Good Riddance For 2017!

New Zealand’s South Island is a panorama of tiers stretching in a lengthwise direction roughly parallel with the coastline.  Most prominent, at least initially, are rows of alpine summits piercing into blue skies or disappearing into woolly clouds.   Dizzy heights descend into rolling forests and grassy slopes, which in turn meander into a patchwork of green and gold valleys where sheep graze beside vineyards and other plantations.  Snaking across this landscape are braids of emerald rivers flowing from icy altitudes towards the glassy Pacific Ocean which wraps the nation’s coastline for 14,000 kilometres.

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Satellite image of the South Island

Thanks to a destructive earthquake last month in which the seabed rose by more than 1 metre during two minutes of terror, the roads into Mum’s hometown were closed when I arrived last week for Christmas.  Being, as I am, from this abundant life, my perfectly feasible solution was to take a light plane, turning the 2.5 hour drive into a 35 minute flight over fertile, clean, affluent territory.  Most of my week was spent admiring panoramic views.  I kayaked in a crystalline blue bay, waved and shouted out to cruise ship passengers making their way to shore for the day and enjoyed the guarded attention of playful fur seals agile enough to keep themselves at arms’ length while showing us their tricks.  Meals were prepared at home some days and other meals were shared in local restaurants.  Gifts were exchanged.  Extended family visited from near and far.  Today I was chauffeured back to Christchurch by a convoy of generous family in time for tomorrow’s early morning flight home.

This time next month I will be en route to Cambodia.  Every moment that I reap the benefits of my lucky existence, I am aware that within my social circle now, are people who can only dream of having even a smidgen of what I have always taken for granted.

Samantha writes regularly about 3yo “Adam” and the slow, miserable progression of his genetic disease in a land where paediatricians have little to offer him whilst needing to charge money for what services they are able to provide, immersing the family into more debt in their desperate bids to find help for him.  Some doctors and nurses have turned him away in blatant discrimination against his visible disability, claiming “there is no point”.  He continues to beat the odds through repeated bouts of pneumonia and diarrhoea which we have been known to diagnose amongst ourselves, guessing at how to treat his symptoms, sometimes with the help of a local paediatrician in Australia who has generously offered advice from afar.

A child with his condition in “my” world would also be disabled and terminally ill, but unlike Adam, would have options for nutrition, appropriate comfort measures and medical care.  At 3 years old Adam remains the same peak weight he reached at about 12 months old.  With each inspiration the skin on his torso sucks in between his tiny ribs.  His twiggy arms and legs are stubbornly twisted and curled in a gridlock.  He can’t turn his head but his deep dark eyes follow conversations alertly as he lies passively observing the world around him.  He cries every night in apparent anxiety attacks, probably combined with hunger or pain.  Not all of the medications he needs are available in Cambodia, and only available by prescription in Australia, meaning he will never be made as comfortable as he needs and deserves to be.  Every medication Samantha obtains is purchased at retail cost via private pharmacies, helping her family to remain impoverished.

Adam is only one example of what it means to be unwell in a poor country.  The latest stories from Joe’s village are that he probably won’t be alive by the time I arrive in just over a month.  His story is for another blog.  Without the means to obtain medical care due to his immobility, the remoteness of his home and the family’s complete lack of funds and health literacy, guesswork is all that is available.  My guess is that he is dying of Post-Polio Syndrome about six decades after his (probable) Polio infection.  I keep picturing him lying in his hammock at the top of the wooden ladder leading to their front doorway, unaware of why he’s sick.  Lack of personal funds is one aspect of poverty.  Lack of health care is a less visible, much more significant aspect.  Most of us from “my world”, where sickness is less common but health care is accessible, abundantly resourced and subsidised or free, find this impossible to fathom.  Had I not seen it for myself, I could not have imagined it either.

Meanwhile, I get occasional messages from various corners of Cambodia, often with at least some intent related to practising English.  Today I had the following conversation with one of Paula’s brothers:
Hello, how are you?
Hello, I am fine thanks, and you?
Me too.  Where do you live now?
Now I am in Australia but in February I will come to Cambodia and so I will see you soon.
Good riddance then.  We will wait for you in (their village).

With the same intent, I wish a very good riddance for everyone reading this.  May 2017 provide you with enough and may you appreciate every moment of it.

