The PSE Community Service Center in Prek Toal is full of patterned hands, drawings, words in Khmer, covering all the walls. There is hardly a free space. Every hand, every painting is a story. There are hundreds. Thousands. As many as the children who have come to eat there. Prek Toal is the first center founded by Christian and Marie-France des Pallières, more than twenty years ago, to feed the children of the dumpsite. The center of Prek Toal is the symbol of The Possible.
The center of Prek Toal speaks by itself. Even before their children arrive, before the songs and laughters sound, it speaks. Hundreds of hands stamped on the walls and their paintings wherever anyone looks, speak. Nothing can be done but keep in silent, in a sign of infinite respect, and listen. There is so much, here, among these four old walls. Here fits all the pain of the world, of thousands of childhood losses. Hunger and misery to kicks, to blow of flies and smell to rotten. But there is also laughter. The laughter of thousands and thousands of children who have come here. Fighting misery with rice ladles, one by one, for each child, for every new laugh. A dry fight, with no tears. Spoonful to spoonful of rice. Here, PSE was born.
Outside, a few meters away, cut by the shanties that grew around, is the old dumpsite of Phnom Penh. Quiet forever. Replaced by a new dump beyond, far beyond, there is only one mountain where the green has covered all the rot and gloom of the world. At their edges, the children play, as if nothing would have ever happened.
WE ARE STILL HERE
The center of Prek Toal, is old, very old, but still beautiful. It is a spacious but collected space, bright, with a natural shadow provided by the trees that have grown inside, with the trunks painted of colors, and adorned of bougainvillea. It still preserves the showers, the best showers of all the centers, separated for the boys and the girls, and their covered spaces – there are five – painted of cheerful colors and printed of children’s hands. It still sounds like laughter and hope. All of it ringing.
And when the Cambodian and European monitors arrive in the morning, it is as if, even old, wakes up willing to everything. And in this center, everything starts with something different from the other centers: a shared breakfast of Cambodian and European monitors before the children arrive. A brilliant idea of the monitors this year. Is it possible any better idea to start the day?
By the time the children arrive, the center of the Prek Toal is 100% ready: the monitors, Cambodians, and Europeans fuss with the children one song after another, jumping enthusiastically among them, as if they were children too.
THE PREK TOAL CHILDREN
Children attending the Prek Toal PSE center, between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and fifty children in the morning shift and over one hundred and fifty in the afternoon shift come mostly from villages other than Prek Toal. In fact, from Prek Toal – from the shanty towns around – they only come between twenty and twenty-five, walking.
The rest of the children come from the public schools Dom Bok Khpers, Tro Pheny Onchanh, Sorlá, Sorn Som Kosol and Phum Omperl. They are students whose teaching is being supported by PSE even though it is carried out through public schools. The assignment of children from these villages to the various subprograms of the School Continuity Program is entirely in the hands of the PSE Social Services Department which collects them from these villages and distributes them weekly between Prek Toal, Phum Russei and Central until the maximum capacity of each of these three centers are covered, ensuring the children rotate weekly with each other. Punctually, when there is an excess or lack of capacity in one of the centers, Social Services can perform exceptional movements of children, without the weekly periodicity.
Inventing the games of the fair, in fact, inventing the games of the week, is to return to the purest childhood, where, in the absence of toys, everything can be a toy. Everything here is possible.
HERE, NOTHING IS RANDOM
In Prek Toal, a member of the PSE Education Department, oversees the number of children who finally go to the center and providing Borith, the Cambodian coordinator, with a list of Children, so that he can verify their attendance. The list will then be delivered to Social Services, which will integrate the information received from the three centers – Prek Toal, Phum Russei and Central – to thoroughly verify the level of attendance of each child to the programs. That is to say: behind the flood of children who come to these three centers daily – in total more than one thousand three hundred – there is a protocol of action and monitoring in which the Department of Social Services and Education of PSE are involved, in collaboration with the teams of the School Continuity program, which in the case of Prek Toal, has eight European monitors and eight Cambodians. Here, there is nothing random.
FAIR: THE TOY INVENTORS
Today, in Preak Toal it was Fair day. Fair Day means that each monitor invents an activity, and each child, as if they were fair stands, goes to each post as many times as he wants. Seeing children queue is a lot of fun, because they squeeze everyone around the one who is doing the test at that moment and push him. But, seeing them overcome the test of a post is even more fun, because they look everywhere, and very proud of themselves they return to the queue to repeat the feat, which is basically a mistake, because there are very difficult games and if they fail at the second go,then they do not move from there, a vicious circle!
But here, and in all activities of all centers, there is also something that goes unnoticed and should not: the imagination of the monitors. Inventing the games of the fair, in fact, inventing the games of the week, is to return to the purest childhood, where, in the absence of toys, everything can be a toy. Everything here is possible. A basin, a krama and a basketball is all you need to make a basketball court. Two bricks tunnelling, two sticks marking a path, a broom with a bowl at the end and a ping pong ball is enough to make a mini-golf.
A basin full of soapy water, with twenty plastic spoons inside and a metal, is worthy to mount a tremendous game trying to find, with eyes closed, the metal spoon. They are worth three big papers stuck in a wall and a ball to mount a bullseye and to provoke the children marking the shot distance further away. It’s so easy to play. It’s so easy and so fun to play from scratch.
After the Fair, the food has been brought. Here, the food comes already cooked, from Central. And while some leave and others enter, the Fair begins again.
At the end of the day, Prek Toal will remain in silence until the next day. Like a big sleeping giant. A giant made up of thousands of voices that will be constantly screaming, to anyone who wants to hear, why did everything start, where, what broke inside so that a whole mechanism to destroy poverty was set in motion. Prek Toal is a giant able to bring to memory the landfill, all landfills, again and again, to never miss the meaning of this battle.