I have European friends in Phnom Penh who went broke helping people. They are closer to retirement than away from it and they are in debt with no assets despite having well paid jobs as professionals with international organisations for many years. They have lived in a few different developing countries over the past twenty or more years, and have devoted their lives to helping people who would have otherwise either existed in misery and pain, or died. This has been an incredible education for me. Two years ago I honestly did not appreciate that there are millions of people in the world who succumb to death because they are not able to survive problems which simply do not exist in my reality. Problems of starvation, deprivation, preventable disease and violence which are not seen in my world.
The desire to help people who are visibly destitute is often very strong but I realise, observing the situation my friends now face, that there is little point in sending yourself broke. The only real way to help others is by looking after yourself to maintain a position of being able to help where possible. This means finding a balance between having too much and losing everything. It’s a fairly tight rope sometimes and I can see how my friends tripped and fell. Despite their current situation being fairly stressful, they still live a comfortable life with enough food, a nice rented apartment, and some locals they are able to support through employment such as a tuk tuk driver who works for them on a small daily wage. They are from a country with a social security system where they can retire to with supports in place.
Their version of “dire” contrasts strikingly with the version of “dire” that exists for so many in the world, including those they’ve helped over the years. Today alone the stories I heard left me reeling in dismay. That’s on the exact same day when I examined my bank account and pondered on how I am going to do everything I would like to do on my nine remaining months of holiday? It won’t be possible to hit New York, the UK, Europe and Latin America as I had hoped and I sadly have to reassess my plans. I even had some pangs of self pity as this reality hit me. That was after I’d heard some of the stories I am about to share here. Perhaps this is a good sign, that I won’t be going broke dedicating myself to the service of others, anytime soon?
As I mentioned in my previous blog, we spent last weekend in Kratie, the province north of Kampong Cham known for it’s small endangered population of river dolphins. We saw the river dolphins from a boat on the tranquil waters of this very unique part of the Mekong, cycled on Koh Trong Island, drank cocktails each night, lunched on a bamboo floored platform above flowing waters of the Mekong upstream from the dolphins, and many other very touristic experiences. But the biggest and most delightful experience was the magical time spent with my two expat friends and Chom, plus Chom’s wife and 3yo son who stayed at the family home in a rural village, while we continued on to Kratie town.
After a weekend of exotic experiences, we thought it had come to an end as we boarded the tuk tuk and made our way south on the highway, past village after village of thatched wooden cottages and all the rural scenes that accompany them. Chom suggested we could have lunch with his wife’s family and so we shopped at Kratie Market for beef and vegetables, piling them into the tuk tuk with the rest of our hilariously huge load.
Two hours later, our feet resting on luggage or poking out over the side of the tuk tuk for want of space, we approached their rural village, stopping in at a local pagoda to admire the golden reclining Buddha and other structures in the typically beautiful, spacious and leafy grounds. We laughed heartily with a couple of elderly gentlemen sitting under a tree who enacted to Bea and I, the motion of pulling down their strides and squatting over a toilet and pointing to the room where this could take place should we be wondering. Chom engaged with them animatedly before explaining that they had just returned from his brother in law’s engagement ceremony where they had seen Microphone. Back on board, we drove through the pagoda to an adjoining road, exiting on a shady country lane above the Mekong. Within moments Microphone came into sight, playing on a bicycle in the dust outside his grandmother’s elevated wooden home. As we parked various family members appeared, their hands joined respectfully at their chins in Chum Reap Suor gestures towards us. We were ushered out of the tuk tuk and into the dusty open basement area under the house to sit on the standard bamboo table which furnishes every home in Cambodia and serves as a combined table/chair/bed.
Our bags of market fresh food were immediately spread out at one end of this table and a team work immediately ensued with vegetables washed by one, chopped by another, garlic crushed by one, beef rump sliced by another, all amidst animated conversation, debate and demonstration with the knife about how best to perform each task. Neighbours arrived to watch and chat, children played amongst dogs and chickens at our feet and at least four adults worked together, talking about how to cook and serve the food and only proceeding once an agreement was reached on every detail. I for one, felt totally awestruck at the rich family-community life I found myself immersed in. Between watching the children, animals and team of cooks, I wandered over the road and rubbed the head of an ox who looked at me with the longest, prettiest eyelashes, leaning into my fist in cooperation at the head-rubbing on offer; photographed a boat through the trees on the Mekong below; watched the various moto-driven mobile shops honking to announce their proximity, waved down by consumers along the way.
Two hours later, filled with rice, beef and vegetables enjoyed with four generations of Chom’s famiy in-law, we hit the dusty tracks again and travelled another three hours south to Kampong Cham. Arriving home, I jumped in the shower and as I watched the bright orange, dust-drenched water wash down the drain, savoured the memories of perhaps the most enchanting few days of my life.