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Christmas Cows and Crappers

Christmas is coming and the wealthy world is preparing to spend billions on the event.  I thought about this at a recent lawn sale as I pondered on the various Secret Santas and other gifts being sold on, many still sitting in their unopened boxes.

Our Christmas money could be so much more worthwhile.  Here’s only two examples of how.

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Cows For Cambodia

Andrew Costello, a media personality from South Australia, started this organisation and they are making big differences to peoples’ lives.  You can read the story of how it all came about, at Cosi’s cows breeding wealth for Cambodia

 

I wonder if Sara, when she proposed to “make a business with me” via my buying and lending her a cow, may have somehow heard of Cows for Cambodia?  The timing is amazing because I hope to do this for her via Cows for Cambodia, who know far more than me about such business propositions.

 

Crappers for Cambodia

Sunrise Cambodia are yet another South Australian creation courtesy of Geraldine Cox.  Cox, as I have also observed with Scott Neeson, ignores the armchair critics sitting in judgement from afar, in favour of spending their energies on the work at hand.

This Christmas the puns have been flying at Sunrise, asking supporters to “flush us with cash and let us do the dirty work”.  As I discovered in my privileged ignorance last year, access to a toilet really does make a difference and lack of toilets is a worldwide issue for those living in poverty.

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Let the Christmas spirit flow in a different direction this year
~ to where you’ll make a positive impact

Love Your Luck

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Yesterday I resigned!  After eighteen years of owning a permanent position with the same organisation, I bit the bullet.  I will soon say goodbye to my salary, superannuation, annual leave, long service leave and an accumulated 34 weeks of sick leave.  Those are the benefits I can think of immediately but there are various others, such as 10% extra pay during holidays, the right to complain to and disagree with management without fear or favour, professional development allowance, and so many other first world privileges.  I have owned the same permanent position for sixteen years, in that time taking four years of special leave to work elsewhere including a year in London, a year in Cambodia, and time with other organisations.  Each time I went away, the security of returning to my permanent position was something I gave no thought to.  For most of the time I owned this position, I truly had no idea that it was anything particularly special.  I trained as a nurse and I held a nursing job – big deal?  I have always loved my job and appreciated that this is not necessarily a common experience, even in the privileged world.

Only recently did I spend time in a country where nurses earn $100 per month, not paid reliably, working inside a system that is so horrifically deprived that you could call it almost non-resourced.  Throughout my year working in Cambodia, my first world brain grappled with so many outlandish experiences.  Hospital waste management problems, including seemingly uncleanable dirt throughout patient areas, stockpiles of refuse, rat infestations, sewerage leaks, the smoke from burning medical waste wafting through patient areas.  Patient meals were cooked by homeless domestic staff in the dirt behind the MSF laboratory, on open wood-stoked fires.  Most significantly, patients suffered and died in situations that do not exist in my world.  I had tiny insights into systemic corruption which filters down from the highest echelons to directly affect both patients and staff.   This blog is testament to the struggles I continue to have, coming to terms with the inhumanity that so many face on a daily basis due to the vicious cycle of poverty and corruption.

The biggest impact all of this has had, is to accentuate my own intense privilege.  It is the epiphany of this privilege that has inspired me to leave some of it behind.  Most people my age are committed to all sorts of things which mean they can’t do what I am doing.  Many probably would not want to if they could.  Without the encouragement of my friends working in East Timor who spurred me to join them there in 2012, I likely would never have known either, about this other world, where such big differences can be made with such small effort, and where your own life, world view and source of fulfilment, change so dramatically that things can never be the same again.

A friend in Cambodia, connected to both Wat Opot and Cambodian Childrens Fund, recently wrote this anecdote which resonated with me, prompting this latest rant.

Tonight I had one of the most humbling experiences of my life to date. I really don’t like public speaking, even to small groups – it’s something that I’ve always put up with but avoided where possible…

… and so tonight I found myself talking about my life to a room full of young teenagers. These guys and girls are this years top 15 students from the CCF Leadership program, having made it through several rounds of an intensive training and selection program. 10 of them, after this round, will attend the incredible Global Youth Leadership Summit, hosted by Tony Robbins in California.

