The Difference a Little Can Make

It’s now over a week since I saw the homeless lady with her baby.  I like to think that she was able to find a safe alternative and has gone onto better things, kick started by the money earned from selling her hair.  In reality it’s just as possible that she has been trafficked to somewhere.  I will probably never know.  The living standards and risks associated with being a young Cambodian female (and to a lesser extent, a young Cambodian male) are highlighted in this BBC3 documentary which I watched yesterday, recognising many places and similarly horrific stories from impoverished young people trying to navigate a very cruel world.

This is the same Cambodia which the Australian government have just signed a deal with, to resettle persecuted refugees who we currently keep imprisoned like criminals on Nauru Island.  In my opinion this policy merely highlights the corruption and depravity of power and privilege.  Over the next four years the Australian government have pledged to give $40 million to the Cambodian government who are mired in nepotism, corruption, extreme wealth and power, gained from the siphoning of public funds for personal gain and maintained by often violent means.  At the same time Australia plan to transfer refugees who landed on our shores hoping for a chance in life away from persecution and poverty, into the already distressed and destitute Cambodian population.

When I leave Cambodia (soon), I will be away for a few months.  By the time I return my little friend Dara will probably no longer be at Shackville, which appeared out of the ground about six months ago on a derelict patch of land.  The construction work responsible for Shackville’s existence is drawing to an end and so his parents will move on.  As I hope to see Dara again, I arranged to travel with him to his home village on Saturday to meet his grandparents and extended family, so that I will know where to look and who to look for if he is not in town upon my return.  Astoundingly I was able to explain my wishes to his mother when I saw them briefly the other day and she agreed to us taking a trip together.

On Friday evening I cycled past Shackville to the sight of Dara with his 2yo sister in the front yard.  He was completely naked, wearing only his little prosthesis.  His sister was dressed in a red and white polka dot top with a bright green pair of shorts.  They were standing together at the old steel frame on wheels used by the construction workers as a wheelbarrow, which was parked in front of one of the lean-tos in the dirt.  It was a breathtaking and quintessentially Cambodian scene.  Dad saw me first and turned to speak to Dara who immediately put his hands over his groin and smiled at me.  He promptly forgot about his modesty and ran towards me to say hello, nodding happily as I stuttered on in my broken Khmer about going to his village together in the morning.

Our new manager has arrived from France and so on Friday night we welcomed him with drinks and takeaway fried rice on the balcony about 50 metres from Shackville.  It was a fun and interesting night as he told us of his experiences with MSF in Haiti, Ethiopia, Syria, Congo and Sudan.  It was also thought provoking as I wondered if I am made of the right stuff to cope with places much more formidable than my experience in Cambodia, where the crushing poverty has impacted me so strongly without any concerns of my own personal safety, as is the case in so many locations where MSF has a presence.  With thirteen months of holiday ahead of me, there is no real hurry for me to come up with an answer to these lingering First World Problems (FWPs).

Five of my national staff will finish their contracts this week, some of whom remain unemployed.  One in particular is very stressed by what the future may or may not hold.  He can’t stay here without an income, so is returning to a remote part of the country to live with elderly family members.  Yesterday when we were talking about this, my first world mouth said “if it doesn’t work out, just come back”.  He looked at me with a gentle smile and over the next few hours it slowly dawned on me that “just” doing anything is not an option when a $10 bus trip is unaffordable, let alone paying for accommodation and food outside of the family safety net he is traveling to.  This young man has model good looks, decent qualifications and an engaging personality.  But none of that removes him from the luck he was born into, crippled by systemic poverty.   As I booked my online tickets for Christmas in New York with friends later in the day, an acute awareness of my entitlement-by-fluke cut through my excitement like a knife.  Some might accuse me of having “privilege guilt” but they would be very wrong.  I have no feelings of guilt, only of solidarity for fellow human beings.

On Saturday morning after a lazy lie-in and equally lazy breakfast, Chom met me with his tuk tuk and we headed to Shackville.  Dara, his mother and his very cute 2yo sister climbed aboard and we made our way via a couple of detours, to their village.  Around 15km away but on winding, narrow, rough and fractured country lanes it took almost an hour to get there.  I had no idea if they were expecting me but the greeting from his grandmother who jumped out of her hammock under the stairs at the front door and ran to the tuk tuk, grabbing my upper arms and squeezing them repeatedly, talking animatedly at me and guiding me out of the tuk tuk and up the ladder-like staircase into the elevated home, suggested they must have been.

We sat together in their bamboo-floored, banana-leaf-walled, tin-roofed home for about two hours, Chom translating for me, with many children coming and going, staring into the doorway wide eyed at me, or saying “hello” and then running away in hysterics when I replied.  They told me about Dara, his three sisters, their home life, some family history, asked me some questions which Chom vetted (eg “They want to know if you have a husband but I told them they should not ask things like that”) before translating!  Dara’s 14yo sister is beginning to drop out of school, citing a number of reasons but the main one being that she has to walk the distance now as her bicycle broke.  I asked Chom how much it would cost to fix the bike so he went downstairs to investigate, returning a short while later and listing all of the things that were wrong with it before saying “probably about $10”.  I said I would like to fix it for them and Grandad quietly left the room, which I found out about an hour later was because he was wheeling the bike to the repair shop.

