Credit Where Credit is Due

More than 40% of the Central Australian population are indigenous.  18 local languages are spoken here.  My associations with indigenous people, as with locals in Cambodia and Timor Leste, or with the British, Americans, Spanish and French, have been positive, warm-hearted and filled with laughter and friendship.  Mum always said “people are the same no matter where in the world you go” and she was dead right, as usual.

That doesn’t mean that there are not differences.  Some of the strongest differences between indigenous and western culture relate to family and relationships.  Death is a good example and is unfortunately a much more common event among young and middle aged people here, as in so many parts of the world, than I was ever previously familiar with.  When a Western Arrernte person dies, it becomes taboo to speak their name, which is considered akin to calling their spirit back to earth.  Everything associated with the deceased, which they may have touched or used, is removed.  Blankets and clothes are burned.  Close family cut their hair off and move out of the house where they shared a home with the deceased.

Foreign to these cultural differences, I have made my fair share of faux pas’ in this regard.  The first death that ever really impacted me, was a young man in a family I am quite close to.  On the morning of his death I attended the family home and commented with surprise, at the fresh hair cuts of his children and wife, who all hugged me, leaving black hair all over my white top.  It was only when I thought about the context, that I realised the hair cuts were not a fashion statement, but an expression of loss.  I then proceeded to speak their father’s name a number of times, before his sister in law gently touched my arm, as if to both remind and reassure me at the same time.  When I asked if there was anything I could do, I was immediately asked if I could source new blankets for the family.  I questioned why and was shocked and initially confused at the answer, “because we burned our blankets”.  I have since become quite used to being asked to help poor families find new blankets after a death.

When my phone rang yesterday, the ensuing miscommunication was fairly predictable given the language barrier combined with my experience of being asked to help families purchase new bedding.  It was an old patient with her mother and husband calling.  The conversation went something like this (all names have been changed):

Hi Helen.  It’s me.  Naomi.
Hi Naomi.
What are you doing?
What is happening?
Oh, okay.  So ….. what is happening?
I’m here with Clifford and <Mum>.
How are they?
Next week funeral.
Oh.  Is it someone I know?
Yeah.  My father.
Oh no!  I didn’t know about that!
Was he in hospital?
No.  Home.  Heart attack.
Oh I am so sorry.
Talk to Clifford.

Hi Helen!
Hi Clifford!
<Hearty laughter, followed by> For the funeral, can you send credit?
Oh.  I can’t because I am really worried about money right now, and I have nothing.
Nah!  You know!  Credit, like your credit from you?  For the funeral?
Ummmmmm…..?  What do you mean?
You know, for the funeral, send it to office and they can read it at funeral?
Oh!  Yes!  I would love to do that.  I will do it tomorrow.

I wrote a “credit” (eulogy) and delivered it to a family member today, who said he would call me if there was anything that needed changing or deleting.  He has not done so and has returned home.  It is always challenging, for someone not used to name avoidance, writing about someone without actually naming them.  Below is my offering, which in fact is a funny story and an example of the positive experiences I have here, with people from a culture so different to my own.

I was born in Alice Springs but I grew up in New Zealand and English is my only language.  Working as a nurse, I came to Alice Springs in 1997 to work at the hospital.  In 2000 I started working for <an organisation> and I started to learn a bit about Alice Springs and other communities.  In maybe January 2004 another nurse and I went with two Western Arrernte patients who we were looking after, for a trip to Palm Valley.  The husband used to tell us all the time that he chased wild brumbies on the run at Palm Valley.  He missed this place but we had never seen it.  These patients were living at <a town camp> in Alice Springs and they have both passed away.  I miss them.

When we went to Palm Valley that day, it was really hot.  We drove in there and two men were lying under a tree.  My patient said “stop the car, they are my family”.  We stopped to talk to these men, who were brothers, and they asked if we could take them back to Alice Springs.  We told them to wait for us and after we visited Palm Valley, we picked them up.

