Our Fields of Gold

Darwin mentioned the word love 95 times in the Descent of Man.
He mentioned survival of the fittest twice.

Five months ago, days after Paula’s major corrective surgery, Samantha and I left Seattle, bound for Phnom Penh.  A week later I returned home to Australia.  The last time Samantha or I saw her, Paula was lying in a hospital bed, semi-conscious on analgesia, hooked up to infusions, catheters and drains.  Last week, now in normal health, she and her mother returned home to Cambodia.  An agonising week of silence ended when Samantha, waiting in Phnom Penh as I waited in Central Australia and Karen waited in New York, finally sent word:
Hi Helen. I talk to <P> already. She is OK and felt amazing when she arrived home. She said when she saw her dad she felt afraid. And a lot of visitor come to see her everyday. She will come to see me at Phnom Penh some time soon. You know at the airport the people come to pick her up. Some smile, some clap hands, some tear drop. Feeling amazing her life. Her dad come also. They celebrate for welcome home already.

This weekend Paula and her mother traveled to Phnom Penh to visit Samantha.  We connected via a Facebook video call for a long-awaited reunion.  Paula is full-faced, glowing with colour after years of anaemic pallor, fully mobile and healthy.  When I appeared on screen her mother grabbed Samantha’s phone and hugged it, turning my screen black!  We talked about Paula’s plans for the future, her father’s visit home from Malaysia to see his daughter in her new life, my hope to see them in person later this year.  With baby number two on the way and her husband’s contract with an NGO about to end, Samantha, who has the Cambodian equivalent of my qualifications, is unemployed in a suffocating third world economy.  The bitter sweet benefit to this is that she gets to stay at home with her terminally ill two year old, rather than requiring his grandmother to care for him while she lives away from home in order to work for a meagre but desperately needed salary.  None of these ongoing personal challenges has stopped her from being able to care for Paula during the time our team coordinated her TB care, nor share in Paula’s emerging hope and excitement as events unfolded last year.  The two women, 27yo Cham and 33yo Khmer, have bonded through their cultural divide, during the lowest of possible lows and the highest of possible highs.  Both know poverty, illness and their attendant powerlessness intimately.  They live inside this reality as opposed to the likes of me who observes it all from a safe and comfortable distance.

They have both also now experienced life, albeit briefly, in the world as I know it.  My world of well resourced hospitals, schools, institutions and private enterprises, whose first-world-educated staff travel to work on well maintained roads in societies where rules and regulations, whilst imperfect, intend to safeguard the populace rather than subdue or tyrannise.  My world where people dressed in rags, begging or selling home made wares, often missing limbs or blind, are entirely absent rather than a typical street scene you expect to see multiple times per day.  My world where stories such  as the rich and famous hanging at Paris Fashion Week; a drunken groomsman dancing into and smashing a wedding cake; or interviewing a Hollywood property broker famous for his celebrity connections and financial success, are considered “news” worth televising.  My world, where “the world is your oyster” is a phrase with some truth to it for most, not for almost no-one.

Everything about Australia seems different to me now.  Not because much has changed but because I see it all so differently.  A number of friends  have complained about being “broke”, then in the next breath described recent or planned purchases or commitments which most of the world could not dare to dream of but which appear basic to those of us in the wealthy world.  The homeless or impoverished in my town are not without cash, nor food.  Malnourished humans are not a daily vision.  I am not approached by beggars in genuine need of scraps simply to survive another day.  People with qualifications and the desire to work, find work.  Families are not separated due to rare and distant employment opportunities paying meagre salaries.

My newfound knowledge is that the world is not as we believe it to be, and everything relates to our perceptions which develop through repeat exposure.  My own world view formed through decades of repeat exposure to solid, private homes in leafy streets where I have regularly not known, or known very little about, most of my neighbours.  Car ownership is a norm, not an exception.  Electricity, clean treated water and toilets connected to first world sewerage treatment plants are fundamental amenities available to everyone.  There are street lights, paved roads, affordable public transport, bicycle tracks, public libraries, hospitals, schools and many public services, too many to name.  I have received a strong education and have access to affordable first class health care.  Without knowing so until I was exposed to “the other world”, my whole life has been spent walking in fields of gold.

