A friend was telling me the other day about her experience on a medical mission in Haiti. In 2010 a catastrophic earthquake killed at least 100,000 people, maimed many more and destroyed existing infrastructure and services. Many countries responded with humanitarian aid. By the time my friend’s mission began, some years later, she witnessed examples of what unsustainable humanitarian aid can leave behind. Lives can be saved at the expense of abandoning people with chronic needs when well resourced, short term services withdraw. My friend saw people with conditions which would be treatable with appropriate ongoing medical intervention but which, in a place so destroyed, left victims behind to exist with harrowing illnesses and deformities and no treatment or assistance. She wondered aloud at the ethics of providing assistance which is not sustainable. In turn, it made me wonder at the ethics of the appeal that acute disasters seem to hold (at least from media attention and donor interest angles), over chronic adversity which is no less damaging to it’s victims.
When Caz was in Cambodia she claimed that “Helen adopts tuk tuk drivers”. It is beginning to feel as though she was right! I hate negotiating prices and I like having some sort of rapport with the person driving me around, so I tend to find someone I like and stick with them. This inevitably results in my having “a tuk tuk in every port”, so to speak. I have bonded with drivers in a number of different places, been introduced to families, eaten at peoples’ homes and referred to as “bong srey” (older sister) and “mak” (mother) many times.
The thing that bonded me to “Rav”, my guy in Siem Reap, was his willingness to help when Kim asked him to translate for us. He was kind, enthusiastic and humble, giving nothing away about himself such that I figured he was probably living a comfortable life. It was only after we’d spent some significant time together, that I slowly learned he was just as poor as Kim, who he was helping so earnestly. It was one of my Cambodian unraveling experiences, where I began to comprehend that poverty does not have a face, and that the people who are most helping the poor, are the poor themselves.
When I was last in Siem Reap there were four of us with occasional competing interests meaning that we needed two tuk tuks. My friends were at the temples with Rav when I arrived so he arranged his good friend “Seth” to meet me at the bus station and bring me to the hotel. Soon enough I had another tuk tuk adoptee. A young father of four, he lives with his parents at his brother in law’s home “in a very small space”. Rav had obviously told him about me, as he already knew about the school sponsorship of Rav’s sons, the crowdfund I did for Rav’s motorbike and the help I’d given Kim until recently.
Last week Seth sent me a distraught message with a photograph of his son in a hospital bed, saying “the dogs in my street have better life than my sons”. I couldn’t understand much of it and he apologised that he could not explain “because my English so bad”. Win was nearby so I asked him to call and the story came back that his 6yo son had been attacked by a swarm of wasps. The hospital treated his son without charge so I still did not really understand how I could be of help, only that he seemed to think that in some way, I could be.
With the Kings Birthday weekend upon us, I had things to do in Kampong Cham. Siem Reap is always a relaxing place to visit thanks to my favourite hotel in Cambodia being here. So I said I might come to Siem Reap at the weekend, from Kampong Cham. Such snap decisions are just another example of the freedoms in my life.
Last Christmas some extended family in Australia pooled their present money together and sent it to me instead of buying each other presents. I’ve mentioned this before, and my plan to buy a cow with the gift, for John (remote villager with a probably-Polio-deformed leg) and his wife Sarah. On Saturday I arrived in Kampong Cham in time for lunch before Dan picked me up for some jaunts through the countryside. We started with a visit to the “house that Caz built”, where the family are very happy and have asked for a framed photograph of me to put on their wall! Not a project I am feeling terribly inspired by! For the first time in their lives they have a toilet and electricity; and after years of living on the edge, Simona (blind widowed mother of two young daughters) can safely move around without threat of her house structure breaking underneath her.
We then made our way back into town and via the bus station for my ticket to Siem Reap, then continued out towards Dara’s village. Passing the Little House in Rice Fields, Dan called out to the excited children that we would stop in on our way back from Dara’s home, a short way further along. At Dara’s home I was met with a bunch of about 15 wide-eyed village children looking dumb struck at me. Luckily I’d thought to bring a bunch of 3D bookmarks from Australia which have been sitting in wait of just such a moment and even luckier, there appeared to be enough for everyone. Much excitement was generated when the children realised that by moving the bookmark slightly, they could make the kangaroos in the photograph jump! Dara’s mother said that he was having problems getting to school, about 1km away, as his friends don’t always want to take him on the carrier of their bike. I agreed to donating a bicycle to him and the next morning before catching the bus, Dan and I made our way to a second hand bicycle dealer. Before I’d left Kampong Cham, Dara and his parents had arrived in town to pick up his new wheels.
Leaving Dara’s home, we made our way back down the dusty track, past many little houses in soaking rice fields, towards John and Sarah’s home, as I studied every cow we passed. Once more, Sarah was not home. She is employed as a construction worker now, in Kampong Cham. She leaves home before 7am and returns to the family after 6pm, with no days off. It is hard to imagine this tiny pretty woman working on a construction site, but it’s a common phenomenon across Cambodia. His disability precludes John from being able to make such a contribution to the family’s income so he stays home with the children. I came with colouring books and a set of pencils, whose approval rating soared immediately.
I also came with cow money. We discussed our business deal with Dan as translator and everyone understands that Collins, named after the family who donated the money, is my cow, but her progeny will belong to John and Sarah, whose idea this novel business plan came from. Once Collins has had a baby, John and Sarah will identify someone in or near their village who is as needy as them, who can take over the care of Collins and earn ownership of her next baby. I’m unsure how many times I can expect Collins to procreate on this plan, perhaps twice might be the limit, we will have to see. The following day Dan forwarded me photographs of Collins and her transport home. The seller wanted US$740 for her, but agreed to negotiate down to $700 including transport, in Dan’s exact words, “to help the poor family”. The photograph of the seller, standing on a dusty track in her wrap around skirt and matching blouse, didn’t exactly suggest signs of a non-poor-family, but she did have US$700 in her hand, more than most around here have ever touched.
On the way home we stopped in to visit the Phter Koma children at their new digs. I guess we sat for maybe an hour, under a tree as the sun drew slowly towards the horizon. The children are doing well in school, settled with their new abode and carers, and all very keen that I take them “skiing” (skating) or swimming next time, so we’ll arrange that. They always understand when all I can offer is a quick visit and never seem anything but happy to see me. Some of them are approaching adulthood, at 17 and 18 years old; the younger ones are changing before my eyes, having growth spurts and their little faces transforming out of the cherubic stage.
The final colouring books and pencils caused a stir with the children of the cleaner at my hotel, who live next door to the hotel and who I have known for about three years now. Their father is in prison as a subject of the infamous “government crackdown” on drugs, I don’t know the story behind that. Their mother, as a consequence, is working two jobs; cleaning by day and waiting on restaurant tables until 10pm each night. Her 12yo daughter plays second mother to the four younger children. I spent an evening being asked whose colouring was “good or not?” as little heads concentrated on doing the best job possible. It seems they go to bed hungry so when I was ready for some Me Time, I ordered three takeaway fried rices which were scooped up hastily with pencils and all small people suddenly vanished from my exhausting but very happy day.