These two brothers got in our car and introduced themselves.  They didn’t tell us their names, they just said “I’m Number One and he’s Number Two”.  They had a tape with country music and we played it all the way back to town.  We didn’t stop laughing and singing the whole way.  It was a really happy day for me.  We took our patients home and then we dropped these brothers at <their home>.  When I talk to this other nurse who is still my friend but she lives in Adelaide now, we always wonder how did those guys get to Palm Valley and what would happen to them if they didn’t see our car?

Years later Naomi became my patient and I had to meet her family to make sure everyone was okay.  I came to <this community> with Naomi and Clifford and I got to know the family.  Then she told me about more family at <another place> and I went there too.  When I met her father, I recognised him and I told him “You are Number One”.  He looked really shocked at me and we started laughing together as we remembered driving home from Palm Valley.  Then I met <his brother> and I recognised him.  Number Two!  <Brother> walks everywhere and I told my friend in Adelaide, I think those brothers walked to Palm Valley because I see <Brother> always walking.  We both think this is a really cool story and we always talk about it.

I am really sorry for the family’s loss.  He was a good man with a happy nature and it is a big loss for our community but especially for his family.  But I know you all must have a lot of happy memories to hold onto forever.  I know that I will never forget him and the happy time that we shared.


The Pursuit of Happiness

Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night   

~ William Blake, c. 1803

Adele Bloch-Bauer was the youngest daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker, born in 1880 in Vienna.  She was a socialite in Viennese aristocracy early last century.  Gustav Klimt was commissioned by her husband to paint her portrait, completing  the work of oil, silver and gold leaf on canvas in 1907.  Adele died of meningitis in 1925.  Members of her family escaped certain death via people smugglers shortly after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Others were sent to concentration camps, killed or committed suicide.   The family home was looted by the Nazis and their small Klimt collection ended up in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery.  The gold-flecked portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I was renamed The Lady in Gold in order to seem Aryan.  It drew crowds over many decades and was dubbed Austria’s Mona Lisa.  The story of Adele’s family and the way their art works finally returned to them is beautifully told in the 2015 film Woman in Gold.  It illustrates three points relevant in today’s climate of fear-mongering: 1.  Genuine asylum seekers do not need to be impoverished; they can in fact be affluent; 2.  Persecution involves humiliation and dehumanisation of the target population; 3.  Being born into “sweet delight” does not mean you will never know “endless night” – a very good reason for those of us living well, to always find compassion for the circumstances of others.

There is a mansion on Fifth Avenue at East 86th Street, across the road from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I once had dinner with friends.  It is now the Neue Galerie, a boutique showcase of German and Austrian art owned by the son of Estee Lauder.  That, of course, is how I got to eat there, in the gallery restaurant, on a cold December night in 2010.  The Neue Galerie purchased The Lady in Gold from Adele’s niece in 2006 for US$135 million.  Perhaps I saw it when I was there?  I don’t actually remember!

Last week I worked at a remote indigenous community 300km out of Alice Springs.  One evening in the dusty demountable that was home for four nights, I watched and loved Woman in Gold via iTunes.  I first saw it advertised on a billboard outside a cinema in London’s Haymarket about a year ago, an entirely different world from the place I finally got to enjoy the film.  As I ordered my meal at the Neue Galerie in New York that night, I felt that I was a fairly ordinary citizen of the world, who sometimes gets to have nice holidays in places where I can visualise how life might be had I been born to good fortune.  The fact I was ever there in the first place, I now know, is an example of my extreme good fortune.  Every single day now, I feel grateful beyond words, for the fact that I was “born to sweet delight”.  I am also constantly startled at just how long it took me to recognise this fact and eternally grateful to both Timor Leste and Cambodia for their powerful lessons.  Sharing what I can of my good fortune, with those who do not experience our world as the place of comforts and freedoms that it is for me, has become my pursuit in life.  Inspiration also comes from the good others, even those who can offer very little, do in the world.

Every week I hear from various sources in Cambodia.  Some of the stories they tell are worth sharing here, to show that the Third World is not a place of only doom and gloom, but also of human strength, survival, generosity and compassion.

Many places in Cambodia are in drought…the wells are empty, the ponds have dried up and many families can’t afford water. However walking out of the village in Battambang we came across this: Free water from one family for anyone who need a drink. Kindness at its best.

