Sharon Johnson passes out supplies at Mr. Sao's Village School in Siem Reap, Cambodia. - Courtesy of Sharon Johnson

He's oh-so-very smart without an education

Last week at this time, I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, riding down a muddy, deeply rutted dirt road in a Tuk Tuk, best described as a motorbike-drawn carriage. It was driven by Mr. Sim Sao. He was wearing a wide grin and a frayed T-shirt with "Tuk Tuk for Peace" on the back.

Sao had driven us around the countryside for two days of touristy temple visiting, and we were on the way to his village to meet his family. A caring friend had introduced me to "Pa Sao" before our trip — via Facebook no less — and I knew a visit to his village would involve seeing the school he had built several years earlier.

I also knew illiteracy was very real in Cambodia in at least 70 percent of the population. For people like Sao, every day is a struggle to survive.

"In a good year, a year with a lot of rain," a family can earn $2 million riel, which is about $500. Eighty percent of Cambodians live in highly impoverished rural areas like the one we were about to visit, and very few children attend school on a regular basis, or at all.

Recent research by author Joel Brinkley indicates, "Until the early 20th century, the country had not a single middle school, high school or college."

Most Cambodians older than 35 have little or no schooling. Sao's village school is a very big deal.

As we bumped down the rutted road, Sao tooted his horn and waved his arms encouraging the village children living in huts or tarp-covered structures along the way to follow us. We were bringing gifts that he had helped us choose. Bouncing about in the Tuk Tuk seat next to us was $41 worth of writing tablets and ballpoint pens, plus three large boxes of packaged noodles.

Sao and his family of eight (he has a wife and two small children but shares his home with other family members) live in a one-room house. No plumbing. No electricity. Their home is a walled platform raised two feet off the ground with a low, sloping, palm-frond roof. The dirt-floored, open-sided school is adjacent. Sao's prized possession, a not-very-fat pig, grunts in the pen behind the school.

Two hundred children age 3 years and older attend the school for two hours in the early evening of each day, rotating shifts to accommodate the schedule of the four "teachers," who are actually still adolescents themselves. Sao raises money to help his teachers pay their own tuition to "keep on learning," and they reciprocate by teaching at his school.

With the help of Project Enlighten (, Sao raised money to buy a hand-operated gas tiller that he allows anyone in his village to use for rice planting, but only if they send their children to school. This man is not formally educated but he is oh-so-very smart.

There is a donate button on the Project Enlighten website. Sao's Village School needs more little plastic chairs. And maybe a few chickens.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus.

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