People have to decide whether they live in an economy or a civilised society. Unfortunately too many First Worlders have chosen the former. ~ My friend Steve
I like Steve’s quote a lot. He’s a difficult guy for me to have a conversation with because he says it succinctly and I rarely find anything to disagree with, expand upon, or add. He’s a kindred spirit. They can be hard to come by but I have a few kindred spirits around me and yesterday here in Phnom Penh I had three of them around me at once, making for an extraordinary day.
Bernadette is a Belgian woman with a unique story of work, travel, artistic bent and philanthropy. I met her in Phnom Penh when I contacted an organisation she is connected with, offering to volunteer with them during my holiday. We clicked immediately. Maria and Berta are equally like minded Spanish women who I met on holiday with Kim (a like-minded MSF expat) in Mondulkiri around the same time as I met Bernadette. Yesterday the four of us converged and I had an amazing day worth recording here.
Bernadette picked me up early in her tuk tuk and we spent a few hours with an NGO at a Cham (Islamic) community on the shores of the Mekong River. This landless community live in destitution, housed in boats on the river or shacks on the shore, reliant entirely on the fish they catch to survive. Bernadette volunteers as a photographer and attends with the NGO who are trying to implement social programs to bring the community opportunities, such as providing each family with easy-to-maintain filters to ensure safe drinking water, ensuring the children are registered at birth, enrolling children in school and paying the otherwise-impossible school fees. Yesterday we visited the school to pay the fees before attending the shoreline community where two family assessments were conducted. One small child had a lymph node in his neck and reports of an accompanying cough and fever – possible Tuberculosis, so we discussed ways to ensure he is seen by someone who can diagnose and treat his illness. This can be very difficult as transport alone is a barrier, along with the costs associated with visiting most health facilities. Stories are very common, of people with life threatening conditions being discharged from hospital once the money runs out; families going into exorbitant debt to try and save ill children; and treatments which are officially free (such as Tuberculosis) having illegal charges attached to them by the practitioners in charge of the medications. Health care in this environment is very difficult for very many reasons, with cost being just one of the obstacles.
Soon the shoreline will rise with the waters of the Mekong, when shacks will be dismantled and moved further uphill. The community have been told they cannot live here though and are at constant risk of eviction, particularly once plans for a tourist resort are completed, at which time the need to evict these unsightly citizens will become imperative. In these waters I saw dishes being washed, teeth being brushed, men and women setting fish traps, children swimming and people bathing.
From here we tuk-tuked our way back to the life of plenty where an overdue hair cut and colour was followed by socialising. Bernadette met Maria and Berta and as expected, there was a lot of common ground. Bernadette even has a photograph on show in an exhibition showing with Through Waters overseas. Maria and Berta are showing a different set of photographs in the same international exhibition on display here in Phnom Penh. Bernadette also exhibited her work in the cafe where we had lunch, chosen because it is run by friends of my mother’s friend in New Zealand. So the connections yesterday seemed endless.
From our long and leisurely lunch we headed to the Through Waters photographic exhibition. Maria and Berta were cycling around Cambodia when my American fellow-expatriate MSFer Kim (who has since returned home) and I met them. Their journey was for the purpose of a water awareness project with villagers and school children in communities along the way. Kim and I took a bus to Mondulkiri, mesmerised by the previously-unseen sloping, forested highlands in an otherwise exceptionally flat and tree-less land. Maria and Berta had cycled the same route, an adventure not without tears as they ascended to 800m above sea level on the first hills they’d seen during thousands of kilometres cycled. They had traveled with a deaf friend who was helping them to hold the workshops, a large number of which were held with deaf children and adults and also some workshops with blind groups. Their stories of the differences working with general Khmer groups compared to deaf groups and then compared with blind groups were not only interesting but also highly entertaining. As well as the beautiful artistic photographs on display, the exhibit showcased this journey with Through Waters, the workshops they held and some of the art created by community members during these workshops.
Three themes emerged when working with Cambodian children on the topic of water and it’s significance to their lives. These were on display in the beautiful studio space as below:
and Pigs on Dolphins!
The journey that Maria and Berta cycled on behalf of Through Waters and the space where the exhibition was showcased, adorned with visual art by Cambodian artist Vollak Kong:
Some of the photographic art displayed at Through Waters Phnom Penh exhibition which closed on Friday.
