UWS Jong Ra School is complete and officially open! That’s school number 20 in Cambodia. Chris Howarth, Founder of UWS, writes:
“We received a message from the Chief that, this morning, the village would hold the traditional opening ceremony and could we please come. Undaunted by some very heavy overnight rain that left the roads near impassable, we struggled through the mud, testing the traction on the 4×4 to the limits. Both Sitha and I had doubts that we would get through, but make it we did, to find only children, a teacher and Denny the Lumphat UWS education officer sitting in waiting. We gave some balls to the boys and the girls moved into the library.”
“The Chief arrived on his moto, a little disturbed that many villagers had headed for the fields. Apparently the unscheduled heavy rain could cause the soya beans to go rotten if not harvested immediately. A chicken, however, had met its end and was now in the boiling pot being readied for the ceremony.”
“Slowly people began to arrive, mostly older men, and three large casks of rice wine were placed in the middle of the platform. Bamboo pipes were inserted and the dry fermented rice was covered with water directly from the UWS well. The lack of safe water and hygiene always causes me a little concern as I know, at some stage, I would be expected to drink.”
“All the men present, about 15 elders, were given a small green stick. These we held into the top of the rice wine together and gave it a little swish. As we swished each member said a little prayer to thank the spirits and to ask them to protect the school. An elder then siphoned off a small plastic cup full of wine and added to it some meat and skin from the chickens head. He poured some of this on the platform at the top of the stairs and again said a little prayer. The cup was then passed to another who did the same at a classroom door. This was repeated for every classroom.”
“I was then invited to sample the wines. This I did by sucking on the tube, hoping that the alcohol present would negate the clear risk of contamination. Tuberculosis is endemic in these villages. I expressed my appreciation but was a little daunted to be asked which, in my opinion, was the best. I had already noted that the chief’s wine was jar number two, thus I gave it my vote for purely tactical reasons. I was asked to sit by the said jar and drink my full. I turned to my support man Sitha for help but he had already exited stage door right. I was on my own. A leg was ripped off the chicken by the dirtiest looking hands imaginable, driving blackened nails into the joints. It was given to me. I chewed and ripped the tough sinewy meat making noises of great pleasure but thinking that it would be a miracle if my body survived.
“The others in the congregation got stuck into jar 1 and 3. No longer the centre of attention, I could escape with pride and protocol still intact. We said hello to the boys, who still chased balls, and the girls, who stayed in the library. All in a day’s work! We returned to the vehicle secure in the knowledge that the spirits would be happy and soon the men would be drunk. The school was safe and in good hands.”
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