All our knowledge has it’s origins in our perceptions
Leonardo da Vinci
I regularly tell people in Cambodia that I come from a rich country, but that I am not rich. Each time I hear these words from my mouth, I wonder how someone from a poor country who has never experienced societal prosperity, processes such a statement. They see someone living in their country by choice, in comfort, obviously having travelled here from afar, and clearly unfamiliar with hunger and deprivation. My own impressions of the things I see and experience, and the exchanges I have with people everyday, obviously stem from my own perceptions which are steeped in my “rich world brain”. Below are some examples of my daily contemplations this week alone, from inside a country I can only understand from a privileged outsider’s perspective.
After breakfast at the market I noticed a little boy walking with a baby on his back, secured by a krama. Dressed in rags, he looked about eight by body size but was probably around twelve based on his facial features. Sobbing loudly, he walked to the gutter and sat down, where he released the severely malnourished toddler, who was naked except for a grubby and ripped t-shirt. The baby pottered around on the muddy pavement behind his big brother who continued to sob. Keeping them in sight, I crossed the road and bought two chilled coconuts. The tops were cut off and a straw pushed into each. As I approached the little guy with his feet in the filthy gutter, he immediately stopped sobbing and stared at me in astonishment. I had to coax him to take the coconuts and when he finally did, he offered me a weak smile.
My attempts to speak Khmer with him were met with wide-eyed silence and so, reassured that he had stopped crying, I cycled off. For the rest of the day I wished I had bought a proper meal for them both rather than a watery drink with next to no calories in it. I haven’t seen them since but I have wondered about them and hope that the coconuts didn’t cause more problems for him. If he’s in an abusive situation, which is quite possible for a beggar boy wandering the streets in charge of a baby, then it’s possible that being found in possession of food or drink could cause more problems than it solved. I will probably never know, although I continue to keep an eye out for them.
Dara is back in hospital with his amputation stump which continues to cause pain despite having the bone shortened only four months ago. Chom and I traveled out to his village for our weekly visit with him and he was already in Phnom Penh. The usual line up of wide eyed small people appeared, some of them summonsed by messengers who ran off excitedly to let the village know a Barang was in town. Dara’s grandparents came outside and sat underneath a tree while kids milled around staring at me, hiding behind grandma or tree trunks and others played hopscotch on the dusty track just outside the yard. We called Dara’s mother and he shouted down the telephone line at me in Khmer while I shouted back “ot yul te” (I don’t understand), amidst laughter on both ends of the line.
When I told grandma that I had to go away for a while to get my visa re-issued, but we’ll visit again in a couple of weeks, she asked Chom how much I spent to travel here from Australia. I said I didn’t want to tell her and he said that it was fine to say. I randomly picked $600. She replied that she has never known such an amount of money. But they have land, upon which their banana-leaf and bamboo shack sits, in a remote place which hopefully shouldn’t attract the attention of wealthy land grabbers.
Chom looked to the sky in the distance and shouted “we better go, look! Rain is coming!”. We boarded his moto and took off along the dust tracks. Before we could reach the bitumen on the outskirts of town, the heavens opened and dust turned to mud. We arrived at his house, trod through the mud to the front door which he pounded on before his wife opened it, laughing hysterically at the drowned and muddy rats before her.
While sitting on the riverside socialising with an Australian and a Khmer friend, a tiny girl suddenly appeared between the bushes behind us, her hands clasped together, obviously begging for money. She surprised us but our Khmer friend spoke gently to her and within a moment she walked around to the side of his chair to continue conversing with him. He runs an NGO involved in trying to address the problem of street kids and he walked home with her to find out where she lives so that his colleagues could attend the next day to follow up with the family. She is told each night by a grandmother that until her begging earns her 5,000 riel (US$1.25), she cannot come home. It’s difficult to say no in such circumstances, but giving to child beggars perpetuates the problem. Thankfully the right person was in the right place at the right time. She has approached me each subsequent evening so her situation is not yet resolved, but being “on the books” is a step in the right direction.