The reason I was sitting in on the class was to hear *their* life stories, with the hope that I could use them on social media at some point. After stumbling through my own story, I sat back and listened, and was blown away. Their stories were heart wrenching, some couldn’t contain their tears and raw emotion, and I found myself embarrassed at how privileged my story was in comparison. The incredible power of CCF – and the Leadership program in particular – to change lives never ceases to amaze me. These amazing young people are the future of the country, and it is in good hands.

The point is not that you should go to a remote place and live an alternative existence.  The point is that those of us born into the privileged world, deserve to know, to appreciate, and to share, our good fortune.

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Thoughts from Alice Springs

For thirteen days in Cambodia I was very busy.  I visited the MSF project I will be working on from February, a similar public health program as I currently work on here in Australia but with many more issues to contend with.  No doubt I will blog on that as and when I become involved.  My old translator picked me up on the back of his moto and took me out for dinner one night in Phnom Penh, after which we picked up his tiny son from English school.  I visited a number of other colleagues, some of whom I will be lucky enough to work with again next year; some of whom remain unemployed since the previous MSF project closed; and some of whom are working elsewhere.  All of whom treated me with generosity and hospitality that I know involved effort and sacrifice.

As usual, I grappled with my own existential issues constantly as I lived in nice hotels, ate good food, sipped wine, and had no discomfort (with the exception of humidity-and-afro-wings), whilst surrounded by fellow humans who have nothing like the luck I happened to be born into.  Phnom Penh, where I will be based at least some of the time, is busy, noisy, crowded, disorganised, with roads that turn into lakes.  Sitting in the back of a tuk tuk ploughing through deep brown puddles and afraid we might tip over, we passed children walking knee-high through the same muddy quagmires.

I told a Cambodian friend that I once found the traffic sights in his country very funny, for example, the people who sit on roofs of vans and trucks, or travel in/on overcrowded vehicles, but that I have realised it is not really funny because it means they are poor?  He replied “yes it is not so funny because they have no choice, it is the only way that they can travel”.

It’s easy to claim that indigenous people “have it lucky” compared to places like Cambodia, where hunger and destitution are inescapable.  Khmer people are on Khmer land, dominated by Khmer language and culture.  Being a visibly and culturally different minority in a place where the dominant population rule over you, own the land, own the systems, language and culture, can make for a highly diminishing existence, irrespective of the wealth of the nation you live in.

Yesterday morning Mathew’s sister and her two young children came with me to visit Matthew at our local jail.  As they talked together in language I reminisced about the time we spent together ten years ago.  In the space of eight months both of their parents were killed in violent situations.  Matthew was 11yo and his sister, witness to her father’s stabbing, was 13. That was, for me, only the beginning of what followed.  For the first time in my life I was exposed to issues around family and community obligations that don’t exist in my culture, chaos and overcrowding that are rare to my experience and understanding of the world.  Foreign child rearing practices, family disruption and an incompetent departmental response to orphaned children all became new and unfamiliar territories that I unexpectedly had to navigate, sometimes without even knowing so.  I was suddenly exposed to the effects of drug abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault, attended criminal court proceedings, stood up to inept social workers,  spoke out to prosecutors and magistrates, and most significantly, became an unintended foster parent to a child who foisted himself upon me when the system failed him dismally.

It is no surprise to me at all, that these two siblings, who were so forsaken, yet resilient and independent, now have struggles as young adults that someone with my privilege in life can only imagine.  There-but-for-the-grace-of-fortune-go-I could be my life’s motto, whether I think of Cambodia, East Timor, Central Australia, or many other places and situations.

My flight home out of Phnom Penh departed at 5pm.  That morning Samantha and Chom, two of my best friends in Cambodia, joined me in the luxurious foyer of my hotel where we sat on red cushions underneath ceiling fans surrounded by green gardens, marble floors, tropical timber ceilings and a pool beside the open air restaurant.  They were visibly dazzled by the lavish setting and shocked by the menu prices (about $7pp, per meal).  Samantha brought her two children.  She expected 3yo “Adam”, severely incapacitated by his terminal genetic neurological condition, to be irritable and unhappy away from home.  Instead he lay silently for hours, settled and comfortable.  The hotel staff spoke to us at length with a lot of questions about and interest in Adam.  When I went to pay for lunch they gave me a 10% discount.  Upon asking why, I was informed “because you look after Khmer people, you are our special guest”.  Again Cambodia, with the generosity and kindness!

