Come and see the amazing Mr Bob!

A retired teacher from Devon has caused a stir deep in Cambodia. Fran Abrams reports
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If there were awards for the most exotic or far-flung retirement jobs, Bob Kennedy would certainly have won one by now. Instead of filling his days with a little light gardening this 62-year-old teacher from Devon has spent the past two years teaching English to children who have rarely seen a Western face, let alone worked out where England is.

Koh Kong, in southern Cambodia, is cut off from the rest of the country, flanked on one side by forests in which Khmer Rouge guerrillas operate and on the other by the South China Sea. It can only be reached safely by a tiny 19-seater plane which arrives three times a week. Water is delivered to houses by a small, makeshift tanker and the electricity has been known to work only on alternate days.

"Mr Bob," as he is known to one and all, has achieved celebrity status among the town's 20,000 inhabitants. To walk down a street with him is to be bombarded with cries of "Hello, teacher!" Standing a good six inches above the tallest local and with a white cotton sun hat jammed on to his head as he weaves through the bustling market, he would find it impossible to blend into the crowds. The occasional back-packer who drifts over from the nearby Thai border is soon brought to his door by an excited bar owner or restaurateur.

Mr Kennedy, who took early retirement seven years ago from teaching English in a comprehensive in Teignmouth, left behind his wife and four grown- up children after seeing a Voluntary Service Overseas advertisement aimed at retired people.

At first, the children regarded him with a mixture of amazement and disbelief. One small girl repeatedly covered her eyes with her hands and then peeped out from behind them, unsure whether he was real. Although the United Nations soldiers who supervised Cambodia's 1993 elections came here, few Westerners have visited since.

Mr Kennedy remained unperturbed by all this, although he admits he was shocked by the state of Koh Kong High School, where he teaches both children and adults. It has since been refurbished but when he arrived there were no ceilings, the roofs leaked in the rainy season and windows and doors hung askew. Even now the canteen is a series of outdoor stalls cobbled together from wood and corrugated iron, the former kitchen a blackened shell.

The school was abandoned in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over the country at the start of a vicious, four-year regime that left more than a million people dead. It was reopened in 1983 but most of the trained teachers were dead and those who were left had neither books nor equipment. One of Mr Kennedy's jobs is teaching the school's two existing English teachers to speak and write English -neither had been trained in the subject.

Only two-thirds of Cambodian children go to school and half of those do not complete their studies. Girls disappear to help in the home, and few are seen in school after their mid-teens.

But those children who come to school are neatly dressed in blue uniforms and well-behaved almost to the point of total submissiveness.

Keo Sokha, a public servant who began learning English with him two years ago, has nothing but praise: "Because Mr Bob has come to Koh Kong, everybody here likes teachers now," he says.