In 2003, days before the Allied invasion of Iraq, Natalie Maine was performing on a London stage as lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. She is quoted as saying to the audience, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas“. The fallout was swift and severe. Country music radio stations across the US boycotted their music. Two disc jockeys were suspended from one station for playing Dixie Chicks against station policy. Public demonstrations crushed and burned piles of their CDs. Hate mail and death threats were posted. Concerts were cancelled. Within a single week one of their songs fell from No. 10 in the charts, to No. 43, before falling off the charts altogether.
Three years later, in response to the furore, the Dixie Chicks released their single Not Ready to Make Nice, which went on to win Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Country Performance at the 2007 Grammy Awards. Above is a still image from the single’s elaborate music video. In dark scenes of puritanical retribution, three women dressed in white are tarred black under the watch of a group of cold eyed, imperious figureheads who stare and whisper in judgement. The symbolism is genius, articulating the ugliness of unjust condemnation.
Recently Natalie Maine has compared her very mild comment in 2003 with the vitriol spewing from the mouth of Presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Rightly so, particularly as many of the same mindset who denounced the Dixie Chicks, now make up Trump’s cheer squad.
We’ve all been that blackened swan, unfairly condemned by others. We’ve also all been that unforgiving puritan, sitting in unfair or excessive judgement of others.
That said, I feel justified to talk about Kim, the amputee landmine victim detailed in previous posts such as:
Monks on Motorbikes, March 2014
Imperfect Equals, July 2016
Mum, Ruth and I were sitting at a cafe in Siem Reap one afternoon, sipping wine and watching the world go by. Perhaps more than anywhere else I’ve been, Siem Reap is a city of bustling contrasts where wealth, tourism and relaxation are juxtaposed with poverty and all manner of visible hardship and struggle. One of many disabled peddlers targeting tourists in the lanes around Pub Street, Kim was suddenly standing before us, a basket of books suspended at his chest via a scarf tied around his neck. We declined to look at or buy a book and he hobbled away, placing a typewritten note on our table as he departed. The note described his life, family, hopes and the anxiety of trying to survive.
It affronted me that I was returning to a luxurious hotel for a swim in the shaded rock pool while this man I’d denied help to was left worrying about how to feed his family. So I emailed him and offered to help. He was the first person in Cambodia I offered support to and for over two years I sent a small sum to him each month. I visited a number of times and met his family, purchased his wife a sewing machine and spent time with his young daughters.
A few months ago, as described in Imperfect Equals, Kim contacted me to say that the lack of tourists was affecting their lives badly and he had no way of paying his rent. He had only contacted me once prior, when one of his daughters was sick and he needed money to take her to a clinic. I trusted his words so I dedicated time and thought to the matter, ultimately deciding that I wasn’t able to send more money. A very short while later he sent me a photograph of the family via Facebook. Clicking on the photograph took me to a Facebook page dedicated to raising money for Kim’s family. At first I was perplexed by the posts on this page, talking about funds raised and the assistance being provided at a village outside Siem Reap, such as water tanks and toilets. It is all in Kim’s name and he features in many of the photographs.
Reading through the posts it became apparent that an Australian man called Bob was very involved with fundraising for Kim, his family, and their village. I called Bob to find out more, trying to process what it meant – if it meant anything at all – that Kim had never mentioned this guy to me before? When I visit his house, there is always a photograph of Mum and I on the wall, but no photograph of any other donor. Last time I visited I saw his wife in town on a motorbike, which surprised me as they couldn’t afford such a thing. They did not know I’d seen her and when I asked if either of them rode a motorbike, I was told that she knew how to but that Kim, due to his amputations, was not able. I guessed she had loaned it from a neighbour. I also noted that the sewing machine I’d bought his wife appeared to be missing, although it was difficult to see for sure as the table where it once sat was covered over. I’d told them to feel free to sell the machine after learning it was difficult to earn much through the agent, who provided materials and paid her 12c per dress. Yet they had not admitted that the machine was sold and I wondered why it appeared to be a secret?
Bob and I spoke at length and I discovered that the family’s rent had been paid up for a full year, until October. His fundraising efforts had also purchased Kim’s wife a motorbike, meaning she could transport him to town and back for his book peddling, when in the past he’d had to walk. So while they had not expressly lied about the motorbike, they had kept it a secret from me. In June when Kim expressed concern about paying his rent in hope of receiving extra help from me, he was lying. I immediately contacted him to say I had spoken to Bob and I knew his rent was paid, and that he had lied to me. He denied the lie. I withdrew further financial support for the time being. He has since apologised, clearly in hope of my changing my mind.
With our language and world view differences, we need some proper clarity and so I will visit him with an interpreter during my upcoming visit. He knows this is the plan and appears to think that it means I will support him again. I might. I also might not, depending on what eventuates. He continues to contact me semi-regularly with messages such as, his daughters can no longer attend English school, or there are no tourists and life is hard. A few days ago he expressly requested money, repeating his apology for lying. Determined to follow through with my plan to do nothing until we speak in person, I replied “Sorry. No”.
There are very many people in Cambodia who could benefit from the small help I was providing Kim, yet who do not dedicate their lives to begging from tourists and who maintain a sense of dignity that I feel Kim may be missing. The help Bob provides is partially spent on others in Kim’s village and this has apparently caused friction between them as Kim feels his family’s needs should be paramount. I get the impression though, that the help which is due directly to Kim’s activities in Siem Reap, gives Kim some standing in his community that he otherwise would not have. Neither Bob’s nor my help has in any way made Kim wealthy or secure, merely relieved some discomfort and stress for him and his family.
Kim’s disability has become his asset in some ways. It would be easy to blacken him for his behaviour. But who am I, in my comfortable life, to sit in judgement of him? Our childhoods played out simultaneously. As I was cycling to school on paved roads, returning home to watch television, jump on our trampoline and eat three meals a day before going to sleep in a soft bed, Kim was recruited as a child soldier to the forests of Cambodia where he stepped on a landmine and lost the use of three limbs.
I don’t want to feel exploited. Equally I don’t want to play judge, jury and executioner of someone whose chances in life will never match the chances I have always taken for granted. In ethical terms, Kim’s dishonesty could easily be matched by a privileged and puritanical austerity. My intention when we meet is to resolve the conflict rather than to blacken his dignity. It will be interesting to see if we succeed.