Most villagers in remote Thala Barivat district in Stung Treng province have never seen a elephant—even though, not long ago, wild elephants freely roamed across Cambodia’s north.
And for most schoolchildren in Thala Barivat, flipping through a new storybook or a colorful magazine is almost as much of a rarity.
But if all goes as planned, a domesticated elephant will be rumbling through about 20 of the district’s most neglected villages sometime next month, bringing with it much-needed reading materials. Following close behind will be buffalo-pulled carts filled with a generator, television, VCR and other education-related supplies.
Eight provincial and district officials will be making the four-week tour of the district, local Unicef official Michael Sheppard said.
Each village will be visited for two days, with puppet shows, videos and presentations about HIV and AIDS, breast-feeding, unexploded ordnance, child trafficking and other issues. Health officials will also perform immunizations, Sheppard said.
But the star of this show will be the elephant at the head of the procession. A specially made book bag will hang from the attention-getting animal throughout the journey, making the pachyderm a sort of living mobile library.
“The elephant is all part of the awareness raising,” Sheppard said. “In New Zealand, we have book buses. So we’ve adapted that idea to a more local situation.”
Villagers will be able to read children’s storybooks, magazines, newspapers, health brochures, cookbooks and books on kickboxing. Because many of the villagers are illiterate or semi-literate in Khmer, many of the books are filled with explanatory pictures, Sheppard said.
Officials have arranged a rental agreement between the provincial government and the owner of two domesticated elephants who normally stay in an ethnic hill tribe village in Mondolkiri province, Sheppard said.
The two elephants are due to arrive early next week in Stung Treng town after a three-day overland journey, he said.