banlung, Ratanakkiri province – Vak Pan’s blue T-shirt lists the dozens of consonants and vowels that make up the Khmer alphabet. He has just spent five days learning how to read it.
Standing on the edge of a red-dirt side road, the 19-year-old Brao villager from Taveng district tells why he came to the provincial capital to learn how to read the Khmer alphabet in his native Brao language.
“I want to be wise,” he says in Khmer. “And I want to rise higher and higher.”
Van Pak is one of the few indigenous hilltribe villagers—which make up about three-fourths of the province’s population—who can communicate in Khmer. He’s also one of the few who has any ability to read.
Only 18 percent of hilltribe men and 1 percent of hilltribe women in Ratanakkiri can read Khmer, according to a survey of five hilltribe villages conducted by International Cooperation for Cambodia, a Christian NGO located in Banlung.
Outside of Banlung, there is no secondary school in the province, according to Kreg Mallow, an ICC official who oversees the literacy program. There are very few primary schools as well, and most of those are located at district centers, which are within walking distance for only a handful of villages.
In the history of the province, fewer than 10 hilltribe villagers have graduated from high school, Mallow said. Just 10 percent reach the fourth grade.
But for the last three years, ICC has taught more than 800 Tampuan, Krung, Brao, Jarai and Kravet villagers how to read their own language using the Khmer alphabet. The NGO has trained about 50 teachers, like Vak Pan, to return to their mostly distant and isolated villages to teach their fellow villagers how to read.
“It is better for the villagers to at least get a nonformal education, rather than having nothing,” said provincial Governor Kham Khoeun.
Jacqueline Jordi, a literacy trainer for ICC, said one village chief is learning alongside his grandchild. When they go home, she said, the grandchild teaches him again, since the grandchild naturally learns faster.
“For most of them, this is the first time they have seen their own language in writing,” said Jordi. “They see it written and they realize it has value.”
Most hilltribes in Cambodia’s northeast have a legend that tells of a written language, with its own unique script, that existed hundreds of years ago. But the alphabet was lost forever when a dog ate the animal skins where it had been recorded.
In Vietnam’s Central Highlands, linguists working for foreign NGOs developed a writing system for hilltribes during the 1960s and 1970s, according to Mallow. Since some villagers in Vietnam and Cambodia come from the same tribe—the Jarai, for example—ICC was able to use copies of their old primers as they prepared the curriculum.
ICC staff has written lesson books in Khmer and in the native languages.
For some languages, only half of the Khmer letters are used. In others, special symbols have been created for sounds that don’t exist in Khmer. Students are first given lessons in their own language, and Khmer is worked in gradually.
“They need to have Khmer because it is the national language,” Mallow said. “More and more Khmers are moving to Ratanakkiri and they will need to compete with them.”
Basic math is taught through lessons on counting money, measuring with scales and making change at markets. Other lessons give basic health advice and recount traditional stories and folk songs. ICC also includes information about Christianity.
Studying five nights a week, it takes a villager two and a half years to finish all the lessons. ICC’s goal is to have 15 out of a class of 25 to 50 villagers learn to read.
“We find it is very hard to get them to stick with it, especially during the rainy season,” Mallow said.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)