We only have what we give ~ Isabelle Allende
This morning I cycled into Shackville en route to work and the mother of my little amputee friend called to him that I was there. In a flash at high speed from around the corner of their shack he appeared and sprinted up a small hill to greet me excitedly on the roadside. Life doesn’t get any better than thrills such as that! I will give him the pseudonym of Dara, which means “star” in Khmer and is a popular boy’s name here (although most names are not gender specific).
This weekend is an extended (five day) weekend in celebration of the Pchum Benh annual festival across Cambodia. In short, the past seven generations of ancestors are commemorated, at a time when ghosts of the dead are believed to be especially active. Most Cambodians travel to their homelands for this festival, to be with family. As I understand it (and I am by no means an authority on the subject), the festival culminates early on Wednesday morning with food offerings placed on small homemade boats of banana leafs and floated on the Mekong. I may even have to wake early on Wednesday to see this spectacle? At least I can go outside in my pyjamas without looking out of place!
Before I even knew the ghostly reference of the Pchum Benh holiday I passed comment the other day that as the only expatriate at the MSF guesthouse this long weekend, I hoped the house wasn’t haunted. This comment elicited a lot of interest from a Khmer colleague who “didn’t think westerners would believe in ghosts, but I can tell you from experience, they are very real”. This one nonchalant comment stirred a lot of discussion about ghosts and ghostly experiences. Now that I am home alone for five nights I hope not to regret my ghost joke! I am thrilled to be home alone – with all the comings and goings at the house, this is the first time in a year that I’ve had the house to myself. Expect many blog posts as writing dominates my Me Time!
I didn’t know it at the time but my connection with Dara began when I first became obsessed with the construction workers laying concrete near my workplace. It was an astounding thing to watch them, as I have written about previously, using almost archaic tools and laboring relentlessly in the heat, covered from head to toe in the most unlikely attire. I was regularly mesmerised and we came to know each other by sight (sometimes based on head coverings or pyjama colours alone if I only ever saw them wrapped up!), never able to converse but always calling out in friendly terms when we saw each other. I am unclear if it is the same group or another group who have been building a concrete embankment and widening the walkway at the riverside over the past three or more months, but this riverside group, who I began photographing long before I met Dara, work and live with his parents.
Cycling to work in the morning now that I know these hard-working, poorly-paid, rag-wearing, shack-dwelling men, women and children, is an affable journey of waves, smiles and hellos which despite it’s extreme contrasts, nevertheless has comparisons with my experiences in the town camps and remote communities of Central Australia. They contribute in no small way to my life, despite the fact that we understand very little of what each other is saying.
This morning Dara asked me to buy him a “dukkaw” (which is my personal phonetic spelling of the word). A milkshake with fresh fruit, sweet milk and ice, at 3,500 riel (more than 75c) per serve, it is considered a big treat. I managed to promise in Khmer that I would return with one later in the day, before heading to a riverside restaurant about 200 metres up the road for breakfast. I parked my bicycle, left my sunhat in the front basket, sat down inside and ordered breakfast. I then looked out of the window to the sight of Dara’s mother pulling the antiquated wheelbarrow, and suddenly Dara himself appeared, presumably having hitched a lift in the barrow. He had clearly spotted my hat and bike and he played over the road for the twenty minutes or so that it took me to order and eat breakfast. When I appeared outside he excitedly ran over the road to join me, as I dashed to the roadside in horror that he was about to get run over in his excitement. I explained that I was heading to work, put him on the carrier of my bike and walked him back over the road to Mum, promising to return with a dukkaw later on. Around the same time I received a text from Chom, “Good morning Helen, how are you? I saw your bicycle at the restaurant, enjoy your breakfast. See you later”.
Forming connections with and helping people who live with extreme struggles in life is the most rewarding experience of my life. Not out of any Mother Teresa-Ghandi-type selfless motive, but because it makes me feel useful, good and positive to be able to interact with people who are destitute and/or marginalised. So my motivations are purely selfish. It is also very easy to give when you live in a third world country because you are surrounded by pressing need and I am not comfortable “lording it” as a well fed, well financed foreigner around people who deserve the same comforts I have but due to circumstance do not and probably never will have, the lifestyle that I take for granted. It’s surprising the tiny amounts of money which can make a big difference too, as costs in Cambodia are miniscule compared with costs in the western world.
