“Making progress is more important than being successful” - Children of the Mekong

“Making progress is more important than being successful”

Significance of holistic education for the Khmer children in Cambodia
An interview with Martin Maindiaux by Antoine Besson 

Holistic Training

Our mission at the Children of the Mekong charity is to enable the least privileged to get access to a rounded education which combines academic study with personal development.

We have given lots of thought over a long period to the best way of doing this, and have come to the view that our holistic training is underpinned by three cornerstones:

building oneself, opening oneself to the world, and involving oneself in society.

For more than 20 years Martin Maindiaux has been striving to provide Khmer children with an education at a Children of the Mekong centre in north-west Cambodia. A teacher by vocation and a Cambodian by adoption, this atypical director tells us about his approach to holistic education, and how it is delivered in the centres run by Children of the Mekong. What follows is the testimony of a man who has put himself at the service of the children of Cambodia – children who may have little but who can still achieve great things.

Martin Maindiaux with a young child

AB: How long have you been living in Cambodia? 

MM: I came to Cambodia in 1997. At the time the Sisophon Centre [Editor’s note: Located in the Banteay Meanchey province of north-west Cambodia, near the Thai border] housed around 30 young people. Development aid in the region was very thin on the ground because the Khmer Rouge still occupied part of the province and lawlessness remained widespread. No one really dared venture into the more remote areas, NGOs included. We travelled only if we had an escort, and we made it known that Children of the Mekong would in no circumstances pay a ransom in the event of a kidnapping. To distribute aid was already a challenge; to provide an education was out of the question. The contacts were too distant and most of the children we were sponsoring left education at the end of primary school. Today things are very different. 

Young girls at the Sisophon Centre, Cambodia

Centre of Sisophon, Cambodia

9 boarding houses 

153 secondary school pupils 

about 20 students in higher education 

AB: How many young people are at the Centre now? 

MM: At the centre, we have 153 pupils of secondary school age and around 20 students in higher education. They are accommodated in nine boarding houses. There are now more girls than boys, whereas back in 1997, when I arrived, all but four of the 30 or so young people living at the centre were boys. But things have changed. For girls, living in a boarding house is a real opportunity to escape the straightjacket of traditional family life, which can sometimes be just too constricting. Boys get more freedom. 

Children of the Mekong is committed above all else to ensuring that education should be open to all, irrespective of means or background. This is in many ways a pre-requisite for the holistic training that we offer in our centres. 

Only after that can we work to develop in our young people, in addition to academic skills, what the Anglo-Saxons call “soft skills” and what we French call “savoir-être”, and thus to provide a holistic training which will enable every pupil to realise his or her full potential both as an individual who is unique, and as a responsible member of society. 

That is our role: It is not about pursuing success at all costs; it is about making progress.

Happy students displaying their work at the Sisophon Centre, Cambodia
Delighted students displaying their work proudly. Sisohpon Centre, Cambodia


AB: What does that mean in practice? 

MM: Above all, it is about using common sense. I am not a great fan of labels; I am a down-to-earth kind of person. Instead of talking about holistic education I prefer to talk about helping children feel comfortable in their own skins. It is more concrete, even if it boils down to the same thing at the end of the day. But the first thing I learnt about education is that it takes time. 

Girls starting at the centre often come from families where they have never been encouraged to express themselves. In Khmer culture girls are there to obey. Boys joining us are often timid too, because many are from families which have been torn apart by fathers who are alcoholics or violent. Or maybe their parents have left, gone to work in Thailand, or remarried. Some of the children have been working as well as trying to study, often in terrible conditions. So upon admission to the centre they are often timid, suffering from separation anxiety, afraid even. That is why I often say to volunteers at the start of their placements that what is most important for the children in our care is not that they should succeed in their studies, but that they should be happy, and make some true friends. We need to create a family atmosphere in which they can regain confidence in the adults around them, because this is often what has been absent in their own broken families. That is the very first thing we have to do, and the most important. So I always try to ensure that there is an adult role model in each centre, ideally in the form of a couple. In Sisophon we have a Khmer couple in charge of the boarding house for girls: Chanh Lo and Bun Dol. They are a super family. The young people who live in the boarding house often comment to me that “Bun Dol never beats his wife!” or “I would love to have a husband like Bun Dol.” That is real progress, because when we ask them, the girls often say that they do not want to get married. They do not want to have to be submissive; they dream of freedom. I tell them frequently that there is no rush. First they need to think about what they want to do in life, to make plans, and above all to make friends. They will have plenty of time later to think about getting married. 

On the academic front it is the same story. We need to take account of each child’s starting point and then set realistic objectives. I had a little boy in my office a few weeks ago who is struggling. He failed all his exams, getting just 22% (Editor’s note: In Cambodia examination scores are in percentage of success) I asked him to aim for 25% next time. He looked at me wide-eyed. He was not expecting me to think that he could manage that. 

That is our role: it is not about pursuing success at all costs; it is about making progress.

Tutoring a student, Sisophon Centre (Cambodia)

It’s always easier when a Khmer teaches another Khmer.”   

AB : What does that mean in practice ?  

MM : First and foremost, one must unequivocally follow what the Khmer people want and value, rather than stick to our European vision of a successful education.  