I’d love to share more but I guess there’s an element of “you had to be there” and I think this shows the general gist of the exhibition.
On our way home we stopped at a bookshop and found fifteen English fairytales for the English students at the orphanage. I also found a collection of simple fairytales for a 25yo patient from a riverside Cham community in Kampong Cham who weighs 23kg and is probably going to die due to a combination of serious health complications with drug resistant TB thrown in for good measure. She is a most beautiful young woman whose face has somehow escaped the sucked-in skeletal look most severely malnourished people develop. A keen English student, when I asked her the day that her father carried her onto the ward if there was anything she wanted to break the boredom of lying on her wooden bed base, she told my translator that she would like an English book. I have given her a few now, but the fairytales with accompanying illustrations and reasonably simple sentences will hopefully help her to practise her reading. She listens to me with what appears to be comprehension of what I am saying, but always relies on my translator to repeat what I have said and apart from “hello”, “thankyou” and “bye bye” she never dares to utter English to me. The fascination people have with English language is often so strong that they don’t feel brave enough to speak to native English speakers. Even Maria and Berta talked yesterday of their admiration for my English ability, the words I choose which they would never think of using, and the hilarity that confusion due to pronunciation regularly causes. I understand why young and inexperienced people find it intimidating, even though it need not be.
Last week I travelled with one of my nurses and the social work team plus a driver, to the Cham community where this patient lives. Parallel with the Mekong is a raised bitumen track, either side of which elevated houses sit on ground sloping down about two metres from the road. With the rains having started, their yards are already transformed into green-brown muddy ponds which must surely be breeding grounds for all sorts of unwanted creatures, not least of all Dengue and Japanese Encephalitis-carrying mosquitoes and any number of diarrhoeal-causing bacteria and parasites. As we stood beside the road speaking with the family about how they will manage the patient on her return home and the nominated Home Based Care Nurse who will be responsible for administering her daily TB medications by DOT (Direct Observed Therapy), small children shouted “Hello” from front doorways in the vicinity and laughed uproariously when I shouted back my replies. I tried to imagine how it would feel, growing up in such a destitute environment. It wasn’t possible and I soon gave up. But I hope that next weekend once she is home, some of my fellow expat-MSFers will join me on a 70km-round-trip cycle through beautiful countryside to her home to visit her, so that I can stay in touch and let her know she is not forgotten despite the lack of medical assistance available.
Finishing on the theme of kindred spirits, probably the main focus of my interview with MSF last year related to my ability to live and work alongside a wide variety of people, not all of whom I would necessarily like or get on with. I was confident that this was something I could do, but actually living the experience has been an incredible challenge at times. I was told that upon return from missions, the main reason people report for either positive or negative experiences, has to do with the expats they live and work with. I silently thought to myself that surely the work and the cultural experience would have a much more significant impact. It turns out that the experienced interviewer knew what she was talking about, however! Our house is always filled with expatriates, plus the occasional visiting Khmer colleague. An eclectic mix of nationalities, each and every one of the long term housemates is now a kindred spirit whose company I thoroughly enjoy both at home and at work. The remaining four months of my mission should be an interesting and happy time. In the past eight months I have made some strong friendships. But I have also been challenged at times in ways that have taken me by surprise and taught me a lot about myself. For the next four months I will be with a recently married French Project Coordinator and his wife; a Slovakian doctor; Phillipino Laboratory Manager and Australian Nurse, all of whom I share a lot in common with. Despite missing some of my departed friends, I feel it’s an incredible stroke of good luck that my year-long mission will end on this very high and happy note.
Then there’s the young little spirits I have come to know and love at the Orphanage and beyond, who attend English lessons with Bea and I, soaking up everything we try so badly to teach them. Some of them are picking it up so quickly that I am surprised to find myself having raw conversations occasionally as they string abecedarian sentences together to ask me my nationality or if I will take them out one day for a treat. Bea and I agreed to this and have planned for a trip over a few hours this weekend, after making various arrangements with all the relevant people and causing an uproar of excitement amongst the kids when it was announced. From 17yo down to 6yo, these young people are very special souls who I hope to spend more time with once my mission ends, who I have started to miss on the days when we don’t have English class. Our classes are highly entertaining, featuring laughter, dancing, wide eared fascination, story telling, pronunciation practise, homework, eating fruit and lots of varied fun.
How to end a post like this without sounding corny? I will end with some photos of our English students in class!