In the world beyond these fields, poor lives are dispensable.  Every week hundreds of thousands of people die from preventable diseases of poverty.  Many others suffer from undiagnosed chronic conditions, hidden away from sight and with limited to no support beyond families and social networks.  Despite a large proportion of these people being children and young adults, with the same potential as any young person in any wealthy country, their suffering and deaths are rarely reported as news and not well documented due to deficient or absent surveillance systems.  Those of us unaware of this reality, are easily able to remain blissfully unaware.  Consequently, we remain indifferent.  As well as providing me the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences, improving the rich world’s awareness of these issues has always been a motivation behind my blog.

During my last week in Cambodia, en route home from Seattle, my own lack of awareness was brought to light when I visited Paula’s village.  I have traveled to this village many times, sometimes by MSF car, once with Mum in Win’s car (before I ever met Paula), sometimes by tuk tuk and three or four times by bicycle.   This time however, I gained more insight than I could have previously imagined, about life as a rural villager in a poor country.  At least three of Paula’s close neighbours are incapacitated by undiagnosed disability and illness.  When I previously visited her, I had assumed she was an exceptional case.  I learned how wrong this was when, known as the person behind getting her to America for a cure she could never have dared hope for, I was asked to visit a number of her neighbours, all probably hoping for a similar miracle.  Blinded by my own shining fields of gold, despite meeting many impoverished people both at hospital and during home visits, and despite many hours of curiosity, staring out of bus windows during my travels in Cambodia, I had never considered the idea that so many live an invisible life of immobility and disability, deprived of any proper care or attention and hidden from sight behind ramshackle walls.  I wrote about the one villager I did meet that day, in my October 23 post “Until We Meet Again“.  I hope to meet the others when I return later this year, if not for any reason other than the opportunity to share their stories here.

A good example of the status and value placed on humans according to their wealth, is a recent news item out of Cambodia, where more than 30% of schools do not have toilets and approximately 80% of the population have no toilet at home.  Last month a Thai princess began a three day tour of Cambodia in one of the most rural and impoverished provinces, Ratanakiri in the north.  To cater for her visit to a particular location, a toilet was built, measuring almost the size of my house, complete with air conditioning, at a cost of US$40,000.  That is 66 times the average annual salary of US$600.  She did not use the toilet, which is now being converted to an office building for local officials.

Some would say that the inferior value placed on the poor is not our problem and that it’s a case of “survival of the fittest”.  This assumes that we in the wealthy world are somehow “better stock” either biologically or culturally.  After observing the way that so many are able to survive, caring for their own as well as others, in undignified and inhumane circumstances, this assumption could not be more wrong.  Endurance, resilience, grace, compassion and resourcefulness are thriving human traits in impoverished communities.   The burden of responsibility and care towards the world’s poor, is shouldered by the poor.  Villagers look out for one another, neighbours are involved in each other’s situations, colleagues and extended families run networks of reciprocal loans and care arrangements in order to allow each other to do what is needed for survival.  All of this is done in the face of challenges of such magnitude that most in my world, including me, could not imagine.  It seems to me, that the wealthier we become, the more likely we are as a society to fall into certain negative attitudes and behavioural patterns.  We become more precious about things which do not matter.  Community spirit and compassion is overridden by self interest and indulgence, as we have more time and resources to focus on ourselves while at the same time becoming more distant from and less exposed to, poverty.  The suffering of others can be easily disregarded, especially when it happens to people in far away places.  Even as “far away” as Timor Leste, 700km from the Australian coast!

We in the wealthy world, whether we believe it or not, whether we have financial struggles or not, do live in fields of gold.  This should inspire a culture of philanthropy, for the benefit of those living in extreme poverty as well as for our own personal and societal benefit.  Prosperity can breed self interest, in turn breeding associated misery.  Watch a single episode of The Real Housewives of New York, an ostentatious parade of enviable wealth and profound unhappiness, if you don’t believe me!  Studies have shown that spending on others feels better than spending on ourselves.  Giving has been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria and connection to others.  A dose of oxytocin causes people to give more generously and feel more empathy towards others.  This effect, known as “helpers high”, is based on a theory that giving produces endorphins in the brain that provide a mild version of a morphine high!  You can learn more about these theories in this 3 minute YouTube video The Science of Giving  Giving can only illuminate our fields of gold and in the poor world, tiny amounts make a big difference.  Some worthwhile causes are listed below.  Do it today and see what happens!

