“Denzil Sprague is a bit of a chameleon. Having trained as a pilot and worked in the aviation industry in his native Australia, he arrived in Cambodia in 2002 to head the new airline company, Mekong Airlines. Coupled with his reluctance to come to Cambodia at all, the venture seemed ill-fated from the start. The airline’s first flight took place on Jan. 31 2003, more commonly known as the day of the anti-Thai riots. “It was a ‘great’ start,” he says, “there were Thai Hercules planes coming in evacuating the Thais.”
Though the following months saw the company slowly take off, the deathblow came in the summer. “SARS came out of nowhere,” Denzil says. “We didn’t have the financial momentum to get through that.”
Weighing his options, Denzil decided to stay in Cambodia. “I was very happy here and I could see there were a lot of opportunities,” he says, “I also felt like I wanted to do something, to justify my life by leaving something worthwhile behind.”
He dealt in land, did bits of consultancy in the aviation industry, and in 2004 took over an ailing brick factory from his driver who lacked the funds to make the factory profitable.
Buying the factory changed his life. “Sometimes fate leads you along a road, you don’t even see it at the time,” Denzil says. “Eventually things happen and you may not have planned any of it, but it turns out to be something worthwhile.”
Located on the remote banks of the Mekong in Pouk Ressey village, the area around the factory had seen few foreigners prior to Denzil’s arrival. He immediately set to work renovating the factory, building new kilns and staff quarters, as well as providing medical care to staff and their children.
With donations from his family in Melbourne, Denzil also took the workers on a trip to the market, to buy what for many of them were their first brand new items of clothing. “By the time we got back from the market they had all changed into their new clothes,” he says. “They were so pleased.” Kitted in new school uniforms, the children of staff at the factory were able to go to school.
However, the school itself was in dangerous disrepair and lacking even the most basic sanitary amenities. Seeing his work at the factory, a group of monks from the local pagoda approached Denzil about building a new school for the community’s children.
Surprising himself, Denzil agreed. “I never intended to build a school,” he says. “But I have always liked helping people.”
Funded by Denzil, construction got underway in January 2008. In May this year, three buildings comprising five classrooms each as well as sanitary facilities were completed. The opening of the new school was attended by some 3,000 people, mainly from the village itself, with Im Sethy, the Minister of Education, as well as Australian Ambassador Margaret Adamson officiating.
“All the stresses of the building faded away when you could see the children move into the new school,” he says. “They were like different kids altogether.” Many of the kids now opt to spend time at school even outside classes. “They shyly told my driver that they love the school so much they’d rather be there than at home,” he says.
Though the buildings are complete, Denzil’s association with the new school, which has been named after him, is by no means over. Quite the contrary, he says he can’t quit now and has many plans for making it even better. “I’m old enough to be well and truly retired,” he says, “but the word doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.”
Wanting to develop the project into a model school, Denzil plans to add a library, computer room, and sports facilities, as well as establishing a basic healthcare programme for the kids, and connecting with a sister school in Australia. It’s a lot of work, but clearly also very rewarding. “I’m here to do something, and if this is it then it’s been worthwhile,” he says.