Free Water Cambodia

Story and photograph courtesy of Global Village Housing, who build homes for impoverished Cambodians

The 15 children at Phter Koma Kampong Cham continue to work hard in school.  Last year there were concerns about the school grades of most of them.  Incredibly, almost all of them have since climbed from bottom of the class to near the top of the class, thanks to exhaustive work of both our staff and our children.  This is an incredible triumph for children who have experienced the loss and hardship that these children have.  I am honoured to be involved with such a great group of kids.

SN (one of the older kids) teaches two extra classes to the younger kids every evening. We really appreciate her assistance.

Photo and story courtesy of Phter Koma Kampong Cham, home for children living with and orphaned by HIV

Photo and story courtesy of Phter Koma Kampong Cham, home for children living with and orphaned by HIV

This small community call themselves the ghost community because most of them earn a little money preparing the dead for the Pagoda.

Photo and story courtesy of Bernadette Vincent, Phnom Penh

Photo and story courtesy of a volunteer working with River Kids

Riverkids is a Lifeboat to families and children in Cambodia who are really, really hard to help, families that no other NGOs could help. Traffickers look for the worst families because their children are the easiest to prey on.  We look for families that are complex and incredibly difficult, families hurting their children or planning to sell them, families with generations of abuse. We listen to them, we help them to recover and we protect their children.

To celebrate International Family Day we’re telling the story of Sophal, family man extraordinaire. After years of scavenging he worked so hard to change his life and he now offers a loving home not just to his own children but to three others and an elderly lady.

CCF Sophal

Photograph and story courtesy of Cambodian Children’s Fund

“There’s this kid right. He’s been abandoned. Three times. Lived with monks. Knows how to catch and cook frogs to survive. I won’t go into detail about his history of abuse. This little jungle boy, Mogli I call him, would walk into my office on random days and announce that he had a gift. He would then proceed to release live butterflies from his palms. Another day his gift was a live baby fish, which he plopped right into the water in the vase. After these little gift ceremonies he’d just walk out the door with a full gangster swagger, cause let’s be honest, we all wish we were that cool. Here’s a little flower artwork I caught Mogli making one day. May we all be a bit more Mogli everyday, right?”

Photo and story courtesy of Sunrise Cambodia, working on the ground in Cambodia to give much-needed help to at-risk kids, struggling families and poor communities in some of the most poverty-stricken provinces of Cambodia

Photo and story courtesy of Sunrise Cambodia, working on the ground in Cambodia to give much-needed help to at-risk kids, struggling families and poor communities in some of the most poverty-stricken provinces of Cambodia

As these stories show, so many people living in hardship seem to know that the way to their own progress and happiness, lies in focussing on what good they can do in the world.  Sometimes it appears that the more distant we become from distress and hardship, the more at risk we are of becoming self-absorbed and unhappy.  If you are in pursuit of happiness, look beyond yourself.

Pay It Forward


Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey made this phrase famous in a film of the same name some years ago.  The concept involves the recipient of a favour, instead of paying the favour back, paying it forward to three new recipients.  Each recipient is then asked to pay it forward, to three more recipients.  The favour should be something significant, which the recipient couldn’t easily do for themself.

Courtesy of my own poor planning, when I visited Mum in New Zealand at Easter I found myself landing at her nearest international airport, more than two hours’ drive from home, at midnight.  An aunt and uncle living near Mum offered an unexpected solution.  Uncle drove to the city that afternoon, had a rest at his daughter’s home, then lay in wait for me as I exited the airport.  We drove straight home, arriving sometime after 2am.  In discussions about how best to thank him for his extreme generosity, I was told he did not need anything and to “pay it forward when you go to Cambodia”.

My uncle has a little boat with an outboard motor which he takes out onto the Pacific Ocean off the New Zealand coast almost daily.  Fitted out in his wetsuit, flippers, mask and snorkel, he jumps into the sea with a long spear-ended rod, regularly bringing home freshly speared fish as well as crayfish from pots he lays on the seabed.  He often rubs shoulders with dolphins, he has had close encounters with Orca, and generally gets to experience another world that most of us can only imagine or watch on nature documentaries.  Against all advice from his humourously cynical daughter who warned me I might be swallowed up by smelly seaweed, I squeezed myself into a wetsuit one morning and joined him.  The sea was ice cold and I had to consciously talk myself out of the loud gasps for air accompanying each inhalation.  Buoyed by the salt water and my wetsuit, I knew it was too cold for any shark attack, so I put aside my phobias and had an amazing swim in the open ocean, something I would never normally be brave enough to attempt.  A few hours later I arrived home high on adventure.