Many others I know agree that their lives are enhanced by giving. I have a friend in Phnom Penh who has done all kinds of truly generous and life saving things for people in collaboration with her husband, just because she sees the need and is in a position to help. From such unknown individuals to high profile people such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, I don’t think it’s any secret that a meaningful and rewarding purpose in life can involve helping disadvantaged people. Our privilege also determines our ability to help and I know that if it were me who was hungry, homeless, unable to pay a hospital fee or in need of income generation assistance, I would hope that someone who saw my need and was in a position to help, did so.
Over the past year I have parted with thousands of dollars, in small doses, to some of the many worthy causes which have looked me in the eye daily. This is money I could have saved, living in a low cost country. But saving for such western “needs” as travel or bathroom renovation has seemed much more like hoarding from here, than any kind of westernised “common sense”. And as much as I embrace the practise of giving, I equally reject the practise of hoarding. I also believe very strongly that there are many ways to invest, which don’t all involve accumulating monetary wealth.
In the meantime, from afar, Bea’s family are talking about donating to Cambodia instead of giving each other Christmas presents and have approached me as one of the possible “conduits to a cause”. I am thrilled because it would certainly be put to good use. But I am also reticent to some degree as experience has taught me that acting as a conduit to charitable contributions can have negative consequences. I continue to distribute toys and other gifts to children from the myriad boxes which arrived from overseas over the course of a few months earlier this year, which has been an enormous and at times overwhelming task. The outcomes of this well-intentioned but chaotic endeavour included many more negatives than I ever could have imagined and I vowed I would never get involved in such an undertaking again.
In the past year I have also received monetary donations from people who wanted to help and which I’ve been able to put towards certain causes, making a small difference to a number of different families. I have also learned from my mistakes and I know now, that provisos need to be discussed and considered before accepting contributions from “outside” the situation. Sitting on the orphanage board I have learned that it is not uncommon for people to offer to donate to specific concerns, such as school fees. When those costs have already been covered but other needs exist, these conditional offers can be problematic and create a lot of work for the fundraisers involved. Medecins Sans Frontieres refuse to accept conditional money for similar, albeit bigger-picture reasons. In fact MSF were in the news this week for rejecting an offer of money from the Australian government towards the Ebola epidemic, claiming that government resources and personnel rather than money are required. Conditional contributions, or contributions with political or ideological affiliations are regularly declined due to the risk that they may threaten MSF’s independence and neutrality. So charitable concerns are complicated, and despite the level of need that exists, it is not always wise to blindly accept offers of help. This is probably why child sponsorship is so popular – it gives the charity control over how they spend their money whilst maintaining transparency to donors about how their money is spent. A human connection to donations is very important and child sponsorship provides this to donors.
Speaking of donations, today we donated a bicycle to a patient who came to the office to collect her wheels this morning. She is a young woman with HIV-DRTB co-infection, who contracted a shocking systemic case of Chicken Pox whilst hospitalised with us a few months ago. The Chicken Pox smothered her whole body including her eyes and the lining of her gastro-intestinal tract, causing a multitude of painful and life threatening symptoms including diarrhoea, dehydration, malnutrition and vision disturbances. Since being discharged from hospital she has been walking a few kilometres each way to access her daily treatment from the designated community volunteer. She now has a means of getting to her treatment quickly and the smile on her face as she cycled out of our gate this morning was priceless.
The farewells have started and today I said goodbye to one of the doctors at work who wrote me this priceless note:
Thank you, what your kind
Wish you good travel, good luck and healthy
All your action, I’m going to take in my heart for ever.
At my farewell party last night, amidst failed attempts to teach me how to dance with the grace of an Apsara, insistences were made that I must make contact upon my return (at which time I will be traveling independently), and a number of offers were made to “volunteer for you”!
The gratitude and friendship, laughter and kindnesses that Cambodia has given to me far outweigh anything at all that I could ever give back and I just hope that I can remember as many Cambodian Moments as possible because my Cambodian year has been beyond special.