This morning I spent some time with Chaz at Phter Koma. He met the HIV+ mother and her two children yesterday to organise some of the paperwork. She returned to Kampong Cham to make herself and her children available for the recruitment process. There is no guarantee we can take them and they will have to meet various criteria before we can promise the children a place in our home. Aware that she was under great financial strain, I asked Chaz to let her know that I would support her with a small amount of money to finance her trip. She is living in a remote area though and it was not possible to get any money to her. As such, she relied on my promise of assistance and arranged a loan with a farmer. Rather than return with the cash she owes him, she is obliged to work in a rubber plantation for a month now, to repay the $25 loan. But she has enough money to feed herself and her two children for about a month while she labours through her latest debt. She is in very poor health and probably performing this hard labour whilst living out her final months.
Chaz told me that she had a lot of stories to tell of hardship and I asked him for detail. He said “for example” before relaying that she often cannot feed her children, and is often weak and bed-bound. Her ten year old son goes out searching for edible leaves which they cook and eat. He has told his mother not to worry about him or his sister, that he will look after them. He often goes without food, insisting that his mother eat what he has managed to find for them. She is in her mid 30s and preparing to die from an AIDS related illness related to her inability to access the anti-retroviral treatment she needs due to her poverty stricken circumstances. Chaz quoted her as saying, among other things and apparently in tears many times during their meeting, “I don’t know how much longer I have to live and I want my children to be safe and get an education and other opportunities I did not have”. As I have said before, her husband who is HIV negative, abandoned the family when he learned of their infection. As a young girl she was involved in a traffic accident and received a blood transfusion which she believes is how she contracted HIV.
Horrified at the stories Chaz was delivering to me in his calm, accepting manner, I said that in Australia I never met even one person who experienced such hardship, yet in Cambodia it seems that everyone can tell me similar stories from some time in their life or another. Chaz agreed, pointing out that he also has similar stories. His family were relatively prosperous (as with “broke”, “prosperous” also comes in varying degrees!), until his brother had a traffic accident and they had to go into debt to pay for his treatment. The doctors wanted to amputate his leg following the injury and instead of agreeing to this, his parents turned to a traditional healer. Chaz said “In Cambodia the doctors always want to cut and we do not trust them, and now my brother is okay and he can walk”. But at a price, as the family spent all of their money on hospital bills combined with costs of a traditional healer. Sometime after this his mother developed breast cancer and after having both breasts removed, died a painful death from what sounds like metastastes (“the lumps were everywhere”). He remembers her crying every night from pain. His father remarried very soon after Chaz’ mother died and he has had a very strained relationship with his family since that time.
Living in his village, Chaz worked as a labourer building wells, digging in deep trenches, breathing dirt and moving large rocks which were lifted out by ropes above him. A very risky business with nowhere to go if a rock became dislodged from the rope it was tied to. After a few years of this existence he moved to Phnom Penh in hope of finding better opportunities. He worked very long days at a family owned restaurant, earning $25 per month plus accommodation and food, and was entitled to two hours per day to attend classes such as a computer course he enrolled in. He remembers eating yellow (instant) noodles every single day and being very hungry all the time. He also had many gastric problems, including a bout of Typhoid. After a few years he realised that life was no better in the city and returned to his village. It was upon returning to his village that he met a foreigner who recognised his situation and ability, returned to Europe and located enough donors to support Chaz to attend university. He moved to Kampong Cham to attend university in 2007. Growing up under hardship in a rural village he had no vision at all that his future would improve as much as it did “and this is why I always want to say thank you to the people who helped me. Now I have a Masters degree and I can work here instead of labouring in my village. I am very lucky”. He earns an executive salary of almost $100 per week.
These are just a few of the most recent harrowing stories I’ve been told in the past day or two. The saga of recruiting children based on criteria and whether these criteria have any room for flexibility is another story altogether, involving a lot of very strong discussion between France and Cambodia and my learning curve is so steep it is almost going backwards on itself!
A close family friend Andrew died last week in New Zealand. He was not only involved in the fundraising that his wife coordinated on behalf of Phter Koma, but he had Mum and I to stay for a week in November, during which time we held the fundraiser. We had the most relaxing visit with this big gentle giant of a man who read every book under the sun, remembered details that would not even enter my consciousness, made us laugh and cried with us too. In his memory some money was put into my account by Mum and one of my aunties “to go to a good cause in Andrew’s memory”. So far he has provided food for this woman and her children for a month. Their situation is by no means going to have a “happy” ending, but with Andrew’s help it is eased significantly and sometimes that is the best any of us can do for each other. Rest in Peace, Andrew.