Clearly the only way to pay it forward from my uncle will be to contribute to the repair of a fishing boat for someone living on the Mekong, in a world many spheres from the prosperous clear waters of New Zealand.  From it’s origins high on the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River travels over 4,000 kilometres through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, into southern Vietnam where it flows into the South China Sea.  Along this route 40 million people depend on the river for their food security.  Perhaps one of the most visible examples of climate-dependent human survival, the river is nourished by seasonal monsoons which have created the world’s biggest inland fishery, breeding over 800 different species of fish, and irrigating soils ripe for rice fields.  Catches are now diminishing and rice supplies becoming unpredictable due to worryingly low water levels.   Unseasonably hot and dry weather combined with the building of multiple dams as far away as China, but also as close to home as within Cambodia itself, are to blame.  Many millions of the world’s poorest people are susceptible and defenseless against these  environmental changes.  This year I have heard many harrowing personal accounts from friends in Cambodia about wells drying up in rural villages where people cannot afford alternative water sources, the elderly and very young falling ill and dying from heat stroke and dehydration.  The malnutrition that affected me so during my time nursing in Cambodia can only be occurring on a wider scale.

Hanchay 051

Very commonly these handmade wooden boats are the family’s only home, workplace and food supplier.  They anchor where they can at night.  It is difficult to know how many are purely subsistence fishers and how many eek out an income from market sales, but either way survival is harsh.  Stories of boats springing leaks are prevalent and often people must go into debt to repair them.  It is not uncommon to hear of holes being wedged with paper or cloth and it’s surprising how well these temporary measures seem to work.

Disability seems prevalent in these communities, with the lame and infirm often existing unseen, under the little arched roof of the family boat.  Life on the water is a high risk existence, the cause of such high rates of disability in the first place.  Disabled people and their families are much more likely to find themselves financially drained as disability means one less person to earn an income while the ongoing need for health care often leads to catastrophic hardship.  The resulting poverty places everyone at high risk of ongoing health problems related to malnutrition, infectious disease and injury.  In 2007 UNICEF estimated that everyday, 20 Cambodian children develop permanent disability from accident and injury.  It is not difficult to see the hazards that accompany an impoverished life.

Children swim ashore using a polystyrene box to stay afloat

Children swim ashore using a polystyrene box to stay afloat

A typical path home in a floating village

A typical path home in a floating village

Finding a fisher person on the Mekong to pay it forward to when I next visit Cambodia should only be difficult in as much as having to choose one out of so many in need.

During my two year absence from Alice Springs, a friend and her husband took care of my affairs.  They received my mail, let me know about bills awaiting payment, communicated with tenants when the agent was unavailable and occasionally fixed things to save me paying for tradies.  My little old car sat in the shed over this time, storing my artwork and other valuables.  On arrival home it had no battery, four flat tyres and very little appeal.  At the same time my friends needed a car for their daughter who is learning to drive.  By way of payment for all they’d done, I gave them my car, relieved to have it off my hands.  After replacing the battery and tyres, a mechanic quoted them $3,000 for various repairs needed before it could be registered.  They bought another car and sold mine at a loss.  One night last week I got an excited phone call after they decided to pay it forward, giving me the cash they’d received for my car “so you can build another toilet in Cambodia”!

At almost the same time as another friend informed me that his adult children have surrendered their bi-annual birthday and Christmas presents in favour of Dad sending me money each month “for Cambodia”, I got a message from a friend in Cambodia about an elderly man with Tuberculosis, living alone on a bamboo platform and ostracised by other villagers because he has TB.  This is another blog post in waiting but the timing of messages between two friends who don’t know each other seemed almost celestial in regards to finding my third pay it forward recipient!