Culture Clash

Anyone else with a tendency for writing would have blogged ceaselessly had they lived the month I just lived.  Midway through my one year assignment in Cambodia, I traveled home to Australia and New Zealand to visit family and friends, visiting two major Australian cities, the Australian outback and various locations around the south island of New Zealand.  From a desert in bloom to towering snow topped mountains, a hillside harbour view villa to a waterfront city condominium, any decent travel blogger would have spent a month writing fervently.  Two road trips, shopping, scenic walks, soaking in hot pools, sipping wine and dining out were all on the agenda.  Where once Australia and New Zealand were ordinary places that I called home, they are now strikingly special places that I call home with a sense of awe at my fortune.

Nevertheless that is as much as I am inclined to write about my holiday, which would rank as the “trip of a lifetime” for many, because I have now had about 15 hours back in Cambodia, catalyst to my writing impulses.  Friends and family at home express problems such as waiting for an expensive dress to go on sale before being able to afford to try it on; needing to work full time to pay the mortgage and whether to stay in the current job or look at other options.  There are always other options.  The main topics of conversation at home revolve around issues that sit at this comfortable level of lifestyle in a robust and functional economy.  I couldn’t see three friends whilst home because one family were road tripping interstate; another were holidaying in Singapore and a NZ friend was on a long weekend in Brisbane.

In contrast, when I ask my Cambodian contacts if they have traveled, most admit to never having ventured beyond their small hometown and almost noone has been to an airport let alone on an aeroplane.  Finding the next meal is the focus of millions.  This is an observable phenomenon everywhere in Phnom Penh if you understand what you are witnessing as you travel the bustling roads past street vendors, hawk-eyed tuk tuk and motodup drivers, trolley-pulling scavengers, disabled beggars and more.  Most wealthy world witnesses, speaking from my own experience, actually don’t comprehend this fact, rather seeing the sights as intriguing and exotic.

With the contribution of many, including two considerably large donations, it appears that enough funds are going to be raised for 20 year old Sokum to have the heart surgery that should save her life.  Had I not traveled home when I did, this would likely have never happened.  Asking for money (my most loathed pursuit), even in a case of the life or death of a young person, is an almost guaranteed flop when you do so from afar, eg via online communication.  Speaking to people in person has a slightly better strike rate although it is an excruciatingly awkward activity which I feel risks friendships.  Many are already giving generously to their own causes and “my” cause does not ever have to be anyone else’s cause.  Yet it is an interesting phenomenon because while it’s so difficult to engage people in something such as Sokum’s fundraiser, the challenge is trying to connect people to the cause as I know that if people met her, they would give generously.  Those who do engage get an extraordinary amount of joy from the experience.  An example is my friend’s teenage daughter who wrote to say that she had decided to forego her 16th birthday present in favour of sending the money to me “for Cambodia”.  My friend wrote last week to say “She has also inspired some of her netball team and they want to donate as well“!

Last week I informed Sokum’s husband (the only English speaker, who has been actively pursuing all limited avenues to raise the money) that we look to be able to meet their target amount.  It has not happened yet, but we have surpassed the halfway mark and have enough pledges on promise to bring us to the mark.  He thanked me immediately and asked when I was coming home to Cambodia.  A few hours later he informed me that they were bringing his wife to Phnom Penh on 25th September, to meet the doctors.  After a 14 hour day of travel yesterday, this morning I was woken by his call that “we are at the hospital now“.  I dragged myself out of bed and called my days-off tuk tuk guy before walking to three different ATM machines to withdraw the money already received (which can only be withdrawn in $400 amounts).  Passing one of our two workday tuk tuks, I stopped for a quick chat and gave him the Sydney Australia t-shirt I bought for him, before heading across town to the hospital.

At the hospital I fell in love.  Yet again.  The most gentle, humble, smiling, beautiful young couple, with her equally charming mother, were sitting in a stuffy waiting room, waiting to see a cardiologist who would be available sometime after 2pm.  The hospital is privately funded by a multitude of NGO partners, aiming to serve Cambodia’s poorest with quality care that is otherwise unavailable to the population due to the lack of resources and regulations within the government’s seriously under-funded Ministry of Health.  In a sea of deficit there are occasional islands of hope, and while not coming anywhere near the quality we take for granted in the wealthy world, this seems to be one of them.  Nevertheless, cardiac surgery does not come free and with no health insurance of any kind in Cambodia, the only way for this to happen is via a user-pays system.  Sokum’s husband explained that the surgery is offered to them here at half the cost it would otherwise be.  Still an inaccessible amount when you earn $100 per month.

