We arrived at the gates of Anjali House to find a large, cream-colored, two story house, and a deserted yard and sports court. The children were all still in class, though the space outside the house buzzed with potential for play and exploration. In Sanskrit, the word ‘Anjali’ means offerings. We were introduced to Melanie, the Young Adult Program coordinator, who explained some of these offerings Anjali House provides to its students and their families. The children come to Anjali House for half days, during the time they aren’t attending public school. During this half day, they take classes, learn English, and are given numerous opportunities to exercise their creativity. Since the children have to forego a job in order to spend their non-school time at Anjali, their families are given weekly rice allowances to make up for the money the children would have made for their families by working.
Anjali’s dedication to the arts is what makes it a particularly good match for a partnership with NCAS-I. On the website, they describe the arts as “increasingly being recognized as a way to improve cognitive learning, increase right side brain development, and build self esteem among disenfranchised children.” They could have taken those words right off a Naropa art therapy syllabus! I was encouraged to see the power of art utilized in such an intentional way as one of their main modalities for growth and learning. In fact, the seed for Anjali House itself began as a week-long photography class for street children offered by the Ankgor Photo Association.
In previous years, our NCAS-I team has made a puppet theatre and a sand tray with the children at Anjali. This year our task was to design and paint a mural on the walls surrounding a small plot of land reserved for a future vegetable garden. This endeavor began as activities involving 20 young children often do: with some chaos and a leap of faith. This is not to mention the language barrier and a very loud buzz saw next door, drowning out any attempt at making introductions and setting ground rules. Sue forged through these distractions to rein in everyone’s attention and explain our design–each child was to paint a mandala flower of their own on the wall. Even as we seemed to dive in willy nilly, mixing blue paint and covering the dull concrete walls with sky, a natural creative rhythm emerged. These kiddos had obviously painted before, showing very little hesitancy in covering the wall–and some leaves and their shirts and each other’s hair…—with gusto and creative ambition.
As a team, we all intuitively moved into and out of the hubbub as needed, and I have to say I was impressed by our ability to take action with such flexibility and grace. The frenzied mix of children, paintbrushes, and volunteers was disorienting at first, and I found myself more comfortably settling into the periphery, mixing paint and containing the situation. I was nervous to interact with the kids, too. What would we talk about during the very short time we were to spend together? I felt like by the time I drew a breath to speak, we’d be bidding each other thank you and goodbye, or ‘ah-kun, lea hai’. I felt awkward using my limited Khmer, but I also noticed that some of the kids, especially the teenagers, were having a similar hesitance using what little English they knew. However, in all this we seemed to all share a common feeling of curiosity and excitement. In the midst of this experience, the smaller children fluttered about like little dragonflies with paintbrushes, and pretty soon we filled the four drab concrete walls with a blue sky that matched the one above us.
Emma demonstrated the first mandala flower, showing the kids how to build their mandala from the inside out. Perhaps a pink heart in the middle, with orange lines radiating, surrounded by green squiggly snakes, then purple triangles for petals. The kids caught on quickly, and round balls of color began appearing against the light blue backdrop. Some of our group members worked with specific children throughout the couple hours we painted. Michelle guided what we came to call the ‘girls’ wall.’ Four or so young women huddled in the corner, quietly giggling and and painting beautiful flowers with tiny hearts and stars, swirls and zigzags. Michelle made sure they had all the colors they needed while engaging them in conversation. I was struck by their attention to detail, and got the sense that these flowers actually were extensions of themselves, as the directive originally suggested.
Many of the boys showed up as rambunctious and bold, purposefully painting on each other and other non-wall surfaces. To the left of the girls’ wall was a gathering of teenage boys who painted their flowers accompanied by short graffiti messages written in English, cryptically speaking of missing someone and being in love. The other students laughed at these painted lines of prose, which seemed to hint at an inside joke among the group. They reminded me of a teenage boy band as they stood posturing with masculine gestures, while writing lyrics of love and heartache.
The morning drew to a close as suddenly as it had started, and the kids readied themselves for lunch as we began to clean up and say our goodbyes. Though we hadn’t expected to finish the mural in those three short hours, the wall had quickly been transformed by dozens of painted flowers, mirroring the garden it would soon protect. Our time spent at Anjali house did feel much like an offering, as the name suggests. We and these children came together briefly to bring beauty to their space, both visually and relationally, through the means of art. Though I would have loved to spend a month with them learning Khmer and building more lasting relationships, our offering was more like burning a stick of incense: short, sweet, and representative of a greater devotion.