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william hung & Normund Gentle                                     

Posted March 15, 2009

In Cambodia infant girls are breastfed for less time than infant boys because rural villagers believe that the girls will grow up to be too sexy if they breastfeed for too long. Noone is quite sure where or how this belief became engrained in Cambodian culture, but it pales in comparison to another, very real fact of life in rural Cambodia; that disease will kill a great percentage of them each year. Each day villagers accept the fact that they and their children may fall ill, not of any exotic disease such as the plague or the avian flu, but from diarrhea or cholera brought on by contaminated, unfiltered drinking water. While these waterborne illnesses affect Cambodians in epidemic proportions, accounting for well over 70% of all deaths in the country according to Resource Development International – a nonprofit organization working in Cambodia, much if it can be prevented through good old-fashioned hygiene practices and learning practical water filtration techniques. Enter karaoke.

The "Barney" Factor 

Mickey Sampson, director at RDI oversees an ambitious project to teach rural Cambodians how to Cambodian Woman in waterimplement a ceramic water filtration technique to guard against waterborne bacteria. He explained in an interview with National Public Radio in January that the project’s biggest hurdle is twofold; most Cambodians are illiterate and many accept waterborne diseases “as part of life.” Thus, the challenge for the project was getting villagers to understand the project’s message and motivating them to actually change their fate. Sampson explains that on one particular day, he heard his children’s Cambodian babysitter singing the Barney song to his children, in English, even though she was never taught any English.

The idea to use karaoke as a teaching tool was a no-brainer after that realization because Sampson knew a few important things about Cambodian culture. First, they absolutely love karaoke. RDI says it is the most popular form of entertainment in the country, mostly due to the lack of available televisions in households. RDI reports that it is quite common for a rural villager to walk, drive, or boat long distances just to watch television at a friend’s house. Second, there is only very limited television programming in the country to begin with due to a lack of advertising dollars. Third, without television as a major attraction in Cambodian homes, karaoke reigns as a wildly popular pastime. Unlike the west however, in Cambodia karaoke is less a performance art than it is a participatory sport. According to RDI, it is “sung at large celebrations and parties, small restaurants and even outdoor parks.” It is also popular among all age groups. The greatest distinction between western and Cambodian karaoke habits though is the fact that that karaoke songs are not necessarily based on popular music in Cambodia. This allowed RDI to produce quality karaoke tracks that were enjoyable for the average Cambodian to sing while disseminating its educational message at the same time.

It turns out that Sampson’s gambit worked. He reports that RDI’s ‘karaoke truck’ has visited villages and been received well, with many villagers singing and memorizing the lyrics after oRDI Karaoke Truckne visit. Most importantly, RDI confirms that follow-up visits have shown that villagers were actually acting on the instructions in the songs. Karaoke is just one tactic used in the organization’s overall strategy. RDI uses live classroom presentations, videos, puppet shows and other hands-on learning activities to engage schoolchildren in the culture changing task of safe water handling, but so far, karaoke has proven to be very effective. Now if they could just figure out that breastfeeding thing.