To everyone who contributed to the construction of a toilet for Dara’s family at their rural village home.
Yesterday afternoon Chom picked me up on his moto and we went to check out the completed work. We went via Shackville where we spotted Dara and another little boy so we stopped for a quick chat with them before making our way out of town onto the dirt tracks of rural Kampong Cham. Next stop was the crippled guy a couple of villages before Dara’s grandparents, where we stopped to talk, cuddled the baby and played peek-a-boo with her 4yo sister while tiny fluffy chickens pecked about at our feet in the dirt. The older boy was at school, he goes to Dara’s school but a different class. They have another son who now lives with an uncle in Kratie Province.
I still have seven big boxes under my bed and atop the wardrobe with various leftovers from last year, which I continue to find recipients for. So I gave them a toy car, skipping rope, some stickers, hair clips, colour-in book and crayons. We sat for a while under their breezy tin-roof/dirt-floor “verandah”. Dad now has a tyre pumping machine which serves passers-by for a small fee. Handicap International supplied this to him as a way of earning an income. We pay 500 riel for this service when we are out on our bikes and need a pump-up. That is 12c, the same amount that Kim’s wife in Siem Reap earns for each dress she sews. I guess even in Cambodia, there is a gender imbalance in efforts for earnings?
Chom had quite a long and humourous conversation with the young couple. As he is not a trained translator, I rarely get a full translation from Chom and often call upon Win when I need something to be translated well. So in between this laughter filled conversation, I got an occasional explanation. The gist of which, was Chom asking how a man who cannot walk properly, could get such a pretty wife? I was so shocked, but the husband was just as amused as Chom, who later said that he agreed and often asks the same thing of his wife. Political correctness has clearly not made it’s way into the Cambodian psyche yet, as I can attest to courtesy of the frequent statements that I am “very big”! Chom also then said “You should give me some of your chickens because I stopped my moto over there and that is why you met Helen, so you should pay me”, finishing off with “But I am just kidding, he knows I don’t want his chickens. If I take chickens to my house, the big mouse will eat them”!
After about half an hour there, we carried on the extra few kilometers to “Toilet Village”. Grandma was there, washing Dara’s two year old sister who was running around naked and shining wet with just a pair of thongs on her feet. His older sisters and some other older children appeared and again, I handed out some sticker books to the boys, stickers and a skipping rope to the girls, and lipsticks to the older girls. As you can see from the photos, something as simple as a sticker book creates a lot of interest, and the toilet looks magnificent up against the shabby walls of their ricketty house. Grandad, who is 68, has traveled to Phnom Penh where he is doing construction work in a team with his son to earn some money. Perhaps the assistance he gave the toilet team showed him he was still capable of hard physical labour? We spent perhaps half an hour with the family here, enough time for Chom to step in a big fresh cow pat in his thongs, eliciting much hilarity in between the concentrated study of the sticker book!
The half hour trip home, through rural Kampong Cham, was as fascinating and refreshing as ever. Living in town as a foreigner it’s easy to forget that a few short kilometers away exists a magical, parallel universe. Subsistence farmers tend to rice fields, often assisted by white oxen or curly-horned water buffalo. Free range chickens and ducks peck about at the roadside or rush in a panic across the path of oncoming traffic. Ponds of water lillies and other water vegetables are tended by people fully clothed and waist-deep. Each village is connected to a beautifully decorated Buddhist temple, some in better condition than others, always on large grounds inside ornate gateways. These serve as religious centres and social service providers, from feeding the elderly and taking in boys from poor families who otherwise have no chance at education, to coordinating weddings, funerals and other important ceremonies. Busy villagers lead cattle, ride horse drawn carts, wash at big round concrete rain water cauldrons in front yards, and ride bicycles and motos laden with passengers, produce, animals or equipment to dizzying heights and laughable widths. Others play with children in dusty front yards, sleep in hammocks slung between posts under houses or trees in yards, sit in doorways at the top of wooden stairs and wave excitedly at the foreigner cruising past, sometimes offering calls in English.
Back in town we stopped at Shackville and Dara climbed in front of Chom, leaning over the handlebars to watch the world go by as we drove to a riverside restaurant for dinner together. He is in town now for surgery on his protruding bone which has become too long and needs to be shaved back so that he can wear his prosthesis comfortably. Until he stops growing this will remain a continuing issue as amputated bones in children do not stop growing. In recent months he has been walking with an exaggerated limp, complaining of pain and refusing to wear his prosthesis. His mother postpones intervention for as long as possible because he will need regular operations to shorten the bone for the next 12 or more years. The bone protrudes through a break in the skin, which an orthopaedic specialist in Sydney has assured me is not a problem except for the effect it has on his mobility, so it should not be treated too frequently, nor as a matter of urgency. He also explained that fat can be taken from the patient’s buttock and implanted onto the end of the bone to provide a cushioning between the bone and skin. I’m unsure how they are going to find any fat on Dara’s malnourished little buttocks!
Meanwhile, his family no longer have to wander out into the fields to find somewhere to urinate or defecate. The hugs and love I get from his grandmother everytime she sees me attest to the importance of this to her and her family. Many homes we pass en route to theirs do not have toilets, although many also do. Lack of a private toilet not only exposes people to indignity and disease, but also dangerous animals (snakes are the main concern here), harrassment and even rape / attack. To have provided one family group with the dignity and safety they deserve in a world where 2.5 billion, or 1 of every 3 people, don’t have access to a toilet, is a job well done. Whenever grandma hugs me, I imagine the hug passing itself on to those of you in New Zealand, Australia and Cambodia who contributed. From one family in Cambodia to all of you – oor kun chiran!