The mouse, who looks like a school teacher, wears blue shorts, red flip-flops and speaks in the voice of his creator, Poy Chhunly, Cambodia’s first cartoon maker. In the background, colorful drawings of rural Cambodia appear for the first time on the screen -green rice paddies, wooden stilt houses, banana trees, and southeast Asian dogs who walk with their tails curved upwards. The people in the frames have brown skin and do the things that other Cambodians do: sleep on bamboo mats, scrape burned rice from the bottom of pots, and speak Khmer.
These cartoons were drawn to transmit messages about the prevention of human trafficking, the importance of sending children to school, and the dangers faced by migrant workers. And they were made possible by a non-governmental organization, Oxfam Quebec.
“You have a lot of people here who are illiterate or not functionally literate,” says Normand Champoux, who was Oxfam-Quebec’s country manager in Cambodia in 2008, when the NGO started the cartoon project. “You have to find other ideas than posters to communicate with them.”
Oxfam-Quebec spent more than $20,000 on three cartoons made by a local animator -“Family Values,” about the importance of sending children to school, “Tricks or Threats,” about human trafficking, and “Floating Away,” about the dangers faced by Cambodian workers on Thai fishing boats.
The cartoons all used the mouse named Chhouksar as a teacher to-explain the moral of the story (the mouse was chosen because it often appears as a wise creature in Cambodian fairy tales), aired on several Cambodian television channels.
“Floating Away” tells the story of a young Cambodian man who leaves home to work on a Thai fishing boat. Once he arrives he gets violently seasick. He has to work so many hours that he barely has time to eat, and he does not make enough money to go back home. At the end of the film, the mouse tells viewers to be properly informed prior to migrating to another country.
“It’s a good way to convey the message,” says Mao Sotheary, a project development adviser at Oxfam-Quebec’s office in Phnom Penh. “If it’s made by a Cambodian, it’s attached to the culture.”
Prior to cartoons, Oxfam-Quebec in Cambodia conducted its education campaigns through lectures, but using field workers was costly and meant limited area coverage, according to Sotheary. Using TV gets the message to more people, especially since the most rural Cambodians do not read newspapers or books, but do watch television.
The Oxfam-Quebec cartoon project also enabled Cambodia’s first cartoon school, Phare Ponlue Selak, to purchase new computers to continue training young animators.
Chhunly is working on Cambodia’s first animated feature film, about a Cambodian boy from the Angkor Wat period. Oxfam-Quebec says it will order more educational cartoons if funds become available.