring unity."

- Chheamg Makaram, project volunteer

And for Mr. Chheamg, as for so many of the other volunteers, the ultimate goal is to reduce violence. "Most people do not know how to read or write. I believe if they know how to read and write, they will think and reflect and then conflict will be reduced and it will bring unity."

Despite the enthusiasm of its volunteers, the project has nevertheless faced numerous obstacles - many of which remain. During the project's first phase, some volunteers were forced to curtail classes because their families needed them for farm work, or because upcoming examinations required intense study. And during periods of tension, it has been impossible to hold classes.

Most of the volunteers are Bahá'ís. And they say their sense of faith is an additional motivating factor. "Even before I became a Bahá'í, I had the idea in the mind to serve the community," said Song Seng, who, like Mr. Chheamg, is 19 years old, from Prek Touch village, and attended a training session in April. "My teacher said when you have knowledge, you should not keep it to yourself. You should spread it. But since I became a Bahá'í I really saw the vision of how it is important to serve the people. And to volunteer without thinking about payments."

The Bahá'í community

The project is managed by the Cambodia Organization for Research, Development and Education (CORDE), which was established in1994 by the Bahá'í community of Cambodia for the purpose of promoting development in the country. CORDE also sponsors a community development project in Battambang, a city in Cambodia's northern region.

The history of the Faith in Cambodia dates back to the mid-1950s. Like other religious groups, however, the Community was scattered during the 1970s. It began to rebuild itself in the 1980s in refugee camps in Thailand. There, many Cambodians came in contact with Bahá'í development workers and embraced the Faith. By one estimate, upwards of 5,000 Cambodians became Bahá'ís in the camps, and virtually all of these individuals had been resettled in Cambodia in the early 1990s. Today there are an estimated 7,000 Bahá'ís in Cambodia.

Many of the Bahá'ís are quite poor, and the general rebuilding of life as a religious community continues. In this regard, it is even more remarkable the degree to which volunteers have been found for the literacy project.

The Hope for the Heart project has received about US$ 8,000 in funds from the Bahá'í International Community's Office of Social and Economic Development, which is its only source of funding. The money was used initially to supplement the income of two of the project's workers during the start-up phase; at the present time, however, none of the workers is paid. The money has also been used to cover some basic transportation costs as well as the printing of educational materials.

In material terms, the project provides very little to its participants. "That is one other reason our Bahá'í literacy project is different," said Ly Sita, a member of the national literacy committee. "We just give people training. We do not give any more than a workbook."

[Editor's note: The Hope for the Heart project described in this article is unrelated to the "Hope for the Heart" Christian radio ministry based in Dallas, Texas, USA.]