One (dance) step at a time

When I was young, I lived in Cambodia because my father worked for the UN as part of the UNTAC mission to restore democracy. I grew up in Australia, in a house full of Cambodia: cane furniture, dragon masks, spirit houses, incense and a cyclo in the backyard (Cambodia’s answer to the rickshaw) that my father used to ride around the neighbourhood. I was always curious about Cambodia, and I always knew I wanted to go back and work to improve its future someday. Little did I know I would be able to so soon.

My name is Zoë Condliffe, I am 22 years old and I currently live and work in a tiny village in rural Cambodia where I manage and run an arts-based NGO called Mayibuye Cambodia. We work to provide young people in rural areas with access to the arts.

Coming from a family of social workers and artists I have always been interested in working in social justice and the arts. Confused about which path to follow, I started a double degree where I studied both. Mayibuye Cambodia allows me to bring together both disciplines. For me, it is the coming together of all my passions: Cambodia, dance, youth, art, social justice and entrepreneurship!

My own experiences with dance and art have taught me the importance of self-expression, confidence and creativity. Mayibuye Cambodia believes that every young person should have the chance to experience the joy and self-awareness that the arts bring. We believe the arts provide true empowerment to young people, and we have seen with our own eyes the improvements in our students: in their self-worth, confidence, sense of identity, imaginations, and happiness.

In the UNICEF Convention for the Rights of the Child it is stated that every child has the right to express themselves, and this is what we believe too. Cambodia has a history of genocide, in which the arts were targeted, and the current public education system does not provide any opportunity for creative education, independent thought or even learning traditional cultural dances.

At Mayibuye Cambodia, we provide modern dance, traditional Cambodian dance, art, and life skills classes. Our model is based on working with an often forgotten demographic: rural youth. Many NGOs work in the cities and towns, yet very few reach out to the rural areas. We work with other existing organisations in order to be economical with resources, providing an arts component to their already existing educational programs.

The students and teachers of Mayibuye Cambodia.

I dedicated 2011 to researching and developing the project, and now I have dedicated 2012 to setting up and running it. This involves ensuring Mayibuye Cambodia can continue into the future in a sustainable way. We have done so with a three-step plan: local staff, sustainable and ethical funding, and building our own space.

About three months into our trip, my partner and I realised we were having a lot of experiences that probably should be recorded. Being so isolated in the village already, the last thing we felt like doing was writing in a private journal, so we created Camblodge. It was time to share!

We blog about our daily experiences, the ups and downs of village life, humourous stories, challenges, thoughts, insights, and the wonders of Cambodia: Kingdom of Contradictions. For me, Camblodge became therapy. As soon as I felt overwhelmed or confused about the world around me (read: every day), I turned to Camblodge where my problems could become humourous stories soaked in honesty and grim optimism.

In a world where it was a constant struggle to understand the things around me, in a world where everything was unfamiliar, I began writing. I wrote about trying and failing to be a Cambodian woman, about privacy or the lack thereof, about Harry Potter’s role in my work, voluntourism, bus crashes, architecture, smiling, and even included a segment called CamFash, featuring the (often Angry Birds-inspired) fashions of village Cambodia. Camblodge has become an intimate account of what it is like to live with no running water but an amazing sense of community, no privacy but a huge quantity of fresh air, and no broadband but an extremely rewarding job.

As the year comes to a close, we, at Mayibuye Cambodia, believe more than ever in our work here, and have had much joy sharing our passions with Cambodia and the rest of the world through Camblodge. Over the last nine months, we have seen the positive impact arts education can have on young people and believe wholeheartedly in its importance for the future of the country. We envision a new generation of confident young Cambodians who are able to form their own opinions, think creatively and express themselves.

Zoë Condliffe is 22 years old and currently lives in rural Cambodia where she runs Mayibuye Cambodia. She has studied with Monash University, School for Social Entrepreneurs, Youth Challenge International, and was last year selected as one of The Age Melbourne Magazine’s Top 100 most influential, inspirational, provocative and creative people in Melbourne. Follow her @zoe285.

Camblodge can be found here:

If you’re interested in exploring Cambodia for yourself, Zoë recommends Dragonfly Tours for a more meaningful, ethical and diverse experience of this beautiful country: