Cambodia, Human and Hope Association, Voluntourism

“I want to teach the children a song in Portuguese”

In 2013, I initiated child protection workshops at Human and Hope Association. We had implemented our visitor policy, which only allowed for visitors to come to Human and Hope Association with appointments, and they had to adhere to our strict conditions. We had erected a sign at the pagoda (which also included a ‘no horses in the pagoda’ rule, to keep the Monks happy with us constructing a sign) and were determined to keep tourists away unless they had an appointment.

The first step of the child protection workshop was to educate our staff and Khmer volunteers on why child protection was important, the different types of abuse, and how we could keep our students safe in their communities and at Human and Hope Association. The second part was to teach them how to appropriately interact with tourists who came to visit the pagoda and would come across Human and Hope Association. As you would have already gathered, Khmer people tend to want to be polite and go out of their way to accommodate a request even though it is against the rules. They don’t want to lose face, and they don’t want the other person to lose face, either. We practised what they could say to these tourists, being polite but firm, and made a video of it. It took quite some time, but after a couple of hours our team were able to confidently tell me (the “tourist”) in English that I wasn’t allowed to come and visit Human and Hope Association without an appointment, nor was I allowed to take photos of the children, as it wasn’t right. They are not zoo animals, nor are they tourist attractions.

A few days later when I arrived at work, my workmate told me a story of something that had happened the previous day.

“Sally, a lady from Portugal came to Human and Hope Association yesterday. She walked into a teacher’s classroom while he was teaching and told him that she wanted to teach the children a song in Portuguese.”

“Are you serious? And what did he do?” I responded, my heart racing.

“The teacher tried to tell her that she had to leave, but she wouldn’t listen. She said she could help. But the teacher’s English isn’t so good, so he took her out of the classroom and got me. I tried to tell her that she cannot come and teach the students and that it was against our rules. She still wouldn’t listen to me. So, I told her to come to the front of the building with me. When we got to the sign, I pointed at it angrily and told her, ‘you must go’. She looked annoyed, then she left. I was so angry because she wouldn’t listen to me.”

“That’s fine,” I told him. “I understand why you got angry. I am proud of you for telling her to go away.”

That story is usually the first one I tell people when I speak out against poverty tourism and voluntourism. Seriously, who in their right mind rocks up at a school and demands to interrupt a class to teach children a song? If you did that in Australia, the police would be called. However, things like this happen all the time in Cambodia. It wasn’t to be the last time a tourist tried to walk into a classroom at Human and Hope Association.