Quick Cambodia Visit: Paula

An earlier blog post already talked of my first reunion with Paula and her family.  The following Monday her mother had traveled home from Malaysia, where both of Paula’s parents are working as street vendors.  I was invited back for a celebratory lunch.  Dan drove his tuk tuk with myself and a local nursing friend as his passengers.  We drove past Paula’s village, to the next town, to visit Sophia first, as discussed in “Joe”.

On return to Paula’s village a horde of family were waiting for us at the front of their home, where Paula sells “donuts” from underneath a little tin roof on a dirt mound built to avoid the rising river.  Directly across from the school, she has a ready market of students coming and going and the sights are truly astonishing to my western eyes, with girls exiting the mosque in full burqa dress, boys in long gowns and skull caps of all colours.  Her mother almost squeezed me to death as I was still climbing out of the tuk tuk!  I asked for the toilet and was directed to the little room underneath the neighbour’s home, as Paula’s family do not have such luxuries.  After squatting on the white bowl, I flushed with the plastic pot sitting in the concrete tub of water before unlatching the wooden door and joining my hosts again.

Ushered upstairs into the big open wooden room, family and neighbours wandered in and out as a flurry of activity took place in a back corner of the room.  They had already killed the cow in celebration, the day of Paula’s arrival home.  I was instead honoured with a range of home cooked dishes, beef curry, banh chao (savoury pancakes served with masses of green leafy vegetables which you use to wrap around the pancake), baked chicken, baked fish, rice, coconut cake, bottled water, canned soft drink.  Grandad arrived with his twinkling eyes and sat on the bamboo mat with us to eat.  The women, teenagers and children, claiming to have already eaten, sat in a semi-circle around us, taking selfies with their phones, posing with me and without me, asking if I liked the food, watching for my reactions as I tasted each dish, laughing with delight at my approval.  When prayer time arrived the boys put on their skull caps and long straight robes, posed happily for me to  photograph them, and disappeared for ten minutes to the mosque.

We stayed about four hours, enjoying each other’s company despite the lack of shared language.  Dan and Simon (my nurse friend) shared the job as translators, and many laughs were had.  Paula’s mother walked with Simon and I up the road to the lady who has (probable – at my guess) Multiple Sclerosis, who remains lying on a thin mattress in the same place where we met her last year.  We sat with her for perhaps half an hour and chatted about things.  She does not have a wheelchair because she cannot sit upright for more than a few moments before it becomes painful.  She is dangerously thin.  There is no health care available to her.  When she needs the toilet family carry her there.  They feed her and turn her.  Her skin is in impeccable condition for one so malnourished and immobile.

Paula, who lived much like this neighbour of hers, for five years, is now healthy and happy.  It’s hard to know what else to say about that, it was the most amazing miracle of her life, but also of mine and many others who were involved in making it happen.  Meanwhile I continue to meet others in similarly dire straits who are no less deserving.  I will always “belong” to this small, impoverished Islamic village on the edge of the Mekong River, thanks to the story that we share.  I love visiting, sitting with, and sharing time with these beautiful people.

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Paula’s “shop”, opposite the school/mosque. The Mekong flows directly behind the houses in the background.

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Twenty years lying in the same place with zero professional health care available.

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One of Paula’s brothers ready for prayers at the mosque.

Quick Cambodia Visit: Joe

Post-polio syndrome (PPS) is a condition that affects polio survivors years after recovery from an initial acute attack of the poliomyelitis virus.  Most often, polio survivors start to experience gradual new weakening in muscles that were previously affected by the polio infection.  The most common symptoms include slowly progressive muscle weakness, fatigue (both generalized and muscular), and a gradual decrease in the size of muscles (muscle atrophy).  Pain from joint degeneration and increasing skeletal deformities such as scoliosis (curvature of the spine) is common and may precede the weakness and muscle atrophy.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/post_polio/detail_post_polio.htm

Having lived with (probable) undiagnosed Polio since an infant, Joe is now very unwell, I guess with Post-Polio Syndrome.  He reports that for the past five months his already-incapacitated legs have become floppy and paralysed.  He can no longer leave his bamboo shack and the hand-propelled bicycle-wheelchair Chom and I sourced for him over a year ago now, sits unused.  He has constant pain in his joints particularly in his legs.  There is no clinic near his home and he cannot maneuver out of his home even if there was somewhere to go for help.  There is no money to consider purchasing pain relief.