After about an hour sitting together, talking about Sokum’s health, writing “Rheumatic Heart Disease” on a scrap of paper for them to ask the doctor if this is her diagnosis, photographing the medical information they had with them to send to a cardiologist in Australia who offered to assist if possible, answering questions about life in Australia and New Zealand and why I am in Cambodia, talking about her husband’s job and looking without success, for their tiny remote village on Google Maps, I left them with the funds received so far.  Our farewell included promises to stay in touch and it seemed she will likely have surgery sometime later this week, but so far I haven’t heard the outcome of today’s consultation.

During our time together they informed me at least three times that “you can be our grandmother”.  So now, at 48 years old, I find myself grandmother to adults in their 20s?  It was spoken with such a tone of respect that I knew we were having a culture clash and that I was being granted some sort of honour, rather than being labelled an old hag!  En route home we approached the corner of our street and there was my tuk tuk friend perched on his moto with no customers but looking very Australian in his new t-shirt.

After an outstanding holiday at home, the best day of my month off work was, of course, Day One back here in Cambodia.

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The Excruciating Fundraiser

My heart sinks in Australia whenever I get a cold call at home, or accosted in the streets by charities looking for donations.  Ditto when friends write saying they have a cause and would I donate?  It is not possible to help everyone and the phenomenon of donor fatigue is something I experience on a regular basis, particularly from Australia, where I can quickly feel disconnected from the need that I see here in Cambodia.  From within Cambodia it is quite the opposite, you could almost say I’m plagued by donor impulse here!  But I identify well with donor fatigue and I understand what my friends are experiencing when they see yet another appeal coming from my general vicinity.  This is what makes me loathe what I call The Excruciating Fundraiser.

On that note, I hope anyone reading this understands that my sharing this story is not to make you feel obliged, pressured or judged in any way.  Read it as a story of interest.  And if you are inclined to donate, then do; if not, no problem.  If you are inclined to share it with others then do; if not, no problem.  It really is interesting to know this story though, and if you click on the link you can watch a very touching video that was filmed before the family received the help that has since seen some improvement in their situation.

This project involves a single mother of 4 who broke her ankle >2 years ago now.  I talked about her in Bongs and Tycoons.  She walked on the bone for over a year because she couldn’t afford to seek medical care. This obviously did further damage. She finally sought care at a South Korean charity hospital, but has to pay to get there and for any medicines and tests – it’s just the doctor’s consultation that is free.  The surgery is much cheaper than it otherwise would be, but has (and will) still cost her. These small things have put strain on her financially and at one point, for an extended period her 13yo son was out of school in order to walk the streets pushing a cart selling clams and banana fritters.  Since getting to know this family my perception of the many similar street vendors in Phnom Penh has changed.  Where once they were mysterious, appealing and sometimes funny, now they are all these things while I also contemplate on what led to them purchasing a steel cart to wander the streets through traffic as a way to earn money.  Even more so when the seller is elderly, very young or visibly disabled, which is often the case.  No doubt every one of them has a story worth sharing.

In May this year Mum was climbing the rickety ladder from the door of her elevated wooden shack to the ground (about 2 metres high) when she slipped through the gaps to the ground, breaking the steel fixer pin holding her bone together! So now she is walking around with a broken pin in her bone.  When I visit her, I physically tremble climbing up and down this ladder with it’s rotting rungs.

We got involved when a friend shared the video with me and asked if I could find her because a wealthy businesswoman wanted to offer her some money. I met her and took the family out for a meal (pizza – if you watch the video or read the earlier post you’ll know why). Then I met her again with the businesswoman’s daughter and nephew, who gave her an extremely generous donation which is going towards the expenses of her ongoing medical consultations. She has to have repeat surgery in September and meanwhile needs to travel to consultations weekly, pay for medicines, tests and transport etc.