Fields of gold

My own GoFundMe page is back at $0 and there are plenty of people in need of contributions.  Each month I send money to Chom, who receives my list of beneficiaries and provides me with photographic evidence that it has been given as directed.  Help A Cambodian Family

Phter Koma Children’s Home for children with HIV, accommodating and educating 15 impoverished HIV+ children.  Phter Koma Childrens’ Home

Cambodian Childrens Fund

Sunrise Cambodia

Friends of Baguia This is an Australian run charity supporting people in the district of Baguia, a remote and mountainous area of Timor Leste.

Kopernik connect simple, life saving technology with the people who need it most.  Worth reading about!

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Some Reasons I Love Central Australia

Average child knowledge

I am in the throes of a prolonged episode of writer’s block right now.  Sorry Mum!

Today I spent time with a patient from a remote Central Australian community about 300km out of Alice Springs.  I have spent a few months of my life in this community so we had a common interest.  In a past life he worked as a translator.  I asked how many languages he speaks?  “Alyawarre, Warlpiri, Kaydetye, Western Arrernte and a little bit Luritja”.  As he listed them, I pointed to a finger for each language.  When he stopped, I gave him a moment.  He had obviously finished so I pointed to a sixth finger, adding “English”.  He nodded gently.  English is such an absorbed aspect of life that whenever I ask this question, people almost inevitably forget to include it in their catalogue of skills.  Central Australian indigenous people are perhaps some of the world’s most genius linguists.

Some years ago I worked with a research institute on a study relating to risk factors of heart disease in remote and urban indigenous communities.  We traveled as a team of doctors, nurses and health workers, to this man’s home community for a week at a time over a number of months.  It was hard, hot, dusty work in a very remote location.  Each Sunday we packed the Troupee with our supplies and headed “bush”.  Each Friday we packed our blood samples, paperwork and test results and drove the dusty red tracks back to town.  As well as a complex array of medical tests, part of the study involved a series of questionnaires related to social, psychological and lifestyle factors of each participant.

One afternoon, sitting in the doorway of a demountable building adapted into our makeshift clinic, I interviewed an elderly man with broken English.  Red dust and low lying silver scrub stretched toward a distant blue horizon.  When I asked him to describe his daily diet, he swept his arms out as if to encircle the landscape before us and replied “there’s lotta food out there!”.  I looked out at the barren, infinite terrain, envisioning myself dying of dehydration / starvation, amidst a massive platter of unrecognisable bush tucker.

Today’s patient asked me to help him arrange an optometry appointment “because I can’t see now, everything is blurry.  When I go ‘unting, I might walk right past that goanna or I might step on snake!”.

What an amazing knowledge Australian indigenous people have.  How undervalued and wasted their expertise.  Mainstream Australia could learn a lot.

In keeping with this theme, there was a great Facebook post by IDIDJ Australia today, about Central Australia’s most famous indigenous artist, which is worth sharing here.

Namatjirritja
Pictured here is Namatjirritja Snr – initiated in the 1890s in the Central Desert region of Australia, major informant to anthropologists and linguists in the early 20th century, and father of Albert Namatjira who was said to be the most famous Indigenous Australian of his generation.

In the Arrernte language Namatjirritja means flying ant but it got corrupted by missionaries to Namatjira and it has stuck ever since.

Namatjirritja’s son Albert (Aboriginal name Elea meaning carpet snake, in reference to the carpet snake Dreaming conception site near Albert’s birthplace) was the first Aboriginal person in Australia to be given Australian citizenship.

Albert’s portrait was the first of an Aboriginal person to win the Archibald Prize, Australia’s most important art prize for portraiture.

In 1953 Namatjirritja Jnr was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal.

His legacy is powerful, rich and one that reaches deeply into and resonates widely with many aspects of modern Australian society from the arts to Aboriginal land rights… but it was also a legacy tinged with trauma and sadness.

To father and son, we remember you and we love you, flying ant and carpet snake, may you Rest in Peace.