I promised to send medications and once I reached Phnom Penh en route home I purchased some painkillers from a pharmacy.  Two months’ worth of Tramadol and Paracetamol was not cheap even for me (but I had money from my generous family and friends to use in just such a situation).  There must be many thousands who suffer and die in pain, unable to afford any relief.  I delivered the medications to Chom near his Japanese language school, who delivered them to Kampong Cham when he travelled home to see the family.  Dan collected them and transported them to Joe in his remote village for me just the other day, reporting back via Facebook:
Him: Hi Helen How are you? Today i bring the medicines and cream to give Mr and i tell him to use the drugs so his daugther is understand . Thanks bye!!!|
Me: Thank you SO much . He looks so unwell, I really feel bad for him. I hope to help him some more but I do not know how?  I hope your family are all happy too. See you very soon again.
Him: Yes. You welcone. I know his family unwell and i have a small money for him (10000 riel) because i not have money too. Thanks
This is just one example of the persistent evidence I have observed for years now, of support to the poor coming almost exclusively from other poor people.  Dan also sent this photograph of Joe receiving his medications.
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Joe has three daughters.  As is often the case in Khmer families, they all have ridiculously similar names.  I’ll call them Simona, Sophia and Selena, with their mother’s name of Sabrina!  Selena is married and lives with her husband somewhere else.  I have not met her.  Simona is a blind widow with two daughters, 5yo and 6yo.  They live with Joe and his wife in their banana frond/bamboo hut.  Sophia is a single woman, who had a strabismus which, when we took her blind sister to have eye surgery in Phnom Penh last year, also had surgery to correct the defect.   Chom translated for me oneday last year, that because of her eye “that looks at the capsicum but sees the cucumber”, she often wanted to kill herself.  When I told him “but she is beautiful”?, he replied in English as she watched silently unaware of what was being said, “Helen, you are the only one who thinks she is beautiful.  In Cambodia she will not find a husband, because when she looks at the capsicum she sees the cucumber!  You should put her photograph on Facebook so that one of your Australian friends can see her and maybe marry her?”.  Following our rather memorable journey to Phnom Penh last year, which I blogged about at the time, Sim now has two eyes which are perfectly aligned, such that when she looks at the capsicum, she sees the capsicum!

She has moved away from Joe and the family in order to support them with an income.  She happens to live a very short tuk tuk drive from Paula’s home, beside an ice making factory.  Housekeeping for two “rich” families, she works 5am until 9am at one home and 5pm until 9pm at the other, earning a total of $35/month.  This allows her to purchase a $25 bag of rice for Joe and the family at home, which lasts one month.  The remaining $10 covers her expenses away from home.  It is the tightest budget my rich-world-brain has heard of yet!

When we visited Paula two Mondays ago, we visited Sim first.  I had a silver compact mirror with a kiwi engraving on the lid for her to admire her new looks which she otherwise does not get to see.  She informed me that there was no way for her to purchase new clothes given her financial obligations to the family, and that she only had one outfit to wear.  We went to the local market, a series of tarpaulin-covered stalls sitting in the hot dust.  For $25 she came away with three shirts and two pairs of trousers.  I came away with the experience of buying from a market vendor who, instead of haggling about price with the wealthy foreigner, asked Dan what we were doing and brought his price down so that Sim, acting as though it was Christmas, could have an extra shirt at his expense!  The generosity of the poor never ceases to astonish me.

A wall of steaming cold water plummets from an unknown source, down the side of a building, to an unknown location, behind the wooden house under which we sat during our visit to Sophia.  When she saw me looking agape at the sight, she grabbed my hand and walked me up the hill, around puddles of tarred mud, to the factory door where machines and disused engines sat in the muddy tar, rumbling at decibels which would be illegal in a residential area where I come from.  I had no idea of what she was telling me but it was obvious that she felt pleased to be able to give something back, by way of teaching me about the factory where she lives!  It was a hot day and her “housemate”, swinging in a hammock next to the metal chair they sourced for me, turned his fan around so that it blew onto me.