This is the reason why I am accompanied by local social workers here, at the Sisophon Centre. Most important, they are best able to tell us what the Khmer children need, but also, it’s always easier when a Khmer teaches another Khmer. The other day for example, one of our local managers was having a meeting with a COTM oversea volunteer. When the Cambodian man wanted to explain something to the French volunteer, he always used a fable or a short story. This is but one example of a typically Khmer practice, which may seem a little foreign to us, but yields the best results when one interacts with the sponsored children. Hence, we limit the trainings to the most important subjects and insist on practice, rather than regular lectures. Gathering a great amount of knowledge is great, but those learnings must be visible in the day to day behaviour of the students from our centres: they need to be reliable, ready to commit and true to their word. To reach those objectives, they require theorical courses but they also must experience things for themselves. Our overseas volunteers, therefore, focus on helping them go through and live alongside them situations connected to the topics we focus on in class.  

AB: How do you obtain such a result?  

MM: For example, one of our Khmer managers encouraged us to add to the number of speakers. In the Khmer mindset, and quite understandably, it is important for someone introducing a particular training or career to be its incarnation, to live it practically and on a day to day basis. Otherwise, it can appear meaningless and the students may nod their heads without fully understanding or remembering the concepts. This is because they are not able to find themselves in who is speaking, they can’t relate to the speakers. Knowing all of this, there cannot be only one person conducting the various trainings… This challenges us to find the right person for each subject matter and forces us to improve what we can offer them !  

As part of a training on affection, for example, we bring up marriage, commitment and fidelity, which are paramount concepts in Cambodia, especially for our pupils, who frequently have difficult family stories. In this context, if the teacher in charge of speaking about commitment and fidelity in marriage does not embody those values, it is a “false testimony” and the message can’t get through to the children. If they know that the teacher is, let’s say, married, but that he doesn’t live with his wife, (which is quite a common occurrence in Cambodia) the values taught previously would be undermined.  

Also, in their day to day lives at the education centres, we expect them to make their own choices and to stick to them, to follow their commitments in very concrete ways, whether as “house leaders”, through their assigned tasks or when they agree to help out… 

The stakes are very high because this is about giving the sponsored children the right tools to lead a balanced and happy personal and professional life, and nothing less! Their future is on the line, which forces us to be thorough. We must be credible, reliable and trustworthy.

AB : What are the themes you will be covering in this training ? 

MM : Whether one asks an westerner or Khmer will make the subject matter priorities shift entirely. Someone from the west would often mentions courage and perseverance. Someone from Cambodia, on the other hand, will put forward righteousness and reliability, staying true to one’s word. We have chosen to listen first and foremost to the needs expressed by the locals, rather than go with our own values and ideas.   

The stakes are very high because this is about giving the sponsored children the right tools to lead a balanced and happy personal and professional life, and nothing less! Their future is on the line.


Lunch with a family in Sisophon
Lunch with a family in Sisophon


To me, it truly is the holistic training provided at the centre, the courses and the discussions, the teachings which allowed him to find his own equilibrium and go beyond what he thought he was capable of to set up for a great future.  

AB : Can you witness the positive results of this holistic training in alumni from the Children of the Mekong centres ? 

MM : This is not an exact science and it is often a great disappointment when I meet former sponsored children who appeared full of promises then and, in the end, have chosen the easy way out. I remember a young teacher… He went through the local “racketeering like” system of after school classes, where the teachers only go through part of the required programme and materials in class and teach the rest in private courses the children must pay for. This means that if the children want to get a good grade, they must pay the teacher. This is a very common practice in Cambodia, which Children of the Mekong has been fighting against for a while through free of charge after school classes. This young man had benefitted from our programme and became a teacher, but once he graduated, he started to apply the local system, justifying that “I suffered from it but finally managed to get through, now I too must profit from such a system!”  

To me, this is obviously a failure, but it doesn’t mean one should give up. If these trainings can benefit some of the children, if they can get some things out of them and be happy, responsible, learn to take good care of those around them, give back, have a beautiful family life, make their children happy and help those less fortunate… then it’s all worth it! We have witnessed many such cases… and sometimes, some people simply require more time. No matter what, we have planted the seeds, given them the right tools, it’s up to each individual to decide what he or she will do with it.  

The young teacher I was telling you about getting promoted, climbed through the echelons and became, as of a few months ago, the deputy director of the province’s branch of the ministry of Education. Since then, his attitude has changed drastically: he is much more devoted to helping impoverished children gain access to schooling, in part by lending his support to Children of the Mekong when we ask him for a favour.  

KOUN THEA, one of many extraordinary students

To me, it truly is the holistic training provided at the centre, the courses and the discussions, the teachings which allowed one to find one’s own equilibrium and go beyond what one thought one was capable of to set up for a great future.  

Koun Thea arrived at the centre a few years ago. She used to live in a small shack, no bigger than four square meters, built with a few planks of wood and a metal sheeting roof. Her mother had passed away and she lived there with her disabled brother and her father, who wanted her to give up secondary school and work instead. Fortunately, at that time, the headmaster of her school (who had been sponsored through Children of the Mekong when he was young) had noticed the bright, albeit introverted young woman. He knew she deserved the opportunity to study and asked her if she wanted to put in an application to get into the Sisophon Centre. Koun Thea arrived at the centre in year 7. During her three first moths at the centre, she remained very shy and had quite a negative mindset. She kept on saying she was very unlucky and would always be unhappy. During the holidays, she didn’t want to go back to her father’s. Her family life was probably quite complicated and unfortunate. In year 12, she became the referent for her housing group, she was in charge of 32 secondary school aged girls. This changed her completely. Afterwards, she asked to continue her studies even though her results were not always up to par. To me, it is truly the holistic training provided by Children of the Mekong that she received at the Sisophon Centre, the trainings, the exchanges, the learning by doing, that allowed her to find her balance and to surpass herself in order to prepare her future. 

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