Cool Fires

Cambodia is in the throes of “the Hot season”, better known in tropical Australia as “the Build-Up”.  It is hot and extremely humid, with clouds building up in the sky but very little rain, so that the humidity just builds and builds.  Even the locals are suffering.  Tonight, leaving my apartment, our security guard was shirtless and wiping sweat from his brow with his t-shirt.  Earlier today during a home visit, a 12yo girl was covered in pearls of sweat.  I always say that you know it’s truly hot when even the locals are feeling it.

A nationwide energy crisis is being blamed on the long Dry season which has depleted the hydropower dams supplying much of the country’s electricity.  Phnom Penh began experiencing daily power outages about a week ago, just as I was leaving for a weekend away.  It’s a real killer when your electric fan turns off in this weather.  Thankfully I live in an apartment block with a generator that kicks in with every power cut.  If I am home I often don’t know if the power is out or not.  On Monday morning, oblivious to the power cuts that had been happening like clockwork all weekend, I walked down the street to the beauty salon to get my nails done.  The girl turned me away saying “Sorry, can  you come back, because we have no fire?”.  No fire?  “Yes, do you know, no fire?”.  I could not imagine why she needed a fire to do my nails but I told myself “because Cambodia” and walked back home in blissful ignorance.  Relaying my confusion to a friend later in the day, I learned that the direct translation of “electricity” in Khmer, is the same word as “fire”.  So the reason we’re all suffering in the heat around here, is because we don’t have enough fire.

Today I did some home visits to a number of clients with my colleague.  We followed up on two high risk babies who are both doing well; visited our paralysed client who continues to wait for his wheelchair; and searched unsuccessfully again for “Face Man” who was out on the water, fishing.  A family I have met a few times who are dealing with a number of crises asked us to visit.  Two twenty-something brothers were released from prison a few days ago.  They were arrested for drug possession but proclaimed innocence with a credible story about the drugs being secreted over a small brick wall onto their property during a police raid in the slum where they live.  Their imprisonment placed the family under financial strain as their 19yo sister needed to travel to the prison every few days to supply them with food.  This meant she was not able to work as reliably as usual and so the family took a US$200 loan to deal with rent and other expenses.  The moneylender takes $40 in interest each month, keeping them in constant debt.

The brothers came home a few days ago and their sister asked us for a clinical review.  Both have Chicken Pox-like rashes which have become infected.  One of them only on his lower legs, but the other reported having a very high fever with coryzal symptoms at the beginning, and the rash is all over his torso and legs, with extremely swollen lower legs, ankles and feet, probably due to the sores becoming infected.  I reassured them it was nothing to panic about and referred them for review by our MD.  I then explained that infections are easy to pass around in prisons where it can be crowded, and enquired if it was crowded where they were?  Their cell was 8m x 8m and housed anywhere between 110 to 120 people!  When I asked how this was possible, they said that they had to sleep lying on their side and had a rotation for lying down / standing up.  There was no “fire” so I am left imagining how it’s possible to survive in such torrid conditions, with no air movement except the heat of each other’s breath and, as my friend Chom calls it, “body gas”.  If all they came home with was infected Chicken Pox, I guess they’re pretty lucky and I have a new understanding now of just why diseases like Tuberculosis run rampant through prison populations.

A few different people send, or have sent, money to me for Cambodia and entrust me with deciding where to channel it.  I’m not sure if any of them imagined, or would approve, of paying off a family debt caused by two young men’s imprisonment.  But that’s exactly where some of the money is going.  The potential of impoverished youth all over the world is destroyed by the perils of poverty.  In the wake of New Zealand’s terror attack last week, the phrase coined by PM Jacinda Ardern seems appropriate to so many violations against humanity:

They Are us

One thought on “Cool Fires

  1. If Hell exists on earth, it must be that prison. OMG. Aside from that, I hope you find a way to pay off that family’s debt and allow them to breathe once again. I just shake my head at the stress and misery some people on this planet live with. And I’m sure there are even worse stories. Thanks Helen, for opening my eyes.


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