Sitting in my usual evening spot, the blind amputee came past on his nightly rounds. A Khmer friend was with me so I got the chance to finally have a bit of a conversation with the guy, who I will call Chai. His daughter has a scholarship to attend primary school and the family of four (parents and two children) “stay in a guest house in <location>”. To my western brain this sounded very positive and I concluded that there was probably no need to think further about trying to support them.
Chom and I visited the kids at Phter Koma, who were immersed in their English studies with the young French volunteers. Next week I am going on a field trip with Chaz, the home’s manager, to visit some other children’s homes and explore their systems as a way of assessing our own. I sat with Chaz for a while to discuss our plans and he knew how to locate Chai, so Chom and I headed over to find him at his “guest house”. We pulled up at a roadside shack and after some conversation Chom disappeared into the back yard. Once he located Chai, he waved me in.
Shock is a daily occurrence when you’re surrounded by privation. This time my shock had more to do with the ongoing ambiguity that exists in my head, where I seem to constantly perceive the things around me in one way (eg the blind amputee is doing fine), when in fact the reality is something else entirely (ie no, he’s living in extreme destitution).
A young German couple staying at my hotel joined me on a couple of evenings for drinks and a chat. The husband of the couple stated that obviously people here are “not so poor”. Why do you think that? He used the example of the children cycling past in their crisp white shirts and navy shorts or skirts, well presented and obviously attending school. First World Brain Syndrome will naturally assume such conclusions from such images. Yet Chai’s daughter, in her crisp white shirt and pleated navy skirt, has no running water in her home. She washes herself and her clothes, along with dozens of neighbours who share this water, in the round rain water tanks at the bottom of the stairs in the below picture.
The fact that she manages to look crisp and white out of this environment, is testimony to the drive that people have to maintain a level of dignity no matter how undignified their circumstances. It also shows that poverty is not necessarily a visible thing. Most rural Cambodians, who I encounter everyday and who invariably look clean and well presented, live in abject poverty. Yet the beautiful women and children and the handsome men could easily pass for middle class “rich worlders” if your only clue was an individual’s physical appearance.
Paula and her mother came to town for an appointment and I met them with a friend who translated for me. We spoke at length about the ongoing plans to try and get her to the USA for curative surgery. After reading about “Muslim filth” on Facebook once too often, and being told that just because I don’t agree with comments like this, it doesn’t make them untrue, I could not stop looking at them in their colourful headscarves. What will the experience of standing in line at Border Control in the USA with these innocent women, be like? Given the recent experience of an MSF friend returning from West Africa with an ignorant Border Control officer lecturing her about the threat her work posed to himself and his country, it could go either way.
My translating friend explained the need to sit in an aeroplane for perhaps 15 hours and Paula, at 29kg, suggested she would have to fast to stop her abdominal wounds from excreting faeces during the journey. I explained that there are toilets on the aeroplane which everyone uses for every bodily function and it will be important for her to eat. We talked about Halal food and her mother said that they will eat any food if it means her daughter getting better. She also said that “even if my daughter dies in America, it is better than her life now and I will say goodbye to her”. We talked about the experience of arriving at Border Control and what they can expect. My translating friend turned to me, mid-Khmer and said laughingly “it sounds like I am telling them about the experience but I never went on a plane!”. Most Cambodian people haven’t. Flying in and out of Cambodia, a tiny percentage (if any) of passengers and none of the airline staff, are Cambodian.
That night the American Infectious Disease consultant confirmed that Paula’s documented TB treatment and outcome means she is safe to travel and receive treatment without any infection control concerns. That ticks off step one of the process and we are now approaching the next hurdle, seeking charity care from the hospital. If this is successful we then have passports and visas to arrange before finally booking our travel.
It is a hopeful and anxious time for Paula, her family, the medical team here, myself and no doubt the team in America as well. One of the Khmer doctors called this unexpected situation “a miracle”. The first time I laid eyes on Paula 14 months ago, she was a crumpled up mass of tiny bones in her father’s arms and I knew she was about to die. That she continues to survive, and that a chance encounter in a faraway country connected us with a specialist who can help, is probably the most phenomenal thing to have ever happened in my life, let alone hers.
It’s nice to write about some hope amidst the wretchedness which sometimes consumes me.