Kann Kall is the country director of Room to Read in Cambodia.  After being separated from his family under Pol Pot’s regime —and years later reconnecting with siblings he assumed had not survived—  Kann spent over 14 years working in the international development sector including more than five years specifically on educational development in Cambodia.

  • 10x10: How did you come to be a torchbearer for education in Cambodia?

Kann Kall (Copyright: Martha Adams)

Kann Kall: Fortunately, I was born in a family that valued education very much. It was a priority for my father, my grandfather… Unfortunately,  I was  separated from them when I was 12, in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power. I became an orphan, I had to work a lot to survive. However, because of the way my parents valued education, I always believed that education was the only thing that could help me. I was almost 20 when I was finally able to go back to school, and I stayed there till I was almost 35. That’s where I built myself and that is why I decided to work for an NGO that tackled the issue of  education. I strongly believe that education is the means - the only effective means - to end poverty. <!–more–>More importantly, Pol Pot’s regime would never have been possible if the Khmer Rouge hadn’t had a massive uneducated farmer population to manipulate. Without education, people cannot think against unscrupulous politicians. The entire tragedy of this country came from the lack of education of the innocent people - I call them “innocent” - that live in rural areas.

  • 10x10: What response do you receive  from families when you tell them that education is so important for the their future and for the future of their country?

Kall Kann meets with community leaders in the countryside (Copyright: Room to Read)

Kann Kall*: *It’s extremely difficult for most families. Basically, I am asking them to make a choice between their stomachs and the long-term investment of education. Cambodia’s population is still too worried about simply surviving! For parents, children are too valuable a resource to bring money and food home. You can’t blame them. Plus, most of these people have no idea of what education can bring to a person because they have no close example of it. We are literally educating the first generation of girls in Cambodia. The need because the need is so enormous. But at last, we are slowly starting to reverse the vicious cycle of lack of education.

  • 10x10: Room to Read started working in Cambodia almost 8 years ago. What has become of the very first group of girls you helped graduate from high school?

Kann Kall: There were 38 girls in the first batch that we helped graduate from high school. More than half of them have entered university, some to become teachers and at least 2 of them are in medical school. I know 38 may seem like a small number but it is the virtuous circle that they spark off that matters. They are becoming active resources to help this country move forward.

Room to Read lower secondary school, Siem Reap province - Photo Copyright: 10x10 / Martha Adams)

  • 10x10: Can you please explain what Room to Read’s strategy is for literacy in Cambodia?

Kann Kall: Our literacy program is threefold. We build libraries to give children access to books, we build schools to give children access to teachers, and we also have a Local Language Publishing program. This last part of our work might surprise you, but it is extremely important in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge didn’t leave much reading material in Khmer, hardly any books in our own language, and we can’t teach children to read if there are no books for children to read! Another part of our work is the Girls' Education Program, which goes far beyond literacy and schooling. It is designed to help girls improve their “decision-making skills.” Girls, especially in the countryside, are not conscious of the dangers that societies present for them. They trust everybody, they believe what they are told, they don’t know how to make  safe and smart decisions. So we try to provide them with a sort of “training for life.”

  • 10x10: What are Room to Read’s goals and plans in Cambodia for the year to come?

Kann Kall*: *We are going to be much more ambitious. Until now, we have mostly been helping adolescent girls have access to middle school or “lower secondary school.” But we have noticed that once they have finished middle school, although most of them have the potential to go to upper secondary school, they can’t. Upper secondary schools are rarer and often too far from their homes, and it would require girls to stay in a dormitory, which is financially out of the question for the vast majority of them. So we are going to work with the Cambodian Department of Education and build at least three upper secondary school buildings next to  lower secondary school buildings. Additionally, we are going to switch our girls' life education program from being “girl based” to being “school based.” What I mean by that is that, until now, we’ve been carefully selecting girls to enter our program. Now, we intend to choose existing schools to be part of our girls life-skills program. Kall Kann meets with community leaders in the countryside (Copyright: Room to Read) This new approach is going to help us reach a lot more girls of course. Finally, we are going to launch a teacher training program. We have observed that, often, building libraries  is not enough because a lot of teachers do not know how to use the resources properly. This is a very challenging and costly project for Room to Read but it is necessary and it will make a big difference.