The doctors have told her the only hope for a reasonable recovery is if she rests her leg.  With no back up welfare system here, she has no choice but to work – except for the fact that she has since had this help, meaning that at the moment she can rest (but she has a 2yo daughter, so can’t stay off her leg the whole time). So we are trying to help by raising enough money to get her into a ground level home that is not dangerous (her elevated shack is very dangerous, the ceiling leaks during rainfall, some of the ladder rungs are rotting, the floor slopes and feels soft underfoot in places), plus have a carer for the baby during school hours when her sons cannot help her, plus replace the income she cannot earn.

We will need a minimum of $4,000 to make this possible for her, for about six months post-surgery. So far we’re only a quarter of the way there.

See the link created by my MSF colleague / housemate and watch the video if you are interested in just one of the many stories that surround me, provoking my constant battle with Donor Impulse.

The Excruciating Fundraiser

So Many Worthwhile Causes

There are so many worthwhile causes in this world.  I find myself saying “no” to requests for donations to all kinds of charitable organisations who approach via door knocking, mailouts, emails and telephone calls.  It seems overwhelming sometimes.  Only recently have I realised that the reason “we” in the western world are so inundated by requests for philanthropy, is because of the global imbalance between rich and poor.  While poverty in Australia is defined as any single adult living on less than $358 per week, elsewhere in the world 1.2 billion people continue to survive on less than $1.25 per day.  From what I saw in Cambodia, many of these people actually earn nothing at all.

There is a calculator at https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i where you can work out how rich you are in comparison to the rest of the world.  According to my calculation I belong to the richest 0.3% of the world’s population and if I give 10% of my income away, I remain in the top 0.5%.  Amazing stuff!

Another excellent reference is this four minute video infographic displaying global inequality and outlining the causes.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWSxzjyMNpU .  The richest 2% of people in the world have more than 50% of all global wealth.  The richest 20% have 94% of global wealth while 80% of the world have only 6% of the world’s material wealth.  Is it any wonder that we, at the upper end of this scale, find ourselves being highly sought after?!

Only 200 years ago the richest nations in the world were about 3 times richer than the poorest.  Today we are 80 times richer.  This has happened mainly by material wealth being removed from poor countries, by corporations and wealthy countries, which occurs at a rate many hundred times higher than the rate of aid injected into these countries.

I’m currently visiting family and traveling in New Zealand, where the wealth of our small nation has never seemed so visible to me as it does on this holiday.  Looking at the infrastructure alone we are clearly well resourced – even the most rural country roads are almost all bitumenised, potholes are almost non-existent, roads are well marked, road signs are clear and standardised, roadworks are staffed, signposted and extremely safety-conscious, hospitals and schools are clean and organised with modern conveniences unseen in most of the world.  It’s so far removed from the world I became used to for a year, where waste disposal was erratic, sewerage leaking on the grounds of a public hospital was considered unfixable, patients often sleep on floors in walkways of hospitals, roads were mainly pothole-ridden dust tracks, schools were bare concrete buildings with ancient wooden furniture and no reading resources, etcetera.

This leads me to the reason for this blog post!  As someone who says “no” to donation requests almost daily, I recognise that this is just “yet another cause” which most will not feel able to assist with.  I also know that in order to want to contribute to a cause, we need to feel connected in some way to the cause in question.  When we are detached from the concern at hand, we are less inclined, or not at all inclined, to feel a need to involve ourselves.  Being involved as I am, is why this is a cause I want to mention.

When I first arrived home a very good friend of my mother announced that she was coordinating a fundraiser for me and that I would need to present to a public audience!  She and Mum worked together at a nursing home in the town where I spent my teenage years and the event was held at this home / hospital last Wednesday afternoon.  The audience was quite a mish-mash!

An artist of considerable talent, she donated a beautiful acrylic painting of red poppies which was raffled alongside a book written by a local nursing friend and a brass door knocker which were both also donated to the cause by separate donors.  She recruited an audience from far and wide, produced and distributed a written invitation to the event, baked cakes, enlisted others to assist with catering, networked at various social gatherings, promoted raffle tickets all over town and I probably don’t even know what else, towards hosting the event.  It was a real “kiwi” experience, reminding me of the community spirit that exists here in spades.