When I’ve visited Joe in the past I have wondered at the car battery sitting in the doorway leading from the big open front room, to the smaller back room.  It all fell into place when Sophia, through Dan, asked if I would consider sponsoring the family to have electricity connected “because they use the battery but it only gives very weak power and they are the only family in their village with no power”.  Connecting electricity at their shack will cost US$250 plus 25c per kilowat of usage once connected, which they will also need assistance with.  Whilst I can support this, and keep imagining how much more comfortable Joe would be if he had a fan to keep him cool and to keep the swarming mosquitoes at bay, I am also wracking my brain trying to think of a way to help them develop an income of some kind so that my support is less necessary.  It is not an easy idea for people living in a village where there is no economy to generate income.  People grow their own food and rely on distant relatives, who live away from home in order to be able to provide financial support.  With two disabled people in one family, there is more pressure on Joe’s two unimpaired daughters than they have the capacity for.

I am returning to Cambodia in early February, when I will have time to travel and visit for three weeks prior to commencing my MSF assignment.  My good friend Caz will be traveling with me and she is nothing if not an Ideas Person.  Who knows what we may be able to come up with together for Joe and his family of girls.

Quick Cambodia Visit: Kim

So many things happened in my recent whirlwind 13 day visit to Cambodia, only 2 months before I return there to live and work.  There was no time to write about it while I was there and I barely know where to start now.  I’ll post a series of chapters covering most of what happened.

Kim sat across the table from me, under the whir of a ceiling fan suspended from the overhead timber beams of a tropical verandah skirting the edges of a restaurant in Siem Reap.  He ordered a Coca Cola on my tab as Rav sat down, refusing a drink but agreeing to translate.  I wasn’t going to use Rav for this conversation because I thought it could compromise their friendship.  Fully aware of the problem, Kim brought Rav along.  Rav has always translated for us, so that appeared to be Kim’s permission, although it may also have been his attempt to manipulate me away from having the expected and difficult conversation.  I told Rav “I need to talk to Kim because he told me he had no money for rent but then I found out his rent was already paid by someone”.  Rav turned to Kim and spoke.  Kim replied and Rav translated “He want to send his daughter to English school”.  Yes, I am sure but I am not here to talk about that, I am here to talk about the lie that he told me because I cannot help if he tells me lies and he said he needed money for rent when he didn’t”.  Rav translated this.  Kim looked at the table without replying.

He let me say my piece, which included understanding that he needs more than the small assistance I had reliably sent for 2.5 years, but when he lies I cannot trust him anymore and cannot help if I don’t trust him.  Sitting in silence, he offered no explanation or apology.  Rob, the other Australian involved in assisting Kim, was also in Siem Reap and I asked after him.  Kim replied that Rob had visited their home while Kim was out and left his number with his wife.  He gave me the number but later when I called, it was the wrong number.  I located Rob via PM on Facebook and he joined me under cover of another restaurant verandah during a tropical downpour.  We shared a drink and compared stories.  Rob has known Kim almost five years and knows his tricks.  He was not surprised that Kim denied having seen him, before producing photographs taken days earlier of them lunching together!

Kim’s life is unimaginably difficult.  Someone who has been so severely disabled since his youth and has relied on manipulating charity out of others in a place where he has no power or respect from many fellow humans, must have his reasons for trusting lies over honesty, to get what he needs.  Rob continues to support him, using strategies he can employ whilst living in the vicinity, such as paying the rent and keeping his wife fully informed so that she knows their budget.  I am not in the same position and also not prepared to engage further.   The final nail came for me when Rob told a story about paying Kim’s rent for a month, just before Kim contacted a friend of Rob’s in Australia to say he needed money for rent!  Dedicated to seeking charity through manipulating people with lies, Kim appears to have accepted that the relationship with me is over.

I don’t regret having helped Kim.  He was the first Cambodian person I engaged with in this way and he taught me many things.  That donors can be exploited is a very common theme in my world, and often one which justifies not helping when we can, because perhaps we’ll be fleeced.  In all of my extreme privilege, I will never be fleeced in the ways that Kim has been throughout his most unfortunate life.  As Mum said to me when his behaviour first came to light, “you do have to wonder what  your priorities would be if you were him – telling the truth or ensuring your family had enough to eat?”.  There is no end to the complexity of human nature, and even more so when we are forced into lives of depravity.