A Cambodian Book Flowering Ceremony6 minute read
Charity Impact Day One
On our recent trip to Cambodia, we took part in three activities to witness first-hand the impact that our donations have on improving the lives of children around the world.
The first of these was a Book Flowering Ceremony in a small village two hours outside Siem Reap.
We had no idea what to expect, but certainly didn’t expect a welcoming committee of the entire community, a reading competition and Team Librio dancing in the middle of the village.
Putting the community first
On the two hour trip to Anchanh Primary School, Room To Read’s fabulous Communications Officer, Dany So, had plenty of time to explain the background of the ceremony and why it was so important to strengthen the bond between the community and the school library - a core facet of Room To Read's strategy.
This is because Room To Read only commit to working with a school for four years. In this time, they create the library and populate it with books before working closely with the community to embed the library at the centre of community life so that, when they leave four years later, the community is invested in its upkeep. It’s a classic “Teach a man to fish” model that allows communities to lift themselves up alone without sustained input from external NGOs.
Incidentally, Room To Read only works with communities on the basis that they provide 50% of the capital to create the library. The remaining 50% is provided by the community so that they have a vested interest in its success from the outset. A list of all donors is proudly displayed in the library.
Why Book Flowering?
Room To Read’s MO is to engage with each country on their own terms and use existing traditions to increase engagement with and reverence for books.
In Cambodia, they looked to the Buddhist religion for inspiration and found it in the Flowering Ceremony. In a Flowering Ceremony, members of the community buy flowers for the Buddhist temple and bring them to the pagoda.
Thus, in a Book Flowering ceremony, villagers are encouraged to purchase books to add to the school library. These new books (including ones donated by donors such as Librio) are then brought to the library in a ceremony designed to reflect the one they are already used to from their religion. And it was this that we would witness.
So how was it?
While we now knew what to expect from the ceremony, we still had no idea what to expect from playing the role of Guests of Honour at such an event in a country whose culture was so different from our own.
We were greeted at the village entrance by the sight of the entire school, teachers and community members lining the road towards the school. As we stepped off our minibus, they started to sing and clap and we were handed gifts of a scarf, homemade palm hats and a woven water bottle carrier. Then the band arrived to escort us into town. Donning rubber masks, they led us gyrating their way towards the school.
It’s hard not to feel awkward in such a situation. What have we done to deserve this? And how on earth do we act? We smiled a lot. A lot. Nervous at first, but then genuinely happy to see the joy on the children’s faces and with enjoyment at the situation itself.
After the initial pleasantries and welcome speeches, the ceremony began. Every child fetched their designated book - we were given one each to carry as well - and we paraded through the village behind the band. We were told that it wasn’t strictly necessary to go through the village, but it was important that everyone could see the ceremony and that the children were so happy to be bringing their books to the library.
Dancing Pandas, Dancing Librio
Once inside the little library, we were able to look at the hundreds of books on offer. Some fiction, some non-fiction, some Room To Read originals, some commercially available. All labelled by reading level and presented cover-first so that the children could clearly see the books on offer. I remember thinking “I wish my own children back home had access to a library like this, it would be a phenomenal resource”.
When planning our trip, we’d said we wanted to give something special from Librio to the community, so our illustrator, Nick, then did a small illustration workshop. Working with suggestions from the children, he drew an image of an ice-skating panda bear reading a book, while its friend, the bunny – also reading -, looked on from a hammock. It was incredible watching how much fun the children had watching him. We hope it’s a memory that will stay with them for a long time.
As we were leaving the library, Dany asked me “Would you like to read a story aloud to the community? Don’t worry, it’s in English.” Would I? What I didn’t know was that it was a Reading Battle and my counterpart was the National Reading Champion of Cambodia. I stood no chance.
The story was a simple fable about sharing. My Cambodian counterpart read her part in Khmer, I read mine in English. She started off nervously, I added some funny voices for the animals, she upped her game and started intonating much more and adding voices too. I clearly lost, but it was a very fun, absolutely unexpected experience and it was inspiring to see her confidence and poise, something we would see more of on our third day’s visit.
Next was a Q&A session between the community and Librio. It was genuinely moving to see how engaged the locals were and how grateful they were to Room To Read and their donors for the opportunity granted their youngsters.
The event finished with some local music played by children on instruments lent by the local temple. Team Librio was invited to dance. Team Librio is not very good at dancing. Sadly no videos exist of this portion of the event. None at all. Sadly.
And with that, we danced our way onto the bus, waved at our smiling, wonderful hosts and made our way back to Siam Reap.
It was all over bewilderingly quickly. We wanted to stay longer and soak up the brilliant atmosphere, but we didn’t want to impose on our hosts any longer. Just as the image of Nick’s ice-skating panda will linger long in their memories, the smiling, waving, joyous children will linger long in ours.