The women then told me that they have no toilet and they have to squat in the surrounding fields etc, which Chom explained to me was a big problem especially for teenage girls and young women.  I asked how much a bathroom would cost to construct and was told Dara’s parents would be able to make it themselves for around $250.  Chom and I discussed this together in English and determined that due to circumstances I should not give them the money without some way of ensuring it would be used for it’s intended purpose.  As they have been without a toilet for years, we plan to arrange a new bathroom for them upon my return in January.  At this time Dara’s parents will not be working in town and so they should have the time to focus on the bathroom.  As I will be here we will be able to put arrangements in place such as viewing the bathroom, to ensure they use the money as intended.  This will be my first project with Chom when I get back.  So far the family do not realise this is our plan, and we won’t let them know until we are ready to set the ball in motion.

View from Dara's family home, looking across the road at similar homes
View from Dara’s family home, looking across the road at similar homes

Chom talks a lot about his childhood including memories of his mother’s kindness or fishing on the river with his father who was a doctor, and the impact that losing them both as a young boy had on his life.  This is often in the context of our discussions about the orphans who he assists us with during English class.  He has bonded with the children and we often laugh about little things they say or do during class.  Chom regularly says that he “feels pity for them but still they are luckier than I was because now they are learning English very young and this means they will have good opportunities”.  After the death of their parents Chom’s siblings tried to put him into an orphanage in order to reduce their responsibilities and increase his chances at education.  Because he had older siblings, the orphanage would not accept him.  His siblings could not afford to pay school fees and so he received a very sporadic primary education before starting work in his early teens.  He taught himself English during a very disorderly introduction into the workforce and he often wonders about the “what ifs”, had he received an education.

Now in his thirties Chom is married with a young son, who he hopes will have a brighter future and many more opportunities than himself.   The value he places on both education and the need to help others as much as possible, combined with his delightful disposition, have seen us become firm friends.  He sometimes mentions his hopes to send his son to language school from an early age to give him an advantage in the world knowing an international language and he has asked me a number of times for my opinion on English vs Chinese.  Recently this topic came up again and he said that unfortunately the school fees are not possible for him to pay but that he would dearly love to see his son learn a language.  Assuming a first world interpretation of “expensive”, I asked how much the fees would be?  His reply, “about $100 every year”, saw me almost fall off my chair!  I immediately suggested that I had been wondering what I could do for Chom after all of the help and friendship he has offered in the past year, and that perhaps I could cover these fees so that his son can go to language school?  His initial reply was a downcast “No because it is not just for one year, he would have to go to this school for years to learn properly”.  I explained that I could help him with the annual fee for however many years it takes.  This led to a few “really, are you sure?” checks before an excited acceptance of my offer, followed by days of texts with thanks from his wife and her mother and messages that I will be like a second mother to his son because his mother gave him life but I am giving him opportunity and combined he has two mothers.

The extreme gratitude he expressed began to concern me as I wondered if he had mistakenly said $100 instead of $1000.  Then I became convinced that no annual school fee would be a mere $100 and he must have surely meant $1000 and how was I going to fix this situation I had gotten myself into?  One morning last week we came across each other in the street and he said he went to one of the language schools to find out some information and maybe we could speak about it sometime soon?  I agreed and then I asked “Is it really only $100 per year?”.  Chom looked off into the distance and said “No, it’s not, it is more”.  My heart was in my throat as he continued “It is $130”, looking at me as though he was as nervous about the information as I was.  How different our perceptions I thought, as I confirmed with a sigh of relief that I could uphold my end of the bargain!

These are all tiny plates in the armour of poverty that is wrapped suffocatingly around Cambodia’s population.  Cambodia is itself a miniscule sample of total world poverty.  80% of the current world’s population live on less than $10 per day.  The poorest 40% of the world earn 5% of global income while the richest 20% earn 75% of global income.  22,000 children die each day due to poverty, most of them quiet deaths in remote villages such as Dara’s, hidden from the scrutiny and conscience of the world.  Inadequate access to safe water affects half of humanity.  The figures of hardship and suffering are never-ending.  I have been hearing these statistics for years and taking little notice.  But now they are not numbers.  Now they are names, people, children and families who I know.  Which is a constantly startling thing to my First World brain!  While the underlying causes of this poverty and deprivation are complex and enormous, the good news is that there are small things which I can do to make small positive differences.  Equally, while there are small things which can be done to make differences, it is also important to consider the underlying causes and how they might be addressed.  Certainly the Australian government’s latest behaviour is adding to the problem and not to the solution, not just for Cambodia, but on a global scale.


2 thoughts on “The Difference a Little Can Make

  1. I feel a real connection to this story, as I travelled several times with ‘Chom’ and met his little boy. Please give him my best wishes and thank him for the entertaining day I spent with him when we visited a Temple & various other sites and he sang to me as we travelled the dusty bumpy roads in his trusty Tuk Tuk. A highlight of my 3 weeks in Cambodia. How many more such stories woud the many drivers have.


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