Mum and a couple of other family members, many of Mum’s old work colleagues, an old high school friend of mine, a boss from my first out-of-school job and various others joined interested nursing home residents and staff in the large ocean-facing lounge room of this beautiful nursing home.  I put together a powerpoint presentation titled “A Year in Cambodia” and picked some of the stories which had touched me the most to share from a large projector screen on the wall of the residents lounge.  Standing not 20 metres from the Tasman Sea which rolled and broke into white fringes out of the panoramic window beside me, I spoke for 45 minutes about my experience and my hopes to assist the Children’s Home with much-needed funds.  The assumption that I would be nervous, stemming from jitters which surfaced days prior when I gave the same presentation to a group of  aunties and other extended family in Mum’s lounge room, turned out to be incorrect.  Despite a number of the audience nodding off to sleep before me!

I also gave a similar presentation to a Year 6 class upon request of my good friend’s 11yo daughter which was a highly entertaining exercise.  After speaking semi-regularly at schools and universities in Cambodia, the small classroom with comfortable desks and chairs, a computerised presentation system, children all speaking confidently of their overseas experiences and extra-curricular activities could not have been more different to the classes I spoke to in Cambodia.  Since I’ve been home others have also generously donated, either to Phter Koma or to individuals they know of through this blog.  I am so grateful to many for their eagerness to contribute, which is not just about the money but also the big hearts of many of my family and friends.

Until now I have not named the Children’s Home I regularly mention.  But they have a public profile and the Board of Directors have farewelled me on a holiday to Australia, New Zealand and America in the hope that during my travels I might manage to raise money for the home, so I guess it’s time to name them here and outline what we do.

Phter Koma Children’s Home in Kampong Cham Cambodia currently cares for 12 children between 6yo and 16yo who are HIV+ and have lost one or both parents to AIDS.  The home is licenced under Cambodian law for 15 resident children but currently does not have the budget for more than the existing 12.  I am the only Australian member of the Board of Directors at this home which was established by a group of doctors and social workers who came to the realisation whilst working together on an HIV program, that many of their clients were dying and leaving behind HIV+ children with no one to care for them.  This placed the children at high risk of health problems related to poor HIV treatment as well as many social risks including homelessness, neglect, abuse, child trafficking and prostitution.  The children all come from families who are unable, for various and often shocking reasons, to provide them with proper care, in a nation crippled by poverty.  They are beautiful children, keen students who attend school daily and extra classes whenever possible in order to try and catch up after losing out on schooling due to circumstances including ill health, poverty and chaotic home lives.

The home is 100% Cambodian managed, with a Manager, an Educator and two carers who rotate in shifts to provide general care to the children including cooking, housework, coordinating the children’s activities and health appointments and ensuring care and routine in their lives.  In order to function at a basic level, Phter Koma needs a minimum of US$2,500 per month which covers accommodation (they rent a house near the children’s school), staff salaries, food and clothing for the children, transport, school fees and other general costs.  The carers earn around $100 per month in salary and all staff earn less than $400 per month, so most costs relate directly to the care of the children.

Cambodia is renowned for it’s “orphanage tourism” which corrupts children in care for the purposes of fundraising for personal gain/profit.  Phter Koma is a genuine, licenced and ethically managed not-for-profit association with processes in place to ensure the protection of their resident children, whose best interests are the association’s only concern.  The Children’s Home website is at www.phter-koma.org .

The role of the Board of Directors is to provide technical advice and oversee budget implementation, as well as to raise funds to keep the home functioning.  Most funds currently come from France where one of the home’s founders, a French social worker, spends exhorbitant amounts of time and energy sourcing private donations.  We have a provisional budget of US$30,000 for the following year, but currently only have US$26,000 available (almost all from French donors), so we are looking for an extra $4,000 to ensure the home remains operational into the following year.  If we are able to raise more funds we will be able to increase our resident children from 12 to 15.  There are many HIV+ children in the region who fit the criteria for admission to Phter Koma and have an immediate need for residential care to protect their health and improve their future chances at a decent quality of life.  We also have a currently-unaffordable idea that we would like to separate the children into two separate homes, by gender, as they move into their teens.

Both France and USA have tax exempt connections to Phter Koma allowing their citizens to make donations to us as an official charitable organisation.  I am currently working towards obtaining this status within Australia, which is a complicated and lengthy process.  All donations are warmly welcomed by anyone interested in contributing to a highly worthwhile cause but permanent donations which can ensure continued income for the home are most valuable as they mean we have a better chance at maintaining operations into the long term.  For more information or to make contact, refer to www.phter-koma.org or feel free to email me privately at hjtin@yahoo.com.