All Sun wanted to do was to write his own name. He got much more than that. Sun never went to school. In Preah Vihear, one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces, it’s a hand-to-mouth kind of existence. Sun is a field labourer. Growing up in the north under the Khmer Rouge, education was more than a luxury. It was unheard of.
Like so many of Sun’s neighbours, he took up drinking to wash away a hard day’s labour. Palm wine is the “poor man’s drink” in Cambodia. It’s everywhere and it’s cheap. Many field workers brew it themselves. Alcohol abuse is commonplace.
The rough, red roads to Preah Vihear have kept the far north province and its villages extremely isolated. Border disputes between Cambodia and Thailand have seen some investment in infrastructure in recent years, to provide the army access to the border. While the dispute kept locals wary, it did bring better roads. It has also meant Bible Society and other organisations have penetrated the jungle province and started much-needed programmes in the area.
While learning his alphabet, Sun became interested in the biblical stories his wife and son loved so much.
Sun has a wife and son. They both go to the small village church, but Sun was never interested in that. In 2016, when Bible Society started a literacy class through the church, his son joined. And it sparked something in Sun too. He remembered his desire to be able to write his name. So, he sat in his son’s class. And he learned to read.
It’s not just his name that Sun can read. Bible Society’s literacy classes use Bible-based resources to teach. While learning his alphabet, Sun became interested in the biblical stories his wife and son loved so much. He started going to church with them. He stopped drinking so much wine.
This is Sun’s name in Khmer: សុវណ្ណ. He knows what it says. But more important than that, he says, he knows that God loves him.
“I caused a lot of problems for my family,” says Pol
Hundreds of kilometres away, in Tomnup village along the Tonle Sap River, Heap and Pol’s marriage looked a lot like Sun’s used to. They had been arguing for decades. Home life was scarred with conflict and alcohol. “I caused a lot of problems for my family,” Pol says. Sometimes, it got violent.
Heap made friends with her neighbour, Vuth, whose family looked very different. “They seemed like a good family, who loved each other,” says Heap. Vuth went to church. She told Heap about Jesus.
“I saw that [Vuth’s] family was grounded in this belief,” Heap tells me. She too started going to church and became a believer. Vuth shared Bible verses with Heap and Pol. Neither Heap nor Pol could read. They relied on Vuth to tell them what the Bible said. Pol, a fisherman, wasn’t sure he believed what Vuth was telling him. He wanted to read it for himself.
In their village, Vuth was also a facilitator of a Bible Society literacy class. The class was full of children, some aged only five years old. Heap and Pol are almost 60. Yet when I visited the class in Tomnup, they were sitting at the back of the class with their paper, eager to learn.
“If we didn’t have faith, life would still be really hard,” says Heap
Heap says she understands more about the world, God, good and evil. Learning to read has given her this wisdom. Her new faith has also given her hope. “If we didn’t have faith, life would still be really hard.” Pol says their marriage is more peaceful. He no longer drinks.
Reading the Bible is something Pol is particularly proud of. Now he can read, he particularly likes to read Hebrews as it teaches him more about Jesus every day.
“Jesus has come to save us. Jesus has come to be with us. And the Bible says that God will never leave us.” Pol and Heap know this for sure. They read it themselves.
For more than ten years, church volunteers trained by Bible Society have facilitated literacy classes in remote villages across Cambodia. All the teaching is contained in an MP3 player, so volunteers can just facilitate the classes (many volunteers only having basic literacy themselves). About 46,000 previously illiterate people have learned to read using Bible-based text books. In 2016, 600 classes were run in the Khmer language.